In the early spring of 2004, Mike Draper (RAYGUN founder and owner) was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. It had been 4 years since he left Van Meter, Iowa and was getting ready to graduate with a degree in history then continue his education in Europe. Destined for greatness!
Then he got rejected for the fellowship that was going to pay for that continuing education:
But there was a silver lining from "The Committee":
With those "wishes" for a "rewarding career" in hand, Mike started selling "Not Penn State" t-shirts on campus, because, when you have the rest of your life free (60-ish years by back-of-the-envelope calculations in 2004), why not start selling goods on the street?!
After graduation, Mike took his t-shirt show on the road, selling t-shirts on streets or college campuses out east. By December of that year (pictured below with friends in Union Square), Mike learned an important lesson: selling stuff outside in the winter sucks.
So by January 2005, Mike (above, on the left, making topless bucket hats great again) was looking to take his retail operation indoors, but also start doing his own screen printing and have a niche market to grow inside.
Then it hit him: "Why not move back to my parents' house in Iowa, learn how to screen print from a high school buddy whose dad has a shop, and then open a store that specializes in ultra positive slogans about Des Moines?"
With no business experience, no design experience, no retail experience, and no outside funding, investors were not lined up around the corner!
But after a summer of learning how to screen print, Mike not only moved out of his parents' house (again), but opened RAYGUN (then called SMASH) in the fall of 2005 at East 4th and Locust in Des Moines. There it is:
All 1,350 square feet of pure retail and printing! For the first two years, until 2007, Mike was the only employee. If you shopped at RAYGUN back then, Mike designed your shirt, printed your shirt, sold you your shirt, and unclogged the toilet if you used too much toilet paper in the bathroom. A 4-color, 1-station screen press was the company's primary fixed asset:
To say that it was hard to see the company still being in business over 10 years later would be the understatement of the last 10 years! Growth was loonnnngggg, the days were long, and good golly, money was constantly tight. In the spring of 2006, it was hard to see the company being in business at the end of 2006! The company's total cash-on-hand was under $3,000. That isn't with a loan or line of credit, that was the last $3,000 the company, and Mike had (bonuses were going to be small that year!):
But showing up every day, working, and thanking the god-of-skinny-punks that people shop here will slowly pay dividends. 2006 turned out to be the valley before a steady incline.
In 2007, the first employees were hired. In 2008, RAYGUN expanded into the space next door. Back then, 2,800 square feet seemed like a gol-dang castle:
In 2009, the whole company was up to 10 employees before it split into 2-sides: the retail and printing on one side (which we renamed from SMASH to RAYGUN that year), and the custom printing on the other side. That custom printing side, 8/7 CENTRAL, is still around, just across the street from our Des Moines location.
With a total staff of 3.5 people and a new name, RAYGUN started marching forward. We opened our Iowa City store in 2010, almost ran out of money again in 2011, wrote a book in 2012, opened our Kansas City store in 2014, and almost ran out of money again that spring:
By then, we were becoming desensitized to the feeling of near-cash-collapse, so we decided to take on our largest project by faaaaaaar: a 7,000 square foot headquarters in a brand new building at the corner of East 5th and Grand in Des Moines! Here we are at the groundbreaking, which the Des Moines Register captioned, "Hipsters with shovels" (and they call us snarky):
Over a year of work paid off in 2015 when we moved into what is still our current headquarters in Des Moines. Store, design studio, screen printing shop, and sub-leases tenants inside the space like Daisy Chain Coffee and Storyhouse Bookpub.
For Mike, who was born and raised in Central Iowa, taking a parking lot that had sat empty for 60 years and filling it with a project RAYGUN felt like the ultimate payment to a place he owed so much to. Plus, it is an awesome space to work in each day:
Since 2015, we have continued to plug along steadily. We expanded our production to include a wood working shop (code named Gary) south of downtown Des Moines and we opened our second biggest store in Cedar Rapids in 2016:
From 2016 to 2018, we worked to increase our production capacity (taking over more space next to Gary, code-name: Li'l Gary) and finally did something we had talked about for years: unionized.
The process wasn't antagonistic or fraught, it was something we worked on collectively. With the help of UE, we became an independent local -- UE 8515. This union includes everyone who is not a manager at the company. So printers, designers, floor staff, everyone, can collectively work on a contract with work terms.
As we watched the yawning expanse between rich and poor, the decline of unions, we finally realized that, like our shirt says, We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. If not us, then who? We want the store to project positive vibes outwardly and inwardly.
And after 2 years of inward vibes, it was time to get back on the outward train:
Chicago! Our biggest market by a few million folks opened in June of 2019 followed in 2020 by our first global pandemic (ugghhh) and our first store in Omaha's beautiful Old Market! Omaha was a store that was years in the making and delayed slightly longer as our initial target date (April 2020) was shot to hell by Covid. But we were open by the September of 2020!
As we expanded online sales, production, and customers in 2020, we opened a 20,000 square foot production facility and warehouse in 2021. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of printing equipment was a big leap from 1 1-station press.
But who needs sleep when you've got anxiety?
2023 is the year we're in currently (in case you're still signing your checks 2022). We have new projects in the works, but nothing yet set in stone.
It has been a wild ride that we hope continues into other cities, products, and projects. Though we have learned a deep appreciation for the communities we are in: none of this would be possible without the customers who shop here and support us.
Having been immersed in product and production for over a decade, we've developed a deep respect for the people who make things.
This is a lot more than just a t-shirt shop to us, and what people buy is a lot more than just t-shirts. Everyone who works here calls the Midwest home, and we have not only been lucky enough to host a WIIIIIIIDE variety of people in our stores (seriously, check out this sampling), we have been able to give back to organizations we support.
But, most of all, we think that RAYGUN is something our home region can be proud of.