At Kin Ship Goods in Charleston, business, creativity, and coziness intersect.
The motto at Kin Ship Goods is “stay cozy,” and it suits them. On a sunny but cold Tuesday this spring the store’s owners, Dan Davis and Hillary Harrison, opened up the store so we could talk about their business and their art. Kin Ship, a little shop tucked into the nook between two much taller buildings in downtown Charleston, is normally only open to customers Thursday through Saturday, so it was empty and quiet. Davis pulled a chair out of the back room, where they keep the screen-printing studio, into the front, the shop’s retail space. Harrison sat on the shop’s red plaid couch with their dog, Hazel, a graying beagle they adopted two years ago. She snored from time to time—Hazel, that is, not Harrison. We were surrounded by Kin Ship’s wares: stacks of tees, sweatshirts, and mugs printed with simple images and quippy phrases. One demands that you “Ask Me About My Cat.” Another tells you to “Stay Cozy.” There’s a mug that says “Silence is Golden” and another that says to “Take a Nip and Sip.” “Our aesthetic is one where the shirt is supposed to feel like, even if your life is completely in the gutter, you can put this shirt on and it will make your life feel a little better,” Davis says.
Don’t be thrown off by the laid-back vibe, though. Kin Ship is a successful business. It got its start back in 2009, when Davis and Harrison started screen printing greeting cards in a little art gallery they’d started in the back of a shop in Louisville, Kentucky. Davis was in a band and had a background in screen printing. Harrison had a photography degree and had founded an arts magazine—they’re both always interested in new creative pursuits. “We started making greeting cards and had fun doing that, so then in 2011 we started doing some shirts,” Davis says. “That’s when we opened an Etsy store.”
Etsy is an online marketplace for artists and craftspeople—think of it as Amazon’s funkier, more personable cousin. The site launched in 2005 and, by 2011, had 10 million members. In certain circles of artists and makers it was, and remains, a very big deal. So it was also a big deal when, not long after Davis and Harrison launched Kin Ship, Etsy chose to feature the shop on its front page.
From there, the good press just kept coming. Davis and Harrison were featured in magazines like Country Living and on blogs like Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge. The retail website ModCloth became a customer, and comedian and television star Mindy Kaling wore Kin Ship’s sweatshirts on TV. Twice. The company grew with all that attention, but not as drastically as you might think. Davis and Harrison are really risk averse for small business owners—they’re in this business more because it lets them be creative in their day jobs, and less for the entrepreneurial thrill. “I think what really benefits us is that we’re not that into money,” Davis says. “If Hazel has food, the cats have food, and we can drink coffee together and pay the rent, we’re fine. And I don’t have to sell that many shirts to be able to drink coffee and feed Hazel.”
For years they kept at least one day job between them—one person would go to work all day while the other worked on the business, and then they’d work on Kin Ship together all evening and on the weekends. They didn’t invest in a studio for more than four years after they started Kin Ship. Even after ModCloth started purchasing huge orders of shirts every few months, they were still printing them all in the spare bedroom in their apartment. “We could print in there, so we did,” Davis says. “It was super tight, but we could do it.” They can only now afford to keep stock on the shelves. Before, everything was made to order because they couldn’t afford to buy blank shirts to print on until someone had already paid for the finished product. Thanks to all that careful use of their resources, Davis and Harrison were able to start a business and operate it for almost six years, all without credit. Aside from a $1,000 loan from a friend to buy their first printing press, they’ve paid for everything up front. “That was really hard, but that’s what we wanted to do,” Harrison says. “And in a lot of ways it made us make smarter choices, where if we’d had that money in the beginning we’d have just bought whatever we thought of, instead of being thoughtful about all of our decisions.”
Last year, Davis and Harrison decided to relocate from Louisville to Charleston. Harrison’s from Sissonville, and even though she left town as soon as she could after high school graduation, she always knew she wanted to come back someday to be closer to her family. “And from a business perspective, it’s easier for us to make an impact here than in Louisville,” Davis says. “Somewhere like Louisville, everyone’s just over everything, because they’ve seen it all before. Here we have people walking in and just saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,’ and then they start touching everything. You can do things here that you couldn’t do anywhere else because it will just be met with blind enthusiasm.”
At first they were just looking for studio space where they could print their stuff and sell it online, but when they found a downtown location with room for a retail space out front, they decided to give it a shot. “We had a big talk about wanting to be able to do something for Charleston,” Harrison says. “I want it to just be a cool place to go. It’s more about having a space where people can come hang out and look at cool things than selling things.” Davis chimes in. “Kin Ship wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gone to some place at some point and seen something that blew my mind, or bought a record that changed my mind,” he says. “Not that Kin Ship is changing minds, but maybe some kid will see something that isn’t like anything they’ve seen before. Maybe they’ll be like, ‘I could make something, too.’”
Tips from Kin Ship
Just do it already.
“My Biggest advice is just to do the thing instead of talking about it forever and ever,” Harrison says. It’s so frustrating to hear from people about what they want to do, and then five years later they haven’t actually taken any steps to make it happen.”
Don’t be afraid to mess up.
“I think that’s a really sad reason people don’t try anything,” Harrison says. “And we’ve messed up so many things—just like the name of our company. We changed it three times.” Davis agrees. “I’ve messed up thousands of dollars of shirts because there was ink on my thumb,” he says. “But it was fine.”
Figure out what you want to do-and then do it.
“Figure out what you actually want out of the project and then just stick to that,” Davis says. “Don’t go into it and say, “I’m going to make art and take over everything.’ Be more realistic.”
Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Katey Shelton