After his post-grad plans didn’t go as expected, Mike Draper forged a career for himself—drawing on his personal connections and leadership lessons from those he admired—to create RAYGUN, a novelty T-shirt company.
- In 2004, Mike Draper planned to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and continue his education through a fellowship in Europe, but Draper was rejected from the program.
- After his initial plans fell through, Draper says he had to “reassess my entire life.”
- While searching for a creative outlet that could also support him financially, he started selling “Not Penn State” T-shirts. While the T-shirt design was not original to him, Draper explained that the store that previously carried the shirts had closed sometime before, so he decided to fill in the gap.
- When Draper’s T-shirt sales succeeded, he decided to dedicate his time to creating a product.
- “I think the light bulb moment for me was, oh, this is something in the creative space that could possibly be monetized, and I could do it by myself—just in terms of running the whole operation. So it wasn’t necessarily like chasing my passion for T-shirts and ended up here,” Draper says.
- After finding success on the Penn State campus, Draper began traveling to colleges along the East Coast, selling a variety of T-shirts, often with inside jokes from the colleges written on them.
- Draper eventually moved back to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, where he opened his first retail space. Draper ran the entire store himself, from designing and printing to opening and closing the store.
- RAYGUN, a randomly selected company name, has become a successful specialty T-shirt business with more than 100 employees. Last year the company reported $7.6 million in sales.
Why it’s news
Despite disappointment over changing life plans, Draper was able to find a niche market and capitalize on an idea. Since then, steady, hard work has pushed RAYGUN forward to find success today. RAYGUN has stores in eight cities across the U.S. in addition to growing online sales.
“There hasn’t been some massive influx of money that, you know, rocketed us forward. We’re kind of like a hard-working indie band, and it just slowly stuck to what we do best—at least we tried to and then kept working,” Draper says.
Along with a dedicated work ethic, Draper also attributed the company’s success to the ability to corner a unique market. While novelty T-shirts have been around for decades, Draper took a different approach, capitalizing on local inside jokes. RAYGUN also tries to make a product that looks nice, along with getting a laugh.
“I think for us, we took a slightly more serious approach to the novelty T-shirt. We wanted to have a little more … We wanted there to be a little bit more of a style to it,” Draper explains.
Founding RAYGUN wasn’t in Draper’s original plan. Finding this path partly came from the connections he made along the way. Draper’s decision to move back to his hometown and open a physical store was inspired by a friend.
“I was just kind of talking to her about what I was doing and what I was thinking, and she was like, ‘Oh, you know, what you should do? You should move back to Des Moines and open a store.’ I think when you’re sharing with people, it helps to kind of be honest about your situation,” Draper says. “And then she obviously wasn’t an expert in the field but viewed the city slightly different from how I viewed it.”
When Draper started RAYGUN, he didn’t envision that the company would find the success it has or that he would end up leading more than 100 employees, yet he feels the profession he discovered is a perfect fit.
Managing 100 employees isn’t always easy, but Draper looks back on leaders he admired growing up to shape his leadership style—predominantly coaches, teachers, and his parents.
“I think back to playing high school football, and the person who was the leader on the team was usually the person who just worked the hardest. It wasn’t necessarily like the loudest person—or even the most talented person—it was the person who just put in the hours. And so I think when you start from that, that’s going to be a good indicator of leadership,” Draper says.