Robert Thornton’s work is more about giving than getting back. As owner of bamboo T-shirt line Paper Clouds Apparel, the 32-year-old Phoenix resident and Chico, Calif. native supports a variety of local special needs causes with his business, which gives 50 percent of profits to special needs charities from the sale of the shirts, which are designed by kids with special needs. As one of the 16 venture businesses chosen to take up residency in Phoenix business incubator Seed Spot, Thornton is eager grow Paper Clouds Apparel and raise even more money for schools across the country. Read on for his story, as well as five reasons why he loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
The weather. I was playing professional baseball at around 1999, I hurt my leg, and I wanted to do my rehab outdoors, and I thought Arizona was the place to be. I had family that lived in Scottsdale, too.
What happened with your baseball career?
Baseball was my life until I was 25 or 26 and got hurt again. I got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m not going to make millions of dollars to support myself, so I need to figure out what I’m doing with the rest of my life.’ I was playing in Mexico at the time. I had also signed to play in Sioux City, Iowa, and then my elbow hurt, so I took off before the season even started. I was a catcher. I was in Mexico for parts of 3 years, mostly in Sonora, and we’d try to get across the border before midnight and stay with friends we knew in San Diego and then just cross back during the day to play the games.
When did you decide to start Paper Clouds Apparel?
I went to junior college and got my basics done, and after I left baseball, I went back to Arizona State University and was on my way to getting my business degree there when I came up with the idea for Paper Clouds Apparel. I was like, ‘I don’t need a business degree. I know what I’m doing.’ I ended up leaving school to start saving money to get Paper Clouds Apparel off the ground, back in 2007. Every single person in this world has a chance to change the world, and I know for certain Paper Clouds Apparel is my chance to change the world. Everybody can help. Everybody needs shirts and clothing, so why not wear a shirt that is not only super-comfortable, but you also know your money is going to help people who desperately need it?
What sparked the idea for Paper Clouds Apparel?
My mother is a special needs bus driver in northern California, and I went back to visit her and saw this drawing that was up on the fridge. When I saw it, I grabbed it and asked her what it was. She had a little girl on her bus route who, as soon she was seated, would just draw the whole entire time. A lot of times when she got to school, she would give my mom the drawings, and that’s what I saw. It was so different and weird and cool, that I remember I spent the entire night just mesmerized by it. The next morning, I woke up with the idea of putting artwork that individuals with special needs have drawn onto shirts and raising money for special needs schools and organizations that definitely need our help.
How has the business evolved since you first thought of the idea?
It’s been a long and bumpy road. With my idea of wanting to give away 50 percent of the profits, I might go to a bank to a loan officer and tell them my idea, and they might like it, but I tell them, ‘By the way, I’m going to give away 50 percent of the profit,’ and they might say, ‘By the way, there’s the door.’ I knew I’d had to raise all the money on my own, so I spent about 2 years doing that. I did road construction, I did bartending, I was a bouncer — any way I could make a dollar, I was doing it to get the funds together. I was putting in a good 65-70 hours a week. It was definitely a rough couple years to get the money together. Since I came up with the idea that this is what I was going to do, I haven’t had a steady girlfriend, I don’t go out, I don’t buy anything for myself, because I knew I needed every single dime I had to get this off the ground. For 26 years, baseball was my passion, but once I got the idea for Paper Clouds, that has been my passion since that day.
Who benefits from the sales of Paper Clouds Apparel shirts?
I teamed up with Valley Life about 3 years ago, which is Arizona’s oldest rehabilitation center with more than 450 individuals with special needs they help across the Valley. I’ve used artwork from their members and have put out two different lines of shirts — crew necks, and then a women’s line with V-necks and scoop necks. My dream was always to go bigger and help special needs schools in all 50 states. I did a Kickstarter program and started making contacts from other schools, and now we have 19 special needs schools on our roster that we’re going to create shirts for.
When was the first shirt created?
Probably in January 2010. Now, we’re about to explode. We’re launching January 7 with the Center of Autism Related Disorders in Tarzana, California. The way we’re going to do things from here on out is each school gets a 2-week block where we’ll be selling shirts and raising money for their organization. We’ll choose one piece of artwork for the male shirts and one piece for the female shirts, and we’ll have six shirts total that will become limited-edition shirts for those 2 weeks. Limited-edition stuff sells so much more quickly because people know that they’re not going to be able to go to their local Target and get their shirt — no one else is going to have this shirt. From here on out, we’re hiring special needs employees to package the shirts, so we’re providing jobs for people who have a hard time finding steady income and places to work in the real world. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow to where we can have two schools for every 2 weeks and keep growing.
What will you look for when you’re choosing the artwork?
Luckily, I’ll have a board of advisers that will help me with this. I think there’s so many pieces of art that catch the eye. We’re looking for stuff that is fun that people will really enjoy.
What got you interested in becoming an entrepreneur and starting your own business?
I know I’m not good working for people and letting people boss me around. I wanted to start this for myself because if I sold out to some venture capitalist, it would be a failure. I would butt heads with them. I want to be able to give 50 percent to schools and organizations. I didn’t start this to become rich. I started this to help people. If I can put a roof over my head and feed myself, then awesome.
