Fellow entrepreneur Tracy Ewell introduced me to Chris Reams. Like Tracy, Chris’ business was deeply affected by Hurricane Katrina. His story is profoundly heartbreaking and incredibly uplifting. Bookmark this tale and then re-visit it on a day when your bank account is dwindling and clients aren’t returning your phone calls. It will help you find your own ability to skip – and whistle. If you like what you read, keep up with Chris and his store on Twitter by following @SKIPNWHISTLE.
I understand you are a screen printer/ graphic designer/ owner of a clothing store. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur in these areas?
About six years ago I was finishing up my masters degree in adolescent mental health counseling and was on track to be an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor). I was unhappy with the starting paycheck that residency was going to bring and realized that I could have a greater impact on others by being in the business world and funding projects that mattered most to me. There is no shortage of people willing to help young kids find a place in the world, but there is a lack of proper funding for projects that make a difference. I am a self-taught artist and screen printer. One day, while driving to school, I was wondering how artists could make a living selling their pieces over and over again. I saw a bumper sticker and though to myself, “That is sort of like artwork that has been reproduced millions of times, maybe I can do that.” I actually started in the bumper sticker business first, but you have to sell a whole lot of stickers to make a living. It was a natural progression to designing t-shirts. The problem was that I did not have any money to invest in having someone else print them for me, so I had to learn to print them myself as people placed orders with me. I started printing t-shirts on the floor of my apartment and drying them in the oven on a cookie sheet until I saved up enough to buy the right equipment! After graduation I opened my first store in Covington called Ichabods. That was the beginning six years ago.
What’s the best advice you received in the early days, as you were first starting your own business?
I also do leather work and was selling some journals I had made at a church fair in Mandeville. There was this old man selling one-armed rakes called the power rake. He was running circles around me as far as sales went. I took that moment to educate myself rather than keep trying to sell journals and we got to talking. He told me, “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just paint it a different color.” That has stuck with me for years now. When I am designing a t-shirt, I can change the color of the ink, the color of the shirt, the style of the shirt or print the same design on tote bags – you name it. It’s total freedom.
What has been your journey as a business owner, both before and after Hurricane Katrina?
After graduate school I opened my first retail location in Covington. Two years later I opened a second location on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Then, two months before Hurricane Katrina, I closed the Covington store to focus on the New Orleans location because it was doing so well. Flush with cash and ready for back to school sales, I loaded up on merchandise for the store and consolidated all the inventory from my Covington location. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I was spared the flooding.
It was the looting that did me in. People kicked in the doors and stole everything I had in there of value. I had paid cash for everything and did not have much in savings. I was underinsured and flat busted after that storm. When I got the insurance settlement, I had to use it to have the trees removed from my house because insurance doesn’t cover tree removal. I lost my art studio where I printed all my t-shirts because tornados and trees crushed it too and property insurance did not cover it. The actual storm was nothing. The aftermath was really tough.
While the storm was going on I was at a tradeshow in Las Vegas called Magic where I intended to buy inventory for my store. I ended up watching the storm on the news and wondered if I even had a store anymore. I was essentially stuck in Vegas with my life in limbo, cell phone not working and my hometown was officially closed. When I finally got home – a month later – I lived through what everyone else went did, but since my income was dependent on my ability to make shirts, I had to start with nothing all over again. I printed t-shirts out of the back of a pick up truck and sold them on the Internet. That got me through things for a while. Days became weeks, which became months, which turned into years and it got easier eventually. My journey has mostly been mental, and if it wasn’t for good friends and family I would have gone insane.
Being a small business owner, I have a lot of pride. If I can’t do what I want to do, and do it my own way, I would rather not do anything at all. I’ve often wondered if I should just pack it in and move to Ireland. Maybe work in a pub for the rest of my days and write sad poetry, telling stories about my youth. It’s what I will do if my world falls apart as I know it, I guess.
What’s helped you the most in rebuilding and starting a new business in the aftermath of Katrina?
What has helped me the most in rebuilding after Katrina is the small business loan I finally received from the state [of Louisiana]. It gave me the ability to put everything I have learned into action again. I was able to open another retail store in New Orleans, but this time decided to branch out from just t-shirts. I have been able to attend tradeshows and sell my designs on t-shirts to retail stores all over the world. I am in a showroom in Tokyo Japan, which distributes my line to over 14 countries. I am also in about 60 clothing stores in the US. Without the small business loan it would not have been possible. I opened a retail store on Oak Street [in New Orleans] called Skip N Whistle. We sell women’s clothing and accessories, children’s t-shirts, locally made art, soap, and housewares on the first floor, and men’s vintage Levi’s, shirts, belts and boots on the second floor. This is also where I do my custom t-shirts for clients that want just one shirt of a thousand. Customers can come in and pick on of my designs and I will print it on the shirt of their choice while they wait, or they can bring me their own artwork and I will put it on a shirt or messenger bag for them. We also meet with clients upstairs to design shirts for their bands and businesses, which I screen-print for larger orders.
What advice would you give to someone starting up his/her own business?
My advice is to not put all your eggs in one basket. Also, everything costs more than you think it will. You may be talented, or your family and friends may tell you that you are, but you will never really know for sure until you try it out there on your own. Be ready to fail, have cash on hand when it happens; do not assume you will always be at the top of your game. You may get there fast in the beginning, or it may feel like it in comparison to having nothing, but then things get tough. You will have to pay employees, manage accounts, pay rent, buy insurance, advertise, network, and then eat, and, lastly, sleep. Having your own business is harder than working for someone else, period. If you aren’t ready to eat, drink and breathe your business, then do something else.
What do you know now that you’d wish you had known before starting your own business?
I would have managed my money better in the beginning if I would have known how tough things could get. Just because you are making it one day does not mean everyday will be that way.
What should your customers and the readers here know about your newest venture Skip N Whistle in New Orleans?
Skip N Whistle is the name of my new business. I run it with my partner and girlfriend Anne Warren. She is the balance I need in my life and brings joy to running a business. While we were researching lines to carry in the store, we visited lots of larger chain stores for inspiration and found it depressing that good quality clothing for women costs so much. It upset me to see her fall in love with certain pieces only to feel bad when she checked the price tag and couldn’t justify buying it. I decided that I wanted to carry the best lines possible, at prices that people could afford. We are in business to make a living, but also to make relationships and friends. It may sound cliché as a business owner to say this, but it is very true. I have been through hell and back, and know that life is too short to be shortsighted. I have committed to having my business in New Orleans, and intend to make new friends for life and try to be open minded every day to new ideas and people that I meet. Carpe Diem.
By the way, you may wonder where I got the name Skip N Whistle. Well, after Katrina when I got really depressed I thought back to how things were as a kid when everything was an adventure. So, I found myself going for walks late at night to clear my head and started to skip instead of walking. I figured that maybe I could trick myself into feeling young and happy again. It worked. Then I added a little whistle to my skip, and it worked even better. I was able to laugh at myself, and the thought of what a 6’4 guy looked like skipping and whistling through the night made me laugh even more. I think everyone should Skip N Whistle a little more; it’s good for you.
Do you know an entrepreneur who should be featured here? Drop me a line at jesaka [at] jesakalong.com.