Why T-Shirts Matter

During my tenure at LinkedIn, I’ve held a wide variety of roles and responsibilities within the company.  Some are fairly public (as described on my LinkedIn profile).  Others are the the type that you’d never find formally discussed, and yet would be no less true if you asked anyone who worked at the company.

In a rare combination of serendipity, passion, and empowerment, I personally ended up with one of those unspoken roles: the most prodigious producer of LinkedIn t-shirts.

2010 LinkedIn for Breast Cancer Awareness Shirt

At the recent Silicon Valley Comes to the UK trip, I had the chance to have a great conversation with Dave Hornik on why making t-shirts matter to high tech start-ups.   Believe it or not, I felt that this was a subject important enough to capture in a blog post.  (My friends from The Clothing People and I will write a separate blog post on how to make truly great high tech t-shirts, which is a field of expertise unto itself.)

Why T-Shirts Matter

At a high level, understanding the typical culture at a high tech startup can be difficult for those who haven’t worked for one.  The best analogy I can think of is to put yourself back in time, to when you were between 8 – 12 years old.  Now, think carefully about the things that 8 – 12 year old boys like (at least, the geeky ones).  Video games.  Caffeine.  e-scooter .  Toys.  Computers. Bean bag chairs.  Junk food.  This should help orient you, and brings you to the right frame of mind about t-shirts.

T-shirts are a part of that culture.  In part, t-shirts represent the ultimate middle finger to those unnamed sources of authority who wanted software engineers to dress like “Thomas Anderson” in the Matrix.  Software engineers want to be Neo, not John Anderson.

This leads us to the reasons why t-shirts matter:

Empowerment.  In some ways, engineers delight in having found a profession where their intellect and passion for technology have enabled them to earn a great living and work at a company where – yes, you guessed it – they can wear t-shirts to work.  Giving out t-shirts tells your employees, implicitly, that you get it.  You hire only the best, and the best can wear whatever they want.  It says you know that you value merit over appearance; a working prototype over an MBA.

Incentives.  Over the past decade, behavioral finance has taught us that people don’t value money rationally – it varies depending on form and context.  You can bring a $20 bottle of wine to your girlfriend’s parents’ house and be thought a gentleman.  Handing her Mom a $20 at the door isn’t looked on the same way.   Let me just tell you, free t-shirts evoke some sort of primal response at a high tech company.  I’ve often said that I would see less interest at a high tech company handing out $100 bills than handing out free t-shirts.  High tech companies are filled with benefits that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, benefit a minority of employees, and are generally under-appreciated financially.  You’d be shocked at what a $200 per person per year budget for t-shirts will do for employee morale comparatively.

Tribal Cohesion. There are a lot of reasons why many institutions require employees to wear uniforms.  Common appearance can be a reminder that the person represents the company.  More importantly, common dress signals who is “part of the tribe” and belongs to the corporate family.  Uniforms are incompatible with the “empowerment” aspect of how people want to dress, but t-shirts can represent a form of “voluntary uniform” if produced in sufficient variety and quantity.   This effect can be had at a team level, when a t-shirt is made just to celebrate a new product, or at the company level.  It has a profound effect on new hires, as well, who desperately want “a shirt” so they can fit in.  It may sound subversive, but t-shirts can provide many of the same benefits of camaraderie and tribal cohesion that uniforms did, without the top-down oppression.

Tenure Based Seniority. High tech companies are largely meritocratic, and as they grow they tend to define roles based on skills & experience rather than “time at the company”.  However, there are positive aspects to rewarding those who have “bled for the company” over the years, and put their hearts and souls into building the business.  T-Shirts, in an innocuous way, implicitly do this by almost always becoming “limited editions”.  Want the t-shirt from the 2007 company picnic?  You had to be there to get one.  How about the shirt from the first intern program?   The launch of a game-changing new product?  Even shirts that are given out to the whole company will become rare at a company that’s growing rapidly.  In a socially acceptable way, t-shirts subtlely communicate a form of tenure that is warm, and yet structured.

