Steven Farag was an engineering student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign when the T-shirts he designed started going viral. To celebrate the boozy non-holiday locals call “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day,” the undergraduate created an image of the Illini mascot dressed in green, among other designs, and peddled them to fellow fraternity members and other students. Thanks to savvy social media use, he sold roughly 6,000 shirts one year, before he had even secured a printer.
Farag took his dilemma to Campus Ink (formerly Campus Sportswear), a mom-and-pop shop that had been in town since the late 1940s. Owners Tom Coleman and Jedd Swisher were skeptical at first, but readily took the job once Farag revealed he’d already collected around $50,000 from eager buyers.
By the time Farag graduated, he’d raised enough money selling decorated apparel to pay for all four years of college. He also had a proposition from Coleman and Swisher: Become a part owner of Campus Ink, and bring a “millennial edge” to the decorated-apparel shop. Farag, now 25, is 30 years younger than his partners. “It’s kind of like I’ve inherited two more fathers,” he jokes.
But the trio has found a good balance combining its diverse skillset: Coleman is a master printer, Swisher a crackerjack graphic designer, and Farag has a head for business and market disruption. For example, Farag helped Campus Ink move into the 21st century, replacing paper tickets with an online system, without sacrificing the shop’s old-school commitment to customer service. “What we truly believe is decorated apparel will always be a relationship business,” Farag says. “People like knowing you have someone that can take care of them.”
In the three years since Farag has joined the team, Campus Ink has seen double-digit growth, raking in revenue in the $2 million range. Prior to that, the shop brought in about $750,000 a year. Campus Ink is also eyeing a relocation, with plans to move from a cramped 4,000-square-foot space on the second floor of a historic building to its own 15,000-square-foot production facility. “We’re going to become lean and mean,” Farag says.
Farag also drew from his own collegiate experience selling apparel to implement Campus Ink’s student ambassador program. He recruits and trains college students in graphic design and sales, then turns them loose on their own campuses to take orders from peers and earn commissions on a sliding scale. In the first year of the program, 20 students from three college campuses – University of Illinois, University of Indiana and Vanderbilt – broke more than $600,000 in sales for Campus Ink. “We’re creating superstars in the industry and customers for life,” Farag says.
Jeff Urbahn, a junior at the University of Illinois, is one of those superstars. The graphic design major says joining the Campus Ink team “has honestly been one of the best and most influential decisions I ever made.” He adds: “I’ve learned so much about business, sales, marketing and the T-shirt business from them.” It also doesn’t hurt that Campus Ink takes its student sales team on skydiving excursions and business trips to Canada.
In 2018, Farag hopes to build the student ambassador program to 50 students, as part of Campus Ink’s overall expansion. “We’re having wild success … [but] we haven’t even turned on the gas yet.”