Tees In the Trap Founder Talks Protecting Her Brand and Fighting Back Against NeNe Leakes

L: NeNe in the Tees in the Trap shirt; R: NeNe's redesigned Girl Bye shirt
We've all seen how the internet has opened up new space for those with their mind's set on entrepreneurship. Marketing and distribution are more affordable than ever, and that's allowed small businesses to make headway in crowded niches.

In less than a year, Arsha Jones, the founder and owner of t-shirt company Tees in the Trap, has gotten pivotal media mentions and celebrity placements. But skyrocketing to success doesn't come without it's hazards. I spoke with Arsha about how she's built her business and how she's handling the obstacles placed--including threatened legal action from Real Housewives of Atlanta's NeNe Leakes.

-Kimberly Foster

Kimberly:  So I was wondering how do you think you’ve managed to differentiate yourself in such a flooded niche?

Arsha:  Well I think it’s for several reasons.  The first being because I wanted to create a T-shirt line that was really centered around the black girl experience.  How I grew up, the things that I say, the feelings, and the inside jokes that we have.  I saw other people having successful T-shirt businesses with statement tees that revolve around their world.  And I thought that I wanted to create something that was for black women and centered around black women and pop culture to be honest with you.  And I said, “Wow, if I can keep this really simple I’d be the only one doing this.”  And the idea was not to necessarily build a brand around Tees in the Trap, it was more so of letting the shirts speak for themselves and not really focusing on the brand itself. So it’s more about expressing yourself and catering to an audience that’s largely ignored.

Kimberly:  Yeah and I think you’ve done that really well.  How or when did you know that you had really tapped into something that other people haven’t been able to?

Arsha:  Honestly, right before I started.  I had sold T-shirts before on Etsy.  I had started a shop that my consumer base, as you could probably guess, was mostly Middle American, I’m assuming, white females that didn’t know I was black.  And I made shirts; catered to what was popular to them and I had some issues with my Etsy site.  So I eventually had to move away from Etsy and I was hesitant on starting something up again.  So I said,  “What can I do that I would actually enjoy doing?”  Because the Etsy shirts, they were just for money [laughs].  I said, “If I do this I’m going to do it right and I’m going to do it in a way that I’m going to be proud of it.”  And so once I created this concept about this brown girl experience, in my head I already visualized it being popular.  I could foresee it in my head that this is going to be a big thing if I can do it.  And I can do it in a way which, number one, looks professional and, number two, respects the culture that I’m from and, number 3, presents it in a manner in which it can be enjoyed by all audiences, not just brown girls.  And so when I started I started a little marketing plan with myself; just posting on social media and getting people prepared for the launch.  But I would say it kind of started immediately.  I had sales the first day and that second day I started emailing blogs and people to post about my products.  And I just happened to email Claire from Fashion Bomb Daily and that weekend she re-posted my information.  I didn’t ask her to. I really just asked her could I send her some free stuff or whatever.  And she ended up posting and doing an entire blog post on my store.  And literally overnight we had 3-4 thousand dollars worth of sales.

Kimberly:  Wow, that’s the power of the Fashion Bomb.

Arsha:  Yeah.  I had a blog for several years and I still do, I just don’t post on it as much as I used to.  My goal has always been that if I could use all the skills that I learned while blogging and reappropriate them to sell products, I’d be winning.  Because a lot of bloggers don’t understand that all the skills they obtain they cross over to so many different things.  Because you and I both know there are a lot of blogs out there and just many of them won’t see the light of day.  So instead of letting all those great skills in marketing and networking and collaborating opportunities go to waste, you could really use it to push products and things and services that you may not have seriously thought about doing before.

Kimberly:  Absolutely, that is a word!   So I love the idea of using the skills to seize an opportunity because the opportunity isn’t always where you start.

Arsha:  Exactly.

Kimberly:  So I have been a fan of Tees in the Trap for a minute and I actually have loved seeing the growth of the company and seeing celebrities start to wear your clothes and seeing it on the Fashion Bomb which an amazing and hugely influential fashion site.  How did celebrities start wearing your clothes?  Did you reach out to them?

Arsha:  So I started out by just, honestly using social media.  I didn’t have a huge following like Claire to post about my products, I got a small following; a couple thousand people but I didn’t really have a lot of backing or anything. All I had was me, my computer and twitter and I would honestly just tweet people and say, “Hey I like your style, can we send you some stuff?”  And most times they say, “Sure.” [Laughs] I do it in a way which was very professional and I send them a package of things.  Now it’s to a point though that I have actually a PR person out of New York that contacts celebrities and things for me because it’s a little bit too much for me to wrap my brain around.

Kimberly:  Yeah, so at which point did you know it was time to get a PR professional?

Arsha:  Honestly it was when I could afford it [laughs].  I do sound crazy and I know how marketing is and marketing can be a gamble and so I knew that it could possibly be a good investment but I also knew that it’s a possibly that it wouldn’t be a good investment.  And I had to have the money available to pay for one and allow it to work.  To allow it to work because marketing is one of those things that you pay for and I may not pay off for another two months or three months or four.  If you can’t force famous people to wear your stuff you can just send it to them and hope they wear it soon.

