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Business Insider

Posted: Mar 16 2015

T-shirts and tote bags are great for announcing to the world how you feel about almost anything, whether it's politics, music, or your alma mater. But what about the books you love?

Todd Lawton and Jeffrey LeBlanc started Out of Print Clothing to let readers show off classic cover art from books such as "Pride and Prejudice" and "The Great Gatsby." As Lawton explains it, "We wanted to give book lovers the same experience as other people who love superheroes and sports teams. Musicians have merchandise. Superheroes have merchandise. Why not books?"

Since its founding in 2010, Out of Print has expanded into selling every kind of literary-themed merchandise imaginable, including smartphone cases and baby onesies. For every product it sells, the company donates one book through the nonprofit Books For Africa. (They've donated millions of books so far.)

When Lawton and LeBlanc met as seven-year-olds in Portland, Oregon, their only business experience was holding the occasional yard sale to raise money for soccer uniforms. Lawton laughs, "We got to learn how to price things, though. Handle cash."

After LeBlanc moved away in seventh grade, the two friends didn’t meet again until 2004, when they were in New York City. By then, LeBlanc had been a consultant at McKinsey and worked for a hedge fund. Lawton was brand manager for Nike. "I think one of the reasons we work so well together is we have complementary skills," says LeBlanc. "Todd comes from a sales and marketing background, and I came from the less interesting world of finance and consulting and operations. Between those two areas, we seem to have the bases covered."

Their best-selling line right now is the Library Stamp Collection of shirts, designed to look like those old-fashioned library checkout cards. The company has 11 employees, with plans to expand their product lines further.

Their favorite books, by the way? Lawton picks "Catch-22," while LeBlanc's favorite is "The Count of Monte Cristo."

We interviewed Lawton and LeBlanc as part of our Fast Track Q&A series, in which we're asking various small-business owners 11 questions about their professional and personal inspirations. Read more in the series »

Interview conducted by Business Insider Studios and edited for clarity and length.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Todd Lawton: I basically wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. I had this fascination with things underwater and I wanted to be down there.

Jeffrey LeBlanc: I wanted to be a pilot. When I was 5, I flew to Scotland and I actually got to go in the cockpit and handle the controls.

Jeff & Todd_circa 1984.JPG

Out of Print- Lawton and LeBlanc in 1984.

How did you get the idea for your business?

Lawton: Obviously we were both fond of books, and we felt like there was a way to make books cooler. They can be a fashion statement and should be a fashion statement. The cover art is some of the best from the 20th century.

How did you pick the name for your business?

Lawton: We were looking at a lot of covers and they were all out of print, so the name just came to us right away.

What's the biggest risk you've taken in your career?

LeBlanc: I think for me it was leaving a cushy hedge-fund job. I had no idea what was next.

Lawton: I would say moving to New York from Oregon was probably my biggest risk. It was just after college. I had no contacts, no job, and then just decided to come out and figure it out. It was scary coming from somewhere like Portland, Oregon. I remember the first night. It was in 1999, and I was walking around the city. I was like, "Where am I?"

What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?

Lawton: A couple of years ago during the holiday time, our busiest time, we had an order come through and in the notes section it said, "Can you please hand-draw a picture of a cat on this package?" We were so far behind on orders, to the point where Jeff and I were actually pitching in at the warehouse to get things out. We sat down there and I forget who did it but someone drew a picture — I think our warehouse manager at the time. It made someone’s holiday.

What is your greatest talent, professional or otherwise?

LeBlanc: I don’t know if it’s a talent or something else, but I once ran for 24 hours straight in a race.

Lawton: I’d say, collectively, Jeff and I have a really positive outlook. And obviously, perseverance.

What's the first job you ever had?

Lawton: I took care of a neighbor’s hamster while they were on vacation. And it got out and I had to go into the hardware store and get one of those live traps and we ended up catching it a few nights later. I moved on to walking dogs after that. They’re much easier to track down.

LeBlanc: In junior high I was a paperboy and I had to collect money for the paper. The highlight of that job for me was this one elderly lady who would actually give me, as a tip, a coin from her old coin collection. To this day I have them.

What's the weirdest job you've ever had?

Lawton: Shortly after I moved to New York, I somehow ended up as a coat checker at a restaurant on New Year's Eve. That particular night especially, at the end of a millennium, was the weirdest job I think I’ve ever had.

Which entrepreneur or business personality do you most admire?

LeBlanc: For me, I choose Elon Musk, because he’s not just building companies, but also industries.

Lawton: Growing up in Oregon and having worked at Nike, I would say Phil Knight. In terms of having a passion, pursuing it, and taking it to the point of really changing the world — he's inspiring.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Lawton: I think it would be awesome to breathe underwater, just walk along on the bottom of the ocean. I’ll do that. It kind of ties to your first question.

LeBlanc: It’s funny, my answer also ties to your first question: I would want to fly.

What advice would you give to an aspiring small business owner?

Lawton: Get an idea or concept out as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to talk about it with people, because that’s really how your ideas form. It's how they move forward.

LeBlancMove as quickly as you can from planning mode to doing mode. It's the best way you can find out if you have something that works. Get your idea out there, and get real feedback from real customers.

Lawton: Just come up with something. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ll know pretty soon if it doesn’t work, and you keep constantly changing, growing.

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