At the risk of burying the lede, let us tell you a story about the first time we attended SXSW. This was March 2011, just after we’d launched the first major revision of United Pixelworkers. UP was showing the first signs of life, but we were still complete nobodies. We had no meaningful clients, no Twitter followers, no industry friends. We’d never even been to a real conference before. Walking around Austin with some new pals we’d met the night before (you know them as Dave Rupert and Reagan Ray from Paravel), we ran into Adam Michela. We introduced ourselves as Jay and Nate from Full Stop, a web design studio in Pittsburgh, PA. Suffice it to say he’d never heard of us. A little while later over beers, Adam casually asked us what kinds of projects we worked on. We rattled off a list of no-name clients, then said that we had a small t-shirt brand called United Pixelworkers. “Whoa!” he replied. “You’re the United Pixelworkers guys?! Forget your other company. From now on, you should introduce yourselves as United Pixelworkers.” It’s not much of an overstatement to say that that moment forever changed the course of our business.
If you’re reading this blog post, you don’t need us to tell you what came next, but let’s do it anyway for posterity. Over the next three years, United Pixelworkers became an industry phenomenon. We sold tens of thousands of shirts (and hats, and notebooks, and patches). We got to team up with our heroes on awesome t-shirt designs, people we’re lucky enough to now call friends. Aaron Draplin designed our killer logo…something we still can’t believe. We started our own podcast, job board, blog, and even a massive March Madness pool. We’ve given talks all around the country (hell, we even told our story in Sweden). We can walk into any design conference on the planet and see people wearing our shirts. Along with our friends Bearded Studio, Brad Frost, and Web Design Day, we put our hometown of Pittsburgh on the web industry map. United Pixelworkers—more than anything else we’ve ever done in 5+ years of being in business—is responsible for our success. It’s so important that we founded a completely separate and far more successful t-shirt company on the back of UP’s reputation. All because of a dumb little idea Jay had in the car driving across Pennsylvania in early 2010. A t-shirt brand for a fake web design union.
Alright, enough stalling. Today, we’re bittersweetly announcing the end of United Pixelworkers. We’re closing up shop, and Cotton Bureau will be our sole business focus.
All things—especially good things—must end. United Pixelworkers could have ended years ago—or it could have gone on indefinitely—but it didn’t and it won’t. The time for it to end is now, and the rest of this post will hopefully explain the why and how. Let’s answer some questions.
Yeah, we know this probably comes as a bit of a shock. The truth is, United Pixelworkers was never as big as you probably thought it was. At its absolute apex (a time period we’d pin somewhere around mid-2012), it maybe—maybe—earned enough profit to support one of us full-time (and there are 4 of us over here). It was a side project for Full Stop, and when we closed that, it became a side project for Cotton Bureau (and for comparison, Cotton Bureau is currently 2–3x as big as United Pixelworkers was at its peak). UP’s brand momentum has slowed significantly. Sales have certainly slowed, we can tell you that. Here’s the thing: business is a grind. People get tired of hearing about your thing. They don’t share it with the same enthusiasm they once did, especially if you’re not giving it 100% of your time and effort (and we never were…not even close).
So what’s going to happen to United Pixelworkers?
United Pixelworkers the store is closing Dec. 18th. That’s the last day we can reasonably expect to get orders shipped in time to be there for Christmas domestically (and we’re stocked up for the holidays, so if you want to buy something, we wouldn’t wait). The blog and podcast will stick around. Mockup templates will remain available for sale through Creative Market. We’ll almost certainly replace the site with a note to remember us by. The Twitter account and mailing list will go quiet. The legal entity, United Pixelworkers LP, and all associated intellectual property will continue to be owned by us in the event some future incarnation of United Pixelworkers rises from these ashes. We’re not ruling out a comeback someday if circumstances change, but this certainly feels like the end.
I understand that UP has slowed down, but does it have to die?
