A Closer Look: Mike Draper
Owner, Raygun LLC T-shirt store
Friday, March 01, 2013 7:00 AM
• Hometown: Van Meter
• Education: Received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania
• Family: Draper and his wife, Laura, have two sons
Raygun LLC owner Mike Draper is known for selling T-shirts with pithy slogans, but his shop’s success and popularity isn’t the result of big dreams. “I had no experience,” he said. “I studied history back when I was in school, so it’s not like I even had a passion for screen printing. I didn’t even know how to screen print. I didn’t know anything about graphic design. I didn’t even wear T-shirts with slogans on them.” But the Ivy League graduate figured things out along the way and is now the author of a book (“The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth!”), runs two shops and has plans to open more.
How did you get into the T-shirt making business?
I never dreamed of being back in Des Moines or running a clothing store. I didn’t have a whole lot of aspirations; well I had aspirations, but I wasn’t really working toward them in college. I wanted to study in the U.K., live with my girlfriend and get my master’s. But I only thought as far as doing that. In order to do that, though, I had to get a fellowship, which was pretty competitive. Well, I didn’t get one.
That was the spring of my last year at Penn, so I had to re-evaluate things. A friend suggested that we make T-shirts and sell them on campus. So we made our first shirt that said “Not Penn State,” because that is a big joke on (the University of Pennsylvania) campus. I would tell people where I went to school, and they would say, “Oh, Nittany Lions?” It’s annoying, because if you are going to an Ivy League school, you want total strangers to be impressed, so having no name credibility means you are only going to impress people who are familiar with it.
How did Raygun evolve from there?
Pretty slowly. The guy who started it with me dropped out pretty quickly to work at a consulting group and then Citibank -- most Penn kids went on to destroy the economy. When it was just me, I traveled around to other colleges on the East Coast to sell shirts, and I had a website. By the end of ’04, it was just tricky to have other people make the shirts for me, so it was a practical business decision to start making the shirts myself.
I moved back to Iowa in 2005 and set up a little print shop in my parents’ basement, learned how to screen print from a friend and then opened the store later that year. When I opened the store, it was about half the size it is now and me and a desk. We’re still doing the same thing, just on a bigger scale.
Where did the book idea come from?
I guess I’m actually using my history degree. I’ve always written as a part-time thing, but there’s not a lot of money in it – in case you didn’t know. So I always thought a book would be neat, but I never knew what I would write about. I mean, I didn’t have a drug problem, so I couldn’t write a memoir. If I did, it’d be pretty boring: I grew up in a stable home with two well-educated parents who encouraged me; I got into a good school.
Anyway, back in 2011, we made jeans because we viewed ourselves as a clothing store that sold T-shirts. Those were disappointing on several levels, but mainly it was because they didn’t sell as well as T-shirts. We had misjudged ourselves. We had the epiphany that people were here for the slogans and it didn’t matter what they were on. So then we just thought of things we could put the slogans on: coasters, Koozies. The book is just kind of an extension of that. We sold out of the first edition, so we sold 3,000 copies. Technically it would qualify as a “best-selling book,” but to be a best-seller, you have to be sold in certain bookstores.
I read that you were also a write-in candidate for the mayoral election.
Oh yeah. I think I did pretty well for only having run four hours and for not even having planned my campaign. I always try to emphasize that I didn’t start it. A friend of ours started it, and his first thought was to nominate his wife, but she had the flu. He only did it because he thought it was amazing that a city that is the core of a 500,000-person metro has an election where the mayor is uncontested. If I had won, I probably would have resigned. I just have stuff going on. I have kids and the store.
What is the creative process like? How do you come up with slogan ideas?
It’s not too scientific. If we want to come up with something, everyone will throw out ideas, and if it’s funny, we’ll put it on the board. From there, we whittle it down and see if someone’s already taken it. Then we decide if it will actually sell or not. We do have some long-term strategies that designs are done specifically for. For instance, having just a state on the coasters, magnets and postcards – so if you know someone from Ohio and want to get them and innocuous gift, you can gift them a coaster with Ohio on it. We try to lay the groundwork with some things. We put more thought into it than we used to, but we have to sell more stuff than we used to.
Did you ever imagine the store would be so successful?
Not really. The only difference between me now and me in college is that I have experience. My parents weren’t in this type of business and I didn’t know anyone personally, so you don’t really know how things are going to progress unlike at a regular job, where you know generally what the next step is. Here, there are so many avenues to go it’s hard to even imagine what your next step will be.
What’s Raygun’s future look like?
If we keep growing online, we’ll have to expand here in Des Moines. We’d like to open up a bigger space in Des Moines to print more and design more. We’d also like to open other stores. We have a store in Iowa City, so we’re able to compare it to Des Moines. I think cities like Des Moines have a lot of advantages, so that’s what we’re looking for: non-college towns, fairly large populations. So cities like Fargo, Omaha, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids – the reject cities. I think the cool cities are overserved. Everyone wants to open up something in Madison. Not many people want to open a store in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But Kansas City is next on our list.