How a trio of engineers traded in their white coats and safety goggles for T-shirts

Leeward Bean had a highly successful career as the founder of Ocean Optics Inc., a world leader in fiber-optic spectrometers, after working for Polaroid for 18 years. He sold his company in 2008 and went into business with his former engineering colleagues, Ron DeFrece and Christina Bacon-DeFrece. The three were ready for something different — they wanted to add a spark of fun to their passions of science and engineering.

Little did they know they would be dealing with not just one thing different to them, but two.

Their first venture was a storefront called Uniquely Geek, offering geek novelty items like three-dimensional puzzles, hourglasses and bobblehead dolls of Francis Crick and James Watson (who discovered the molecular structure of DNA).

But it was creating a list of 100 T-shirt slogans such as “The gene pool needs chlorine” that sparked the first epiphany. It soon led to one of the nation’s most recognized high-technology garment decorating companies, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts and More.

Technology made it happen

While visiting a trade show, Bean came across a direct-to-garment printer that used fabric dyes instead of inks — that made printing T-shirts convenient and affordable, as well as in small quantities. While silkscreeners usually require a minimum of 150 shirts for a new design order, the DTG printer can produce as few as one.

Bean also decided that the brick-and-mortar shop would offer a fun atmosphere for customers and employees alike.

“The customer will tell you everything you need to know to be able to service them, so the whole store experience is designed around that,” he says.

The second epiphany literally came through the front door. Bean and his partners were operating the T-shirt shop when a customer complimented Bean, president and CEO, on how well the business was doing — and then asked how he could open his own store.

Bean didn’t hesitate to describe what direct-to-garment printer and T-shirts to buy. But the customer said that wasn’t his question — he wanted to buy a franchise.

Bean agreed, but didn’t know anything about franchising. Now, he has 65 franchises and business is booming, in large part due to the DTG technology and the Big Frog experience.

Challenges of franchising

Bean, however, had to learn about franchising — and in a hurry.

“It’s one thing when you are dealing with employees; it’s another when you are dealing with 65 independently owned and operated stores, their managers and people,” Bean says. “Each franchise has a very distinct personality, and there are no two that are the same.”

Another big challenge was building the infrastructure to support the franchises.

“When you look at franchising on paper, you think, what a great business this is! You quickly find out that there is a lot of support needed if you want to grow the franchise.”

Bean hopes his numbers — and franchises — will grow in the next few years. The goal is to reach 300 units.

How to reach: Big Frog Custom T-Shirts and More, (727) 286-8985 or www.bigfrog.com