When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts

I’ve been in the apparel decoration business a long time, (over 25 years) and until recently thought I had seen it all.  It’s not uncommon for reporters or television news crews to come and film for public interest stories when you are printing a large hot market production run after a Super Bowl or World Series.  One might show up, or maybe two.

Last Friday, we had four.  And right after the last one was pulling away in the parking lot a producer called me wanting to know if the local morning show could do a live remote and film our Saturday crew.  They ended up doing three break-aways.  (Here’s a link to one of the telecasts from Friday)

So what’s all the commotion?  Let’s backtrack to Monday ,April 15th.  That’s when the unthinkable tragedy at the Boston Marathon occurred.  Like 9/11, the entire nation stopped what they were doing and helplessly watched in horror after the improvised bombs went off.  This is such a huge sporting event, and even though I now live in Wisconsin and am originally from Florida, I knew people at the Boston Marathon.  I’m really happy and grateful that none were injured in the attack.  For the rest of the day and night ,we were all glued to the coverage about the terrorist attack on innocent people.

There were two college kids at Emerson College in Boston, Nick Reynolds and Chris Dobens, who felt just as helpless.  They lived nearby and this really was an emotional time for them.  They were going to go down to the Boston Marathon and were warned to stay away, and then were just stuck watching the coverage from their dorm room.  They felt that they had to do something to counteract the helplessness they felt.  But what?

They decided to raise money for the victims.  Searching online they found Ink to the People and created their simple, but striking royal blue with gold t-shirt “Boston Strong”.  They coined the term.  (Think about that)  Using the design tools on the website, they finished their design and uploaded it to the web. Then they pushed it out to their friends, families and fellow students at Emerson.  They hoped to sell 110 shirts at $20 each, and they were going to donate the proceeds to whatever official charity came out of the tragedy.  When they started, one hadn’t been created yet – but they knew one would be.  Sadly, we’ve been down this road before.

Flashback to Milwaukee, where I work.  Ink to the People started as a reaction to an apparent industry need about two years prior.  The owners, Jay Berman and Todd Richheimer, recognized a challenge as different people would always come into their t-shirt printing shop and have an “awesome idea” for a new t-shirt design.  They would get a bunch of shirts printed, but lacked the resources, connections or skill to sell the shirts later.  Most would be stuck with a bunch of shirts in their garage.  The Ink to the People website was born out of that need, where people could either create their design on the site, or upload one, and then use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, e-mail contacts, etc.) to sell the shirt.  Users would set a minimum when they created their online design, and if they met the number – the shirt would go to print.  If not, then everything would automatically cancel, and nobody would be stuck with a bunch of shirts that won’t sell.

So here’s where the lightning strikes.  The Reynolds & Dobens “Boston Strong” shirt takes off like a rocket, mostly due to the incredible job the two guys did with promoting their design.  (I’m sure you’ve seen their hashtag #bostonstrong)  They were relentless with their social media campaign with Twitter, Facebook & Instagram and made a number of supportive YouTube videos at different stages to discuss the progress, present information, and basically cheerlead the process into even greater success.  If anyone needs a primer on how to work social media towards a frenzy of success, just follow those two guys.

That first Tuesday morning after the design was posted I clicked into the Ink to the People site like I do a lot of mornings just to see what has been posted.  Their shirt was up there, with 110 for the minimum and about 90 or so sold. In an hour or two, they had tripled that.  As the office came into work, we begin to look at this design and closely follow the numbers.  Jay & Todd reached out to Nick and told him that what he was doing was incredibly inspiring, and volunteered to donate the cost of running the shirts up to a quantity of 1500.  This way all $20 could go to their charity.  We all had the site up on our computers all day and had it tuned to the Boston Strong shirt.  I would work for a few minutes and then click the refresh button just to see the number jump by increments of 20, 30 or 100 each time.  It was incredible.  I bet Daryl, our master web designer, $1 that it would surpass 1000 sold by 5:00 pm.  (I lost as by 5:00 the number was only 846.  It didn’t hit 1000 until about an hour or so later)

By the following day, Wednesday, people around the country were starting to talk about the site and word was getting out about the Boston Strong fundraising efforts.  It didn’t hurt that Reynolds and Dobens did a masterful job relentlessly sending out messages and updates on social media.  It only took three days to raise $100,000.  In five days, they were at $300,000.  (Here’s a nice video they made at that point)  When the one week mark hit and their original sale ended they surpassed the $500,000 mark.  Not bad for two college kids in a dorm room.

