NEWCOMERSTOWN — A native of this Tuscarawas County village has braved the world of art, business, T-shirts and zoos as he and his partners have created a company that has even raised over $220,000 for the Cincinnati Zoo and its well-known resident, Fiona the hippopotamus.
Darin Overholser, son of Dr. and Mrs. Terry (Becky) Overholser, graduated from Newcomerstown High School in 1997 and spent several years bouncing around to develop a brand and a business before catching a break with the birth of Fiona and what became known as the Fiona phenomenon.
The latest iteration is CincyShirts.com and in 2015, the company added the Cincinnati Zoo as a partner.
"We approached them so we could create T-shirts based on old posters and signage from the ’60s and ’70s," Overholser said. "They looked cool. We sold some, but nothing crazy. In [January] of 2017, Fiona the hippo was born and we quickly saw that we needed to immortalize her on cotton. It took us asking the zoo three times and waiting a month before they allowed us to release the T-shirt.
"It took off, selling 5,000 the first week. The zoo saw this was worth their time, and helped us promote and granted us permission to move forward on other Team Fiona products. Just under a year later, our Fiona merchandise has sold nearly 50,000 units and raised $220,000 for the zoo!
"In a world where people are depressed by social media, politics and the general state of the world, that little hippo from Cincinnati was their break from it all. They could sit back and watch her playing on Facebook, and keep up with the zoo’s daily updates. We were lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time.
"Fiona madness not only helped our company out, but our printers all hired extra staff to keep up, and we expanded to over 20 employees. We have been mentioned on the NBC Nightly News, New York Times and CNN. We had a day in November where our sales were more than our entire first year in business!"
And how did they get to that point?
After high school, Overholser went to college at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. He and his wife, Crystal, currently live in northern Kentucky with their two children, Nash, 7, and Nya, 4.
"After graduating college, I dabbled in stand-up comedy," Overholser said. "I worked at pretty much every club in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Dayton and Columbus, and got to open for Daniel Tosh, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK and others. I was seeing progress, but the more I did comedy, the less I wanted to live that lifestyle."
But comedy did bring him together with his current business partner, Josh Sneed, a comedian who headlines all of the country and calls Cincinnati home. The two decided to create a funny T-shirt line called "Look At Me Shirts," creating their own designs as well as printed shirts for comedians to sell after their gigs.
"Josh was always good about plugging our site when he did radio in whatever town he was performing in that weekend," Overholser said. "We had a 15-minute segment on ‘Bob and Tom’ where they were combing our site laughing at our shirts. You can’t buy advertising like that."
The company started in 2005 when the two paid a web designer $150 for their first T-shirt website.
"We sold funny, pop culture related T-shirts for a few years, and ended up opening a screen print shop," he said. "From there we realized we were spending too much time printing for schools, Little Leagues and other customers and spending little time on our brand we were trying to build.
"Over the next five years, we merged with another company and restructured our setup. We were just trying to keep our heads above water.
"Looking back at starting up, we are lucky to have survived. I had an art degree and my partner was a comedian, so our business knowledge was limited. We made a lot of mistakes that I laugh at today. This was before Facebook and Twitter, so marketing was a completely different beast than it is now."
Overholser said it was a change in thinking that made the change in their business.
"Starting out, we assumed that we were a T-shirt printer because we made T-shirts. Once we figured out that our ideas and designs were stronger than our abilities to physically print shirts, we focused on being a sales company. Once we focused on sales, and started to outsource our printing ... our sales went to a level that could pay the bills."
While there was some success with a few Cincinnati-related designs that appealed to local residents, the business partners in 2011 decided to go out one last time to create an all-Cincinnati website that became CincyShirts.com. Starting online and growing a social media following, the company opened a small boutique in downtown Cincinnati in 2014. While it was "tiny," it took them from being just another website, to a fun brand that Overholser said Cincinnati was excited to support.
"We are constantly trying to team up and collaborate with other Cincinnati businesses," he said. "We would set up booths at any event or tailgate that we could, to sell shirts and get in front of as many people as we could. We sought out licensing deals with Cincinnati sports icons like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Ickey Woods. We didn’t have the money for an NFL or MLB license, but we could do individual deals with retired players."
That led to the collaboration with the Cincinnati Zoo and the company’s relationship with Fiona the hippo.
"We are now preparing to open our third retail location in the spring of 2018," Overholser said. As big box stores continue to close and retail as we know it fail, we are thriving in an Amazon-proof business. People will shop local when you make it available. We didn’t want our stores to be in malls, we prefer the boutique ‘mom and pop’ setting. As long as Cincinnati supports us, we will continue to keep it going.
"So, who knows what is next? We are always looking for the next trend to jump on!"