I love the whole creative process. Seeing an idea go from a concept in my head to a physical product the people can use or wear is just so rewarding. I love knowing that there are tees of thousands of people around the globe using and wearing my products every days.
Jeff Sheldon + Ugmonk
Creator: Jeff Sheldon
Words of Wisdom:
Use common sense and go with you gut. So many people are looking for the “right” way to do something when the reality is that there is more than one right way. Pretty much everything I’ve learned has just been by figuring it out as I go.
There is something truly remarkable about simplicity and attention to detail when designing a brand. Finding that right balance between expressing a thought and delivering a message all while creating a style around it takes talent; something I recognized in Jeff Sheldon from the moment I discovered Ugmonk.
What started out as a “side hustle” for Sheldon, quickly turned into a full fledged business and it has taken on a life of it’s own. Jeff has since grown Ugmonk into a truly authentic company with a die hard following and anyone that follows can see why.
I ran Ugmonk as a side hustle for 2 years while still working at the agency. I spent most evenings and weekends designing, building the business, and shipping orders. My wife helped a ton in those early days folding t-shirts and helping to pack and ship orders
What I admire most about Jeff is his ability to initiate ideas without having any boundaries. He creates from a place of passion, allowing himself to just try things out and see where it goes. That’s hard for a lot of people given their fear of either starting or their fear of how the market will fare with their product.
Not Jeff. His commitment to going with his gut, experimenting with his ideas and launching new products has continuously worked in his favor.
My first introduction to his work came about 5 years ago when I came across his infamous “Ampersand” t-shirt. I call it “infamous” because I saw it everywhere!
From the moment I found it, I knew I had to have it. The message on the tee . . .
“And then I woke up . . .”
This was truly fitting for me as I had begun a new phase of my life that was completely awakened and one dedicated to going all in on my journey.
Who knew that I’d be here years later interviewing him for an online publication? The world works in mysterious ways and I couldn’t be prouder to feature such a remarkable entrepreneur.
when I started Ugmonk I didn’t consider myself an entrepreneur, I was just passionate about design and thought it would be a fun experiment. Since then it’s obviously turned into much more than an experiment and taken on a life of its own. Looking back, I’m so glad I took the initiative and started it.
What’s even more amazing is that Jeff recognized he needed to fulfill his passion to create. Instead of knowing all the pieces, or even what graphic design was, he needed a platform to express himself.
I didn’t even know what “graphic design” was until my senior year of high school. I just knew I wanted to do something with my artistic passion, but everyone told me it wasn’t possible to paint pictures for a living.
Clearly the naysayers were wrong again.
I caught up with Jeff some months back and he expressed his journey a bit more in detail, his passion for photography, his process for creating and launching products, interacting with his core following and customers through social media, obstacles with finding the right manufacturers, him and his wife’s initiatives to support charity through their company and much more.
Here’s what he had to say:
Jeff Sheldon | Designer, Founder & Creator of Ugmonk
HDF: Jeff!! This is exciting for me because I stumbled upon your t-shirts and designs about 4 or 5 years ago and here we are!
So, before we get into it, can we start by diving in a little bit more about where you’re originally from and where you’re living now?
Jeff: I was born in NH and later moved to PA. I’ve loved art from an early age. Whether it was playing with legos, sculpting clay, or drawing, I always enjoyed building things and making things. Even in school my favorite class was art and I found myself drawing and painting in my free time.
HDF: I’ve been watching your work for some time and without a doubt, it seems to be reaching more and more people. I want to learn more about what’s going on with you, with your Ugmonk and it’s progression.
However, before we get into that, can you tell me a little bit more about your backstory and what you were doing before having your own company and brand?
Jeff: I studied graphic design in college and got a job right after college at a marketing agency in Burlington, VT. I wasn’t doing a ton of super creative work there right off the bat so I started Ugmonk in the side to fill the creative void.
HDF: Something I feel a lot of people are doing these days . . . fulfilling a void on the side. Go on!
Jeff: Well, when I started Ugmonk I didn’t consider myself an entrepreneur, I was just passionate about design and thought it would be a fun experiment. Since then it’s obviously turned into much more than an experiment and taken on a life of its own. Looking back, I’m so glad I took the initiative and started it.
Jeff Sheldon | Ugmonk
HDF: I feel that happens to a lot of “creators”. It starts from a passion and evolves from there. So, why designing? I’m sure it was always there, but how did it really work its way into your life and become a very big and sustaining part of it?
Was there one of those “aha” moments in your life where you knew at some point this is what you’re going to do with your life?
