Entrepreneurs have struggled to find their footing in the current U.S. economy and every niche market has served as a gladiator arena for those willing to take a risk.
In an area where there isn’t much competition – trendy Catholic T-shirts starting at $17.49 – the husband and wife team of Luke and Lorianne Aubut from Stevens Point are hustling to make NeedCatholicShirt.com a regular name among young adult Catholics.
“We drive all over the Midwest to go to conferences,” Luke said, adding they go to the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, and Men of Christ and Women of Christ in Milwaukee. “It’s a long drive from Stevens Point, but otherwise it’s OK, just part of being an online business.”
Lorianne was born in Puerto Rico and came to the United States in 2008. While living in Illinois she met her future husband, who was living in Stevens Point, on catholicmatch.com.
“We lived exactly 300 miles apart,” Luke said.
Shortly after managing the long distance relationship, they were married.
The business started in 2011, when the couple was childless and in their 20s.
“We wanted some apparel that we could wear that didn’t scream out … ‘I’m a Christian or Catholic,’ something more subtle,” Luke said. “But, man, it’s really a hit with the young adults.”
It was the classic “online start-up” story. The ideas they were talking about turned their kitchen into a boardroom, and NeedCatholicShirt.com was born.
“I remember sketching things out,” Lorianne said. “On a piece of paper, we started making designs.”
During that first year, the business had only a few different shirts to offer and went to three conferences. But those events netted them more than $1,000. Today, depending on the level of interest, they can make between $700 and $800 in one day.
While they admit there is some competition, they believe their product rises above the rest.
“Nobody’s selling quite the same thing,” Luke said. “I think we have the best stuff because it’s the most unique.”
The company capitalizes on certain styles like the Our Father in a scrolling “Star Wars” font or one that reads “Mass: It’s not just for Sundays” popularized by Someechards.com.
“‘Star Wars’ is super popular; there’s a following for all ages and we thought that would appeal to anyone,” Luke said. “Moms love to buy that one for their kids or even their husbands.”
They’ve even created their own acronym for “Stand Up For Religious Freedom.”
“I think we need to get young adults standing up for religious freedom and not to be ashamed to wear anything that says ‘St. Michael’ on it,” he said. “People love that one. Everyone loves that one.”
But the past several years have been a rough for the start-up couple, who admit they didn’t know much about business before this.
“It was a learning experience to just come up with how you register your company,” Luke said.
Tasks like finding the right printer for the product put the company’s future in jeopardy.
“Sometimes they didn’t make that good of quality as we needed them to be so we had to go back and change some things,” he said. “We had to go back and make it clear we need some quality stuff, so that we can sell. Don’t just give us a hobby that we keep in our house. We’ve got to make these (shirts) department store quality.”
In 2012 NeedCatholicShirt.com had five different styles of shirts to offer. A year later, that number grew to 13, and they’re hoping in 2014 they continue to grow.
Currently, it’s difficult for the couple to grow the business with one small child and another on the way.
“We didn’t go into the business to make a lot of money,” Luke said. “This is our mission.”
During the first year their son Antonio, who is 18 months old, was with them through this experience.
“We’ve been taking him to all the conferences we’ve gone to since he was born,” Lorianne said. “Having our children there is a blessing. People know we’re a family business.”
Lorianne is a theology teacher and campus minister at Pacelli High School and St. Peter School in Stevens Point. They belong to St. Peter Parish.
“Lori, she’s really a people person,” Luke said of his wife.
Lorianne said growing up, and as a youth minister, T-shirts have always been part of the Catholic retreat culture. Kids want to wear something cool after having a religious experience.
The couple is focused on family first, with Lorianne due “literally any minute,” and the business second.
“I’m a stay-at-home dad,” Luke said. “I wanted to do this from home, but with one kid it’s almost impossible; with two it will be impossible.”
The couple have learned that running an online start-up business and raising a family are two difficult undertakings.
“I’d love to be here and help him as much as I can,” Lorianne said. But her salary is what allows them to pursue this idea.
However, as technology evolves, it might become easier for a stay-at-home dad to manage the day-to-day operations of a household and a small business.
“The way technology is, and the way businesses are run, it’s easy for everybody to do it online,” he said. “There’s more people online than there are in Stevens Point or anywhere you set up a store.”
For several decades, the T-shirt that dominated the young religious demographic was “Jesus is My Home Boy,” which started in Texas during the 1980s, and, according to their website, was popular among ex-gang members transitioning to the straight life.
But the Aubuts wanted to go a different route.
“I don’t particularly like that shirt,” Luke said. “Me personally, I like to respect Jesus more than putting him in a playful character like that.”
As of now there aren’t any plans to make NeedCatholicShirt.com into a full-time business, however the Aubuts have sent T-shirts to Lorianne’s family in Puerto Rico and would like to expand to more states.
“That’s something we should work on harder,” Luke said, adding they have several Catholic business friends. “We’re not pushy; it’s awkward for us … to turn the table and start talking about business all of a sudden.”
NeedCatholicShirt.com hasn’t become a full-time operation but the couple are paying the business’s bills and are keeping it running.
“We want to make (and sell) more shirts,” Luke said.
On Friday, April 25, a day after this story ran, the Aubuts emailed Catholic Herald myFaith Staff to announce that they welcomed to their family a baby girl, Isabella Gianna, that morning.