From diaper days to college dorm life, many students could not fathom a day in which they would become authority figures to their parents. For UC Davis senior sociology major Steven Zhang, this dynamic is a daily reality.
Zhang turned the family business paradigm on its head in 2007 when he and his brother started a screen printing business called Simple and Creative Shirts (SacShirts) — a business which currently employs both of their parents.
Zhang was originally inspired to start a business when he realized, despite his effort to cut college expenses by opting to attend a community college for two years, he and his family would not be able to afford his tuition without added income. Additionally, both of his parents were laid off from their jobs due to the economic recession.
After meeting an acquaintance who sold inexpensive hats, Zhang was inspired to begin his own entrepreneurship: a hat-making business that would eventually evolve into his current T-shirt-making business, SacShirts.
After transferring to UC Davis in 2010, Zhang began extensive research on how he could maximize profit from his business. He soon realized that small, up-and-coming clubs needed an inexpensive means of obtaining club T-shirts in order to increase member morale, without depleting all of the organization’s funds.
“We specialize in small quantity orders,” Zhang said. “It really hits home for me. I remember trying to start clubs back in high school; we couldn’t do anything because we were so worried about money!”
In order to keep company costs low, Steven works out of his home, in addition to ordering supplies in bulk online. He does most of the actual T-shirt-making in the garage.
Besides his parents, Steven’s staff consists of his brother and co-manager, a graphic artist, a few part-time interns and one full-time intern.
Each T-shirt is handmade by either Zhang or one of his employees, and most of the designs are conceptualized by the organization placing the order. He does not charge extra for color prints, as he feels that creativity should not be limited by cost. Additionally, he helps to promote the clubs for which he makes shirts.
The process of screen printing includes creating a stencil of a design on mesh material, and then forcing ink though the mesh onto the fabric. Though this may appear to be a simple process, Zhang must both create, advertise and sell his apparel to maintain the estimated $1,000 per month needed to keep the business running.
Zhang uses a website to advertise his T-shirt business. Contrary to the belief that maintaining a website can be costly, he said that running an online business is affordable.
“Websites can range anywhere from $20 per month to thousands. It just depends on how intricate the website is,” Zhang said.
Zhang describes the experience of having his parents work for him as both frustrating and rewarding. Originally a temporary arrangement, Zhang said his parents have stopped their search for employment and have taken on permanent roles in his company. While he is glad to provide his parents with a source of income, he said that it can be difficult to keep everyone on the same page.
“When [my mom] agrees, everything is fine, but it’s like, as soon is there is a disagreement she goes right back to being a mom,” Zhang said.
Senior cell biology major and co-director of Chicanos in Health Education Emmanuel Mendoza, one of Zhang’s customers, said that flexibility and affordable pricing of SacShirts prompted him to utilize the company to purchase T-shirts for a conference that his organization attended.
“We looked around before we purchased shirts. Steven was able to work around our schedule. He really helped us along the way,” Mendoza said.
Angela Ng, Steven’s full time intern and recent UC Davis graduate, says that working for Steven can be confusing at times; however, she could see herself eventually making a career out of working for a small business similar to SacShirts.
“As much as I’m his intern, I’m also his friend,” said the former community and regional development major. “I would advise anyone starting a business to think far, plan ahead and meet the right people to help you.”
Since starting the business, Zhang said that he has learned a tremendous amount.
“It changes you completely. Academia at UC Davis does not teach what it takes to run a small business. My recommendation is to just do it. That’s the best way to learn,” Zhang said.
KELSEY SMOOT can be reached at email@example.com.