#11. Del Reid
Let me introduce you to Del Reid. If you’re a part of the #BillsMafia or ordered a shirt from 26 Shirts, then you’ve already interacted with Del. And after reading this interview, I hope that you feel even better about that experience than you already do.
First, we’ll start with BillsMafia
Del: “What was an inside joke between myself and four or five other fans back in 2010/2011, was eventually discovered by some Bills players who started using the term BillsMafia. And it just took off. Once it took off, we saw an opportunity. Should we do something with this? This is our thing. Before it gets too big, should we make it something? So I started selling some BillsMafia t-shirts. People were buying them and we sold quite a few. I created a little BillsMafia logo, kind of like a Twitter bird with a red slash on it. I was putting that on peoples’ avatars for them until I found a website that’ll automate it for you. But I was doing it all manually through photoshop.”
“People started asking, what is this whole BillsMafia thing? Is it just about t-shirts, is that all it is? And I always tell people, I’m almost forty years old and I’ve been a fan for longer than that. It’s in my DNA, I was born to be a Bills fan. I grew up in a house that had a picture of O.J. Simpson on the wall. Catholic families have pictures of the Pope – we had a picture of O.J. Simpson. It came down in 1994, but it was up there until then. That was what I was raised under. So I would never want to sell out my fellow fans.”
“I decided that we’ll take the money from the shirts and we’ll give it to charity. I worked at Roswell, so it seemed natural. My desk at the time was two floors below the fundraising office. I just walked up there and tried to explain this whole twitter thing and t-shirts, and finally I just said, “Can I just give you money?” and they said, “Yeah!””
“I put out a tweet, “From now on, anything we sell, going back to everything we’ve ever sold, will be donated to Roswell Park. People responded with, “Yay, that’s awesome!” I felt like that contributed to a lot of the staying power that we had, because then people knew we weren’t making them to earn money for ourselves, and we weren’t trying to take advantage of other fans.”
“Eventually, a couple years later, we created a 501c3 non-profit, Buffalo FAMbase. All of the sales from the shirts funneled through there. We did a couple events every year where we did basket raffles and everything. So that’s going to about 2013. That’s where 26 Shirts comes into it.”
Tell us about 26 Shirts
“Somebody reached out to me, because we have such a large social media presence now with BillsMafia. It wasn’t as big then as it is now, but it was still pretty big. It was probably in the neighborhood of around twenty thousand followers on twitter. We’re about sixty-three or sixty-four now. People would always reach out to me and say, “Hey, will you share this” or “Hey will you do this”. I try to get an idea of what it’s for, because if I’m not making money off it, you’re not making money off it. That’s the whole idea; I want to make sure peoples’ intentions are pure. So this guy Scott comes to me and says “Hey, I’m doing a raffle, would you mind giving the link out to people?” So he tells me how he’s raffling off a Mario Williams jersey that’s signed and he won it from Summer Sanders, who is an Olympian swimmer – married a Bills fan, now she is a Bills fan. I said, “Why would you want to give that up? That’s a pretty unique thing. Not only is it signed by Mario Williams, but you won it from an Olympian, what the heck?” I’m not a big memorabilia guy, but I do like when something has a story behind it. I won’t buy something that has an autograph on it, personally. But if I’m there, when the dude signs it, then it’s a big deal to me.”
“So, Scott goes on to tell me that his daughter Amber has retinoblastoma, which is basically eye cancer. She was two years old at the time, and she had one of her eyes removed and has a prosthetic. The other eye was still getting chemotherapy applied directly to the eye. It’s awful. Scott is living in North Carolina, but grew up in Western New York. His family is making trips to Sloan Kettering every couple weeks or so for the treatment. People don’t realize, you can have the best insurance in the world, but the best insurance isn’t going to cover your travel and lodging. That’s on you. So I’m reading the story from this guy while I’m heading into work for the day and I’m crying in the car. So I told Scott, the father of the girl with retinoblastoma, “Dude, absolutely, I’ll put out a tweet about your raffle. And next time we sell a certain shirt, I’ll give you guys the money.” So then, that next Monday I go to a men’s accountability Bible study that I go to each week. I’m telling them, I have this idea, I want to sell this shirt for a dude. And as I’m talking through this idea. I said, “You know what, I think I could do it every week. I bet I could sell a different shirt every week and help a different person, because there are enough people out there who need help.” Bills fans are rabid. They can’t get enough shirts or cards or hats or jackets. The guys tell me, “Great idea, but you can’t do it every week, you’ll kill yourself.” I said, “Okay but the designs have to be timely, you can’t just sell one a month. It’s gotta be every other week. Otherwise it loses its effect.””
My friend Jake looks at me – and it’s burned into my memory: “That’s like, twenty-six shirts.”
