“What makes me happy about our clothes, is that a lot of people have made friends and connections, relationships they wouldn’t have had otherwise, all because they were out wearing our clothes.”
~Megan Wheeler Tsuyuki
A turquoise blue wall of peeling paint in New Orleans caught the eye of Megan Wheeler Tsuyuki’s husband, Rob. His camera lens capturing the details. This image would soon become art on one of their tech shirts, lifting their small business, INKNBURN off the ground. “There is such great art in the world that goes on people’s walls that nobody ever sees, and we really wanted to get stuff out where people could see and enjoy it.”
Megan grew up in the small town of Enid, Oklahoma. “I was one of those kids that didn’t really fit in.” Her Mom, an abstract artist, and her Dad, an architect, both immersed Megan in the world of art and influenced her with their forward thinking. “I grew up in this very adventurous and exploring environment.” Megan recalls. Art was in her blood, but “Being a kid you kinda have to rebel.” At age eleven, inspired by her aunt, she found a new calling, ballet. “I was going to be a ballet dancer, which wasn’t going to be easy being from our small town.”
During her junior year, Megan received a scholarship offer to study with a ballet company. There was a catch. She would have to forgo her senior year in high school and move to Dallas, Texas. Her persuasion skills were as strong as her ballet talents, and she convinced her parents to let her dropout of high school a year early, and make the move 300 miles south. Her time in Texas was short-lived, as another scholarship offer, enticed her to make an even bigger move. This time, she packed up her belongings, and headed for the bright lights of New York City.
The city introduced her to new experiences and people, but she remained intensely focused on her craft. “I was very single minded.” After spending three years in NYC, she moved back west, this time landing in Austin, TX. Her reasons for the move, were two-fold. The ballet company expressed an interest in her and her parents enticed her with a car, “I got a wonderful Ford Granada for moving to Austin, Texas.” Knowing she needed to find other ways to support her dance, she got a part time job in data entry at a local business. “It was a way to get by, since you can’t really make much money in ballet.”
Megan danced with Ballet Austin for two years, but ballet was beginning to take a toll on her knees. “I’d heard there was a teacher in San Diego that was amazing, so I decided to move there to see if she could help. She had a company I could perform with as well, but I wasn’t paid.” Needing some additional income, she took a job with a computer graphics company.
It just so happened, Megan had a knack for computers. “Everyone was young and fun and it was this new industry taking off.” She was learning about computer graphics on mainframe computers. Art was always there, even though she had no formal training, she was able to lean on what she learned from her childhood. She would work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at her computer/graphics job, then in the evenings and weekends train and rehearse with her ballet company.
Years later, she started her first company, with a partner, an old friend from Enid. They specialized in CD-Rom designs, and ultimately turned it into an internet company, working on website design. It was also how she met her future husband Rob, who did motion graphics for computers, and was the creative director. Rob had an exceptional eye for photography and graphic design.
The two of them meshed well, as the company continued to grow. In the late 90’s, they were presented with the opportunity to sell the company. The timing was right and they made the move, which gave them a chance to slow down and focus on beginning their own family. Over the next several years, they welcomed their son, Kai and daughter, Mikayla. Their creative juices were still flowing, as they looked forward to their next adventure. “I was very lucky to have this business career, then have kids, then start another business, I was very fortunate.”
The early years of INKNBURN
In 2008, Rob, shared an idea with Megan that piqued her interest. “They have these cool printers that you can print designs on tee-shirts.” Megan lit up, “It combines art and clothes, two things I love, it was basically the birth of INKNBURN.” The pair invested in two machines, one being an Inkjet printer for clothes. Megan chuckled at the memory, “It was the size of a car!” The other machine was a laser, allowing them to burn designs onto clothing. The early years were pretty tough. A tee-shirt would be placed on the printer, the art printed on it, then it would run through another machine to cure it. INKNBURN mostly used premade cotton shirts and added custom designs to them.