Kimberly:  Absolutely, and clearly it’s worked for you.  But with a heightened profile there are some incredible benefits to that but there are also some drawbacks.  And so –

Arsha:  Oh yeah.

Kimberly:  I read recently about a situation that you have been in with NeNe Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that legal dispute.

Arsha:  Sure.  Well I’ll give you the abbreviated story.  Which is it’s simple:  I sold and I always sell shirts directly but I wholesale them to other retailers around the web who want to sell the shirts.  And I sold them to one retailer that ended up having a pop up shop in Atlanta.  And this young woman was a celebrity stylist so she has celebrity friends.  NeNe Leakes stopped by and purchased my shirt and she emailed me the morning that NeNe stopped by.  So here I am all excited and stuff, “Oh my goodness!”  NeNe isn’t the nicest...

Kimberly:  She’s big.

Arsha:  But she’s at the top of the food chain when it comes to people who have been able to transition from reality to an actual career.  So when she wore the shirt it was liked "Oh you want more?  This is so great!  Oh my goodness, I’m going to blow up!”.  And so my first instinct was to have my PR person reach out to her PR person and put together an entire basket of additional items and things that I haven’t actually launched and new products.  And I was going to send her an entire bag of stuff.  And so, and this is before she actually wore it on Instagram and social media (my shirt).  So what happened was, she wore it, she didn’t tag me but other people tagged me and the shirt.  And it was fine.  But she wore it and I was completely in awe.  Wow, she really wore it.  Then I was kind of upset when I saw people were tagging me and saying she made a shirt exactly like mine.  So it was a bit of a letdown because I had in my head, of course, had all these plans of us working together and doing a collaborative project.  Because I sold a couple of shirts that have her sayings on it not just Girl, Bye. Girl, Bye. isn’t her saying but Bloop and Nasty and Rude, those were saying that she actually said and I could attribute to her.  But Girl, Bye. wasn’t a saying that I attributed to her because it wasn’t a NeNe thing either.  It’s a black girl thing [laughs].

Kimberly:  Right.

Arsha:  And so I was crushed because not only did she take my shirt but she gave business that could have been given to me to a white-owned company over in California that was producing her shirts for her.  And I was like, “Wow, this is the kind of person she is.”  I don’t really follow NeNe gossip online, so I know people say stuff about her.  But I don’t know her personally, I know how news and blogs and stuff they don’t always get the story straight.  So I was like, “Wow, this is really how she.” 

Kimberly:  Is the dispute is over “Girl, Bye!”?

Arsha:  Dispute is a strong word. This is not my first business. I have other things that I do, and I’m not really a newbie when it comes to trademark disputes and things.  So with me, I wouldn’t even really call it a dispute.  NeNe sent me a Cease and Desist, but she really had no basis to do so.  She was trying to scare me and to get me to stop selling these shirts.  So she posted the shirt. A couple of weeks later she opened up her shop up with the exact same shirt, and I contacted the hosting company to get her to take that down.  And I knew that it was going to upset her because NeNe is a bully on the show, and I knew that contacting her PR person wouldn’t really do me any good. I figured out who was hosting her site, I contacted them, sent them a notice that she took my product and she wasn’t authorized to do that and sell it.  And I wanted it taken down and they took it down.  And in a couple of days, they took it down.  That’s when they sent me this Cease and Desist .

Kimberly:  So she was wearing your shirt and then proceeded to sell a shirt that was the exact same design?  

Arsha:  That’s correct.  The photo of her still wearing my shirt was online so it wasn’t like I didn’t have proof.  But yeah she took my shirt and put it on her own site with all her own things and decided to sell it without asking me.  The reason I even mentioned it on my social media pages and the reason why I did so was people would come to my page and accuse me of stealing her shirt.

Kimberly:  Right.

Arsha:  A shirt that I’ve been selling since May.  And they would say I took her shirt and why am I selling this?  I didn’t do anything wrong here. I’m just a small business, a family owned business just trying to make a living and she did something underhanded.  But I’m not going to just let it slide.  What she did was not even really a dispute. She sent me a threatening letter thinking that it would faze me but I know enough to know what I need to do. She has no basis to say that she owned it. You can’t say that you owned a trademark or you have the exclusivity to use something before you filed a trademark for something--a term that has been used for years.  It’s commonplace and there’s hundreds of people that are selling Girl, Bye. shirts.  It doesn’t really work like that.  It just doesn’t.

Kimberly:  And to be clear there is no trademark on Girl, Bye.

Arsha:  What happened was she filed a trademark for Girl, Bye. in January, this month.

Kimberly:  This month?

Arsha:  Of 2015, Yeah.  Almost a full year after I have been selling my shirt.  But there other people that sell Girl, Bye. shirts too. The lady wrestler, I forget her name but she’s a black girl, and she’s been selling Girl, Bye. shirts.  Her’s look a little different, way different actually.  She’s been saying Girl, Bye. as a part of her wrestling WWE routine for years.  And she has shirts that go along with her stuff and whatever else she does.  This isn’t a term that can be trademarked and whoever is looking at NeNe’s application will see that. 