Jeff: I may not have called it “design” but I do think it’s been in me ever since I was a kid. I’ve always had love for all things art and I think it’s just part of my DNA. Thankfully my parts helped nurture my artistic skill and sent me to art lessons throughout high school.
Growing up I played a lot of sports too so it would have been easy to I let that artistic passion die off if I was intentional about pursuing it.
Jeff Sheldon | Designing
HDF: How long have you been designing? How old were you the first time you started?
Jeff: I didn’t even know what “graphic design” was until my senior year of high school. I just knew I wanted to do something with my artistic passion, but everyone told me it wasn’t possible to paint pictures for a living.
Now here I am designing and selling t-shirts for a living 🙂
Signature Ugmonk T-Shirts
HDF: You have to appreciate what people say is not possible and then inadvertently proving them wrong by following your passion.
So let’s talk about Ugmonk as a brand. I was reading an interview you once did with thegreatdiscontent.com and you had talked about Ugmonk forming from a side hustle, essentially?
Jeff: I ran Ugmonk as a side hustle for 2 years while still working at the agency. I spent most evenings and weekends designing, building the business, and shipping orders.
“My wife helped a ton in those early days folding t-shirts and helping to pack and ship orders.”
HDF: She really believed in your idea 😉
Can you tell me/us about the progression of that side hustle? Was there an “all in” moment where you started to say, you know what, I’m going to build this into a known entity or brand?
Jeff: Yeah, at about the 1.5 yr mark we began having discussions about whether Ugmonk could potentially turn into my full-time job. It was growing at a steady pace and I was working way more than I probably should have.
Then I left my job in 2010 to take Ugmonk full-time and it was the best decision I ever made. That’s when it really started to take off.
HDF: I’ll say! And the name, Ugmonk? From what I understand, it was a “happy accident” that you ended up deciding on that name.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s a funny story. After I designed the original 4 tees, I realized I needed to come up with a name for the brand (really just thought of it as a side project at the time). We tried all the word games and coming up with some clever name, but everything felt like we were trying too hard.
So then we started googling weird words and phrases just to see if there were any URLs open. “Ugmonk” happened to be open and had no results in Google so we grabbed it and just went with it.
Now if you google the word “Ugmonk” there are over 300,000 results and they all eventually come back to us since we are the only Ugmonk.
HDF: That’s not just a “happy accident”, that’s pure genius from an SEO perspective. Not to mention having faith in being a household name. (laughter)
Now, I believe I know this answer, but what was the first breakthrough product you had with Ugmonk?
Jeff: The first breakthrough was the heather gray “And Then I Woke Up” tee. It was the first one to get featured on a bunch of prominent design blogs which led to our first real burst of sales.
HDF: Yep! It was the first product I ever ordered from you like 5 years ago or so.
Jeff: Here 8 years later we still sell that exact same tee and it’s still one of our best sellers.
“And then I woke up.”
HDF: Since it’s inception, how many total orders do you estimate you’ve fulfilled? (laugher). How long did it take you till you hit an excess of $1M in sales?
Jeff: Ha, no idea what the actual number is, we’ve shipped tens of thousands of orders to customers in over 65 countries.
It was a slow start, but the growth has been slow and steady every year.
HDF: Well said! And if you had to describe your style of design or approach, how would you?
Jeff: I would describe it as minimalist, simple, and bold. My actual approach is probably more analytical and measured than some people.
I tend to obsess over every little detail, whether it’s kerning between letters or the exact ink color on a tee.
I tend to obsess over every little detail, whether it’s kerning between letters or the exact ink color on a tee.
HDF: And do you experiment a lot with your style?
Jeff: I do experiment quite a bit with different styles and techniques but I also try to keep a consistent feel across every design and product I put out. I’ve kind of defined a specific “Ugmonk” style that people have come to love.
Ugmonk’s Positive Concept Set
Slow & Steady Wins
HDF: You’re also a bit of a photographer, no? I remember seeing your work on unsplash.com some time ago.
Was that something you discovered as a result of designing or a passion from awhile back?
Jeff: Yeah I love photography too. I mainly developed that passion from doing Ugmonk.
Learning to shoot product photos led to me wanting to learn more about the craft of taking pictures and I fell in love with it. I shoot photos mainly for Ugmonk or when I travel. It’s really helped me to refine my eye and the way I see things, which lends itself nicely to all things design.
Ugmonk Designs | Master Set
Ugmonk Designs | Card Holder
Ugmonk Designs | Messenger Bag
HDF: And I read that your wife has helped you tremendously throughout the growth of your company?
