What’s up everyone, my name is Lucas Guariglia, I was born and raised in Chicago (Rogers Park / Uptown), and I am the President and Co-owner of Rowboat Creative.
Your early days in the industry started with being a touring musician. Is that how what lead to see the opportunity in “merch”?
I started a band when I was 15. We went through the ranks in Chicago and did all of the big clubs, then went on to do some regional touring. In 2000-2001, the band really started to hit hard and go on national tours. I guess you could say we were doing our thing, we had label interests, but around this time, the major labels were starting to fold. In the music industry, nobody really knew what was happening. Artists were afraid to make a move, while labels didn’t want to sign anybody new. During the time we were doing our national touring, we were making way more money in merch sales than we were making on our show guarantees.
My other business partner Joe was also in a band during that time. One day I called him up to talk and while we both wanted to continue to move in the music industry, we saw a pain point for bands and an opportunity. At this time I had just picked up a beginning screen printing kit. I graduated with an array of degrees ranging from Design, Installation Art, Photography, and Media Joe and I were chatting and I told him we can easily figure out how to screen print. He responded and said, “Dude, that’s so crazy, I literally got the exact same kit for Christmas.” That week we jumped in his basement, bought a bunch of blank apparel and started trying it out. Saturday my band had a record release show at the Metro, and it wasn’t until the night before that we finally made our first successful print. After that first successful print, we just started printing all of the blanks we had. The night of the show comes around and we successfully sold out all of our merch. We ended up splitting the money in half, half of the money went to the band and the other half was leftover to be used for buying more supplies to screenprint.
Through being in the music industry for so long, we had so many connections from touring, we would ask our friends where they got their merch from and they were all unhappy with quality, pricing, and the whole process. We saw opportunity. We told them we can help them out, we’d give them better pricing and better service. That really started the snowball. I went to Depaul University at the time with Brandon Breaux and I remember working with him on early designs for his first clothing line Ends Wealth. That’s how the whole story started. We would just meet one person after another that was looking to work with a company that knew how to run a good business, cared more, and had a passion for creating. Rowboat Creative was born.
You started Rowboat Creative 12 years ago in a basement and now have been able to occupy a space over 60,000 sq feet. As you look back over the last 12 years and see how far you’ve come, what’s that feeling like for you?
I mean it’s crazy – in the moments that we actually step back and look at the journey and where we came from. As creatives/entrepreneurs though, we are out here to grind,hit it hard, create, and leave a mark. We are always focused on pushing forward an evolving. When I look back on those early days, it’s really cool that we’ve been able to build Rowboat Creative to what it is over these past 12 years, but, I’m so focused on getting our team to continue building our story and making our mark.
When you started your company, you were creating merch for your band and other bands, now you’re able to create merchandise for some of the nation’s largest brands – Nike, Adidas. Does that make you starstruck in any way?
I think it’s the same as the above answer. While, it’s amazing that we get to do it, at the end of the day, we try not to even think about it. Our passion is to just keep grinding. The heavy hitters are great for our business resume but we want even these heavy hitters to know that we don’t give them anymore focus or any less focus than somebody who just walks into the shop looking for merch or to bring their dream to life. Working with these big brands is a blessing and a curse, ya know because it’s like what is next? If you’re balls to the wall every time with your creativity level and passion, and you’re at a 10, how do you then get to 10 again, or 11 and keep going forward? We keep raising the bar for every brand and company we work with. That, in turn, keeps us raising our own bar and goals.
You are one who was born and raised in the city of Chicago and your company is making sure to always keep a pulse and work with some of Chicago’s top creatives. (Joe Fresh Goods, Benjamin Edgar, Havas, OJ Hays) How important is it to be able to give back and provide for the city you were raised in?