What was nice for me was that the work that we put into the site paid off in a small, but positive way.  Everyone associated with the Ink to the People website has spent countless hours designing, building, tweaking, and talking about the site for many months prior.  We’ve had long discussions on all sorts of minutia, and have worked with focus groups, UX studies and all sorts of different people to try to understand how people might use the site.  It wasn’t until the intense strain that the Boston Strong campaign dropped onto the site, did we understand where the stress points really were.  Previously we had some moderate success with users taking the site and using its tools to design and market their ideas through their social media contacts.  However, that was nothing compared to having 250-650 people simultaneously using the site at any given time for hours on end.   Here was our press release. 

One week goes by and the original Ink to the People Boston Strong campaign closes for Nick & Chris on Monday, April 22.  In that span of time, they sold over 34,000 shirts and would raise over $500,000 for the One Fund Boston.  They reposted the shirt of course, and it’s still selling and raising even more money.  I’m convinced they will raise over a million dollars by the time this thing ends.  However, behind the scenes – we’re busy frantically getting the production set up for orders to ship.  We preordered chunks of thousands of t-shirts in all sizes before the campaign ended so we could get a jump on production.  These came into our shop in waves, as we basically bought all the royal blue shirts that our distributors had on their warehouse floor.  Like American’s pulling for Boston; these shirts shipped in from all over the country; Florida, California, Illinois, and Texas.  We printed over the weekend, and after the shirt closed that Monday night we started printing 24 hours a day, as we had the final order numbers, to make sure we could ship immediately.  The shirts were folded, packaged and double checked with their packing slips to make sure they were correctly distributed.  The first wave of them went out on Tuesday, April 23, and we were sending them out as fast as we could print a packing slip and mailing label.  We have an incredible group of dedicated and skilled professionals at Ink to the People, and everyone pulled together and got the job done.

One day, maybe the world won’t have evil people seeking out to harm and terrorize others.  As Americans, we all grieve for the three people that died, and scores of many that were injured.  The victims and their families of this tragedy will have long, painful days ahead of them trying to sort out and live their life to the fullest.  The One Fund Boston charity that was created will help them with their effort.  I believe that it’s the incredible altruistic spirit of Nick Reynolds and Chris Dobens, and the scores of people that helped them with their campaign, publicized their efforts, bought a simple t-shirt to help, or just matter-of-factly stood symbolically with the city of Boston that makes this country so unique and wonderful.  If we can get New York Yankees to sing Sweet Caroline at a game, then anything can happen.

Here are some links to other media outlets surrounding the Boston Strong fundraising campaign and Ink to the People:

Huffington Post 


USA Today 

Boston Globe 

Fox News 

NBC Nightly News 


Seventeen Magazine





  • Elaine Dill

    I wanted to know who coined the phrase “BOSTON STRONG” and came across your blog. Thank you for the story, I shared it on FB. I love the fact that people have an idea and a company like yours can make it happen.

    • Elaine:

      Thanks! All the credit must still go to Nick Reynolds and Chris Dobens. They are the ones that started the drive, and the ones that have pushed it this far. We’re just the facilitator for the production.


      • Elaine Dill

        I agree, Nick and Chris get all the credit. I’m not surprised by people trying to register BOSTON STRONG for themselves. Great Slogan Great Job.

  • Buddy Jolly

    Marshall this is a great story, Boston Strong is an inspiration for us all.
    Your article also shows us how important social media will and has become to us all.

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