“I woke up the next morning with the idea to do a one year project through BillsMafia and through our non-profit, of twenty-six different shirts and they’ll help twenty-six different families. And it’ll be fun to do. So then I call this my Jerry Maguire moment, where I put the blog post together, I put it up on the website, and all of a sudden people were retweeting it and sharing it, commenting on it, and the news called me. Okay, great. I put it out there, now I’m accountable to it. During that week, I had a conversation with my lawyer, and she said, “You can’t do that, as a non-profit, you can’t just give money to random people.” I said, “They’re not random, they’re people who need help.” But her point stood; our small non-profit didn’t have the infrastructure in place to follow all of the regulations and laws.”
“That same day, Dan Gigante from You and Who calls me and says “Who’s printing these shirts?” And I answered, “I haven’t gotten that far yet, to be honest with you.” And he says, “Well, can we print them?” and I didn’t even hesitate, I said, “Yes, absolutely. Awesome.” How cool is that? We’re going to print the shirts in Buffalo now! I call back my lawyer and said, “Okay, nevermind.” and hung up. I chose to not do it through my non-profit and BillsMafia, I chose to do it as its own separate entity because that way, as a private company, the company can give the money to whoever it wants to. It doesn’t have to worry about any regulations in terms of giving it out for this need or that need. It’s basically, “Oh, hey you need money? Here’s a check.” The way it turned out, I always joke, I got to do the fun stuff while Dan handled the boring stuff. You and Who was responsible for running the eCommerce, for printing shirts and for putting out the donations. And I just got to recruit people who need help and bring in artists and head all the creative stuff.”
“So that’s how it took off. Now we’re closing up our second volume, we’re starting our third year in about three weeks. And this has kind of taken off. So far we’ve raised, last I checked, over $162 thousand dollars. We’re now in Buffalo, Chicago and Pittsburgh. We’re working (at the time of this interview) on launching in Cincinnati.”
Tell us how 26 Shirts has grown to where it is now
Del: “I was doing this as a side hobby. I wasn’t making any money off it. I was putting all this time and effort into it and not getting any money back, which is fine because it’s not a money making opportunity. I view this as a ministry more than anything else. But that said, when I got laid off from Roswell, it was like, okay well now here’s the opportunity to focus on this full time, and have a bigger impact in more people’s lives. So, it took me about forty-five seconds to come to grips with the fact that I had been laid off.”
“In fact, I remember I got that phone call and I was at my desk – “This is employer relations, we need you to come down.” As soon as you get a call from employer relations, you know exactly what you’re getting called about. Holy crap, it actually happened! I had been there fourteen and a half years. In some ways, you could see the writing on the wall was there for a couple of years, because of the way that everything internally had been shifting around. When it happened, I remember walking from my office building to where HR/employer relations was, and thinking “God, I’m not ready, I’m not ready for this.” And halfway through the conversation of speaking to my supervisor, and employer relations, I was already at grips with it. I was like, “You know what, let’s do it.” I had been praying for over a year that I would have the ability to do 26 Shirts as my sole focus. And I had just recently come to grips with the fact that it might be a while until that happens. I was at peace. I think God was waiting for that, waiting for me to be at peace with not being able to do it full time, with not even doing it. I was praying, “Lord, if you want to increase this tenfold or thirtyfold, go for it, God, I am all in. But if you want to shut it down, please shut it down soon. Don’t toy with me.” Not that God would toy with somebody… just shut it down if it’s not supposed to happen, just get rid of it, get the distraction out of the way and move on to whatever I’m supposed to do.”
Tell us what keeps you doing this
“I finally came to peace with the fact that I’m just going to enjoy this for every moment that it brings, I’m going to enjoy every experience, I’m going to enjoy getting, first and foremost, the thank you cards that are written in crayon. The drawings from kids who had leukemia. I tear up. Secondly, I’m at Thurman Thomas’s house, legally, not trespassing, I’m on his back deck, I’m looking through the camera, and I’m thinking holy crap, and I’m taking a picture, and he’s smiling at me, and this is happening, and it is okay that this is happening.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some legendary players in Buffalo sports. And I’m just enjoying that for what it is. Like when an email drops in your inbox and it’s a picture of Jim Kelly wearing the shirt that you wanted him to model with two thumbs up. I got to spend time with Fred Smerlas and Joe Delamielleure back in last November. We did a shirt with Fred Smerlas who said, “Let’s promote the heck out of it.” So we did it during the Patriots bye week (he does a lot of radio commentary for the Patriots). So he came in, he pushed this shirt, and he said “Joe D, I work with him”, so we actually had him and Joe D do a signing event with us at the Seneca Niagara Casino for a whole day. So I got to spend a whole day listening to stories from hall-of-famer Joe D and should-be hall-of-famer Fred Smerlas. I heard all these stories about the Bills and the 80s and the 70s and it was amazing.”
