If you’re a horror fanatic like we are, you’ve definitely seen (and most likely own) a shirt from Fright Rags. At the very least you know of the company that makes THE best horror shirts around. Some of you may have seen my Roseanne Halloween shirt – Fright Rags. After the first time I came across FR I was very curious about who these people were. I remember my friend Mike and I had big plans in high school to start designing and selling our own shirts. My parents used to run a graphic arts business in our basement that included screen-printing shirts for schools, sports teams, businesses, etc. so I’ve always been intrigued by the act of creating things and then putting them out there for public consumption.
I have to thank Ben for taking some time to answer my questions. And I must say, this is one of the most inspiring interviews I’ve done. The whole point of the podcast and this site is for people to put their creative energy to use – to make their “thing.” For anyone that is on the fence about getting your product (your “thing”) out there, read through our interview. I think you’ll find what Ben has to say extremely motivating.
Tell me a little bit about kid Ben. When you did you really get into horror? What the first movie that scared the crap out of you?
October 31, 1981 – the night I got into horror. I was four years old and was at a family friend’s house after trick-or-treating. My parents were playing cards, my brothers and sister were off playing with their friends, and I was checking out my candy. After inspecting my haul, I was bored and asked my mom when we were leaving. She told me to go watch tv….so I did. And what popped on the screen was John Carpenter’s Halloween – the first time it aired on television – and I sat there, transfixed, watching every moment. While it would scare me on subsequent viewings, I think the initial time it just really sunk in to me in a way I had never experienced in my brief 48 months of life. The image of Michael Myers had embedded itself into my brain for good.
What was the very first design you ever had printed on shirt?
The first shirt I ever designed and printed was WWJD? which stood for What Would Jason Do? and had a hockey mask in place of the J. With that design, I had sort of an “eureka” moment where I felt I could do something I hadn’t seen before. It was a shirt I’d want to wear – it was funny and also paid homage to one of my favorite slashers.
So you launched FR in 2003. What was your experience in design, and then designing and selling custom apparel before starting your own business? Tell me about the struggles of trying to start something from the ground up. What advice would you give to anyone wanting to carve their own path and become entrepreneurs?
I went to school for graphic design so that did help me when designing shirts as well as building my website. Ands while I wouldn’t say I was amazing at it, I do believe my schooling helped train my eye so that I could understand better what worked and what didn’t. As far as starting a business, I had ZERO experience. I worked for a very small company at the time (only three people), so I was able to gleam some how-to’s from there, but the fact is, I’ve learned everything from doing it, falling flat on my face, making hundreds of mistakes, and figuring it out as I go. It’s like going to school every day, even now. I love learning about all aspects of business, and owning a company keeps me busy in all of those areas so it’s never boring. For aspiring entrepreneurs, my biggest piece of advice is – START. People get caught up in minutia before they even have a product to sell. Or they’re trying to come out of the gate acting like an established brand. Just freaking start it. Then slowly build over time. There is a famous quote, “It takes five years to become an overnight success”. It’s true. No one knew who Fright-Rags was (outside a very small few) for years….and during those years I never stopped. I spent late nights and early mornings – and far too many hours at my regular job – working on Fright-Rags even when no one knew about it. It’s not glamorous, it’s a grind, but I love every second of it because I have a passion for what I do.
Why an apparel company? Do you do the designs yourself?
I’ve always been into t-shirts. It’s the one souvenir I would want when we’d go on family vacations, and it was a means to express my quirky individuality as I became an adolescent. I remember buying a shirt with a huge Gilligan (from Gilligan’s Island) face on it as well as Brady Bunch and That Girl shirts – some of the first retro pop culture shirts – when I was in high school. Plus, I knew a bit about screen-printing and I hadn’t found any horror shirts that I wanted to wear. Also, it seemed like something I could apply my art skills to. I did all the designs for the first year, and then I began getting help because what I wanted to see on a shirt exceeded my own skills, and I was also busy working on the company to spend a lot of time on design. So I essentially became the art director which is ultimately what I’m better at.
When you launched, did you have a career you left behind to do this full time? Was running FR a full time job right off the bat for you? From where did you launch (your own house/garage/apartment/etc.)? And how many people were working with you at that time?
