Del Reid is a self-proclaimed “accidental entrepreneur.” The former computer programmer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute launched 26 Shirts five years ago as a side project; that project has now become his full-time job.
The venture began after Reid coined the term #BillsMafia on Twitter to connect with other Bills fans. It caught the attention of then-Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who recommended Reid register it as a domain, and encouraged his own fans to follow the account. Before Reid knew it, thousands had done so.
“Now what?” Reid asked himself, wondering how he could leverage his followers to the greater good.
A T-shirt lover himself, Reid decided to create Bills Mafia T-shirts, and donated all proceeds to Roswell Park. The success of this initial sale motivated him to continue the endeavor for what he planned would be a year, during which he would continue creating and selling T-shirts with a new design every two weeks to raise funds to help local families in need and charitable organizations. While searching for a vendor to produce the shirts, Reid connected with Dan Gigante, founder of You and Who, a buy-one-give-one social good company that created artistic T-shirts to help people in need across the U.S. (Gigante now works with Reid to operate the business.)
“I loved the idea that we were using a local Buffalo company,” Reid said enthusiastically during a phone conversation. “The idea took off, and we have since done shirts with the Bills and Sabres and Bandits. I did not see that coming!”
That was in 2013. In 2015, after he was laid off due to restructuring at Roswell, Reid drove down to the Tri-Main Center on Main Street in Buffalo to see if he could make his T-shirt side project a long-term job.
“I said I would try it for a year and if it didn’t work out, I could go back into the workforce,” he said. “If I was an old man on my death bed, I could say I tried.”
Turns out, it did work out. 26 Shirts sold nearly 7,000 T-shirts that first year.
“The whole reason this idea has been successful is because we give so much of it away,” Reid explained. “Fans are going to root for their favorite team. They might as well do it in a way that helps their fellow man.”
Reid started out donating $8 from every shirt purchased to causes including children with pediatric cancer and people who were severely injured in accidents. Each T-shirt had its own unique design, and Reid soon hired a full-time creative director and a part-time employee to handle products.
“To hire people, you need to grow, but to grow, you need to hire people,” Reid said. “Hiring our first full-time employee was the moment I realized it was working.”
As the company grew and expanded to Pittsburgh and Chicago, Reid hired freelancers to create products. “It is good to change up the style sometimes and get other people involved,” he said.
With growth comes change, and donating $8 per shirt sold was no longer a feasible option. “There have been a couple loans taken out along the way. If our business is based on giving and we’re taking out loans, we’re doing something wrong,” Reid said. “That was a learning process, but we’re starting to find our sweet spot.”
Now, for each shirt purchased, $4 is donated to the beneficiary. If 72 shirts are sold, the company reaches the pricing threshold and begins donating $8 per shirt. There are also different donation structures if a past shirt design is brought back or if there’s a special edition shirt.
As of August 2018, the company has sold almost 58,000 shirts, and recently launched its new line, Charge. “It’s not sports at all, but it’s Buffalo city pride. We’re coming at it from a whole different angle to engage new pockets of Western New York and Buffalo lovers,” Reid said.
The Bills fan also loves the added perk to his job: meeting Bills players he watched growing up. “In 2014, we did a photo shoot with Thurman Thomas, and I was the one who did the photos,” Reid said. “I was on the back porch of his house taking pictures of him. It’s really cool! They’re normal people, and they want to help people, too.”
At the end of the day, Reid’s main mission is to continue giving back to the community that provided him with the opportunity to do so. If it wasn’t for the community purchasing shirts, 26 Shirts would not be able to do what it does today.
“We could put all the designs in the world out there, but if people don’t buy them, we’re just spinning our wheels,” Reid said. “It’s the people who are giving money and making a difference in the beneficiaries’ lives. We’re super grateful the community has embraced this idea. We take it very seriously and want to make sure we keep putting out high-quality stuff people love and give them the opportunity to give back and help out their fellow Western New Yorker.”