Kimberly:  This is definitely an interesting case study for any small business owner.  For any entrepreneur.  And so I’m wondering what have you learned?  It seems like you have your ducks in a row so perhaps you could give some advice to other small business owners about how to protect their property.  Any intellectual rights or even importance of having legal representation for when these sorts of situations occur.

Arsha:  Sure I can give a few. A lot of times I feel that business owners and people in general don’t understand the difference between a trademark and a copyright.  NeNe is fighting to have the copyright of Girl, Bye. whereas I had her shirt taken down.  Let me start over; NeNe is fighting for the trademark of Girl, Bye. whereas I had her shirt taken down because of the copyright of my shirt, my design that I created.  And so the first thing you have to understand what it is you need and what it is you want for your own products.  So you trademark words and you copyright designs.  That’s first up.  And number two is understand what your rights are.  Make sure you document when you’re creating these things or some type of date stamp whether it’s social media.  You can also register your designs and products that you create with Copyright for about $35 with the federal, well I forget what it is... 

Kimberly:  There is a U.S. Copyright Office.

Arsha:  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  So I’m working on getting mine done too.  And then there’s just having an understanding of what your rights are.  It’s great to have someone that you can call. Lawyers can be kind of expensive.  So at least when you’re starting working on things, you can run things by them have them point you in the right direction even if you’re not able to pay them to do things.  Most of them will have you pay a consultation free just to ask questions and get the ball rolling on what you need to do in certain situations.  Number two is to be prepared to fight.  A lot of times people don’t understand what trademark and copyright is. It’s one thing to have one but it’s another thing to actually have to fight and put into motion. You have to have a plan of action when someone takes your stuff.  Have one that you can implement that same day. So a lot of times that’s a DMCA complaint notice that I file with certain websites and I will tell them that someone has taken my design or taken graphics from my page.  I’ve had people take graphics directly off of my website and then they will go to my Instagram and take photos of people wearing my shirt and use it to promote their own shirt that look exactly like mine. 

It’s really blatant. People don’t understand they can’t just do that. You can’t do that and so that is a lesson learned about keeping up on that.  And also, let’s see, another tip is to really stay on top of it.  You really have to be active in social media, regularly checking tags, talking to people and reaching out.  And because essentially you’re building your customers; you’re actually building a community.  Kind of like For Harriet because I’ve been a fan of For Harriet for a while and I read the blogs and follow you guys on Facebook.  You guys have a community and when you build a community around a product or a blog, your community will look out for you because they believe in you and they believe in your product whether that’s a blog or a T-shirt.  And they will tag you when things aren’t right, they will send you an email [laughs].  And they’re kind of the eyes that you don’t have so it’s important to nurture these little relationships that you have with all your customers and fans.  To let them know that their opinion is valued that you’re a real person behind this website and that you’ll listen to them.  Because they will be the people that tell you because it wasn’t me that found NeNe’s shirts first it was people tagging me and sending me messages, “Arsha look, NeNe took your stuff!”  I’m not sure when I would have caught her if it was just me looking out.

It’s about making money and selling the product or getting clicks to add on your blog.  But it’s really more about building a business and community, building a tribe; a group of people supporting you and your vision.  Because they’ll be your eyes when you aren’t able to see things.

Kimberly:  Absolutely.  So what’s next for Tees in the Trap?  What would you like to happen for your company?

Arsha:  We’re just rolling along.  We actually just moved into a little office space that we’ve gotten to get stuff done because we had previously been doing this out of my home.  And I’m married with kids, so it’s kind of a little hassle to have all that going on in the background.  But we’re almost; we will be one, so –

Kimberly:  Yeah, isn’t that amazing that all of this has grown?  In such a short period of time.

Arsha:  Crazy, it’s really crazy.  And we have some more celebrities we want to see our products in.  See our products on, rather.  We have some interesting; I’m talking around getting an app done.  An app done separate from the shirts but similar.  I won’t give you too much information on that, just know it’s going to be, it’s crazy.  It’s crazy, it’s going to be fun but it’s along the same lines as what the shirts do.  We’re actually going to be launching, we actually have two more sites we’re going to be launching this year.  One is a men’s line because I always get questions about men.  I really created my site and my page to be focused on women so if you come to my page it’s really about girls; it’s a girl page.  I posted about men and beards and everything I like.

Kimberly:  Right, yeah.

Arsha:  I won’t make any apologies for that but do get sales from men, believe it or not, for a lot of my shirts.  And I said that I will put together a separate site that is especially for men with products and things that they’ll like.  And then we have a second brand that will have different accessories.  So it’ll be everything that I can’t put on the shirt site like journals, leather bound journals, pencils, pillowcases and whatever else I can think of that just aren’t really T-shirt related.  So it’s going to be really fun, believe it or not.  And I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.

Kimberly:  Yeah, well I’m excited.  You’ve already done so much in less than a year.  You’ve already had a run-in with NeNe.

Arsha:  I know, right?
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