“I always felt entrepreneurial…and knew that I would start a company one day” -Ryan Vesler
Ryan went to the Columbus Academy for high school. Afterward, he attended Ohio University where he majored in Spanish. During his time in college, he shopped at thrift stores and sold clothing items he found (mainly tees) on eBay. After graduation, Ryan wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, so he decided to travel around Costa Rica for a few months to see the world and possibly find some inspiration. There he continued his thrifting for vintage clothing and online selling. When he returned to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he moved back in with his parents and started a clothing company out of his basement – you might’ve heard the name before: HOMAGE.
…The rest of this article is about a young entrepreneur telling a story through every shirt he creates and sells.
- Entrepreneur Spotlight: Ryan Vesler – Homage (Founder & CEO)
- Founded: 2007
- Location: Columbus, Ohio
- Homage Website
What made you decide to travel to Costa Rica after graduating college?
“Just to see the world with a close friend,” Ryan responded. Being a Spanish major and seeing beautiful photos of the country online were two other clear deciding factors. So, Ryan went for it. He bought a one-way ticket and started his adventures.
When I asked him about the months he spent in Costa Rica, he said, “the trip, it was incredible…nothing to worry about, no stress, [just] fun.” Also, that it was “interesting because towards the end of the trip I sort of got antsy and said, what am I doing with my life?” However, his friend at that time gave him great advice and said to relax, because you will never have a moment with such few responsibilities again.
What about attending high school at Columbus Academy prepared you for your future?
“I definitely got an amazing education [there],” he said. “The faculty really care about the students, [they] celebrate what makes you unique and celebrate your person growth.” Ryan seemed very satisfied with his high school experience and also mentioned that he will be going back this year to speak at commencement!
Why did you choose to major in Spanish?
Junior year of college he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, he didn’t have a direction. “There was this pressure to choose a career path,” he said, and “I liked learning Spanish.” No matter what he chose to major in, Ryan said: “I always felt entrepreneurial…and knew that I would start a company one day.”
“The best brands in the world listen to their customers”
There are SO MANY t-shirt companies today, literally SO MANY. So what makes HOMAGE so different? Why do customers choose to shop there?
Well, traditional retail stores just sell you a t-shirt or some other item; HOMAGE sells you a story. They focus on topical things, such as; celebrating holidays, pop culture, sports teams, and other enchantments.
Where did the name HOMAGE come from?
Ryan answered, “I’m a big believer in simplicity” – this is why he liked the idea of just one word. Likewise, the word “HOMAGE” captured what they do, and sounds like something very special, as in “you pay homage to people you respect or admire greatly.”
From the beginning, it was all about engagement and simplicity (to bring people in; but also a brand attribute that still exists with the company today).
To explain engagement, HOMAGE doesn’t have customers, rather they have friends.
“Starting small is all about relationships,” Ryan said while speaking at a Leadership Luncheon I attended at Ohio State University a few weeks ago.
By thinking of their customers as friends, i.e., engaging with them, and building relationships, HOMAGE practically doesn’t need to market themselves. It’s an organic process where customers (I mean friends) tell their stories and market the brand through social media.
It’s all about these personal relationships. Whether that’s expressed through the stories behind EVERY SHIRT, the complementary retro Coca-Cola every person receives when they enter an HOMAGE store, or Ryan’s personal philosophy: when it comes to social media, Ryan says it’s better to have “more engagement and less followers.”
Can you tell me about how you transformed your basement business into an actual brick and mortar shop?
“With eBay, I would find stuff, photograph it, list it and ship it.” His listings and concept of sharing the stories behind the clothing started to gain traction. “I realized that with this eBay thing I was perpetually hunting for a needle in a haystack.” What he meant was that with vintage tees, there was only one size and one unique item for each. He recognized that in order to sustain a business, all while keeping the stories, he would need to choose another outlet, such as creating t-shirts via HOMAGE. Through HOMAGE, Ryan said he was able to “share a story with more people by creating a brand.”
When you first started HOMAGE, did you know then that you would be where you are now?
“No,” Ryan said, the actual brick and mortar retail stores came later. First, he sold his shirts to pre-existing stores. The first one being a script “Ohio “(shown in the photo below). Eventually, Ryan realized by partnering up that “you can be hamstrung by who your partner is,” in other words, “you’re only as good as the person you’re doing business with.” So, he needed to open his own stores.
Just recently, HOMAGE secured a license with the NBA for their heritage graphics to use on their tees. As Ryan says for long-term, lifestyle brands, “invest in something that’s a platform.” With his extremely busy schedule, he has found this notion more worthwhile compared to most things.
Homage has stores across Ohio in Columbus (Easton & The Short North), Cleveland (Crocker Park), Cincinnati (Over-the-Rhine), and soon in Pittsburgh, PA.
What’s your end goal with HOMAGE/ what else do you hope to accomplish?
Ryan said, “we definitely want to open more stores across the country.” To accomplish this with the personal touch HOMAGE brings, Ryan said his team must “spend time in the market [they’re] going to open in, understanding the stories that make it special,” and that this is accomplished through either pre-existing customers that live there or new customers; either way, he said “the best brands in the world listen to their customers.”
As a creative entrepreneur, Ryan realized his potential and capabilities through his experiences.
For example, he used to be more involved in the full design of his shirt, but as his business grew [i.e., he had more responsibilities and hired more people to assign roles to] he become more involved in the concept, and less involved in the details.
“Every entrepreneur has to give things up, like getting comfortable doing things a certain way…you need people to challenge you.” Ryan said those challenging people will create a healthy dynamic for the company and team, inspiring new ideas and ways of doing things.
Eventually, “an entrepreneur realizes their shortcomings and addresses them by hiring people smarter than them” …something else he’s learned along the way.
What would you say your greatest asset as an entrepreneur is?
“It’s very difficult to tell me no,” he immediately replied. What he meant is that he doesn’t accept “no” at face value. He’s tenacious and finds ways to work around it. As Ryan says: “disrupting the status quo is in our DNA.”
What’s your biggest piece of advice you could give to an aspiring entrepreneur?
“Try to not work too much,” Ryan answered. “As an entrepreneur, you will find there is always something you need to do. At some point you have to say, there’s only so much I can do.”
- Movie: The Big Lebowski (1998)
- TV show: The Wire (2002-2008)
- Favorite Branding Book: Contagious by Jonah Berger
…Ryan also likes a lot of documentaries. He said he has a lot of curiosity, and he’s “always interested in learning more stuff.”
What characteristics do you look for in a role model?
Having a few different role models between athletes, peers, and other people in his life, he noticed certain characteristic he found admirable, those are; “vision, integrity, and hustle (hard work).”
What keeps you motivated every day at work?
He said that he “looks at the landscape of what we’ve (his team) built in Ohio, [and realize that there is] so much we can do elsewhere in the country.”
“How many more people can we reach and give them similar experiences?” So far HOMAGE has “created a community of fans,” and to keep that movement flowing would be pleasant and humbling for him and his team.
What do you want to be written on your tombstone when you die?
Ryan said he would want to leave people with “having the energy and feeling like they can take a risk and build something great.” A lot of people tell themselves they can’t do things, that they aren’t good enough, etc. Ryan says, “don’t discourage yourself, you can do it! The answer can and should be yes.” If it’s possible for him to do it, it’s possible for each and every other person to accomplish their dreams if they put in the time, energy, and take the risk!
HOMAGE: Our Story https://youtu.be/5HqHiU-SrZo