How Michael Nemeroff & Rush Order Tees Went From a Garage Operation in the Dot Com Era to Modern Custom Apparel Powerhouse

HTML is the ubiquitous markup language for displaying content in web browsers. Accompanied by CSS and JavaScript, the technological trio constitutes the basic architecture of the web as you casually browse between social media and e-commerce stores.

But HTML wasn’t always regarded as the basic skeleton structure of what would eventually snowball into the web as we know it today.

Back in 2002, the Dot-com bubble was at its peak. Frenzied investors scrambled to pile life savings into little-known tech stocks amid a meteoric price run that saw fortunes secured and squandered in days. At the time, HTML was a fledgling new staple of building web pages, which were then only simple (yet innovative) interfaces for examining many of the companies whose stocks were soaring.

Many investors were unaware that they were experiencing the beginnings of a technological boom — where Internet companies would eventually reign supreme and e-commerce became the default consumer option. However, beyond the well-known stories of Amazon, Google, and the other members of the tech pantheon, HTML’s impact can be traced to much more personal stories. And many of those stories are the quintessential tale of how dedication, family, and hard work can pay off when the right opportunity comes knocking.

One of those stories is Rush Order Tees — a now thriving custom apparel company founded by three siblings at a time when their parents needed them the most.

What was the spark? HTML.

Humble Beginnings

Entrepreneurial journeys often begin with a set of circumstances that forces the hand of an upstart professional or ambitious youth looking to capture the American dream. For Michael Nemeroff, the CEO of Rush Order Tees, his discovery at the age of 13, HTML, would come to guide his future entrepreneurial life.

It even saved his parent’s house from foreclosure.

“We became entrepreneurs out of necessity in an attempt to save our family,” says Nemeroff. “The future was unknown at the time. My family had a successful business, which turned into a struggling business when my brother, sister, and I were very young. I was around 8 years old, my sister was 7, and my brother was 11 years old at the time.”

Nemeroff’s parents were clothing designers. Running more of the brick-and-mortar style family apparel business before the Internet catapulted retailers into the e-commerce stratosphere, they were bleeding funds. The clock was ticking.

“Their business was losing money,” continues Nemeroff. “They were stolen from by their employees and business partners, they were filing for bankruptcy, and our house was getting foreclosed on. It was the scariest thing to try to understand as a kid, and the only thing I could do is put in the time to figure out how to help my family.”

The year was 1998, and besides helping his parents with simple jobs in their business packing and shipping orders, Michael Nemeroff came across HTML at an opportune moment. His older brother, Jordan, had brought home a homework assignment to make an HTML website out of a document which Michael did for Jordan that day. Michael then tinkered with the HTML, quickly grasped the gravity of the World Wide Web, and decided to learn affiliate marketing.

Mind you, affiliate marketing wasn’t as defined as it is today back then. A few months later, Nemeroff presented a check to his mother for the mortgage. He knew he was onto something big.

Eventually, Michael went from affiliate marketing to taking a custom t-shirt business online which began with his brother and father selling locally at first. Called Rush Order Tees, the online custom apparel business launched in 2002. It was an auspicious decision that would come to define the next 20 years for the Nemeroff’s, who now operate RushOrderTees.com, SouthbySea.com, and TheDealRack.com which brings in annual revenue of $90 million and oversees two brands.

But like all entrepreneurial journeys, a dose of HTML and a single mortgage payment isn’t enough. There were bumps along the winding 20-year path. And those bumps come with hard lessons that every ambitious professional can extract valuable takeaways from.

Garage Printing, Marketing, & Getting Over the Hump

Michael Nemeroff learned most of the facets of running an online business on the fly.

Contrary to mainstream beliefs, tech startups profuse with money from retail investors weren’t the only companies that maintained profitability into the next two decades. Many of the biggest winners of the Dot-com stock market boom (Pets.com, WorldCom, etc.) went defunct only a few years later.

It was small, grassroots brands like Rush Order Tees that captured a niche in a blossoming market which also maintained staying power.

“A successful business takes a lot of time, energy, and sacrifice,” says Nemeroff. “It doesn’t necessarily require a lot of money to be successful. Time, work ethic, and resourcefulness can displace the need for money, it may just take a little longer.”

It may sound cliche, but it’s the truth. Bootstrapping a custom apparel brand in the throughs of the World Wide Web’s ascendance means navigating obstacles and using that experience to grow organically.

“Working within constraints and/or deadlines can push you to innovate,” continues Nemeroff. “To put in more time, think outside the box, or take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take in order to improve faster.”

It’s the obstacles that push startups to make necessary changes, and Rush Order Tees was no stranger to them. For example, the Nemeroff’s company began printing custom t-shirts in their garage before locking down a deal with a big tech school for a sizable order. Soon enough, a steady flow of customers required moving to a small warehouse, but growing pains were problematic.

“In our 3rd year of business, we were about a $400,000 a year company,” says Michael. “We had been slowly building up to that level, and my brother, sister, and I were working around the clock in a small warehouse to pull every bit of profit out of the business only to find that at the end of every year, we barely made any money.”

Twenty years old by that point, Michael leaned heavily on his earlier experience with marketing to figure out a way to grow their margins. Otherwise, they faced ending up in the same spot as where they had picked up from their parents.