Branding.  As discussed under “Tribal Cohesion”, people want to wear the brand of their tribe.  They will wear them out everywhere if you let them.  Let them.  While being careful not to interfere with the uniqueness of shirts given to employees, make shirts for your developers, your fans, your early adopters.  Long before they become vocal advocates for your brand, they will gladly showcase it if you let them.  This tends to work best in relatively inter-connected, dense, techy cultures like Silicon Valley, but you’d be surprised how far your reach might be.  Of course, this assumes that you make shirts that don’t suck, but we’ll cover that in the next blog post.

So How Do I Make Great Shirts?

It turns out that this is a lot harder than it appears.  Mario always tells me my blog posts are too long, so I’m going to save this topic for the next post…

88 thoughts on “Why T-Shirts Matter

  1. I think they matter a lot, and people love to wear them even if they don’t work for the company. People want to wear my FreezeCrowd t-shirt. I’m even thinking of having a redesign of it, yet people still love it. I just saw a site called ContestCause, which is having t-shirt design contests, and it’s something that startups might be interested in, having a contest for the t-shirt.

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  3. T’s are a huge part of our brand. We buy the highest quality shirts, that we fit well and then keep them scarce. They have become sought after to a degree.
    We have a flickr tag and rotate pics of our friends in our T’s on our home page http://page.ly/ and blog.

  4. Back in my programming days, we referred to our methodology as T-shirt First Development, loosely modeled on the original 1984 Mac launch documented by Guy Kawasaki. He said you should always make the t-shirts before the produce.

    Later, I told startups that they should consider this question: “what does wearing your t-shirt say about the user?” if the answer is, “nothing”, or “it was free” or, worse, something bad/embarrassing, time to rethink what being your user SAYS about your user.

    And do not forget to make t-shirts for both genders. It’s worth it to spend the extra money to not just make one big run of XXL. 🙂

    Great post, thank-you!

  5. “The best analogy I can think of is to put yourself back in time, to when you were between 8 – 12 years old. Now, think carefully about the things that 8 – 12 year old boys like (at least, the geeky ones). Video games. Caffeine. Scooters. Toys. Computers. Bean bag chairs. Junk food. This should help orient you, and brings you to the right frame of mind about t-shirts.”

    I would rather have a $100 bill than a company t-shirt, but I suppose that’s because I was never a little boy?

  6. We’ve always used shirts to promote our brand. Everyone loves them. The main challenge we’ve always given ourselves is to design a shirt that is cool enough to wear. I’ve received some free shirts that I’d never wear because there wasn’t much thought put into them, and as a result they are fugly.

    Check out the shirts we just did for our company. We call the design “SS Submersible Dirigible”:
    http://www.myintervals.com/blog/2011/02/01/submersible-dirigible-the-new-intervals-shirt-design/

  7. A sweet t-shirt from your company is just another way to show off your pride when everyone else has to wear jackets and a tie to work.

    By giving your employees t-shirts that they can wear to work and wear around town proudly displaying their allegiance to their place of employment you give that employee a way to “crown the company” they work for. They’d never want to leave or cross that company line because then all those sweet t-shirts everyone is envious of would go to waste.

  8. As the supplier for PyCon conference t’s and most other things Python-y, I really appreciate your post. I think you are spot-on and agree that quality definitely matters!

  9. Thanks so much for writing this.

    At my first two startups, we were *really* big on T-shirts. It was an annual ritual to design a new T-shirt each year (both for employees and for well-wishers). People collected the shirts over the years, and customers would actually show up at conferences wearing t-shirts from prior years just to show their affinity for the brand.

    And, we were a tiny (< 50 people) startup.

    I need to circulate this amongst our team, because we're not doing t-shirts as well as we should. Culture counts.

    Cheers,
    Dharmesh

  10. Rock on with your tee knowledge. We here you and believe the same thing. At CU*SWAG, we are working to help make credit unions fashionably cool. It’s all about turning employees and members into walking and talking billboards.

  11. I don’t like wearing graphic tees, but I love sneakers. I think Twitter and Facebook have already been in on that. Others ought to follow.

  12. Great post. In the old days at Apple (mid ’80s) those of us in the small software product management group shared a PERT (project management) chart — with the first box always being “make T-Shirt.”

  13. I’d love to see a site showcasing the t-shirt designs tech-startups have come up with.

    I wonder how closely the design would reflect the ‘personality’ of the company…

    Oren.