Jeff: My wife has been supportive since day one. She was a huge help early on shipping orders and has helped in a bunch of different ways over the years.
HDF: How did she feel about Ugmonk at the beginning and what does she think of it now?
Jeff: She was actually the one who encouraged me to take Ugmonk full-time. She was working full-time which helped make the transition easier. It’s been amazing to have the support from all of my family
My wife and I actually met in junior high 🙂
HDF: That’s awesome! A supportive spouse is vital!
What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your industry and what do you think are some of the hardest parts about building a clothing and products based company?
Jeff: One of the hardest parts about running Ugmonk is sourcing and finding good manufacturers. I care a ton about detail and often times manufacturers don’t understand and value the same attention to detail the I do. It’s also hard to find manufacturers who are willing to do small runs but also product high-quality products
I work with a bunch of small manufacturers all across the US to make all of our products. It’s been cool to develop relationships with each of them over the years.
HDF: From what I’ve been learning about productization in a digital world, I can only imagine! (laughter)
So, I read one of your interviews where you said the fulfillment process was a bit trickier than you had anticipated.
Can you walk me through what you learned, as well as how you streamlined it and made it work for you?
Jeff: Fulfillment is definitely way harder than people realize. Shipping a couple orders is fine, but multiply that by 100 or 1000 and it’s a massive task. There’s more physical labor involved that people might think. Everything from counting and organizing inventory, to stocking packaging supplies, to streamlining the whole pack and ship process can be very time consuming.
One app that has been a lifesaver is Shipstation.
HDF: How are the holidays in regards to sales? Is ramping up during that time of the year even more crazy? (laughter)
Jeff: The holidays are definitely our busiest time of year and it gets pretty crazy on the shipping side of things.
HDF: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in building your own brand and/or company?
Jeff: Use common sense and go with you gut. So many people are looking for the “right” way to do something when the reality is that there is more than one right way.
Pretty much everything I’ve learned has just been by figuring it out as I go.
HDF: I think we’re all figuring it out as we go along! (laughter)
So, top 3-5 Favorite products you’ve created?
Jeff: That’s like picking your favorite child 🙂
In no particular order:
#1 Wax Canvas Messenger Bag
#2 And Then I Woke Up
#3 Wood Ampersand
Photo by Jeff Sheldon | Ugmonk
#4 Premium Leather Mousepad
#5 Mountains Baseball Cap (Olive)
HDF: I know I have the “And Then I Woke Up” Tee for sure.
What surprising opportunities or projects came from building your brand that you would never had seen coming?
Jeff: The coolest opportunities have been in conjunction with the charity work that we do. We partner with a great organization called Rice Bowls to help feed needy kids around the world.
Ever since year one, we decided to run a charity drive and donate three meals for every item we sold during the holiday season. In addition to our annual charity drives, we also recently decided to extend our giving year round and donate one meal for every product we sell.
To date we’ve donated over 75,000 meals!
My wife and I have also been able to visit some of the kids that we support in Honduras and Nicaragua. It’s been amazing to get to know the kids we are helping and develop relationships with them.
HDF: Well, creating definitely brings more opportunities as I have found as well.
Now, I know this answer, but I always like to ask. How important has social media and the Internet played in the building of your brand? Or at least, how important do you think it will be as you continue to grow it?
Jeff: Social media has been massive for me. But not in the numbers sense. It’s more about the relationship I’ve been able to develop with my customers and fans. 15 years ago companies rarely got to communicate directly with their customers. Now I can be completely transparent with my process, gather feedback, and get to know the people who buy my products.
We live in a pretty amazing time 🙂
HDF: Amen! I think it’s awesome that we can have those direct relationships for sure!
So, how far do you see Ugmonk going? Do you have other ideas of expanding it’s product base or other market segments?
Jeff: I’m going to keep doing this for as long as I can. I’m not slowing down anytime soon. I have lists of other product ideas and categories that I’ve love to expand into someday. There are always more ideas than there is time.
HDF: Jeff, you are a serious creator – with designing and in business. What’s the best part about “creating” for you?
Jeff: I love the whole creative process. Seeing an idea go from a concept in my head to a physical product the people can use or wear is just so rewarding. I love knowing that there are tees of thousands of people around the globe using and wearing my products every days.
HDF: Well stated! Last question – What’s the best advice you can give someone just starting out in design or building a clothing / product based company?
Jeff: Yes. Keep it simple. Be nice to people. Work really hard.
HDF: Actually very simple and key! Thank Jeff! I really appreciate you doing this! Amazing to learn more and keep up the awesome work with Ugmonk!
Jeff: Thanks for doing this! I truly appreciate the support.