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MONKEY BUSINESS

The Baltimore Sun

Micha Weinblatt has an enviably short commute to work every day.

Each morning about 9:30, he leaves the top floor of his parents' house in Potomac and heads to his job as founder of Crooked Monkey, a T-shirt company operated out of their low-ceilinged basement.

It's a sweet gig, he admits, especially since Symcha Weinblatt doesn't require her 24-year-old son to pay for room and board or the basement office space.

But Crooked Monkey is doing so well, Micha Weinblatt says, all that may soon change.

"After this order goes out," he says, nodding his head toward a column of boxed T-shirts stacked nearly to the ceiling, "she'll probably require a little rent."

Whatever it is, it'll be a small sum, more than likely, for this newbie entrepreneur, whose comical T-shirts - popular among the college crowd - have been picked up by such big-name department stores as Lord & Taylor and recognized in GQ and Seventeen magazines.

In February, hip chain store Urban Outfitters started selling Crooked Monkey tees, which Weinblatt orders from an outside manufacturer and then has screen-printed in Columbia. In March, Nordstrom ordered thousands of T-shirts - taking Weinblatt from a small-business owner to a successful small business owner, something many T-shirt makers would sell a limb to say.

"I'm living the dream," says Weinblatt, a 2005 University of Maryland graduate, making reference to the Crooked Monkey motto. "The company is doing really well."

Last month alone, the company sold 10,000 to 12,000 T-shirts, he says.

That's quite a feat, considering how saturated the T-shirt market is these days. Just about every fashion label makes a T-shirt of some kind; you can buy tees on the street, at aquarium gift shops or on the Internet. Just about anyone with a computer and $20 could, if they wanted to, make a T-shirt of their own design. Heck, you get 'em free at company picnics and family reunions.

So, how has Crooked Monkey, which launched in May 2005, become a tale of T-shirts done right?

Much of it has to do with Weinblatt's crooked, if you will, sense of humor.

"I thought the sayings on the shirt were great," says Benjamin Sperling, men's contemporary sportswear buyer for Lord & Taylor. "They were over-the-top without being something that can't be in a department store."

Sperling says he picked Crooked Monkey out of a slew of new designers eager to get into the T-shirt game.

"I see a million T-shirt lines a week," he says.

T-shirts are a major part of men's fashion right now, says Alison Schuch, owner of Big Iguana in Fells Point, which sells Crooked Monkey tees.

"We carry a lot of funny T-shirt lines in the store, especially for men," Schuch says. "And sometimes, you start to see crossover, where some things are similar. I like Crooked Monkey because they come up with their own sayings. The sayings are unique, and they're always funny."

Crooked Monkey is so well-received, last May the start-up was nominated for an award in a small-business competition held at Weinblatt's alma mater and spearheaded by Under Armour Chief Executive Kevin Plank.

"We were 15 years younger than anyone in the competition, which was kinda cool," Weinblatt says.

Weinblatt also enjoyed bending the ear of Plank, who also is a UM graduate whose once-small business selling athletic wear has become a multimillion dollar success.

"It was thrilling," Weinblatt says. "He loved the product. It was great to talk to him."

Many of the shirts are emblazoned with slang terms that college students identify with, he says.

The quality of the shirts is one of its biggest selling points, Sperling and Schuch say. But it's the humorous sayings that keep customers coming back for more.

One of the company's hottest sellers - helped by its endorsement in Seventeen magazine and on the fashion Web site shopin tuition.com as "the cutest tee" - says "Don't Waste My Daytime Minutes." Lord & Taylor and Urban Outfitters have ordered, re-ordered and re-re-ordered a shirt that reads "I'm Not a Gardener. I Just Like Hos."

"All of the shirts embody the college life," Weinblatt says. "They focus on the college scene. They use college slang."

That's because Weinblatt and a friend started the T-shirt company while college seniors, after four years at UM that Weinblatt calls "an amazing time."

They used $3,000 of their own money "and some credit cards," Weinblatt says, to order from a manufacturer T-shirts they had professionally designed with humorous sayings that college kids would want to wear.

