Drew Johnson will readily admit his new company is on the fringe.
But as the owner of TechWears, which makes fashion accessories out of recycled tech components, Johnson said being on the periphery is a strength.
“We’re on the fringe of tech, the fringe of fashion, the fringe of sustainability and recycling, the fringe of art — this whole thing started in an art gallery. We have these massive markets to skim, and it explodes the demographic of who can be interested.”
In due time
Johnson, a Colorado Springs native, decided while attending Palmer High School that there were other ways he’d rather be spending his time.
“I majored in truancy,” he said. “I made the decision that I wasn’t going back to school and sold it to my parents by telling them I would get my GED and have an associate’s degree by the time my friends graduated high school. But I ended up leaving college in my second semester.
“I just wasn’t ready. The path I was going down was to work for awhile.”
Johnson started his own junk-hauling business in 2002 and did that for four years. He returned to school, studying business at Pikes Peak Community College and eventually received his degree from the school of business at UCCS.
“Then I was ready. I went back to PPCC at 25,” he said, adding he became very involved with student government and campus sustainability, and was instrumental in creating a five-year sustainability position for the community college. Upon receiving his degree, Johnson was hired as the director of business development for Blue Star Recyclers, a tech recycling social enterprise in Colorado Springs.
TechWears came from that job.
“It was a great job right out of college,” Johnson said. “But I was getting yelled at because I had a huge pile of the best circuit boards collecting in my office.”
When Blue Star hired Johnson, he looked online for a tech-centric tie he might wear to appointments with potential clients.
“I could only find silk ties with patterns printed on them,” he said. Then he remembered a wooden tie he owned that had been manufactured by a company in San Francisco.
“I got out a Dremel [tool] and made [a tie out of a circuit board],” he said. “It was crude and crooked, but it had character and it was a huge hit. … It would open doors. I could cold call on a large corporate office and ask for the IT director. If I wasn’t wearing the tie, they would say meetings were appointment only. Wearing the tie, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s got to see that.’”
Johnson was eventually approached by a board member with Blue Star Recycling, who told him he should display his tie at a show at the Cottonwood Center for the Arts.
“I was reluctant. I said it wasn’t art, it’s just a tie, and not for sale,” Johnson recalled. “I was told it would be good publicity for Blue Star and I could say it’s not for sale. … I still got an offer for $240 and thought, ‘OK, maybe it is for sale.’”
Upcycling = manufacturing
Johnson started TechWears in 2014, and made it his sole focus early this year. His ties and bowties are patent pending, and he’s added earrings, bolo ties, cuff links and more to his collection. Johnson is also nearing the end of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $7,500 so he can build a tiny, mobile factory and take it to trade shows around the country.
Johnson said he began manufacturing ties one at a time with an X-Acto knife, a task that could take more than eight hours for each piece. He’s since purchased a special, computerized router and reduced production times considerably, but to grow and meet current demand, Johnson said he needs to start thinking bigger.
“I’m moving toward a factory-store concept,” he said. “I could not only fill wholesale and ecommerce orders, but have a little storefront that people can visit.”
Johnson said he knows his work isn’t for everyone and, despite the off-centeredness of his wares, he wants the quality and the potential economic impacts to be taken seriously.
“People look at what I do and their first reaction is that it’s a Pinterest project,” he said. “But upcycling jobs are manufacturing jobs. … There’s a company that’s been in Boulder for 10 years making things out of bicycle innertubes with nine employees.
“If TechWears takes off, we’ll be creating some really good jobs,” he continued, adding he hopes to garner community support and potential investors because he’d like to keep the business in the region.
“Fringe can be a bad word in Colorado Springs, but manufacturing is not. I’m just trying to change that paradigm. This is highly skilled stuff. Maybe the first person I hire is a mechanical engineer.”