“So, there are cool experiences on both ends of the spectrum. This idea that God kind of planted in my head (he gets full credit for everything) to help people in their worst, most hopeless situations, with something stupid like a t-shirt and be able to do that and turn it around into money. Like one shirt we sold, I’m not familiar with the family’s finances, I never get into that with them, but we raised 17 grand for this little girl who had leukemia. So chances are, we probably paid their mortgage for a year. We took a big burden off of them. That’s not the norm, we don’t always raise that amount of money, but there’s always that chance that we could. So to be able to do something like that was just amazing.”
“So that’s how I am right now, that’s the current story. It’s been amazing, and I really feel blessed to have the opportunity to be able to do this kind of stuff, and allow it to be my sole focus and not feel guilty when I’m supposed to be programming and I’m sitting here daydreaming about t-shirt ideas. It’s part of the job description. Now we have a part-time employee, as well. I’m now a salaried employee of the shirt company. It’s nice to be able to do this all the time, because it’s really become in some ways my life’s work. This is what I feel I was built to do.”
Do you think there’s anything particular about Buffalo that makes this work or special?
Del: “We are the city of good neighbors, right? Having only lived in Buffalo, and having limited experience so far with Chicago and Pittsburgh, not enough to really draw a lot of conclusions, I can only speak to Buffalo. I’d like to think that all places are like this. Maybe not. But there’s such a quality that the people have here to rally for somebody in need. Fans get a bad rap sometimes in terms of being mean to opposing fans who come into the stadium, or for being mean to each other when they disagree on points, especially on Twitter. But at the center of that tootsie pop, at the center of it all, there’s really a love and a desire to help your fellow neighbor. And we’ve seen that over the past two years now. Just time and time again, people are just excited to be able to help somebody else. And at the same time, our business model is: we want to give you the best possible shirt you’ll ever buy, the best quality shirt you’ll ever get, and we want it to be a design you’ll fall in love with. And oh yeah, you’ll get to help somebody at the same time. So it’s a win-win.”
“As for, “is there something special about Buffalo?”, I don’t know if the correct answer is “yeah”, but I really hope that this is in all of humanity, to try to rally around people who need help. That’s what we try to do. It’s one thing to put up a GoFundMe, and say “Please help, please send a donation.” But a lot of times, the way our brains are, you want to get something in return for giving something. So we help on that end of things.”
Do you have any particular inspirational stories that drives you?
“It’s hard to pick just one. I did an interview with a magazine last year and one of the family members – we did a shirt to raise money for a kid, Nate who has brain cancer, which he’s now beat – so the person wanted to interview the family. The mom basically said that I was a member of their family now. That hit me pretty hard to hear someone say that. Obviously you’d hope people appreciate stuff, but that’s not why I do it, I do it to help people. But to hear something like that, it feels amazing. That’s better than any paycheck. It’s cool to meet the players, but that’s a far distant second to having somebody say that. It sounds corny, but getting a cartoon drawing of a house and sun and birds, that’s what it’s about. The shirts are great, but I always say, we’re not a t-shirt website that helps people, we’re a website that helps people through t-shirts.”
What would you tell your younger version of yourself?
Del: “I would say, make sure you try to go to more classes your Freshman year of college. You don’t want to end up taking eleven years to get your four year degree, because that’s the path you’re on right now. But I really am grateful for every opportunity. That sounds like a cop-out, but I really am grateful for every opportunity, every good and bad thing that has happened in my life up to this point. God has used them to shape me and shape my mindset and bring me to the point where I am now. I would just make sure I was going to marry my wife. “Make sure you marry that one, she’s really good.” And I would reply back with a “Yeah, duh, I know. Leave me alone.” I probably also would have said, make sure you enjoy these Super Bowls and playoff games, it’s going to be a while until you see any more.”
What can Buffalo do to help you?
“First of all, I’m grateful for everything that Buffalo has done already. Local media has given us so much publicity. We’ve been featured a couple times in the blogosphere, which is great. There are so many people who believe in what we do, whether it’s customers or people who just believe in us and they spread the word to their friends. Going forward, I would just say, keep spreading the word, keep telling your friends about what we do. Tell your friends in Chicago and Pittsburgh or Cincinnati about what we’re doing. People are more likely to purchase something if somebody else tells them about it, than if the media tells them or if they hear about it in a commercial. So if you’re wearing one of our shirts, walk up to your friend and say, “Feel this shirt, feel how soft it is.” Because we take a lot of pride in the quality shirts that we offer. Endorse it with your friends, we’d be grateful for it.”
PUNT Foundation, Gwen Mysiak. I love what Punt does in terms of how they give direct financial support to families who have been affected by pediatric cancer.