Some of their first shirts - ones that said "Freshmen Girls: Get 'Em While They're Skinny" and "No Standards" - sold for about $18 a pop on the Internet, at bars and out of the back of Weinblatt's car.

Eventually, a College Park boutique picked up the line and ordered 110 shirts at a time - a veritable windfall for the fledgling company. It was then that Weinblatt discovered the power of in-store sales. So he packed his car and went on the road with his designs.

"We drove to New York, Penn State, Delaware, Long Island," says Weinblatt, of his excursion with former partner Jon Mervis, who is no longer with the company because Weinblatt bought him out. "We brought everything we had. We hit up every store we could find. It took us, like, a week."

Weinblatt admits to knowing "absolutely nothing" at the time about the business end of selling T-shirts. One store owner, who was considering picking up the shirts, asked to see the company's "line sheets" - a paper catalog of inventory.

"We told him, 'Uh, we left it in the car,'" Weinblatt says. "The next day we Googled a 'line sheet' to see what it was."

Today, Weinblatt not only helps design and sell his line of more than 100 T-shirts, he does the bookkeeping and some of the marketing, too. (He also has a showroom in New York to help shop the line around.)

Despite being busy, Weinblatt says he makes a point to keep customer service a top priority.

"The guys are great, the owners," says Laura Rettinger, 21, a University of Tampa student from Potomac. "The first time I bought a shirt, they couldn't send it to my address because I had a P.O. box or something. They called and apologized, and we figured it out."

The work keeps Weinblatt dizzyingly busy. During a recent visit to the basement office, Weinblatt was either on his cell phone or on his laptop six out of every 10 minutes.

He often works six days a week, closing up shop at 8 or 9 p.m., only to head upstairs for some heavy research - a few hours of MTV.

"When someone says something, I'm always thinking, 'Can that be on a T-shirt?'" Weinblatt says. "It's all about listening to people, hearing what they say."

The MTV-watching helps, since Weinblatt has been away from the college scene now for two years and has found himself relying on his younger brother, Noam, and other college- and high school-age friends to keep him grounded in campus culture.

For the most part, Weinblatt still embodies much of the college lifestyle. He and his rotating crew of employees wear T-shirts (what else?) and jeans to work. Hip-hop music blares from an iPod dock during the workday. Pizza breaks are common. Sometimes, even now, his mother has to wake him up.

"It's a lot of fun," says Emily Kahn, 18, who is working with Weinblatt over the summer until she starts as a freshman at Indiana University this fall. "It's really laid back."

Weinblatt is proud of the relaxed atmosphere he's created at Crooked Monkey, although the workload has essentially tripled since department stores and big chains discovered the adorable little monkey holding a frothy beer mug.

The shirts sell for more now - $28 at Lord & Taylor, for example - and Weinblatt is hoping to move out of his parents' basement to his own apartment.

"I can't buy a house in Potomac," he says, laughing. "I'm not doing that well."

One of the company's original T-shirts said "Never Leave College" - which was not, Weinblatt says, an endorsement of staying physically in a dorm room forever, but of a relaxed mindset, instead.

In fact, Weinblatt's father, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, proudly wears that very T-shirt - never mind that he finished his schooling ages ago.

"I get so many comments when I wear that shirt," says Stuart Weinblatt, who grew up in Pikesville. "It speaks to a generation. It speaks to a mindset. It's saying not to take things too seriously. It's OK to enjoy life."

It's also true that it's one of the few T-shirts in the line a Rabbi could safely wear. Many of the sayings on the shirts - veiled and pun-laden as they are - still could not be printed in this newspaper.

Weinblatt gets away with his irreverent sense of humor because many adults, frankly, just don't get it.

"I have no clue what it says," Symcha Weinblatt admits. "I read what it says, and I don't get the humor."

Which is just fine by Weinblatt.

"The kids who buy our shirts get the jokes," he says. "It's a little bit of attitude. It's a lot of truth."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

Micha Weinblatt

Age:

24

Job:

Founder, Crooked Monkey T-shirts

Residence:

Potomac

Education:

Bachelor's degree in government and politics, University of Maryland, 2005; working on his masters in public policy at UM

Motto:

Livin' the dream

Web site:

crookedmonkey.com

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