Four years ago, on a drive from Chicago to Bloomington, Illinois, Billy Stevenson had a lot of time to think, to contemplate his future. He had been working for his family's business, Stevenson Transfer, based in Ottawa and in business since 1908. He was a fourth generation employee.
On that rainy Tuesday, Stevenson started thinking about trying something different, as he had contemplated the previous weekend while at a party and the talk switched to producing funny, snarky T-shirts with witty, often off-color comments/quips.
He returned to Chicago, and told his partner of seven yearsShawn Van Horn, who was working in investments for Charles Schwab at the time. They couldn't come up with an idea or thought why they wouldn't start the venture.
The T-shirt gig was going to be something they could do for themselves on the side.
Stevenson and Van Horn wanted John Lashmett to join their venture, as he carried more than 20 years of experience in the field. So they had Lashmett over for lunch that next Saturday.
Lashmett agreed, immediately; he was in. Stevenson admittedly was surprised. "[That was] not the reaction [or response] we were expecting at all," Stevenson said.
The next day, Lashmett went back over to meet with Stevenson and Van Hornand the trio formed their business plan, at the dining room table.
A few weeks later, at Kansas City Pride, they formally launchedwith six shirt designs.
Also in 2011, their new T-shirt business, named iCandee, was selling shirts at the annual Midsommarfest in Chicago and other events. They were regulars at street fairs and elsewhere in 2011 and 2012, including IML in 2012.
Then one night at Big Chicks, Stevenson spotted Jack Neilsen, who is the commissioner of the open division softball league of the predominantly gay Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ). Neilsen had previously purchased an iCandee shirt at a street fair and then personally bedazzled it, a Neilsen tradition.
Neilsen asked if they do custom workfor teams and beyond.
That led to a new part of the iCandee businesscustom marketing for specialty orders.
Today, there is iCandee apparel ( retail ) and the much larger iCandee marketing ( custom orders )and both are proud members, supporters of the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. In fact, when it was announced in mid-March that after a nearly three-month search, the board of directors of the Chicago Area Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce had hired Gerardo Rodriguez as the organization's new executive director, it was Stevenson making the announcement. Stevenson is the board chair of the Chamber.
iCandee has flourished in the promotional products industry over the past four years, with its three-member, all-gay management team. Stevenson, 42, is originally from Ottawa, Illinois, and has been in Chicago for about eight years. Van Horn, 39, hails from Hope Island, Georgia. Lashmett, 57, is originally from Jacksonville, Illinois, and has called Chicago home since 1990.
iCandee has been a hit with major corporations, such as Allstate, BP and Blue Cross Blue Shield, among others, and also within the LGBT community. CMSA is a major player with iCandee-produced jerseys and more, as well as shirts and more for Proud To Run, Fred Says, Over The Rainbow and the Chicago Spirit Brigade, among other primarily LGBT outlets.
"I don't want you to do business with me because we are a gay-owned business. I want that to be a part of the reason, but mostly, I want you to do business with us because we offer great quality, competitive pricing and we give back to the community," said Stevenson, whose work is ever-present at the Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) and throughout its Ride For AIDS, among other causes/events.
iCandee produces products for CMSA dodgeball, softball and other sports, including team shirts for many leagues, such as women's basketball.
iCandee also produces products for the gay softball league in Atlanta, Tulsa and Birmingham, and was the official merchandise licensee of the 2014 Gay Softball World Series.
Stevenson said it is "incredibly important" to be able to work within the LGBT community. "Being able to support groups that support our community is very important and meaningful," he said. "We are invested in the community."
Neilsen said working with iCandee has been "a great experience."
"To work with a vendor who is part of the LGBT community and offers competitive pricing, quality products, and meets their deadlines are a few of the reasons that we utilize iCandee for our leagues," he said. "They have such an array of products and designs … and if they don't have it, they will find it for you and make it happen."
iCandee has a 2,400-square-foot storefront facility in Edgewater that includes a showroom, office space, storage section, conference area and production facility. The team is already considering expansion.
"Did I think, in just under four years, that we'd be in our own facility, having been in it for about a year … absolutely not," he said. "This was going to be a side thing for all of us."
Stevenson said part of the company's 2015 focus is to revive its retail offerings.
For more information about iCandee, visit www.icandeemarketing.com .