Like most tech startups, it began in a garage, but unlike most, its garage was in San Leandro. The year was 1999, and the Internet had recently given game geeks, politicos, and fans of little-known garage bands and cult TV shows a place to commune with kindred spirits. But where most entrepreneurs saw obsessive nerds, Maheesh Jain and Fred Durham recognized underserved niche markets. "Lots of people were getting together on the Web that shared these interests, while in the real world it was kind of hard to find other people that liked that particular dog breed or that particular comic or liked that obscure band from Finland," Jain says. "And we thought, 'Hey, this would be an interesting way for them to take that passion offline and be able to share it through things like T-shirts.'"
So began CafePress, a do-it-yourself merchandising site and, quite by accident, a historical treasure trove of contemporary American pop culture.
To open a CafePress "shop," you upload some artwork or a catchy slogan, then choose items -- from underpants to mouse pads to beer steins -- you'd like them to be printed on. You then set a price above CafePress' costs-plus-profit figure, throw up a link on your own Web site, and wait for the money to roll in -- the company makes and ships the swag and handles the customer service. It keeps things cost-effective by printing each item as it's ordered, although Jain won't reveal exactly how his company can pull this off. "That's sort of the secret sauce," he says.
The secret sauce has the right ingredients, apparently: CafePress now hosts 1.2 million shops and has vacated its garage for better San Leandro digs. Jain says he knows of several shopkeepers who have quit their day jobs, and claims one South Bay guy is making six figures. In other cases, fans' designs have sold so well that the objects of their affections took notice -- some of the "Draft Clark" artwork was such a hit, for instance, that Wesley Clark's staff asked the artist to help with the ex-general's campaign.
Some of the site's top sellers, Jain says, reflect emotional moments in time -- 9/11, the Iraq war, the elections. Alternatively, they are something that's "just outrageous and completely bizarre and very much a Web thing." Indeed, sales are often skewed toward geek culture. Less about Paris Hilton, more about her hacked T-Mobile Sidekick.
But the size and success of CafePress has made it a compelling place to gain insight into the American mindset. It's a unique source of social commentary -- modern history as interpreted by a million-plus amateur designers and sloganeers, then vetted by millions more buyers who vote with their credit cards. So here, without further ado, we present A Recent History of the United States as Revealed on Shirts, Mugs, and Thong Underwear.
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