November 14, 2019

3 Chandler men grow T-shirt business from startup to 'the face of Arizona'

Michael Spangenberg said he was always that “one weird dude” in his Chandler classroom who was born in Arizona. Still, he didn’t realize that Arizona was the 48th state to join the country.

“Now I do,” said Spangenberg, co-founder of the popular State Forty Eight apparel company.

Spangenberg and his partners were honored Wednesday with the Spirit of Enterprise Award by the Economic Club of Phoenix, part of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, given annually to a business that exemplifies excellence and ethics in entrepreneurship.

In his talk, he described how he and co-founders Stephen and Nicholas Polando, who are brothers, grew their business from a side hustle to a brand that sells $4 million in clothing and hats a year.

Spangenberg always loved clothing and was huge fan of all the Arizona sports teams.

“My favorite thing was back-to-school shopping,” he said. “It drove me nuts that I never saw anything that represented Arizona in a positive way.”

He always wanted to have his own clothing line, even as he was working in the hotel industry.

“I was probably writing down names in a book for two years, but no clothing line ever made sense,” he said. It was 2012 and he was roommates with Stephen Polando, a childhood friend.

“Stephen was brushing his teeth and he came out and he said, ‘State Forty Eight.’ It was an ‘aha’ moment,” Spangenberg said.

Nicholas Polando was a self-taught graphic designer who then came up with some logo ideas.

“He proposed three and two were bad,” Spangenberg said.

So the three became equal business partners, gathered together $1,500 to trademark their logo and launched State Forty Eight in 2013 — all while keeping their full-time day jobs.

Michael Spangenberg holds the Spirit of Enterprise Award while chatting with Amy Hillman, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, who said that State Forty Eight is about "inspiring others to rise up and stand for something they believe in." Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“The first two years, we didn’t earn a dollar,” he said. “We were selling T-shirts at launch parties on Mill Avenue and at First Friday when First Friday wasn’t even cool.”

They built their own website and ran their own social media. They scoured Craigslist for a thermal heat press and when they collected enough profits, they would make a new batch of T-shirts.

“I’m not the most handy guy and I made shirts backwards and upside down,” he said. “We were hustling.”

A turning point came in 2016 when they scraped together $1,500 to join the Phoenix Fashion Week’s emerging designer boot camp.

“The thing that stood out from that was learning how to sustain the business,” he said. “It wasn’t just a glamor runway show.”

They started networking, and found a connection to Bruce Arians, then the coach of the Arizona Cardinals. That led to the now-famous State Forty Eight T-shirt that featured Arians’ likeness with his trademark flat-top cap and game-day headset. Sales of the shirt benefited the Arians Family Foundation, which fights child abuse.

“We couldn’t keep the shirts in stock and we raised a ton of money for the foundation,” Spangenberg said. “And it was an example of how we were laying the foundation to be doing more than just selling T-shirts and hats.”

That success led to partnerships with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Phoenix Mercury and the Phoenix Suns, as well as fundraising collaborations with other organizations including Phoenix Children’s Hospital, the Arizona Humane Society and the W. P. Carey School of Business.

But as the company grew, there were challenges too.

“We have three equal business partners and that’s a huge blessing because you see different perspectives, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say we had disagreements,” Spangenberg said. “And when you’re young, there’s a lot of pride involved and you have to put that aside.”

The three were able to pour all the revenues back into the company before finally leaving their day jobs to become full-time State Forty Eight employees, which the two brothers did before Spangenberg.

“I wanted to be there full time and that’s where those communication barriers came into play. I would try to catch up after work and they’d be tired of me texting at midnight,” he said.

“The sexy thing to do is to go for it but that’s not the real world. It’s OK to have a side hustle until it’s a full-time hustle. It allowed us to grow.”

The company now has 15 employees, with seven full time. And they’re still learning how to run a business efficiently.

“It’s hard to have those honest conversations but now we have weekly meetings on Tuesdays that we don’t miss,” said Spangenberg, who still personally runs the State Forty Eight social media accounts.

“When you don’t have meetings, things build up and then you talk over text and that’s how things get misperceived. It seems simple but it’s been a huge help.”

The collaborations have doubled State Forty Eight’s online revenue and now the company sells other branded merchandise, including stickers, glassware, bags and socks. It recently launched a co-branded credit card and set up two retail locations, in Gilbert and at the Churchill in downtown Phoenix. In the future, Spangenberg would like to see a State Forty Eight license plate and maybe a sports travel group.

“Twenty years from now, everyone at the Diamondbacks games will be a Diamondbacks fan and be proud of where they’re from,” he said.

“And we want to be the face of Arizona.”

Top image: Michael Spangenberg describes the journey of State Forty Eight, the company he co-founded, at the Economic Club of Phoenix luncheon on Wednesday, where he accepted the Spirit of Enterprise Award. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now

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