In Studio with Nels Hunstad of Merch Me

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Today we’re taking a look into the mind and work space of Nels Hunstad, local screen printer and the man behind Merch Me, a new website that works with bands and organizations to create custom graphics for T-shirts and sells the final product to cool-hungry consumers worldwide.

Merch Me is just the latest project for Hunstad, who also serves as the General Manager for First Avenue Promotional Products, a company that’s building a bit of a screen printing empire across the river in Moorhead.

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Hunstad got his start creating Lutheran themed gear for Old Lutheran. First Avenue Promotional Products also produces custom sportswear for Moorhead Public Schools through Spud Gear. Hunstad and his staff have also responded to the North Dakota oil boom with number of punny products that they sell online at crudeapparel.net.

Obviously, Hunstad’s a busy guy, so I’m happy that he took a few minutes to sit down and answer some questions about his how Merch Me T-shirts are created why he chose a unique business model for his newest project.

Ralph's Shirt

What sparked the idea for Merch Me?
Merch Me was born out of a perceived need to give bands a better option for purchasing and selling their merchandise. Most bands are short on dollars, but have a strong need for marketing solutions.

T-shirts can prove infinitely valuable as a marketing tool. Our goal is to get the T-shirts to the fans without the band having to pay anything. That way everyone wins.

The fan gets a great T-shirt to wear and a way to support a band they enjoy, even if they can’t make a live show. The band gets paid for every T-shirt we sell, so not only do they get great marketing opportunities, but they can make a little extra money. And we get to work with great musicians and reach out to clients we wouldn’t otherwise be able to work with.

inkwallHow long have you been running the business?

I started Merch Me over a weekend in February. I launched the website and began reaching out to friends and acquaintances about making shirts. I got a few people who were very interested and we were off and running.

The idea had been circling through my brain for a while, but once I decided to put up the website things just started falling into place.

What’s your artistic background? How has this background helped you run the business?
I have worked in the screen printing industry for 10 years, since I was 16. Having a production background helps Merch Me be flexible and keeps our overhead cost low. We generally print designs as they are ordered to avoid having a large inventory to manage.

I feel really confident in the quality of prints that we produce and we hope that our customers are blown away by the softness and comfort of our T-shirts.

David Cleaves Shirt

Merch Me employs a profit-sharing/no upfront cost business model for its design clients. Why did you decide to structure the business in this way? 
Honestly, I was trying to get bands to order T-shirts and most of them just couldn’t afford to do it. But I wanted them to do it anyway and see that it would work out. Shirts would sell, they would make their money back, and they would be able to buy more shirts. This helps them to take that risk factor out and just go for it.

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Tell us a little bit about your current customers and what they want.
We are getting requests from all over the country. Social networking has been a big way for us to reach customers.

A lot of bands are interested in the service, but decisions like this often take getting the whole band on board. It can be trickier than I expected with some bands.

The established bands response has been different than new bands. A lot of established bands already do a lot of merch and so our service is less appealing.

New bands are all about it. A lot of new bands haven’t thought much about coming up with a logo or brand identity — it can be challenging to work with them when they are not sure where they are headed. A lot of new bands aren’t sure if they are going to get booked for shows and be able to make a living. I think a lot of those types aren’t sure how much they want to commit to something before they have a fan base.

It is interesting to find that difference between bands and to navigate those relationships.

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How does the partnership process work when a group or individual wants to work with you?
So far, I have been doing all of the communication with the musicians. I give the basic financial structures and we chat about design ideas and I try and get a feel for their music and the type of fan they might have.

Then I work with our art team to develop ideas and artwork for each band. After that I try and get approval from the band and get everything launched on the website as quickly as possible. With some bands (that) only play twice a month, it is important to get something up there quick so they can promote at their shows.

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Where do you want Merch Me to be a year from now?
I hope to bring Merch Me to a national audience and really build a cool collection of merchandise. The more bands and musicians we can get working with us, the wider our audience will continue to grow.

Musicians have a great presence in their local communities. They have a great advantage over traditional business with their ability to directly reach their fans and customers and influence them directly with the art they create. I want to be apart of that creation and help them get where they want to be.

We are also hoping for a large part of our focus to be working with non-profits, charitable organizations and social movements to use T-shirts to raise money and spread the word about each organization or specific need.

Red Equality Shirt

Do bands, groups or organizations have to contract printing with you, or can they sell items that are already printed?
So far, we print everything we sell. Most bands who can afford to order the shirts themselves do so because selling directly to the fans at shows is easy for them. For bands who only play a few shows a month our service is perfect. We work with the bands to provide them with a discounted option if they want to carry some inventory as well. It works out for everyone.

I would be willing to host other people’s merchandise if it is already created, willing to talk with businesses and discuss what it would be like to create a custom web-store that we would manage. I would want to work closely with each business and work out the financial options with each business. I am always open to new business opportunities and consulting with businesses on products and e-commerce opportunities.

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How does the creative process work?

Our Lead Graphic Designer, Shane Maland is instrumental in the creative process. He has done the majority of original artwork for bands and he is truly a great artist.

When we get a new band interested, we usually surf their websites, social network pages, and music pages and learn as much about their music and fan-base and style.

Then we apply that to the art we create, usually incorporating their band name and style into each design. Then we work directly with the musician to find out if they like what we made and to get their input. Once we have a finished design we are able to launch the product right away.

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Who else is on the Merch Me staff?
I work with two great screen printers, Luke Cole and Grant Swanson, who help with the day-to-day screen printing.

I have a great staff who helps me with shipping and inventory management. Shane and our intern Alison help out with the design work. I do most of the online stuff, product development, and work with the bands.

It is great to have a support system that helps take care of details that would bog down my time. Merch Me wouldn’t be here without them.

What’s the one thing you wish people understood about your business?
How easy we are to work with!

For custom orders, people can come in the door and we can put together their whole order within an hour. Our turn-around time is at a maximum of two weeks, but a lot of times we complete the order within a week.

Also, that we love to do design and help people with branding, without the cost you’d associate with upper tier marketing firms. We have a great facility and a great showroom for customers and our staff is really great.

If you’re in the market for custom design services, check out First Avenue Promotional Products

And don’t forget to check out the T-shirts online at Merch Me — new designs are going up all the time!

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3 thoughts

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