Shortly after the San Francisco 49ers punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, tight end George Kittle appeared in the locker room wearing a unique outfit.
It wasn’t his No. 85 uniform, nor the customary “NFC Champions” apparel that’s ubiquitous on sidelines. Instead it was a large white T-shirt, with a shirtless photo of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. It looked low-budget, like it was printed at home, and it instantly went viral online and on social media.
“This just showed up in my locker on Monday, it’s awesome,” Kittle said during a live interview on ESPN. “Someone sent me this during the week and I just saved it.”
That someone is John Wolfe, an MBA student at Columbia Business School, whose tiny T-shirt company, called ShirtFaced, dates back to a recent class project. The buzz around the shirt was a dream for Wolfe, minus one major problem: No one knew who made it.
This month’s successful result of a year of seeking a viral hit “I’ve been sitting here for a year trying to make this thing go viral, and I finally did it, and it has resulted in virtually nothing on our end,” Wolfe, 29, said in an interview. “There have been a ton of stories about the shirt, but it’s been hard to trace it back to us in any way.”
Wolfe and his friend Eric Rehe launched ShirtFaced in 2018, through a Columbia class Wolfe took called “Launch Your Startup.” The company lets users upload photos and a design their own shirt, a la CustomInk. The business plan was to make one-off custom shirts cheaper and less professional, and with shorter wait time. Wolfe said most orders are embarrassing snaps or photos of friends, a fun way to share an inside joke.
A side project for the two friends, the company had one other moment of near internet fame, when Tiger Woods cracked a smile as he walked past a fan at a tournament wearing a ShirtFaced shirt of Woods’s mugshot. The moment was written up by Barstool Sports and USA Today, but the company didn’t receive any credit.
Wolfe says that while interning for an NFL team last year, he came up with a new marketing idea. More specifically, he saw how easily fan mail reached NFL players. So last week he and Rehe printed a few shirts they thought players might like and looked up the addresses of stadiums and practice facilities of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs.
On Monday, they mailed packages to about a dozen players and coaches on all four NFL teams. Tennessee Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe got a T-shirt with a photo of Snoop Dogg in a Titans jersey. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was sent a shirt with a photo of “Bad Luck Chuck,” a viral Chiefs fan who kicked himself out of Arrowhead Stadium during the divisional round when the Chiefs trailed 21-0.
Wolfe was in his room after the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers when he heard people in the adjacent room yelling at him to come back to the TV. His phone began buzzing with friends sending screenshots of Kittle and online buzz about the shirt. (A 49ers spokesman confirmed that the shirts were sent as fan mail and shared with the players.)
He and Rehe stayed up until 5 a.m. Monday morning trying to get ShirtFaced’s name attached to the buzz. He said the company logo was printed on the back of Kittle’s shirt, but that it never made it onto TV or into any of the photos. The two spent hours responding to Tweets and Instagram posts, even messaging Kittle and emailing with the 49ers. Though the site is mainly for people to make their own shirt, they also launched a separate section where fans could buy the shirt that Kittle wore for $19.99.
Wolfe, whose LinkedIn bio now reads “I am the Kittle-shirter,” says he views the business as twofold. First, he imagines moments like this weekend, that generate viral content people might buy in the moment. More important, he hopes that those moments generate awareness for ShirtFaced’s custom platform, the main purpose of the site.
There’s also an entrepreneurial lesson. Wolfe said each shirt took “a few seconds” to design, and the mailing addresses weren’t hard to find. Printing and mailing each shirt wasn’t expensive either.
“You’ve got to take low-cost chances that are fun,” Wolfe said.