Small business tips from a pair of identical twin business co-owners
Jeff and Randy Vines are 44-year-old identical twins. They’re also the creators and co-owners of STL-Style, a St. Louis apparel store that has become a destination for locals and tourists alike. STL-Style has been in its Cherokee Street storefront since 2010, with no plans to expand into a bigger location — even though the business has annual sales of just over $1 million.
Here’s how the Vines brothers turned a love for their hometown into a thriving small business, creating not only T-shirts, but also a gathering space for St. Louis residents.
Randy: From an early age, we were always obsessed with our city, St. Louis. We wanted to show it off and represent it in a way that was cool and stylish and honest. When we first started toying around with the idea of T-shirts, circa 2000, it was because there wasn’t any St. Louis apparel out there that we wanted to wear. It was all embarrassing touristy stuff, back then.
We started cranking out designs that we came up with; we got the help of one of our graphic designer friends, and started doing this side hustle thing on the weekends and after hours. Turning out designs we thought were cool, that we wanted to wear, and printing a few shirts here and there. Sure enough, it resonated with a bigger audience: “I really like your shirt, where can I get one of those?” People started asking if we would make shirts for their friends. It took on a life of its own.
We first started printing our shirts with an old-school crank press on our friend’s kitchen table. It was a pretty low-tech process, but it worked for our purposes back then. As we grew, we used the proceeds from our sales to invest in better equipment, and before too long we teamed up with some friends of ours who had a screen printing business. In 2010 we found ourselves with a storefront lease on Cherokee Street, which is in a very cool, up-and-coming neighborhood in South St. Louis, and we’ve been there ever since.
We have a retail store that is a destination for St. Louis-centric gift items and apparel, and we also have a robust screen printing business as well. Right now the majority of our revenue comes from custom-designed, screen-printed promotional items for events, schools, corporations, that kind of thing. That’s the bread and butter. The retail store, the online store, that’s the icing. It pays the overhead and helps sustain the business.
Jeff: It’s a destination. People come to shop at our store.
Randy: Our store is our favorite part of the business. It also brings in the people who become our clients.
Jeff: I had previously worked at a bowling shirt company, so I understood how the T-shirt business worked. Randy, at the time, was in hotel management. He had the customer service stuff down. It was a natural fit, the way we came together, but it wasn’t planned at all. I lost my job unexpectedly, and our friend, who is still our landlord, offered us the space.
Randy: It had always been a pipe dream, to sell St. Louis stuff all the time, but we had no business acumen at all. We weren’t expecting to do it as a full-time enterprise. It was always going to be a sideline hobby. A hustle. But we found ourselves with this unique opportunity— we could either run this shop and try to make a go of it, or we could open on the weekends and keep our day jobs. We decided to really dedicate ourselves to this idea, and if it failed, at least we tried.
It did the opposite of fail. We created an institution in the city.
Jeff: We never had a business plan, and we never tried to follow a mold. We were freewheeling, trying things out. We actually met with a job counselor. We wanted to know what we should do. At that time we were selling T-shirts for fun, but the job counselor kept coming back to it as the nucleus of all our interests and skills. That was one of the reasons we decided to do it full-time.
Randy: We never worked together in a professional capacity until we opened our shop, but we produced a public access TV show with a couple of friends for four years during the 1990s and that probably influenced the course of our lives more than anything else we’ve ever done. Our great-grandfather emigrated to the US in his early 30s and owned and operated a shoe repair shop on the North Side of St. Louis for decades, so maybe the brick-and-mortar shopkeeping gig is in our DNA!
We weren’t trying to start a “twin” business. That’s never been our brand. But we’ve always been interested in the same things. We’re also uninterested in anything artificial or contrived or pretentious. We wanted to create a brand that reflected St. Louis in all its glory. We wanted to make sure that whatever we put out there, in the store or online, was an honest reflection of how we perceive the city and how we want our customers to perceive us. We don’t shy away from the grit and the grime, or the potentially controversial designs. These are inherent in our brand and what we’re all about.
Our bestselling shirt is “Saint Fuckin Louis.” That’s been our bestseller since we opened the doors. We also run limited-edition, politically inspired items depending on what’s going on locally or nationally. We do not shy away from posting publicly about our progressive politics or our stance on certain issues. We’ve always been told that it’s a bad idea to mix politics and business, but we figured, for every one person we offend and lose, there are another 10 people who respect us. We win their loyalty.
Jeff: We intentionally don’t have price tags on a lot of our in-store items. At first it was because we were lazy, and then we realized it was an advantage. It gave us an opportunity to talk to every person who came in. You can’t buy anything without striking up a conversation. It’s really kind of a beautiful thing.
Randy: It’s very important to us that the shop creates an experience for everyone who walks in the door. It’s not conventional retail, buy your goods and leave, thank you. We wanted to create an experience that can’t be replicated in any other retail environment. We’re a gathering spot. A place for civic discourse, where people can talk about the city or the political environment. Local elections. National elections! A forum for exchanging ideas and thoughts and good vibes.
Jeff: We also do organized tours in conjunction with the History Museum.
Randy: Walking tours of Cherokee Street, bus tours of the city.
Jeff: Talks to school groups.
Randy: Design workshops for summer camps.
Jeff: Entrepreneurship forums.
Randy: Our business isn’t just about making money for ourselves and our staff. It’s also about creating something that the city can use.
Jeff: Cherokee Street is not an established shopping district, so people have to seek us out. We did that intentionally, because we wanted to give people a reason to discover a part of the city [they] might not ever see.
We’re in a very artistic part of St. Louis, and many of the people we hire have artistic backgrounds. They help us bring our ideas to life, and they contribute great ideas of their own.
Randy: We’ve never used conventional hiring practices. It’s a gut feeling. It’s an emotional thing. Some of our employees have been hired when we weren’t even looking to hire and they weren’t even looking for a job!
Jeff: I think we have one of the lowest turnovers for a retail store in St. Louis. Some of our employees have been with us for five years or more. We’re still in touch with just about everyone we’ve ever hired.
Randy: Every single employee we’ve had working at the shop — we’re on good terms with all of them. Very rarely have we ever had to let someone go, but even in the cases where we did, we’re on good terms. Former employees, in some cases, we let them hang on to their keys to the shop.
Jeff: It’s like a second home. We always wanted it to be that way.
Randy: We’ve had these sweetheart offers to expand, open a second location, set up kiosks, move to a bigger space — all of that’s great and we get why other businesses want to do that, but we feel like we’ve immersed everything in our souls into the space we have. There’s no way to create this anywhere else.
Nicole Dieker is a personal finance writer whose work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She is also the author of the Larkin Day Mysteries, a comedy-cozy mystery series set in eastern Iowa, and WHAT IT IS and WHAT TO DO NEXT, a quarterly zine about understanding reality.