Following a Dream - Building a Business
By Brad McEwen
It seems any time I’m out and about around town these days—be it a quick stop at Publix or Target, a random ball game or stroll through the mall—I inevitably see several folks wearing the uniquely speckled patterns that are the signature of the increasingly popular Grubbwear clothing line that has captured the attention of fashion-focused residents.
That a certain style or brand of clothing has become the “must have” for area teens and their parents is certainly nothing new—back in my day parachute pants and Member’s Only jackets eventually begat Tommy Hilfiger button downs and Duck Head khakis—but for the latest trend to have originated right here in Albany is indeed something worth noting.
That it’s the brain-child of an ambitious and incredibly creative teenager is downright newsworthy.
After catching wind of the growing popularity of the Grubbwear brand—admittedly through my daughter and her mother and not because I’ve kept any of my fingers on the fashion pulse—I was thrilled to have the pleasure of sitting down with Carlton Grubb, the rising Deerfield-Windsor senior who gave birth to Grubbwear almost five years ago when the then 12 year-old started making her own shirt designs.
“When I was like 12 or 13, I would just make them for fun,” Carlton told me during a recent visit I made to her house to learn more about Grubbwear. “It was mostly the button ups. I’d just do them every now and then for me and my friends.”
While the Grubbwear operation is solely Carlton’s, the genesis of the clothing line actually began thanks to a gift from her mother Kate Grubb, who, as a small business owner herself, has also helped guide and encourage Carlton as she’s built her business.
“The first idea was the button ups,” the 17 year-old entrepreneur explained. “My mom bought me one in Athens at a boutique. It was like $60 and we're like, ‘We could do that for so much less.’ So then we started making them for fun. We started putting bleach on everything—hats, towels…”
By “making them,” Carlton is referring to the process she of using diluted bleach to create the dappled appearance that is the hallmark of Grubbwear items.
“We had to do a lot of trials because polyester and other things don’t bleach, so we would have to throw out tons of shirts because it has to be 100 percent cotton,” Carlton explained. “We mix two different kinds of bleach and water, then we dip it on the bottom because I like the dip on the bottom and I lay it on the ground, sprinkle one side, flip it over and sprinkle on the other side.”
Once Carlton had gotten the basics of her process down, she was able to really indulge her creative side by trying different ideas and applying different cuts to certain parts of the items she would make for her family and friends to enjoy. But even as more of those closest to her began wearing the things she was creating, at that point she hadn’t imagined what she was doing would go beyond that.
As with many success stories, however, the next evolution of Grubbwear was sparked by mere happenstance, what one might consider a happy accident. “My mom and I, we walked into Ibiza (an independently-owned Albany boutique) and we were both wearing one on the same day,” Carlton said. “I was like, ‘Oh no!’
“But then it actually turned out good because they were like, ‘Where did you get those shirts?’ I was like, ‘I made them.’”
Carlton said the proprietors of the boutique offered to let her do a trunk show at the store and after several weeks of working to create enough items for the show, her fledgling business began to take flight.
“It took us two months to call them back and we got it figured out and I made a bunch of stuff, including t-shirts, which I hadn’t even made before—they were something my mom introduced,” Carlton recalled. “We brought those in and sold everything and that’s where it really took off.
“They offered to keep my stuff in their store and they told me to make an Instagram so I could get it out there and everything. Then I did trunk shows in Macon, I did one at the KD house in Tuscaloosa, then I just kept posting about that on my Instagram and all these boutiques started contacting me.
“I think I was in 26 stores at one time. The farthest one was in Missouri.”
With that kind of growing demand, Carlton said had to begin shifting in her focus from being strictly creative to learning on the fly how to manage a burgeoning home business.
Fortunately, with some guidance from her family, she was able to make contact with local professionals who were able to offer support and expertise. And, as her mom likes to point out, once Carlton gets focused on something, she’s willing to put in the hard work to see it through.
