'We're going to lose the house.' The scare that led to a T-shirt empire
Printfly Corp. is one of the largest custom, online, direct-to-consumer, high-tech T-shirt printing companies in the country, with two thriving brands, RushOrderTees.com and College.Ink. The Super Bowl - and President Trump - have been great for business.
Michael Nemeroff was only 7 or 8 when his mother sat him down at home in Huntingdon Valley and uttered the words that would propel him into business before he was out of high school: "We're going to lose the house."
Nemeroff is now 32, but when he recalls that talk, his expression is a mix of solemnity and distress, as if the news is fresh.
"I was in fear. We all were," he said, the "we" includes his brother, Jordan, and sister, Alexis.
Their parents, Allan and Melinda, were clothing designers whose business specialized in banded-bottom polo shirts for men. At its peak, revenues were $16 million and customers included Sam's Club, Sears, and Value City, along with many small stores. Then a robbery depleted them of $500,000 in merchandise and the business was unable to recover, ultimately closing around 1999, Allan Nemeroff recalled recently.
"We wound up losing everything," including the house, he said. "It was really a disaster."
By that point, Michael Nemeroff was doing his own thing in business. "Highly introverted" and "obsessed" with computers by age 10 or 11, he built his own business, helping others build theirs through websites.
By the time he was in 11th grade at Lower Moreland High School, his father was working with a friend selling T-shirts. Allan Nemeroff told his son they were losing accounts to competitors who were underpricing them.
"I was thinking, 'Well that doesn't scale. You can't do this in Philly then. I do stuff online. Let me just make a website and try to market this online. … I think we can funnel traffic here, take phone calls, and then sell the service and then ship it somehow,' " Michael Nemeroff said, chuckling at the recollection of all the uncertainty.
"We didn't really have the answers. I was like, 'I just think we can figure it out,' " he said.
That "can-do" moment was the start of what is now Printfly Corp., one of the largest custom, online, direct-to-consumer, high-tech T-shirt printing businesses in the country with two thriving brands, RushOrderTees.com and College.Ink. Based in Northeast Philadelphia, it has 251 employees (70 percent millennials), and designs and prints six million to eight million shirts a year.
While unwilling to share specifics, chief operating officer Robert Levin, a serial entrepreneur with an investment background who joined Printfly in 2016 to help the company expand, said annual revenue growth has been about 35 percent to 40 percent the last few years.
Helping boost business recently: the Eagles. Within 48 hours of the team's Super Bowl victory, Printfly had orders for about 10,000 Birds-related shirts. Two days before the big game, it had printed another 10,000 green Ts for the Sixers, who wanted to show their support for the Eagles by handing out shirts at the Feb. 2 home game.
Sports is huge for the custom T-shirt business. So are protests.
"Any time there is something to either celebrate or rail against, people want to have some sort of a T-shirt," Levin said, calling them "the uniform of the day."
Consequently, you-know-who has been especially good for the bottom line. At Printfly, they call it "The Trump Bump."
"We should definitely send him a thank-you card," Levin said.
It wasn't that long ago when the company was doing about 3,000 to 5,000 shirts a month in a 3,000-square-foot warehouse. Now it owns and occupies 63,000 square feet of production, warehouse, call center, and administrative space filled with "tens of millions of dollars" in printing and embroidery equipment.
"It's motivating for everyone on the team to see that we're growing by leaps and bounds," said Michael Nemeroff, the company's sweatshirted CEO. "It presents new opportunities not just for the business, but for everyone in the business. Also our customers experience improvements in the whole process. So I guess it's, I can just say, awesome."
Not bad for a kid who didn't graduate from high school. Nemeroff said he was 100 swimming laps short of a diploma. He decided keeping a business going was more important.
"We were in a house that was getting foreclosed on," Nemeroff said. "I was highly driven by fear."
His primary thought was "I just have to work harder and figure this out," he said, adding that his brother and sister joined him in that commitment.
They would invest savings Nemeroff had from his web-services work to market their T-shirt printing business online. They were able to afford the first hire in 2005.
Conversations with customers revealed lots of disappointment in the marketplace, usually about other printing companies missing deadlines, he said.
"You just really had to come through on your commitment," he said. "Which, logistically, you could do if you just cared. So that's where the idea for RushOrderTees started."
The T-shirt printing company that started in the family garage using outside printers was now an e-commerce business doing its own printing — self-taught and after having "messed up a million shirts before we learned how to really print T-shirts," Nemeroff said.
The website name, RushOrderTees.com, "was a differentiator from everybody else that was doing it online. People knew to come to us if they had some kind of deadline that they needed to hit."
Among them is Leon Degtar, senior vice president of Tonic Design Co., a Philadelphia-based technology company with clients including J&J, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Barilla.
Degtar spoke of collaborative, attentive designers at Printfly, and its ability to come through even on same-day orders. In three years, fulfilling a half-dozen orders a year, "they've never missed a deadline," Degtar said, describing the work as "perfect."
After losing the house, the Nemeroffs would split up to live among relatives and friends. The children went on to astound their father with their dedication to building the business.
"They did a tremendous job from zero. It's amazing," Allan Nemeroff said. "They really worked hard day and night, nonstop."
Jordan, 36, and Alexis, 31, are now pursuing other career initiatives. Their father stops in to marvel, tell jokes, and "leave a crumb trail," Michael said. Allan Nemeroff helped out for a time, but was reminded often by Michael how the business was vastly different — largely due to technology — from when he was creating men's polo shirts.
"He had his own ideas and his own way," said the elder Nemeroff, who seems more amused than offended. "He didn't use pencils. I said, 'Michael, we figured out how to make computers with pencils.' "