It was that wall in New Orleans, that turquoise blue peeling paint that changed the way they thought about their products and designs. “Look how cool this would be, if we could have this art over the entire shirt, instead of just a square.” It was a vision, with lots of obstacles. They’d have to cut and sew clothes. At that time, neither one of them was a sewer or even owned a sewing machine. They went on to find a pattern designer. “She got us sewing machines, and patterns to make our own shirts.” Another big shift in their company, involved switching from cotton to tech materials.
INKNBURN’s most valuable product testers turned out to be a group of local ultra runners. Megan had the artistic piece figured out, but also wanted comfort and performance from her clothing. “It has to be good enough that someone can run 100 miles in it.” Megan and Rob wanted clothes that would withstand the demands of an athlete. The ultra runners were perfect for this part. “They’d come back and say this seam rubbed, or this didn’t work.” Using this feedback, the team would go back and fix the issues. The positive results within the running community worked, as the word about INKNBURN in the Southern California area started getting out. INKNBURN headed to local marathon expos and the bright, happy clothes were crowd pleasers.
To this day, runners make up most of their customer base. It can certainly be challenging with so many companies going after the performance industry, but INKNBURN’s loyal customers appreciate the quality and uniqueness of their clothes.. “We’re focused on the niche of people who want to stand out of the crowd, who want to be different. Color brings them joy, great art brings them joy.” That will always continue to be their focus. Their clothes are also gaining momentum in both the yoga and golf world. Megan’s son’s high school golf team were sporting INKNBURN polos this season.
As their popularity grew, INKNBURN began selling out of inventory, and they found themselves working hard to make more of the same design. “We quickly realized we were just reproducing our old designs and not coming up with new designs. One of the hardest parts of the business is to determine which sizes will sell out.” So they switched their business model to releases, and when they sold out, they were gone. Offering limited-edition designs allowed them to focus on what they loved doing most. “We like to innovate, we like to create.” Every business wants to grow their customer base, and this is especially true for Megan. “A challenge for us as a business is our clothes don’t wear out. We have to keep finding new customers as our older customers closets are getting full.”
Megan smiles as she speaks about the connections folks have made through INKNBURN. “What makes me happy about our clothes, is that a lot of people have made friends and connections, relationships they wouldn’t have had otherwise, all because they were out wearing our clothes.”
When I asked Megan what her favorite design thus far is, she had to pause. “I love the monarch design, it’s one of my favorites.” Tiny Bubbles (one of their artists) was the mastermind behind that design. “My mother’s house in Oklahoma, has trees that the monarch’s stop by when they are migrating, when I’m able, I try to see this, there are thousands of them.”
INKNBURN is home to twenty-eight employees. From artists to folks who print, press and sew their designs, to customer service and shipment. “We’re very tiny for what we do.” Their clothing is made and shipped worldwide from California, mostly from word of mouth and the sheer fact that their clothes are practical, excellent quality and stand out in a crowd. “I feel blessed everyday to get to do this for a living.”
Looking to the future
Over the years, INKNBURN continues to evolve and grow, bringing some big changes. “In December, we’ll be introducing a whole new option. Because we put so much time and effort into each design we make and we have this constant demand for designs that have sold out, we are going to introduce a new option.” INKNBURN will now have a Made to Order option. They will be going through their sold out designs on their site and making them available to order again. “That means we have to relayout the art on our current patterns, like two pockets instead of one on our capris, tights and pants. Then print, apply the art to our fabrics, sew and ship out.” They are realistically hoping for roughly a few weeks between order and shipping for a made to order design.
When Megan isn’t at the office, she can be found enjoying time with her family. “My focus is being there as a mom as much as possible, while they still have to hang around us.” You most certainly will find her with a book in hand, “I’m a voracious reader. I read as much as I possibly can. I just started listening to podcasts and audiobooks, I just discovered an extra hour of my day that I can learn more.”
As she reflects back on where she came from, going all the way back to that small town in Oklahoma, and her early love of art, inspired by her parents, she is content with the legacy she is building at INKNBURN. “Building websites is like building sandcastles. You put all this work, care and love into it. Then it goes away. I can’t even share with my kids all the work I did. “Whatever we do next, I want it to be something that lasts, something I can show my kids and be proud of. What we’re doing now, fits the bill.”