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Paul Thorleifson, left, and Brooks Keen launched their online t-shirt brand Towns Apparel Co. in June, 2020.Courtney Champagne/The Globe and Mail

It’s hard to believe now, but when Brooks Keen and Paul Thorleifson launched their online T-shirt brand Towns Apparel Co. in June 2020, they were taking orders via Google Forms.

The duo, long-time friends who were also roommates in Winnipeg at the time, had the idea to sell T-shirts with minimalist illustrations of small Manitoba towns years earlier. It started when Mr. Keen designed a tattoo featuring an outline of their hometown, Manitou, a community of less than 1,000 located 150 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.

When Mr. Thorleifson saw it, he immediately wanted the same design on a t-shirt. So, they printed out a few and found the perfect occasion to wear them: Manitou’s annual curling bonspiel.

“I think that was when the seed was planted that it could be something else,” Mr. Thorleifson says.

It wasn’t until March, 2020 that they brought the idea to life. Stuck in the house in the early days of lockdown, the two friends remembered their custom T-shirts and decided it was the perfect time to scale the idea. They mocked up drawings of three small Manitoba towns – Manitou, Thorleifson’s girlfriend’s town and another nearby town – and printed a few of each, then listed the available options in a Google Form that they shared with their friends and broader networks.

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The two started Towns Apparel Co. without many expectations. Three years later, they've reached nearly 300 small Canadian towns.Courtney Champagne/The Globe and Mail

“We launched not really expecting [anything], but that first day there was just an incredible response,” Mr. Thorleifson says. “We were both sitting at our computers all day, answering messages, putting new towns in a Google Form [so people could order].”

“It blows my mind that people would order through Google Forms and pay us and everything,” he adds. “Looking back, it just seems so illegitimate. But at the time, it seemed normal and worked.”

Three years later, things have changed substantially. The pair launched a proper e-commerce platform and have experimented with different forms of marketing, and now share business responsibilities from two different provinces (Mr. Thorleifson has since relocated to Vancouver). All the while, they rely on the internet to grow their business, while keeping their focus hyper-local.

“When we were getting started, we thought, ‘Let’s have an idea of how we’re going to do things, but let’s just launch it and see what responses we get,’” Mr. Keen says. “We didn’t want to spend a whole bunch of money or a whole bunch of time working and developing something if no one was into it.”

“Then, over the first weeks and months,” he adds, “both Paul and I felt that we should probably get a website to ‘legitimize’ this a little.”

Switching to an e-commerce platform was relatively pain-free – Mr. Thorleifson describes it as a couple of weeks of hard work and troubleshooting – but figuring out the right marketing strategy was more challenging.

From the beginning, Instagram has played an important role in growing Towns’ audience. At the beginning, printing restrictions meant they couldn’t print a town’s design until there were 10 orders, so they posted countdowns on their Instagram story, which served the dual purpose of updating customers and encouraging them to tell their families and friends to place an order for their chosen design so the company could get to the 10-piece minimum faster.

Even when their printer was eventually able to accommodate one-off orders, they saw a direct correlation between posting on Instagram and spikes in order volumes, so they continued to leverage their reach on social. They also forged relationships with other local businesses with whom they could partner on giveaways or other promotional strategies. One such partnership – with Cranked Energy, a Winnipeg company that makes energy bars – yielded 500 new Instagram followers.

That’s not to say every marketing attempt has gone smoothly. Investing money in paid promotion on Instagram hasn’t been very effective, nor have other types of online advertising, especially when the duo has tried to expand outside of Manitoba.

“At this point, we’ve done 200 to 300 towns in Manitoba, so obviously, we’ve tried to expand to Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario,” Mr. Keen says. “But that has been something we struggle with. At one point, we tried advertising in an online newspaper in rural Saskatchewan, because we were trying to hit smaller towns and rural areas. But it didn’t really seem to do anything.”

There has been one surprisingly analogue win, though: a 2022 feature in the Winnipeg Free Press, which led to a noticeable bump in sales and a brand-new customer segment, something Mr. Keen and Mr. Thorleifson didn’t appreciate until they started receiving phone calls.

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The duo, long-time friends who were also roommates in Winnipeg at the time, had the idea to sell t-shirts with minimalist illustrations of small Manitoba towns.Courtney Champagne/The Globe and Mail

“My phone number is up on the website in case anybody needs to call and ask questions, but I don’t think anybody ever called until after that story, and it was all older people,” Mr. Thorleifson says. “I took their orders over the phone, which was the only time I’ve ever done that. It was interesting to see how it took totally different mediums to reach that audience.”

The duo both have full-time jobs – Mr. Keen as a project manager for a building company and Mr. Thorleifson as a certified public accountant – so they’re comfortable with their current rate of growth. But as they look to the future, they’re hoping to develop more partnerships with local businesses and organizations, from minor league hockey associations to schools, with whom they collaborate on fundraisers and split the profits. They’ve also started working with golf courses to produce merch.

“The nice thing is, we’ve let the business follow its own ebbs and flows,” Mr. Keen says. “We’ve always kept a clear idea in our own minds of what Towns is about, but we’ve [also] responded to what customers are interested in and seen what comes around.”

”In terms of what is next,” Mr. Keen says, “I think we’re just going to continue rolling with it.”

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