Profile: It's a Zen Thing

Custom T-shirt artist turns inspiration into profit.

by staff writer
- May 10, 2010
Brandy Smith, Zen Threads

What began as an experiment inspired by a love of art and vintage T-shirts has grown into a thriving business for Brandy Smith, owner of Zen Threads, which features custom-printed shirts and urban gear.

"I've always had a passion for vintage T-shirts. I'd buy them at thrift stores. I had a huge collection," she muses. "I live in T-shirts."

As an artist who occasionally sold household items on eBay, Smith had often thought about selling her original artwork on the site but felt limited by what would actually sell. "Paintings and illustrations are difficult to sell online," she concedes.

But by turning art into something wearable, Smith found a niche with the perfect fit. Zen Threads opened on eBay two years ago, and has since expanded to Auctiva Commerce and Etsy.

Smith launched her custom shirt business on eBay starting with a few music-inspired designs. In between working as a massage therapist and selling odds and ends on eBay, she learned to screen print by watching instructional videos and "lots of trial and error," she says.

I told myself that if I could sell 10 shirts a day, I could think about quitting my job

"I told myself that if I could sell 10 shirts a day, I could think about quitting my job," she recalls.

As it turns out, that goal was more easily attainable than she imagined. With those initial designs, she soon built a following on eBay. But even as sales grew beyond her expectations, she wished for a site with more functionality and customization capability. As a user of Auctiva's eBay listing tools, she learned about the company's off-eBay Auctiva Commerce Stores and decided to "give it a shot," she says.

Within the first month of opening on Auctiva Commerce, Zen Threads rang up its first transaction. A year later, the store is averaging $1,500 in sales a month. Designs have expanded to include subjects from nature, art, pop culture and history—"anything that inspires me," Smith says.

Response to her designs has been so overwhelming that last year Smith hired her partner, Kellie Denso, to help keep the business running smoothly.

"It got to the point that I couldn't do it alone," she says. "Both of us are now working full-time from home. I'm working more now than I ever have."

A custom experience

The opportunity to expand with Auctiva Commerce came at a critical time, when Smith's eBay business was starting to take off. She'd looked around at other e-commerce offerings, but none had the combination of features she found in Auctiva Commerce—with the ability to offer customization being a top consideration.

"My main focus for the Auctiva Commerce Store was to give people the chance to create the shirts themselves," she explains. "A lot of times you're shopping online and you find the shirt design you want, but it's not the color you want. I let buyers choose the shirt color and the ink color, and I print them to order. I feel like with custom printing, I'm providing more of a unique, personalized shirt.

"And with a wide variety of designs and options to choose from, there's something for everyone," she adds.

I've found Auctiva Commerce easy to navigate… it's very organized and clear cut

"I've found Auctiva Commerce easy to navigate," Smith continues. "I can see all my sales in my inbox. The design is pretty genius; it's very organized and clear cut.

"And I love the automatic Google submissions," she adds. "It makes it a lot easier to get your products into the search engines."

Achieving balance

Advertising for Zen Threads is primarily word of mouth, with Facebook and Twitter serving as the main promotional channels. However, Smith acknowledges that eBay is hard to beat for its marketing power.

"eBay always comes up first on search engines," she says. "I always make sure to put keywords in the eBay title, like the brand of shirts we use, American Apparel. People like that they're made in the U.S. I think that helps. Also just keeping in mind specific things people might be searching for, whether it's 'Brooklyn Bridge' or 'yoga shirt.'"

Because of its ability to produce high search placements, eBay remains the cornerstone of Zen Threads' business, even as plans for growth rest on Auctiva Commerce and Etsy. To foster that growth, Smith says she's trying to keep the sites looking fresh by continually adding new designs.

And with a couple years of experience behind her, she's ready for anything.

"The big goal for this year is to not fall apart during the holidays," Smith laughs. "Last year, the holidays were out of control. We had stacks of shirts on the kitchen table, the garage became our screen printing shop, and we were on the computer 20 hours a day.

"I never expected this; it just kind of hit us," she adds. "We try to keep things fun, and stay organized with the different sites. Knock on wood, it's been very successful. I feel really lucky every day."

Visit Zen Threads on Auctiva Commerce or on eBay.

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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