I think it’s crucial to hold that ground. It’s a complex relationship with those people. As a business/platform, we aren’t just focused on numbers. Our goal here is to not just have you send your invoice, then we create your merch, and that’s that. We’ve been involved with Joe/Fat Tiger, Brandon Breaux, and a great amount of Chicago’s leading creatives / companies for a while now. We’ve all grown together. That means a lot to us that they’ve been with us for so long. I think it speaks volumes as to the platform we are giving brands and how we focus on building together. We remember printing only 20 tees at a time for Fresh Goods and now to see what he’s been able to accomplish is amazing.I also remember printing some of Chance’s first merch runs that Fresh Goods brought in for us to do to help Chance out. It has been a long road and I think important for people to know we have been building Rowboat since 2006 in a basement. We still have the same passion, fire, hunger, and care we did back then. When we lose that, I better be living in Iceland somewhere so I am not facing the disappointment daily hahahaha.
One of my favorite things about Rowboat is your team’s ability to Live print at events. How big has this been for your company and for consumers at events?
Live branding activation’s and experiential marketing have become ginormous. We saw that the impact of merch has grown immensely and we wanted to create a way to bring that to the people live in a way that consumers become a part of the process. They get to see the entire creative process from start to finish. It’s amazing seeing people’s reactions during our live branding activation’s. I remember for a Nike event we brought the live printing gun. I was watching the consumers and the expressions on their faces were priceless. They had no idea what was going on.
Live experiential for us has literally been insane. This wing of our business model has grown a lot mainly because a lot of agencies came to us initially and just wanted t-shirts originally. But then they realized Rowboat does things differently. They saw that we are constantly doing things outside of the box. Agencies would then let us know that they were putting on events and we would start throwing cool ideas out there. After brainstorms, they really liked our ideas and creative approach so they started relying on us a lot more than as just their main merch printer or embroiderer. A lot of these heavy hitter brands have started bringing live branding to the events. The impact has been insane for them.
While you’ve been in the industry for 15+ years, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the years of running a company
I have this concept called, ‘The pivot point’. All my life to a certain point, all I knew was music. I eventually came to a point where I was having personal issues with the type of person the music industry was making me. The whole formula was changing and creating longevity was just really tough. I needed to pivot. I recognized the opportunity that explore and I just went for it. If you don’t know where you are in life, it’s okay to pivot and realize that that’s alright. Pivoting doesn’t mean failure. The failure comes when you continue staying on that path, running it into the ground and become miserable with yourself. It’s okay to pivot.
Rumor is there are some more workshops taking place at your facility…
We have done a couple of these already with programs with The City of Chicago. The City is really behind what we are doing for our industry and to help inspire, create job opportunities, and to just approach things totally different. These programs are all about job creation and inspiring. These programs and Rowboat are taking kids who come from a background that didn’t allow them to go to college or they just didn’t know the direction they wanted to go. Through these workshops, the kids will learn the process of how we run our business. They can learn graphic design, screen-printing, learn about merchandise, etc. We love these workshops because we are potentially creating jobs for kids who are enthusiastic to be here. Every week we are receiving up to 200 applicants and it’s extremely flattering. Anytime we can give back to the community, we are always going to do that. We want to be able to leave a mark with the people. I do a lot of talks, and I always say to people, you don’t have to remember my name, you don’t have to remember my company’s name, but if you can walk away from any conversation with me with something valuable, then I did my job correctly.
I always like to end on this question, and so when it’s all said and done, how would you like to be remembered?
I’ve been thinking about this question over the last couple of months and mortality because we obviously aren’t here forever. My grandfather started his own business which led to a huge empire He was one of my biggest fans while we were starting Rowboat. Towards the end of his life we would talk all the time. He would ask me, ‘how many years have you been in business?’ I told him 12 years and he said, ‘if you make it past five years, you’ve figured out how to lie to people and you’re going to be fine, as he laughs and cracks a smile.” Towards the end of his life, he realized, it wasn’t about the money, it was about creating these relationships with people and keeping those you love around you. If I were to walk out of this interview and unfortunately this be my last night on this earth, I’d want people to remember me as someone who wanted nothing more than to work hard, create, inspire, and one who wanted to make a mark on the world. Make your mark and live lucky.
Written by: Nico Rud