Underground Printing: The story behind Ann Arbor's custom T-shirt company
ANN ARBOR – Like many local businesses (think: RoosRoast and Motawi Tileworks), Underground Printing got its start in a garage.
Co-founder Rishi Narayan and his business partner, Ryan Gregg, started the business back in 2001 when they were engineering undergrads at the University of Michigan.
Before they ventured into T-shirts, Gregg was selling lofts for dorm rooms that he built himself. Narayan joined the business and managed the sales front while Gregg continued buillding. However, it wasn't sustainable.
"It was a great business to start, but it only operated one week a year: move-in week," said Narayan.
Having caught the entrepreneur bug, the sophomores started looking for a new venture, which came to them by total coincidence. Narayan's car broke down on a drive to East Lansing and the tow truck driver who picked him up began telling him about a screen and sign company he used to run.
"The tow truck driver’s name was Rick, and he said, 'You can set up shop in my garage,'" recalled Narayan. "So we set up shop in his garage next to a broken-down Chevy, and that’s where we printed and learned screen printing."
They moved out of the garage in 2004 after having learned the ropes and sold their shirts on campus. The reason? Narayan explained that screen printing production requires water and the garage's garden hose kept freezing during the bitter Michigan winters.
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The company's original name was A-1 Screenprinting, then a practical choice for marketing purposes.
"At the time, we were called A-1 Screenprinting because there was such thing as a phone book, and being first in the phone book was genius marketing," said Narayan. "That’s where A.1. Steak Sauce comes from, that’s why AAA is AAA. They were first in the phone book."
That name became irrelevant the following year when Google surfaced and phone books became a thing of the past. Soon, they would change the company's name.
"We started contracting out, and one of the places we would contract to was called Underground Printing," said Narayan. "They were located in Chelsea. We started working with them a lot, and there came a time when we decided to go all in on it. We were becoming so much of their business that we offered to buy them out. And because Google had gut-punched us by making our cool name irrelevant, we actually liked the name. It really fit us to a T, and we took the name and made it into our own, took their equipment and kept our customer base."
The year was 2004, and that's the year the founders consider their first true year as a business.
Two years later, they opened up their first location on South University, a street bustling with student activity on the southern end of U-M's campus.
"We were always enamored with South U," said Narayan. "That was our drag, that’s where we hung out and lived. We were always enamored with the idea of putting a store there. That’s how we grew. We would open up physical locations that were essentially sales outlets and then we’d do all the physical production here. Our second location was at Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, our third in East Lansing and then we went from there."
Narayan and Gregg believe in the power of presence within a community, so while they aren't producing in every city and town, they see physical locations as a necessary part of the Underground Printing experience.
When people came in asking to buy merchandise, they saw a need for customers beyond placing custom orders, so they opened retail shops where people can come in to place orders or buy T-shirts in their respective college towns.
Production still takes place at 260 Metty Drive, a large warehouse on Ann Arbor's far west side. Underground Printing slowly took over the entire building over the years.
It has more than 20 screen printing presses, a digital printing area with eight machines and 40 heads of embroidery. All printing and embroidery is done at the facility, as well as operations and fulfillment. Of its 250 employees nationwide, 192 are based in Ann Arbor, and at any given time, more than 50 people are on the floor at its production facility.
On average, UGP prints around 10,000 T-shirts a day. "That's well over what we did in a year in the garage days!" said Narayan.
A self-professed lover of college towns who's always lived in them throughout his life, Narayan said Ann Arbor is his adopted hometown.
"I really would say I grew up here," he said. "You could say where you grew up is from ages 0 to 18, but I think most adults would tell you you really grow up from 18 to now. This is really where I learned about developing relationships.
"What I love about (Ann Arbor) is it being a small town and a big town, being a tourist town and being a pseudo-city, a place where people love to come but also not a place that is so heavily trafficked. I love that I loved this place when I was 18, when I was 25 and now that I’m 38 and I have kids and they love it here, too."
For more information about Underground Printing, visit www.undergroundshirts.com.
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