No, it was definitely not full time when I started. It took five years before I could quit my full time job. Until then, it was just me doing all the work (beside most of the designs). I folded every shirt, packed orders, wrote emails, updated the website, etc. Everything was all me in my spare time while I had a full time job. I started it in my apartment, and then when my wife and I bought a house, I had a room downstairs converted to my office/warehouse. After that, we built a storage room in the garage and took over the other rom in the lower level of my house. I then rented our first office in 2009. My first employee came on in 2008, and it was my best friend from childhood, Tim. He began shipping orders for me and is still currently our shipping manager. We now have a total of eight employees at our current office in downtown Rochester, NY which was also the old city morgue.
Did you just start by printing t-shirts? At what point (and why) did you decide to expand to doing enamel pins, socks, pants, magnets, posters, etc.?
Yes, shirts was the only thing we did for several years. As we began adding licenses, we looked for ways to expand on them. I love Halloween, and as much as I love wearing shirts from the film, I’s also rock some sweet socks, and hang a poster of it on my wall, etc. It’s just a natural progression as well as seeing what is out on the market and what people are responding to.
Tell me about your first experience about reaching out to a studio (or whoever) about acquiring official rights to print a specific character.
My very first experience happened a couple months after launching the site. It was with Michael Simpson, writer/director of Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3. We signed a very basic contract for those films and voila, my first ever licensing deal was born.
I assume you’re not batting 1.000 on acquiring rights to everything you’ve wanted, so how do you handle that rejection? Do you just brush it off and not let it bother you? Do you keep pestering? Does it hurt your feelings?
I will admit, it does suck when we cannot get the rights to something we want. Sometimes it’s just money – and the cost is far too high to justify obtaining the license. We need to make a certain amount of money from a license, and if the advance is to high, then it’s not worth our time. I don’t mind that as much as I do when people just aren’t interested or don’t get what we do. But that’s just more reason for me to show them what we are capable of. In general, I don’t take it personally – it’s just business.
Tell me about one of your biggest “flops” (if you’ve had one) – a design you were positive that would sell like hot cakes and just didn’t move off the shelf like you’d thought.
Ooooh, that’s a good question. While we’ve had our flops over the years, I would say a recent disappointment was with our General Mills masks. I wouldn’t say they flopped – they sold pretty well actually – but I expected them to do better I guess based on prior sales of our other masks. That said, I realize that releasing all three at a time sort of cancelled each other out because most people want all three and that is a bigger investment than just one. Again, not necessarily a flop, but a learning experience.
What’s the one movie/character you acquired rights for that you didn’t think you had a chance of getting?
John Carpenter’s Halloween is by far the one that I cherish the most (for reasons that should be obvious by now to anyone who’s read this far). Not only is it my favorite movie of all time, but it took literally eight years to obtain that license. Just when we thought we had it, something changed and we didn’t get it. It was stressful, but completely worth it in the end.
What was the inspiration behind doing the Re-Animator trading cards? Are we to expect more in the trading card line?
I’m always looking back into my childhood for inspiration for new products. I loved cards as a kid – GPK, Fright Flicks, etc – and we have been designing our own trading cards to give away in orders for years. It was only when I found someone who could replicate the actual wax pack look/feel that I jumped on the idea because then we could make them look like they were actually released back in the 80s, which was a crucial component for me. We have rights to do more, so keep your eyes peeled for Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, and more!
What’s your favorite FR design?
That’s a tough one. It’s like picking your favorite child. The original WWJD? design will forever be my favorite because it started it all. It reminds me of when all of this was much more simple, and the design itself distills everything Fright-Rags means to me. It’s pure, and effective.
What does the future look like for you? Do you look ahead five to ten years and have a plan for yourself/family/business? Or do you prefer to take it one day at a time?
I’m always planning the future. While I have to focus on day-to-day and month-to-month operations, I’m always sketching my ideas out for where I want to go with this company. It’s not about how big I want to get, it’s more about what I want to do that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on. That said, this has been an amazing 14 years so far and I have been blessed beyond measure. My wish is to continue on for many years to come.
Visit fright-rags.com for the best horror shirts you could possibly find, along with pins, posters, socks, lounge pants, and so much more! And follow @frightrags on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay up to date on all the latest news and designs.