Diane Mastrull: Soccer-based apparel company gives immigrant a piece of the American dream

Olaloye prepares to hand-paint boxes of clothing for shipment. For now, LBF headquarters are in the basement of Cucinotta's parents' house in Gibbstown. Total sales have reached $40,000.
Olaloye prepares to hand-paint boxes of clothing for shipment. For now, LBF headquarters are in the basement of Cucinotta's parents' house in Gibbstown. Total sales have reached $40,000.
Posted: February 05, 2013

As 21st birthdays go, Ebun Olaloye's was far from raucous. He spent it in an eighth-floor studio in Temple University's architecture building.

There, on Nov. 17, 2010, the Nigerian immigrant sketched out a design that came to him, he said, in a 45-minute burst of inspiration.

His final work was no grand edifice. No soaring atriums or marble-columned porticos. His creation was simply a T-shirt logo, the letters LBF contained within a black soccer ball. Around its perimeter were the words the letters stood for, Live Breathe Futbol, and the Roman numerals XXI - for the 21 T-shirts Olaloye would sell in commemoration of his milestone birthday and his sports obsession.

"I do live and breathe soccer," Olaloye said.

He sold out in a few hours with a marketing effort that involved nothing more than Twitter. Olaloye, the son of a doctor and a seamstress, took it as a career calling to be an entrepreneur. He formed an online apparel company, Live Breathe Futbol, partnering with Domenick Cucinotta, 25, another Temple graduate and soccer devotee, whose degree in film helps with online marketing.

Their company specializes in what Olaloye and Cucinotta consider a promising niche: stylish soccer-themed lifestyle clothing, not field wear.

Their target market: soccer fans who want to communicate their love of the game through a variety of T-shirts, hoodies, crewneck sweatshirts, track jackets, and scarves - the category of fanatics, like Olaloye and Cucinotta, who get up before sunrise to watch a game played in Europe.

"It's not for the guy who watches the World Cup once every four years," Cucinotta said.

Theirs is a Made-in-the-U.S.A. enterprise. The shirts are produced in California, the printing is done in Philadelphia, and some of the embroidery is stitched by Olaloye's mother, Bola, who lives in Pennsauken.

With products priced from $19 to $54, total sales have reached $40,000, as they prepare to add a women's line for Valentine's Day.

Financing has come from a range of sources. Olaloye's sister lent him $160 for the first batch of shirts he ordered in 2010. Sales profit has supported operations since then, along with a $20,000 investment "from one of our loyal customers," Olaloye said.

Last month, the company picked up $5,000 from FedEx in a grant competition that awarded a total of $50,000 to six small businesses.

"They have a great story," said Lisa Menuskin, a marketing manager at FedEx in Memphis. "It's a modern-day story of an immigrant [Olaloye came to the United States when he was 10] starting a business to achieve the American dream."

As a start-up, Live Breathe Futbol's resources are typically tight. So for now, its headquarters are in the basement of Cucinotta's parents' house in Gibbstown, where inventory fills shelves once used for household storage.

One day last week, the business also took over the two-car garage, where Cucinotta and Olaloye were spray-painting their company's logo - a soccer ball with wings - on row after row of shipping cartons.

It's just one element of their personalization plan. The other involves handwritten notes Olaloye includes with each order, often making references to something he has learned about a customer on Facebook or Twitter.

"We've tried to create this relationship really, more than just a business customer," Olaloye said.

They have settled on a development model with reliable sales results, introducing new designs as soccer events warrant. For instance, when FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi scored his record-breaking 91st goal in December, Live Breathe Futbol produced a limited-edition shirt featuring the number 91 and Messi's face. All 91 shirts sold in a week.

One went to Justin Shirley, a respiratory therapist in Tuscaloosa, Ala., whose dedication to Live Breathe Futbol began in 2010 with frequent Twitter chats with Olaloye about soccer matches they had watched.

In April 2011, Olaloye sent Shirley a shirt, free, for his birthday - a gesture Shirley said was "just out of the blue" and made him an instant LBF loyalist.

"I've purchased 16 shirts since that first one," Shirley said. "I literally wear their shirts just about every day of the week."

He keeps in frequent touch with the company's owners on Twitter and Facebook. He credits that relationship-building by Olaloye and Cucinotta with why he keeps buying their merchandise at www.livebreathefutbol.com.

Another fan is Richard Tait, cocreator of the popular brain-challenging board game Cranium and now cofounder of Seattle-based Golazo, a new soccer-inspired company - the name means super goal in Spanish - producing sports-hydration and energy drinks. Golazo has contracted Olaloye to help with design, advertising, and marketing work.

Tait is predicting success for LBF: "If he stays true to being unique and being focused to soccer passion, he'll do well."

When it comes to the future, Olaloye and Cucinotta are only willing to say it involves taking their company beyond clothing. Well beyond.

"One of our goals is to play soccer on Mars," Cucinotta said.

Diane Mastrull:

The founders of Live Breathe Futbol talk about their soccer roots and their off-the-field gear. Go to www.philly.com/business

Contact Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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