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RAYGUN, the privately held novelty company that’s made a growing business of plastering emerging memes on T-shirts and selling them before the memes get old, was created in 2004. But it really captured national attention in February 2020.
That’s when the Iowa Democratic Caucus, the first-in-the-nation popularity contest that starts the process of choosing a U.S. presidential candidate, was having a tough time tabulating votes. As the process dragged on, RAYGUN, a company with Iowa origins, was quickly peddling a T-shirt that read, “This shirt was designed and printed faster than the caucus results were released.”
“If a big story happens we’ll change our entire schedule and roll out product and content along those lines,” founder and owner Mike Draper told Forbes. “It’s a media company dressed up as a T-shirt shop.”
RAYGUN occupies a tiny but very particular corner of retail America’s back 40. Its humor — on mugs, posters, coasters, postcards and pint glasses as well as T-shirts — could be characterized as snarky, but gentle, as befitting its proudly Midwestern ethos. Its stock in trade is the speed with which it turns memes into products. Content is frequently but not always political (sometimes it tackles fishing or celebrates tailgating), mostly bipartisan but with a leftward lean, and often regionally specific. Those living outside the Corn Belt might not embrace the cultural significance of gas stations that sell popular breakfast pizza, or the exalted status of ranch dressing on a Midwest dinner table, but RAYGUN sure does. “The geography component is absolutely critical,” Draper said.
RAYGUN’s $7.6 million in 2022 sales was a record, with 2023 projections looking brighter, according to Draper. Now RAYGUN is looking to juice growth by partnering with the clown prince of meme brands, The Onion. It’s fitting that RAYGUN, which revels in its agricultural roots, would link up with a company named after a vegetable. The partnership has yielded T-shirts with popular Onion headlines such as “Supreme Court Overturns ‘Right vs. Wrong’” and “‘Midwest’ Discovered Between East And West Coast.”
While The Onion brings “one of the best writers’ rooms around” to come up with content for RAYGUN products, RAYGUN provides The Onion with instant marketing, Jordan LaFlure, The Onion’s managing editor, told Forbes. “We’re hoping to use RAYGUN’s expertise to find what of our more timely, topical content is suited to be merchandised. Not all of our work belongs on bodies — or coasters, or whatever else — but we’re already seeing the benefits of their expertise and energy.”
Draper, an Iowa boy, started making T-shirts at the University of Pennsylvania 19 years ago. His first products used simplistic block letters that read, “Not Penn State.” While the T-shirt designs haven’t evolved much, staying true to their original font and coloring, the business has grown to eight bricks-and-mortar locations — Chicago, Omaha, Kansas City and five in Iowa. “The store should be what the internet would be if it came to life,” Draper said.
Zac Boss, a long-time Draper friend, grew up the child of two Des Moines Register newspaper reporters and said he made the decision to invest in RAYGUN after noticing the brand was converting news into a groundbreaking form of profit.
“It started off as RAYGUN was creating humorous T-shirts that people would wear that helped instill pride in the place that they lived,” Boss told Forbes. “Once I saw that you could actually be wearing today’s news, [Draper] could have a T-shirt printed that had something that happened really recently with a funny spin on it, and people would buy that and wear it. I realized it was very scalable.”
Because RAYGUN mostly focuses on what the public is discussing, quick distribution is key. That’s unconventional for a retail industry known for red tape and long approval times. The first 24 hours that the product hits the hangers is the most crucial for RAYGUN, Draper said.
“Speed matters,” he said. “If your organization isn’t set up properly there’s no way you’re going to be able to go fast enough to emulate this business model.”