An interview with Jay Fanelli

By Ed Vinicombe on Nov 20th, 2014

Let’s start from the top; tell us about your leap to starting your own company with Nathan Peretic at Full Stop. Was this a big risk to leave the stability of a regular pay check to go it alone?

This is going to sound terribly cliche, but when we started Full Stop back in the summer of 2009, we saw it as more of an opportunity than a risk. It was the middle of the last recession, and the agency we were working at wasn’t doing too well. We figured we’d be safer out on our own...big animals die first in a mass extinction, right? We didn’t really see the challenges. Speaking locally, Pittsburgh is a small city full of (mostly) mediocre web design agencies, and we knew we could quickly become one of the best. For me, starting Full Stop was a reaction to a career full of working at those crappy agencies. Nate’s a little younger (read: smarter) than I am, so it only took him one time working for someone else to know that he needed to start his own place.

The pressures of running your own business and winning new client work must have been hectic! How did United Pixelworkers begin and thrive amidst your work at Full Stop? What were your motivations for starting this side project?

I’m not sure things were “hectic”, exactly. “Desperate” is probably a better word. When we built the first version of United Pixelworkers (March–May 2010), we really didn’t have much going on. Full Stop was still relatively new, so although we didn’t have plenty of money, we did have plenty of free time. We created United Pixelworkers for a few reasons; to give something back to the community that had taught us so much, to have another great website in our company portfolio, and to experiment with product work (our heroes were people like 37signals and Coudal Partners, former client services companies that built separate product businesses).

Do you think you could ever go back to working for someone else considering the experiences you have had now?

Oof, tough question. I’m a handful for a boss to deal with, and I always have been. I’m not sure my experience over the last 5+ years has done anything to temper that, but I like to leave my options open.

I believe a key to creating a great business in our industry is to develop a loyal following - a following of people who care about you and your product. How did you and your team at Full Stop go about creating a fan base around Full Stop and UP when you first started these products?

United Pixelworkers started in 2010 and only recently shut up shop ...

United Pixelworkers was born of the idea that designers and developers love their work, they love their industry, and they love their local community. UP allowed them to represent all three, and that turned out to be a contagious concept. On top of that, we made a name for ourselves early by building the craziest websites we could dream up, reinventing ourselves every few months, taking care of our customers, and being brutally honest about the entire process. We also came up with some pretty sweet t-shirts, which was, you know...important.

After UP, Cotton Bureau was born. Tell us a little about this product and how it differs from your work with UP?

Jay and a group of friends decided to use their experience from UP to start a new company called Cotton Bureau

The entire process of selling a t-shirt online sucks. You need to design a shirt, find a print shop, figure out how much of each shirt size to print, buy a bunch of stock, build an online store, promote your products, ship your packages all over the world, and deal with returns, refunds, exchanges, lost packages, and all manner of angry customers. Just writing all that out is a pain in the ass. It was never our intention, but 4+ years as United Pixelworkers made us really good at every step of that process, and we thought that building a business around that expertise (and the relationships we’d made along the way) seemed like a smart idea. So...Cotton Bureau is an online marketplace for crowd-funded t-shirts (and now sweatshirts) featuring the best graphic design and illustration in the world. Designers send us their designs, we curate them, post them for sale, print them, ship them, deal with any customer service issues, and send the designers a cut of the money. As far as how it differs from United Pixelworkers: although UP represented something enormous and galvanizing, at the end of the day it was a brand, pure and simple. Cotton Bureau is a brand too, but more importantly a platform and a budding community.

Where do you see CB in a few years time?

Cotton Bureau was launched in eary 2013

We see Cotton Bureau as nothing less than the next Threadless. We have great designers, a great business model, a great website, great products, and great customer service. We’re bootstrapping the business, trying to build it organically, so it may take us a little while to get there, but why not?

One of my favourite aspects of the work you do is your transparency through blogging. There are plenty of success stories, tips, thoughts & warnings about business practice on both the UP and CB blogs. Is this something you guys planned to do from the outset?

Nate and I both have a background in writing—Nate was the opinions editor of his college newspaper and I was a journalism major. We like to talk...a lot. It’s tough to get us to shut up, especially about business, and especially about our own business. Writing honestly about our experience was always on the cards.

Do you have any plans for another start up in the coming years to accompany CB?

We’re always dreaming up new ideas—Nate and I spent the entire 7-hour drive back to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn Beta last month talking about a possible new product—but I severely doubt it. The last few years have been about focus for us. We shut down Full Stop last November to concentrate on Cotton Bureau and we just did the same with United Pixelworkers.

If you could choose one favourite tee you’ve seen over your time with UP and CB what would it be?

It’s impossible to pick just one, so I’ll give you a few. United Pixelworkers started with our local tees, and after personally illustrating pixel art for 70+ of them, I’m particularly proud of the Brighton, Richmond, Boulder, Indianapolis, Brooklyn, and NYC designs. My favorite guest-designed UP shirt is Matt Stevens’ “Black Shirt.” Matt’s my favorite graphic designer, the concept was brilliant, the execution was flawless, and it sold (and continues to sell) like crazy. From Cotton Bureau, I love Andrew Harrington’s “Pittsburgh P", Gerren Lamson’s “Gaggle of Triangles”, and Jenny Tiffany’s “Wander".

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