This week, Sara and Joelle are joined by Mike Draper, Owner, and Claire Anderson, Chicago Manager of RAYGUN, newly opened in Andersonville in June of 2019. A raygun is a science fiction particle beam weapon that fires what is usually, destructive energy. But, RAYGUN Andersonville diffuses destructive energy of societal stereotypes with humor and an abundance of typography. Stop in a check out their wide selection of t-shirts, home goods, paper products and more at 5207 N Clark. Today, Claire is with us in person and Mike is calling in from Des Moines, IA.
“Money is not the most important thing, but it sure does come in handy sometimes. And by sometimes I mean, every. single. day.”
-Mike Draper, Owner of RAYGUN
Here are some references from Episode 76 that you may want to check out:
- Claire is from Des Moines, IA, which is how she knows Mike, as RAYGUN originated in Des Moines. RAYGUN was originally called Smash. Before RAYGUN, she worked in independent bookstores (including Women & Children First) for 7 years, and has a degree in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern.
- Mike was born and raised in Des Moines, and jokes that geographically he hasn’t come very far – RAYGUN Des Moines is only 6 blocks from the hospital where he was born. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and St. Andrews (London) where he met his wife. He “convinced” her to come with him back to Des Moines, never imagining 15 years later he would still be in the t-shirt business. Mike shares that he’s always been creative, in bands, writing, making movies, etc, which is largely different from his family who are almost solely mechanical engineers. (Except for his dad – he’s an attorney.)
- In 2004, Mike received a rejection letter for an extremely competitive fellowship to continue his education in Europe…so his plans changed. He had put everything in to earning that fellowship, and since that didn’t work out, he came up with a plan B. He jokes that “No one graduates thinking, ‘If I play my cards right, one day I’m going to be selling t-shirts on the street.” He describes himself as a “born entrepreneur, with perhaps a penchant to be “long in confidence, short on planning.” A friend suggested they partner and sell t-shirts on campus…and Mike agreed. Something clicked, and he decided to keep doing it.
- After his business partner moved on to a different job, and Mike moved back to Des Moines with his t-shirt business, which he set up in his parent’s basement. Mike jokes that his move home was a “smooth transition,” complete with his childhood bunk bed and Rage Against the Machine poster on the wall. He opened the original store (called Smash – more on that later) fall of 2005. Mike had only been screen printing for 6 months before opening his own shop. His first day using a cash register was the day he opened the store, and had never worked in retail. He did have a history degree. (hahaha) Mike explains, “You could say that investors were not necessarily lined up to support a t-shirt guy with no experience whose goal was to spread ultra-positive slogans around Des Moines… Most were like, ‘Well, good luck!’ ”
- T-shirt printing clicked because it was something creative he could do to make a living. He learned how to run a business (bookkeeping, accounting, permits, stores) because it was a means to an end. Of the experience, Mike says that “It was like trying to learn a language by moving to that country.”
- Back to Claire. More than a decade later after working with Mike in the Smash space, Claire decided to email Mike about creative opportunities. It was the perfect segue from one Andersonville job to the next. Claire helped scout locations and neighborhoods for RAYGUN Chicago. She showed Mike the Andersonville neighborhood first, and his mind was made up. RAYGUN would open in Andersonville.
- RAYGUN was formerly Giordano’s, Ann Sather, and Villa Sweden. Prior to RAYGUN moving in, the Chamber hosted a couple of pop-ups in the space, which helped present it as retail-friendly. It is a great space to be in, with a great garage door open to the street.
- RAYGUN was formerly “Smash” – but changed the name due to trademark issues. The word RAYGUN isn’t associated with any special memory, but Mike likes it because it’s futuristic but from the past, menacing, but doesn’t exist. Edgy, yet comical.
- Their tagline, “The Greatest Store in the Universe,” plays with that same irony, and a lot of RAYGUN jokes are based around the fact that they are from Des Moines. It’s funny to have a neighborhood in Des Moines with the store that declared itself “The Greatest Store in the Universe” – people walk in and go, “That’s funny!” and RAYGUN responds, “We’re totally serious.” And, just in case there is life on Mars, RAYGUN wanted to be sure to be one step ahead of the game, including “universe,” not just “world.”
- The cat. It’s name is Gary. Pew pew pew! Years ago people asked for cat stuff so Jen (RAYGUN designer), created Gary. Gary subsequently became code-name for their wood shop, and the spaceman “Nitro” is also code for their storage facility which holds ‘time travel supplies.’ It’s important to note that t-shirts are an important time travel supply, but not required for time travel. But, you can’t show up in the past or future not wearing a shirt! You’re going to need clothing.
- Most of RAYGUN’s products and clothing are made or sourced in America, and the ones that aren’t come from facilities that meet certain working conditions criteria, where garment workers make above-average income. Products are largely sourced from the States, and printed in Des Moines. Either RAYGUN or their contractors visit facilities to make sure they meet their ethical standards. They are careful of who they work with and how they operate. It’s important to him that his business holds itself accountable, and doesn’t leave all the research and work about their products left to the consumer.
- On their website, RAYGUN is open about their challenges and what they’ve learned from them. Their outward appearance is happy-go-lucky, but on the other hand, they deal with general business issues just like anyone else – HR, cash flow issues, inventory. Often Mike finds that people don’t want to show their weaknesses, but Mike approaches challenges with humor and self-deprecation, which helps make RAYGUN more accessible. Claire comments that Mike’s slogan is, “Do the best with the tools you have. Show up. Don’t be a jerk.”
- Being a part of Andersonville lends itself to pop-up events at RAYGUN. Like a recent “Self Defense Workshop,” hosted earlier in August, which is hopefully the first of many. RAYGUN hopes to share it’s space with the community.
- Often asked is: How does RAYGUN come up with its slogans and designs? Which make it and which don’t? Most of the ideas come from internal collaboration, occasionally social media threads, and sometimes from the general public. A lot of information is collected, and since visual design is simple and straightforward, their designer’s main job is to decide on content and topics. Some recent examples are Humboldt Park’s “Chance the Snapper,” and “Tupac for Governor.”
- If Mike and Claire could trade businesses with anyone in Andersonville it would be:
Claire – “Official Pie tester at First Slice.”
Mike – “La Colombe. I’ve always liked the idea of running a coffee shop – it seems romantic. Even though you have to work your ass off.”
Thank you to Claire and Mike for joining us and thank you for listening to Always Andersonville: The Podcast. For more information about RAYGUN please visit raygunsite.com. Show notes on today’s episode can be found at andersonville.org.
Visit RAYGUN on the following platforms:
This episode is brought to you by Chicago sales coach, Paul Baraz of Train Wreck Solutions. His new workshop series, Sales Made Simple, occurs monthly every 4th Thursday from 6-7:30PM at 5153 N Clark, #228. Next workshop is September 26!