We hate to walk away from this. We have to, though. We have to walk away or we will never know if Cotton Bureau can be a company that provided for 10 people (or 100 people) instead of five people. If we can build something that lets us stop living paycheck-to-paycheck like we’ve been doing for 5+ years. If we can touch 100,000 people a year instead of 10,000. Maybe we’re doing this all wrong, but we’re doing it our way. Truth be told, we could probably keep United Pixelworkers going for another year or so, churning out a new product or two every month, realizing a steady but ever-slowing trickle of not-quite-passive income. But that’s not what we want, and neither do you. None of us want to see UP die in a hospital room, hooked up to life support. If it’s gonna go out, let’s send it out with a bang. Let’s drive it off a goddamn cliff together, like Thelma & Louise. Whaddaya say?
OK sure. How do I help?
This part is easy. The most important thing you could do is follow us to Cotton Bureau. Follow us on Twitter, on Instagram, on Tumblr, and sign up for our weekly newsletter. As far as United Pixelworkers goes, we’re leaving you with a sweet gold foil-printed tee to remember us by. It’s called UP Forever and it comes in black, white, and a black crewneck pullover (available for pre-order until November 19). It’s the last United Pixelworkers shirt we’re ever gonna make, so don’t miss it.
We also have shelves full of stock for the holiday season. If you’ve been eyeing a classic UP tee, hat, beanie, or notebook, now’s the time to grab it.
Why don’t you sell United Pixelworkers?
Nobody has ever asked. Maybe that’s because it’s not worth buying, maybe it’s because we haven’t made an effort to talk to the right people. We have no plans to sell United Pixelworkers, but we would consider it if the right person or group of people was interested. Whether we’re not particularly good at running this business or the stars just haven’t aligned, we can honestly say that we saw a future where United Pixelworkers was 10x bigger than it currently is. We talked internally about making sure everyone that worked with pixels felt like part of the club, we talked about bigger and better apparel products, what we could do if we had money to advertise, membership programs, union benefits, conferences, co-working spaces, and, frankly, many other equally fantastic things. If someone wants to follow through on those dreams, we know that the smartest, most talented, most attractive people on the Internet are subscribed to our newsletter and follow @pixelworkers on Twitter. The Aaron Draplin mark is absolutely killer. The name is great, the domain is great, etc. If you want to talk to us about how to keep United Pixelworkers going, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We want to thank the following friends for their support over the years (in alphabetical order): A Book Apart, Aaron Draplin, Bearded Studio, Big Cartel, Bobby McKenna, Brad Frost, Build Responsively, Chris Glass, Colin Miller, Creative Market, Curtis Jinkins, Cute Fight, Dan Cassaro, Dan Mall, Discourse, Dribbble, Erik Marinovich, Ethan Marcotte, Evan Stremke, Gerren Lamson, Happy Cog, IA Summit, InVision, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jessica Hische, Jez Burrows, Jon Contino, Jonathan Snook, Jory Raphael, Kyle Steed, Letterpress, Loren Brichter, Lost Type, Mat Marquis, Matt Stevens, Meagan Fisher, Mig Reyes, Mike Monteiro, Mule Radio, Naz Hamid, Nishant Kothary, Offscreen Magazine, Paul Armstrong, Phil Coffman, Rdio, Rick Murphy, Ron Lewis, Ryan Clark, Ryan Katrina, Sarah Parmenter, Sergey Shapiro, Shopify, Studio Neat, Tattly, The Clink Room, The Manual, Tim Boelaars, Tim Van Damme, Tyler Galpin, Virb, and anyone who ever sponsored a local tee (with a very special nod to Eric Meyer and An Event Apart).
If you helped support us by buying our stuff, there’s no way we can ever thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us over the years. We thought United Pixelworkers was a match, but you turned it into a bonfire.
Jay, Nate, Matt, Sara, and Laura
United Pixelworkers (2010–forever)