“She is a driven girl and she is very independent,” Kate said with pride. “Everything she does she wants to be hands-on. She wants to do it herself. Of course I bought her that first shirt, but when she kind of ran with it I could tell that she was excited. She’s creative. She’s artistic. So I could just see that turning with her. She just kind of ran with it.
“Me being a little bit creative myself, and I own my own business and am self-driven as well, I ran with it with her. She didn’t know how to look into wholesale places (to purchase shirts), so we did that together. She didn’t know how to start a business, so I reached out to Barbara Rivera Holmes (President and CEO of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce)—I do a lot of work with her—and she put us in touch with the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center and they walked her through it and it was amazing.”
Kate added that with the guidance provided by Heather Sharpe at the UGA SBDC office here in Albany, Carlton was able to lay the proper groundwork for ensuring success from a business standpoint—things like creating a business plan, setting up a business tax-ID, trademarking the Grubbwear name and creating an LLC.
“It was funny because my husband and I went with Carlton (to meet with Sharpe) and Carlton talked and listened and we would chime in of course because we knew some of the questions she might not know to ask, but she was dead-set on the business license being in her name,” Kate added. “Everything is Carlton Grubb.”
Making those connections with area professionals like Sharpe and Holmes also exposed Carlton to the local business community, as she is now not only a member of the Albany Chamber, she’s even had the pleasure of speaking at a recent Women in Business luncheon hosted by the organization.
“I had to tell my story of how I got started,” Carlton said of that experience. “Then the audience asked me questions. I forgot exactly what they were, but they were tricky and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ But it worked out. We just told how we got started and what drove us and everything. I spoke with three other women.
“It was so cool. I was the youngest one. And I’m the youngest member of the Albany Chamber of Commerce too. It was really nerve-wracking though because there were a lot of people watching. It was my first time speaking, so I was really nervous. But it was cool.”
Carlton said that the speaking engagement was a little less daunting thanks to her connection to Deerfield-Windsor, which has proven very fortuitous in numerous ways. Not only had she taken a mandatory public speaking course at the school, she said several faculty members also took the time to attend the luncheon to offer encouragement.
“My pre-calc teach came, she’s also an advisor, then some other people from the school came to support me,” she said. “And all of my teachers asked me about it. My teacher asks me about it all the time in Spanish, it’s funny.”
In addition to the support from faculty, Carlton said she’s gotten lots of support for Grubbwear from the administration, the student body and various other organizations connected to the school.
“At the beginning my boyfriend and all his friends they’d call me ‘shirt girl’ as a joke,” Carlton said with a smile. “But everyone in the school is really supportive.
“The booster club ordered baseball shirts from me and they put DW on them and sold them at baseball games, football games and basketball games, so everyone is really supportive.
“It makes you feel good to have all that support because it makes you keep going and it makes you feel like you’re not alone and that people want you to do what you love.”
That kind of encouragement, which Carlton said she’s felt from various corners of the community and beyond, has only served to fuel her desire and help keep her focused on the success of Grubbwear, even though the more prosperity she has with the business, the more hectic her life becomes.
“Keeping up with school and all of that can be difficult because I would have to cut the shirts in the morning before school sometimes or late at night,” Carlton said. “I guess just working around the schedule is really hard.”
“And she’s a cheerleader and plays soccer and did dance, so her weekends were busy with stuff like this,” added her mom.
“I guess I would miss out on a few fun things every now and then too, but when it’s something you love, I guess it’s not that hard to do it because it’s so much fun to do this, Carlton continued. “So it’s okay to miss out on a few things.
“It gets very stressful sometimes, but you just have to keep going. It’s stressful and then it’s a bump in the road and then you’re done.”
To help ease the burden of producing enough shirts to meet the demand from the boutiques and the orders she takes through her Instagram presence, Carlton had the foresight to invest some of her earnings back into the business to increase efficiency.