  14. A while ago, I made a little iPhone app called StoryPlease that really never went anywhere. We didnt’ spend a lot of time on it, but just needed to exercise our creativity a little and try throwing something out there to see if the app would take off.

    The app is available here, http://getstoryplease.com. (We eventually made it free).

    I went to the extreme of even making a shirt for it. What’s hilarious is that I still have the shirt, and I still get tons of questions about the shirt when I where it out. People are always asking me where I got the shirt and I tell them the story.

    Shirts that are interesting or quirky are great for marketing and storytelling.

    ash // yakshaving.net

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  16. I’m a little surprised so many in high tech fields are willing to be, as James Robert Lay said above, “walking and talking billboards.” That’s a ridiculously depressing idea and in essence what folks wearing branded t-shirts are. I’m hard pressed to wear any clothes that insist on making the brand a central graphic feature, in part for ideological reasons and in part because it’s not the kind of cool that interests me. Sincerely, is it an issue of geeks being less fashion-minded in general, where a free t-shirt suffices in the stead of actually looking for clothing? (full-disclosure: I am a programmer and professed geek, so this isn’t an us/them kind of question)

    • I think you need to re-read my post – there are a lot of good reasons to wear company t-shirts beyond being a “walking and talking billboard”. There is a reason sports fans wear the brands of their favorite team. Show some team spirit…

      • No, I get the point of your post, it’s well written and thought out. I’m just expressing surprise that so many people in our field are swayed by free branded swag, only in the sense that I can’t relate to a willingness to wear “company” t-shirts. I’m wondering why it’s so prevalent among geeks. I also don’t understand wearing the team colors, so perhaps I’m just a strange exception.

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  18. Love to see the follow up post on how to make a great t-shirt. Thanks for your insightful post on why t-shirts matter.

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  30. As a conference organizer, the T-shirt sponsor is one of the first things I try to secure. Unfortunately I’ve had a few T-shirt fails. Shirts with too small graphic, one size that didn’t fit all, too cheaply made, or ill fitting Ts. Most will never know how difficult it is to get a good T-shirt, but when you get one… you know.

    Great post.

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  37. Wow, this is a very detailed look at how t-shirts impact both tech and corporate culture overall.

    Love what you said here too…

    Let me just tell you, free t-shirts evoke some sort of primal response at a high tech company. I’ve often said that I would see less interest at a high tech company handing out $100 bills than handing out free t-shirts.

    By the way, I’ve been around my fair share of tech companies and although what you’ve mentioned, about t-shirts in tech firms, above never really occurred to me when I look back on it I can definitely see a correlation. It’s almost as if within the context of tech companies the t-shirt has become a badge of honor and that the history behind each addition is sort of like a rites of passage to anyone who was fortunate enough to receive one.

    Very thoughtful and well written article. Thanks!

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  49. As a guy who owns a print shop in San Francisco and does a lot of printing for start ups, it’s so awesome dropping off tees to tech offices and seein everyone wearing the last round of tees we printed is really rewarding, then seeing everyone get excited about the new tees is just awesome.

  50. Given how important you’ve said t-shirts are to culture, I wish more companies would bother to print women’s t-shirts instead of only “unisex” shirts. There isn’t really any such thing as a “unisex” shirt, it’s just a men’s shirt. My company hands out plenty of t-shirts… and yet I’m not comfortable wearing any of them to work. It is frustrating that we continue to have these subtle forms of excluding women from the industry.

    • Every time we print for companies that order only unisex, we always ship a couple women’s tanks or ladies crew necks. Usually sending 3-4 so the company sees how stoked the women are on having something that fits is enough to make them order women’s styles!

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  54. Absolutely!! It’s a proven fact that t shirts boost emploee moral. I’ve seen it from both sides; emploee and employer. However, as much sense as it makes, you’d not believe how hard it can be to help many employers see this.

  55. A good friend of mine has been interested in starting up a t-shirt company. Before reading this I had no idea that a good t-shirt could make a person feel empowered. It’s a great point that wearing them at work and in social settings can provide unity for you and those around you. These are great points as to why t-shirts are important!

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