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Retro T-shirt Entrepreneur is Honored by the SBA as the State Small Business Person of the Year

Retro T-shirt Entrepreneur is Honored by the SBA as the State Small Business Person of the Year

For Kevin Stecko, a geo-environmental engineering graduate from the Pennsylvania State University, the success to creating a niche business was easy - he just needed to go "Back to the Future."

In the popular '80s movie, a high-school student is transported back in time to find and reunite his parents. Stecko didn't need a fancy time machine; he merely donned a retro "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" T-shirt while visiting a Pittsburgh amusement park.

The compliments he received sent Stecko travelling back to the Penn State store where he had purchased the original retro shirt. This time, though, he bought a bulk order hoping to earn a few extra dollars selling the retro-wear on eBay, the popular online auction site.

This May, Stecko, 33, traveled to Washington, DC -- not to purchase shirts, but to compete for the U.S. Small Business Adminstration's (SBA) title of Small Business Person of the Year.

Stecko began his quest at the local level, when he was chosen as the Western Pennsylvania District Office Small Business Person of the Year. The nomination package was then forwarded to the regional office in Philadelphia to compete with their local winner.

Stecko, president of 80sTees.com, Inc., was chosen as the state winner, and vied for the national title. That honor was announced in Washington, D.C. during the 47th annual celebration of National Small Business Week.

Stecko admits he has come a long way from his company's humble beginnings in the family home. "I had a link on my eBay shirts that sent you to my web page to order additional shirts. We had T-shirts in every room in the house except the kitchen and bathroom," he added. "We would put purchased shirts in an envelope, shove the envelopes in a big bag and take it to the post office and wait in line and annoy the people behind us."

Because he was selling shirts with graphics from 1980s cartoons, Stecko selected the moniker 80sTees.com. However, he credits his mother with expanding his inventory.

"She went on the Internet and found one of the biggest shirt suppliers, so she was my very first hire," he stated. "That vendor's invoice mentioned an upcoming trade show, so I started goin to trade shows and met the vendors. They ship us the shirts - which are individually inspected for quality."

Stecko soon moved from the family house to a complex in North Huntingdon. But, with sales Soaring from $6.9 million to $10.5 million annually, he quickly outgrew that facility. In 2008, using an SBA Loan, he purchased a 45,000 square foot facility which houses more than 150,000 T-Shirts. He has a roster of 14 full-time associates and 13 part-time employees. And as much as he loves the '80s, Stecko decided to use Millennium technology to update his website by offering gift certificates, a site blog and suggestion center.

Nestled among the hundreds of shelves in this cartoon and movie T-shirt emporium are Elmo and Rocky shirts, as well as a heat transfer machine that allows Stecko to print the licenses that he does own from the movies "Dirty Dancing, " "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and "Top Gun," and cartoons "The Transformers," "GI Joe," and "My Little Pony."

"Most of our shirts are purchased through vendors, but we do have licenses for a number of properties," he explained. "Although it's a nice exclusive, with licensing you have to have a graphic artist do the work and send it to the (movie) company for approval."

Stecko soon noticed that many of his retro-shirts were being used during Halloween as costumes. In 2005 he decided to expand adding costumes. The virtual store also has sold accessories - such as Yoda slippers and board games for a number of years.

Carl Knoblock, Western Pennsylvania SBA district director, stated that Stecko has a good understanding of his market. "He knows what sells is expanding and has even started exporting shirts to English-speaking countries around the world," he said. "He's tapped into the nostalgia market that keeps people coming back for their favorite icons from generations ago."

Stecko and eight ohter local small business owners and advocates were lauded at the Wester Pennsylvania SBA May 28th Awards Luncheon which were held at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel Pittsburgh. The luncheon is held in conjuction iwth the 47th annual celebration of Nation Small Business Week.

"Our team here at 80sTees.com works hard every day to provide outstanding customer service and great products," he said. "It feels extremely gratifying to be recognized by the SBA fo our efforts and success as a Pennslyvania-based company."