This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the ten student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer accelerator phase of our Fearless Founders program. Participating student entrepreneurs received a stipend up to $5,000 that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over eight weeks in the summer.
Founder & CEO: Tommy Piantone ’18, Information Systems major
DC: Tell us about your startup. What problem are you solving and for whom?
Piantone: Countless small organizations spend a lot of resources organizing custom t-shirt orders for members of their community. Organizing a bulk t-shirt order takes a lot of time, energy and money that an organization could be spending on its real missions and goals. Rather than charging an organization for custom apparel, Tommy WARES helps organizations raise money through their apparel orders. We charge zero set-up fees and sell shirts to individual members of the organization’s community. For every shirt sold, we split the proceeds with our partnering organization 50/50. Our shirts are all union made in the USA and printed on only organic fibers.
DC: How did you first come up with your idea?
Piantone: I used to wear a plain white t-shirt just about every day, and after about four years my friends and family started to give me a hard time about it. So I said “Fine! I’ll put designs on them” and figured out how I could print my own shirts. After I took Prof. Karake’s course and learned how important streamlined production is, I knew I needed a really lean and flexible print process, so I poked around a bunch of apparel makers forums and designed my production process. I worked a couple jobs, saved up some money and bought the equipment I wanted. The prints came out much better than I had expected and I realized that with all this equipment I had a business on my hands.
DC: What are some major milestones you’ve achieved so far?
Piantone: A major milestone for us was finding a manufacturer for blank shirts that fit our standard of what it means to be “ethical.” Right now we only print on shirts that are union-made in the USA out of 70% organic viscose bamboo and 30% organic cotton. The shop we work with is up in New York and they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with.
Another major milestone for us is that Tommy WARES was 1 of 16 finalists out of over 300 applicants to the Halcyon Incubator Cohort 8. I was blown away when I saw that I was a finalist. That was the validation I needed to believe that what I’m doing really is valuable and I think getting turned down made me want to succeed even more.
DC: What drives you to keep going?
Piantone: Sure, there are some parts of the business that are a real chore, but I really love what I do to be honest. I love clothes. I read GQ online growing up and I think it’s so cool that now I design clothes and have an apparel company. Design is so much fun and it feels great to create a piece of art that you’re excited about and have it on a shirt minutes later to wear around. I think that apparel (like most things in your life) should express something about who you are and that’s not always something you can buy off the rack in a store.
DC: How do you feel about working in a cohort with fellow student entrepreneurs?
Piantone: It’s really inspiring, everyone’s working on these amazing projects and we each have mentors with a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments. Everyone has some kind of connection or knowledge to contribute to someone else and it’s great to have a bunch of business minded people to bounce ideas off of.
DC: What are you hoping to achieve during Terp Startup this summer?
Piantone: This summer I’m going to expand my printing capabilities with a couple new styles of printing and a few new mediums, as well as create an employment framework for scaling. I’m trying to structure the company to create social value along all of its processes. For instance, our shirts are union-made in the USA which contributes to East Coast jobs and economies, and each sale we make raises money for a local organization. Now I’m trying to figure out how to make an impact through our employment structure in a way that makes sense for the company as well.
As far as new mediums are concerned, I’ve been on and off skateboards since I was about twelve years old and I’m excited to say that we will be refining our print process for skateboard decks this summer.