The surprising importance of startup t-shirts

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Next time you walk down a busy city street, pull out your smartphone, hold it down around your waist so nobody can see you’re filming, and film the people around you as you walk. When you get back to your desk, review the video and take note of how much you can tell about these strangers on the street just by what they’re wearing.

The way we dress obviously either reinforces or disguises our gender and age. It can also convey a lot of information about our occupation, recreational choices, social status and even likely relationship status. This person’s a white collar professional in a suit and tie. That person’s a skater. This person’s a surfer. That person’s a tradesperson. This person’s a hipster (shudder!). That person’s dressing like they’re headed to yoga but more likely they’re just going to meet a girlfriend for coffee.

The point of watching the video you’ve taken is just to help highlight how we’re categorising strangers according to how they dress all the time. It’s usually instinctive and unconscious, but the video helps us see that we’re doing it all the time — constantly categorising and seeking to be categorised by strangers.

We are all constantly conveying an image, and we care what others think

You know who you are. How you dress isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. And if I asked, you’d probably tell me you don’t care very much about what strangers think about you.

Yet obviously we all do care, or we wouldn’t spend money acquiring the clothes and time selecting the look. If we really didn’t care we’d all be wearing one-piece functional recyclable overalls like in some sci-fi movie utopia.

Why did you choose that t-shirt and not another one? What about those pants? Or those earrings or those shoes? Like it or not, it’s all chosen to convey something to people who might only glimpse us for a moment passing by on the street.

Still don’t believe me? Try this exercise

First, think of the logo of a brand that represents something you intensely dislike; it might be a fashion label you hate, or a political party, perhaps you hate BHP Billiton or Apple Computer. Now find the logo for that brand online, print it out on a piece of paper, and pin that logo to the front of your clothes for one whole day. How does it make you feel? Still certain you don’t care about your relationship with what you wear?

What’s all this got to do with startups?

Recognising the power of what you wear has a subtle and important influence if you’re a startup founder or an advisor or mentor to a startup. Let me explain.

As a startup founder, you spend much of your time pitching to potential customers, employees, co-founders, investors, journalists, and anyone else who’ll listen.

Many of those pitches will be quite different in content but one aspect will always be the same — you’ll be asking your audience to believe you.

You’ll be asking them to believe you’ve discovered a problem worth solving, that customers will pay to have solved, that will power a business which will grow fast and become hugely profitable, and that you’ll succeed where your competitors will fail.

Given what we now understand about the importance of how we dress, what difference do you think it will make if I try to make you believe in this future company I’m building while I’m wearing a t-shirt featuring the logo of my startup? It sends a subtle but unmistakable message when I do this: it says “I believe in this company enough to want the world to associate it with me”.

What sort of message do we send when I and all my team wear the same startup logo t-shirt to a pitch event or trade show? It says, “we’re not a motley crew, we’re not practically strangers who’ve barely met, we’re not finding a way to work together while we try to jump off a cliff and build a plane on the way down. We are in fact a unified team of people who are all comfortable with the idea that the world will associate this startup with each of us. We believe in this startup, and so should you.”

Al in Zapala Go
Here I am earlier today, wearing a Zapala Go t-shirt.


Practical steps towards a logo everyone will wear

Most startups get some t-shirts made when they have the budget, because t-shirts are startup industry uniform and everybody else seems to have them. But not all t-shirts are the same and things as subtle as the manufacturer and the material can make as much of an impression as the colour and fit. You don’t want to waste money on t-shirts nobody likes to wear because with the possible exception of employees, you aren’t able to compel people to wear them. Think about the cut, style, material and quality of the other clothes your target ‘wearer’ is usually seen in — don’t get polo shirts made if none of your target audience usually wears a polo shirt.

Also think about how impactful your logo should be. As a general rule of thumb, as people get more vested in the future of a startup and its brand, the more comfortable they become with wearing a t-shirt with a large, contrasty, bold version of your logo. But as soon as your brand jumps the shark, that big obvious logo becomes the number one reason people won’t wear it —seen anyone in a Yahoo! or Google t-shirt lately?

So when your startup is new, start with subtle, low-contrast, blended-in versions of your logo.

Think hard too about whether it’s really necessary to plaster your t-shirts with a big ugly URL. Passers-by rarely take enough of an interest to read and retain a whole URL for very long and if you’re talking to someone you’re actually pitching to, chances are you’re going to give them a business card with your URL on it. In 9 out of 10 cases, asking someone to wear your URL is as blatantly marketing as asking them to memorise your price list and I’d recommend you don’t do it. Have a unique brand name and trust in the power of search engines and human curiosity.

A word for investors and advisors

If you’re an early-stage investor or advisor in a startup, ask them for a t-shirt and wear it often. Why? Because they’re a tiny handful of people, lonely in a world of powerful, well-funded competitors, and when you wear their t-shirt you may have increased the number of people associating themselves with this brand by 20-50%. Besides, you’re no mere startup neophyte — the very fact that you’re investing and advising means the psychological impact of you wearing their t-shirt is many times greater than when they wear it themselves.

Make a practice of weaving your startup’s t-shirts into your own look. It may just improve their chances of delivering you a return on investment.