What about people with special needs make them such a worthy cause to you?
I think if you spend time with special needs people, you walk away with a genuine appreciation for how lucky you are. They don’t take things that you or I would take for granted. They can take the simplest thing, and it would make their day. One of the other things that had me wanting to do things for special needs people is that when I was a little kid, 10 or 11, I had a friend who had an older brother with Down Syndrome. He was sitting behind us when we were playing some video games, and I offered to let him play several times. It meant the world to him, and as I was leaving, his mother stopped and thanked me. I was just some punk kid, but she thanked me because none of his other friends had even treated him like a real person. It didn’t strike me not to do that, but from then on, I had an understanding that, unfortunately, some of the public treats special needs people like they’re second-class citizens, like they’re not real people. They have feelings, they have dreams, they have hopes and aspirations just like every single one of us do. Treat them with the respect they deserve.
What are your goals for the company?
I want to raise enough money where every single special needs school has the tools they need. With the advances in technology, the iPad has revolutionized things for people with autism. A lot of autistic kids are non-verbal, and they can now use this tool to communicate. It’s just made such a change to give them the opportunity to live as much of a “normal” life as is possible. I want to make sure every school has these tools they can now use, that special needs kids are learning the skills they need to get a job, to use all their tools and abilities to their best instead of just being rushed through the system. The head of fundraising at Valley Life mentioned if it wasn’t for the funds we’ve raised for them, about $3,000, they wouldn’t have an art program right now. I plan on doing this the rest of my life. If it means me going back to a part-time job to fund it, then I’ll do it. I plan on doing Paper Clouds Apparel until the day I die, and hopefully I can find a successor after that who can keep it going after I’m gone. I truly believe people want to help. If you give them a high-quality product, then how can you lose?
What’s been the biggest challenge to starting your own business?
The biggest challenge is getting people to believe you’re doing something to help, because unfortunately, the way people’s minds are these days, they’re always looking for a scam, even when I’m contacting schools to help them. With Paper Clouds Apparel, there’s no risk for schools to team up with us. They don’t have to buy anything from us, they don’t have to pay anything. All they have to do is send us the art, and at the end of 2 weeks, I send them the check.
Why did you choose 50 percent as the amount to donate?
Part of it is to make me work even harder. It makes me work twice as hard as another T-shirt company, and I’m OK with that.
How big would you like to get?
My goal is to be selling 3,000-5,000 shirts every 2 weeks. I believe we can do that right out of the gate, and that’d be $25,000-$40,000 for these schools in a 2-week period. The things they could do with that amount of money in a short period is incredible — the amount of supplies they could buy, the field trips, the teachers they could bring in. The sky’s the limit.
Who are your target customers?
Obviously, anyone who could use a shirt, but the main one is for anyone who wants to feel a part of something and help the cause. With what we’re doing, people will know exactly where their money is going and who they’re supporting. Also, we use bamboo for our shirts and soy-and water-based printing, so the shirts are great for people who want to go green and be eco-friendly. Bamboo is very soft. If you take a regular cotton shirt, from planting it in the ground to sending it off, it takes 700 gallons of water per shirt. A bamboo shirt requires 34 gallons. For one cotton T-shirt, a quarter-pound of pesticides and chemicals is required. A bamboo shirt requires nothing. With cotton, after you harvest it, you have to till the land and pay for the people-hours. You have to have tractors out there that are spilling out pollution into the earth. Bamboo is always sprouting out shoots — you harvest it, you come back, and you have more growing already. Bamboo also releases more oxygen into the air than a tree does. It’s a product that I think unfortunately we’re late to getting around to using, but it’s a revolutionary product. There are so many uses for it, from flooring to bikes, and it’s so much better for our earth. I’d love to get bamboo more into the forefront and reduce our carbon footprint.
What advice would you have for someone who is thinking about going into their own business?
Learn as much as you can. If you’re in business school, great. If not, get a business book — there are a lot out there, but do your research, see which ones are recommended, and just read, study and learn as much as you can. Try and find some mentors who are in the business so you can pick their brains. There comes a point where you just have to leap and risk everything, because if you want big rewards, you have to take a big risk. Recently, for the past 3 years, I’ve been doing Paper Clouds Apparel part-time. When I got accepted into Seed Spot, I decided to focus every single ounce of what I am on it. I’ve seen us grow leaps and bounds just by that. At one point, you have to risk everything and go all in.
What advice do you have for crafting a great business vision?
You have to be passionate about it. If you are passionate and work hard, I truly believe it will happen for you. If it’s not your every waking thought, then don’t risk everything on it. If, as soon as you wake up, you’re thinking about your business idea, and you can’t sleep at night because you’re thinking about it, then you should think about doing it full-time.
How would you characterize the fashion scene in the Valley?
It’s growing, which is nice, because when people think of fashion, they definitely don’t think of Phoenix. I think there are a lot of great local designers and people who are trying to make this a fashion hub, and I think that Phoenix Fashion Week is something that will continue to grow throughout the years.