T-shirt maker learns to be prepared for publicity

NEW YORK (AP) — When T-shirt maker Serengetee convinced a popular YouTube personality to wear one of its shirts during a web video it seemed like a great publicity opportunity. But the company wasn't prepared for what would happen next.

Sales of the shirts, which feature pockets made of colorful fabric from different countries, skyrocketed. Serengetee, launched in 2012 by four college students, couldn't keep up with demand.

"People were complaining that they ordered their shirts two weeks ago," said Ryan Westberg, 22, one of the co-founders of Serengetee. "It was a huge problem. We had to take care of our customers."

Getting mentioned in a magazine, online or on a TV show can boost sales, but if a business isn't prepared it risks alienating or losing customers. Serengetee's owners realized this so they decided to call each customer to apologize.

Part of the reason Serengetee fell behind on orders was because each T-shirt is customized online by the customer, and each one is made after it is ordered. On Serengetee.com, customers choose a pocket design they want on their T-shirts. Each pocket is made with fabrics from different countries around the world, and each design corresponds with a charity. A fabric from Ghana, for example, supports a charity in that country that helps children with HIV or AIDS. Serengetee donates 13 percent of the profit from each T-shirt.

Serengetee was featured in the web video after Westberg contacted fellow University of Arizona student and YouTube star Jimmy Tatro, and asked him to mention the T-shirts. (Tatro, 21, has since left the school.) Westberg reached out to Tatro because his videos are watched mainly by college students, the same demographic Serengetee sells T-shirts to. "Every college student knows who he is," said Westberg.

Tatro's YouTube channel, called "Life According to Jimmy," has more than 900,000 subscribers. He gained his popularity after a video he made spoofing a fraternity guy went viral. Tatro posts videos every Monday venting about college life or acting in comedic sketches. His most watched video, called "Breaking Up with Overly Attached Girlfriend," has had almost 13 million views.

In July, Tatro posted a nearly 4-minute video. In the clip, he's seen wearing a Serengetee T-shirt while complaining about annoying Facebook updates and the difficulties of ordering drinks at a coffee shop. Towards the end of the video, Tatro briefly mentions the shirt. The video got more than 575,000 views. Tatro linked to Serengetee's website, and it got so much traffic that it crashed. Tatro said he endorsed the shirts for free. "I just honestly really liked them," he said.

Before the video, Serengetee was selling about 25 shirts a day. In the two weeks after the video was posted, the company sold 1,500 shirts. At the time, Serengetee was sending its shirts out to tailors who would then sew on the pockets. The company was able to make and ship 500 shirts to their new customers in time, but they were behind on the rest. When customers didn't get their shirts within two weeks, they began complaining. So the founders called each and every customer who still didn't get their shirts.

"We didn't want them to think we were being lazy or forgot about them," said Jeff Steitz, 21, one of Serengetee's founders.

During the calls, they apologized for the delays. They explained that they were a new company run by college students and that they got a rush of orders they weren't prepared for. Some customers demanded a refund, but most were happy to get an explanation. "We wanted to tell them our story from the heart," said Steitz. "They were sympathetic." Serengetee also offered each customer a 50 percent discount on their next order.

Serengetee wanted to make sure they were prepared for any more sudden jumps in sales. They used the money they made after the Tatro publicity to secure a warehouse where the shirts could be made by in-house tailors. They also updated their website to handle more traffic to avoid crashes.

Tatro recently partnered with Serengetee, designing his own line of shirts. A portion of profit from the Tatro-designed shirts goes to a charity that helps victims of Superstorm Sandy. After money is taken for the charity, Tatro gets 50 percent of the profits.

Tatro has worn the Serengetee shirts again on his videos, but things are different this time.

"We're much more prepared now," said Steitz.

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ONLINE:

—Serengetee: http://serengetee.com/

—Life According to Jimmy: https://www.youtube.com/lifeaccordingtojimmy

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Follow Joseph Pisani at https://twitter.com/josephpisani

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