In addition to purchasing a separate washer and dryer dedicated to Grubbwear, she’s now employing three students from Albany State University who help rinse the items.
“She was doing 15 shirts at a time and just doing them on the patio with the hose and little bucket thing,” Kate said. “Then we moved to the pool and she was doing about 100 shirts a day.”
“The Albany State students help flip and rinse because that takes a lot,” Carlton added. “We used to do it with the hose and that took forever. Then we started doing it in the pool. We just throw them in there and shake them around.”
To ensure the authenticity of the product though, Carlton still oversees all the bleaching of the items and she does all of the signature cutting herself.
“I don’t really let the students bleach,” she said. “Me and my mom do that. They just help flip and rinse in the pool. I cut the necks. I tried to hire someone—I think I did three different people because one of my good friends helped me one time—to help me cut the shirts because that’s what takes the longest. I tried that and it didn’t really work out because they didn’t do it how I wanted it.
“It took me a while to get it right and I didn’t want to take that chance of ruining a lot of shirts. I can cut 60 shirts in an hour.”
Of course, bleaching, rinsing and cutting aren’t the only things that make something a Grubbwear item. For it to be official, it’s got to have a Grubbwear label. And in another stroke of luck, Carlton said she was able to add another member to her team—Vernice Sanders.
“When Carlton started it was right before December I guess and it took off kind of crazy and she wanted to put labels on everything,” explained Kate. “So we researched label companies and found one online and just ordered 500 of them. She thought she was going to be able to put labels on them and at this time she didn’t have anybody from Albany State. So, she was bleaching cutting and doing labels.
“She had this little bitty sewing machine, but we said she couldn’t do it all. She thinks she can, but to grow it you have to reach out. So we reached out on Facebook and Vernice came through a friend of a friend. In Illinois she had worked in factory sewing on labels. She moved to Albany and it was just a miracle that we met up with her.
“She’s a godsend.”
With the production process more streamlined, Carlton has also focused on expanding her product line which quickly grew from doing button-ups and t-shirts to a wide variety of different items, including some specialty items she’s created on request, such as denim jackets, bedspreads, curtains and boxer shorts.
“I think she’s able to keep excited because she’s introduced different things,” Kate explained. “It started off with the button ups; then it went to the t-shirts. Then it went to your tanks, like those little razor back tank tops. Then from there, the baseball shirts, beach towels, hats and then these little football jerseys. She even does custom sheets for people.”
Carlton added that she’s also released a completely new Grubbwear line she’s calling the “Be Line,” which features different sayings or slogans on the shirts.
“It’s going to be like, ‘Be you,’ ‘Be sassy,’ ‘Be classy,’ ‘Be unique,’ ‘Be nice,’ ‘Be kind,’ just words of encouragement,” she said. “People encourage me, so I guess it’s good to encourage people back.”
That Carlton is motivated to encourage others is not surprising given the fact that no matter what heights she seems to be reaching with Grubbwear, her chief desire seems to be continuing to do something she loves and bringing joy to others through her work.
“At first it was just fun because my friends and I would wear them and it was fun to do with my mom,” she said. “I guess it really changed when more people started noticing. I’d walk down the school hallway and see eight people a day wearing them and it was really encouraging to see that and getting in that first boutique and then doing all the trunk shows.
“I wanted it to be official because more people were noticing and it was really cool to see everyone liking it. Then I wanted to take it further from there I guess.
“I guess my favorite part is seeing people in it. It makes you feel good.”
As an area resident and now father of three, I say it feels good to encounter a young person like Carlton Grubb, who at an age when most kids don’t have a clue what they want to do, has followed her passion and parlayed it into extraordinary success.
Although she plans to slow things down a bit and take a break after she finishes high school so she can focus on making the most of her freshman year of college—which she’s hoping will be at the University of Georgia—there’s little doubt that Carlton will continue to prosper and be an inspiration to others.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen