Interview with Daniel Fox of Skreened, Part I: Skreened Origins
On Monday, I announced our happy intention to begin offering our politically and socially progressive designs on men’s, women’s, kids’ and babies’ sweatshop-free shirts through the printing service at Skreened. The Skreened.com web site is in its initial beta version until next month, when proprietor Daniel Fox will release a fully-formed shop system — one that can hold all of our present and future designs. Skreened is rare in its insistence upon using sweatshop-free shirts, made with attention to workers’ rights and pay by American Apparel.
In a lucky coincidence, I found that Daniel Fox and I share the same city of residence: Columbus, Ohio. So we arranged to meet at the coffee shop next to his print shop yesterday morning, and had an extended conversation on a variety of subjects associated with the Skreened enterprise and the ethics of a printing business.
I’ll be posting the transcript of our conversation over the next few days. Today comes Part I, which is focused on Daniel Fox’s own journey through cubicle serfdom and the origins of Skreened.
Jim Cook: This is January 10, 2007 and I’m talking to Daniel Fox of Skreened.com. You run Skreened.com with Amy, your wife, is that right?
Daniel Fox: Kind of in name only. Our big marketing push started on MySpace, and MySpace is not best for professional interactions. So she was really important in kind of keeping the, ah, whores away: “Yes, I’m married, and yes, she’s a very valuable part of my life.” That’s actually the original part of her being part of the business. We thought it was cooler to have some married couple running the business than some egotistical guy running the business. Although, in reality, all it is is some egotistical guy running the business!
Jim: So you’re working by yourself at this point?
Daniel: I have a web developer who has part ownership in the company. He would prefer not to be named. I went to school for design at OSU [Ohio State University], so I have a web design background and I design all the stuff that we use in our interface. He’s kind of the heavy hitter, and he does all the credit card processing and the more complex stuff that arty guys like me have trouble with.
Jim: As part of that, did you know that if you put an apostrophe in the name of an item, it blows the whole thing up?
Daniel: It blows the thing up.
Jim: So I don’t even know if you want to fix that before the next release of your software…
Daniel: Yeah, that’s always the thing. I think you’re the first person to get to it, and notice it, and know what it is. So that’s cool, I’ll have to go in and fix that. I’ll often go to people and say, “Listen, I just screwed up.” And I’m not afraid to say it, because what’s coming out is going to be better. It’s still technically in Beta. We launched September 14, 2006. It’s still very small. We have maybe 650 users — those are people who have designed, people who have bought things from the shop, anybody who has signed up. It’s pretty small.
Jim: It is pretty small. But everything starts small. Even that competitor of yours, CafePress, started small, and now it’s gotten to be huge.
But I want to go back a bit. So before you started up Skreened.com, how long had you been doing screen printing or direct printing on apparel as an avocation? Is this something new?
Daniel: It is. Let me tell you about the process of how I got to where I am. It was January 2004, and I had just met the woman who was to be my wife. She lived in Cincinnati, and she was going to move up here. We met over our blogs, which is a great way to meet somebody because you know all of their history and all of their crap upfront. So that’s really cool. I was working for myself doing design, and I kind of freaked out and said, “Wow, if I’m going to have a wife, I’ve got to make some money!”
An opportunity came up at Nationwide Financial, the Nationwide insurance offshoot, and that turned into a full-time job as a designer. I went on anti-depressants at the time for being locked up in there. This is how I can put it most succinctly: I understand supply and demand, and customer relations, and what people want, and how to give it to them — but I’m not too great at navigating office politics, and I don’t really care to. It all exploded over the fact that my Mac was blowing up, and I wanted another Mac, but they’d just discontinued any support for any Macs. So I was writing this business case to get myself a new Mac, and I was getting the runaround, and the runaround, and the runaround. Finally, I said, “You know what, I quit!” I quit over the fact that I couldn’t have a Mac.
Jim: But that wasn’t the whole reason, was it?
Daniel: Yeah, to some degree it was the last straw, yeah. But it was great. I had a business opportunity waiting. My uncle was starting an on-demand embroidery idea. He was doing it for golf shops, and the idea was that if a Pro Shop didn’t have something in stock, they would ask us, we would embroider it and ship it right out to their customers. It was a similar on-demand environment.
The Pro Shops didn’t really pick up on the internet on-demand thing, A few months into it, I said, “I’m going to build a new ship, not sail this sinking one,” and that’s where Skreened came from. We were sitting in the PGA trade show in Florida, a golf trade show, and I showed him CafePress. He said, “these guys are geniuses!” And this is a genius business model. The users are creating art, they’re promoting their own shops. Give credit where credit is due: they were the first to launch this co-creative idea. But we can jump off from here and make it even more innovative.
Jim: OK, then what did you decide to do that’s different — because if you wanted to just the same thing you’d be far behind…
Daniel: Right — and I am far behind, and I’m comfortable with that. It’s evolved over time. Originally I just looked at the branding and how they were positioning themselves as a very corporate, very general thing. I thought, “Well, at the very least I can position myself to be more of an artist/illustrator/slightly underground place to do this.”
From there, I’ve seen the importance of paying people a fair wage for a garment. It’s very interesting that it’s a hot button emerging from the whole Gap controversy in the early 90s, Using well-sourced shirts and shirts that pay people a fair wage is an important issue. So that was part of the plan, too. And not just part of a plan for sneaky positioning, but part of the plan because it’s who I am as a person.
Jim: Well, it’s an issue of consistency too, isn’t it? Because on CafePress you have a number of people who are selling pieces of clothing with ethical messages on them, and yet the people who made the clothing haven’t been paid a fair wage or been treated in an ethical manner. It’s frankly an attraction to me that your approach is to exclusively work with American Apparel, which has a record of good standards.
Now, you do the direct printing that CafePress does, but you also have a screen printing operation for bulk orders. How long did it take for you to get to the point technically where you aren’t destroying two out of the three shirts you work with in the process of production?
Daniel: Have you heard that I’m not destroying two out of the three shirts I’m making? Because that’s news to me! No, well, I won’t go there, but yes, the learning curve on the direct printing process I’m using is a little steep, and it was tough, but I think I’ve got it. If you buy a shirt, you don’t have to worry about it — I’ll eat the cost of any mistake I make and get it right to send out. But yeah, it’s been a trying couple of months to get the direct-to-fabric technology really nailed down. But it’s working now. And if there’s one thing I’m comfortable with, it’s risk. I’m kind of a risky individual.
Look for Part Two of our interview tomorrow.