“My brother forced me to stay and continue working on it,” says Nemeroff. “I told him I’d give it another few months, and that’s when we doubled down on marketing. Within a month, we figured out how to take it from $30,000 per month to $200,000 per month. We were suddenly a million-dollar company, and the growth was incredibly hard to handle since we didn’t have any employees at the time. We were doing all of the selling, marketing, printing, purchasing, shipping, cleaning, etc. ourselves. That was a real challenge.”

Challenge or not, Rush Order Tees persevered.

Over the next 15 years, the company would become a household name in the custom apparel market. The Nemeroff’s had extended their apparel roots into local businesses, Fortune 500 firms, universities, non-profit organizations, conferences, sports teams, and more nationwide.

Their calling card?

“We are faster and easier than 99 percent of our competitors,” says Michael. “We are deadline-driven, meaning we understand the importance of hitting your date and we have equipment and technology unlike most other competitors to do so. We always leave capacity open in order to meet the demand of customers in need of a last-minute turnaround instead of sending them to the back of the line.”

Those were lessons gleaned from experience. Tinkering with an Internet apparel company before the market for e-commerce and boutique third-party services (e.g., shipping, CRM, etc.) would really take off breeds distinct market insights. But the Nemeroff’s never forgot what got them started in the business.

“We are printers first, meaning we focus on print quality and process to enhance the custom apparel experience for our customers,” says Michael. “We learned printing from the ground up and we understand the incredible amount of trust our customers have in us delivering correctly the first time.”

Their production facility in Philadelphia, PA is now a sprawling facility of graphic designers, programmers, printers, and high-tech equipment infused with a modern tech vibe popular among the younger and mostly millennial workforce. And the company has persistently demonstrated a penchant for growth, reaching the INC 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America and expanding its revenue to $90 million in 2019 — a $70 million increase from just a few years ago.

Pair the revenue growth with the founding of PrintFly Corporation, who recently acquired a major apparel brand, and Rush Order Tees is now much more than your typical e-commerce success story.

The Seeds of an Apparel Powerhouse

PrintFly Corporation is the parent company of Rush Order Tees. It’s also serving as an umbrella from which Michael Nemeroff plans to expand the scope of his custom apparel business, PrintFly recently acquired a major brand — South By Sea.

One of the leading collegiate Greek-oriented apparel brands, a booming business, the South by Sea acquisition represents a watershed moment for Rush Order Tees: vertical integration.

“When we acquired South By Sea, it was a natural fit,” continues Nemeroff. “We have a production facility with a ton of capacity that could print all of their custom work with high-quality prints and faster deliveries!” says Michael. “They are a leading Greek Life custom apparel company with incredible branding and marketing, but they subcontracted out the printing. Now, they will be the among the few college brands to have a full-fledged production facility and design studio similar to RushOrderTees.com.”

Aggregating the entire production process under a single roof is an ambitious task, and is typically the defining characteristic of big businesses. They can operate with economies of scale, launching a company from a thriving e-commerce company to a potential market behemoth.

While the custom design studio is Rush Order Tee’s easy to use method for customers to design and place orders, they also have a team of 30+ artists you can speak to which create custom graphics from the most straightforward to the abstract for customers. Nemeroff likes to cite how they can take a sketch off a napkin and turn it into a vibrant work of art.

But PrintFly’s current machinations weren’t in the original plan of the company, back when Michael’s brother had convinced him to stay with it in the early 2000s.

“I always recommend finding software off the shelf before building it yourself,” says Nemeroff. “If you can’t find anything off the shelf, look again. Finding strong developers, creating development environments and pipelines, architecting, requirements, deadlines, etc are a big endeavor if you don’t have a strong technical partner or employee who can help you lead the way. There are typically platforms with a lot of built in features that may not be perfect, but can be adapted for your business to allow you to move much faster.”

That’s why Nemeroff and early Rush Order Tee employees had to learn many of their entrepreneurial skills on the fly. The situation is different today.

“Today, you can adapt incredible CRM’s and order management systems to your business,” Michael continues. “There are even purpose-built systems for the custom apparel industry and for shops of all sizes like Deco Network or Printavo.”

Bolstered by a suite of technological tools, a promising upstart brand in South by Sea, and a talented team of designers, programmers, logistical professionals, and other creators, Rush Order Tees has come a long way from its humble origins. It’s even an official partner of the Philadelphia 76ers — one of the NBA’s most storied franchises — and they also teamed up with them to donate masks to the ongoing COVID-19 effort. That’s a far cry from spinning up some apparel designs in a garage in 2001.

For Michael and the Nemeroff’s, it’s a testament to hard work and dedication that coincided with bringing and the standard small mom and pop t-shirt business to the e-commerce world.

The seeds for PrintFly to expand its scope further are planted. And it all started with a homework assignment for discovering HTML. For Michael Nemeroff, it’s been a long, winding road, but one that has paid dividends in the long-run.

His parting advice to the next crop of entrepreneurs looking for their own spark of opportunity?

“Think outside the box rather than using money as your main lever. Money isn’t always the solution to growth. Time, work ethic, and resourcefulness can make up for money.”