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Homeless men start T-shirt business. Really. Obviously. Exactly.

Rob Frohlking and Tom Richardson, both homeless, started Conversation Tees based on the power of a single conversation-starting word. Shirts now feature four choices: really, exactly, obviously and know. They were aided by Edenton Street United Methodist Church, where Frohlking used to sleep inside of a bush.
Rob Frohlking and Tom Richardson, both homeless, started Conversation Tees based on the power of a single conversation-starting word. Shirts now feature four choices: really, exactly, obviously and know. They were aided by Edenton Street United Methodist Church, where Frohlking used to sleep inside of a bush. Josh Shaffer

As business partners, they make an unorthodox pair:

Rob Frohlking lived the life of a drifter, bouncing into Raleigh from Charleston, S.C., sleeping in a bush on a corner of Edenton Street, playing his snare drum on the courthouse steps for spare change.

Tom Richardson worked in human resources until a storm of bad times and bad decisions put him on the Raleigh streets, looking for salvation or at least a roof to block the rain.

But over the past year, they discovered that rebirth can arrive through one conversation, even a single word, and that gave them their idea, hatched at the homeless shelter where they still live.

Together, they scratched together the funds and know-how to start a shirt company: Conversation Tees, for which they formed a limited partnership and a website.

“We have business cards and everything,” Tom said.

Each shirt carries a one-word design aimed at starting dialogue between strangers. They chose carefully, picking terms that begged a question and welcomed curiosity – words that invited people into a unfamiliar life: Obviously. Exactly. Really. Know.

“What if you had a shirt that said ‘obviously’ on it?” Tom asked. “People would come over and say, ‘Obviously what?’”

Tom is 50 and fairly new to homelessness, to the point that he still counts the days: 377 so far. Rob, 41, has struggled with it longer: a year and some change “this time around.”

But having so little, they find inspiration in unlikely places and grant deep meaning to random encounters. To start a business when you don’t own so much as a toaster oven, you have to believe that something powerful is guiding your footsteps.

This faith started for Rob back in 2009, when he was drumming on Fayetteville Street. If you’ve been around Raleigh very long, you might have seen “Captain Rob” pounding away without any accompaniment, sporting long dreads with a cigarette hanging from his wide, toothy smile. For Rob, his life changed the day Stefan Youngblood walked past and asked him to play at Edenton Street United Methodist Church, where he directs the informal and jeans-wearing service known as “The Gathering.”

Soon, Rob was drumming along to Youngblood’s piano inside a room where business executives come to pray. They took notice when Rob would drop four cents – all he had – in the offering plate.

“They didn’t care that I was basically living in the bush outside,” said Rob. “Dirty. Smelly. This dreadlock guy. Hippie guy.”

Rob went to California to work as a carpenter, which didn’t work out. But last summer, back at a Raleigh shelter, he had another brush with fortune.

He and Tom were sitting inside the smoking room when another man walked in wearing a shirt that said, simply, “College.” They got to talking, recalling that John Belushi’s character wore a similar shirt in the movie “Animal House,” and after they’d laughed and joked for a while, they realized they’d enjoyed a full conversation based on the quick glimpse of one word.

Tom has an office job; Rob works for a screen printer. They walk most everywhere, and on their walks, they kept talking about words and what they suggest. You could print the word “really” on a shirt and interpret it a dozen ways. A question. An affirmation. A description.

So they decided to make it happen, spending long hours bent over the church computer, learning about volume and sales and distribution. They found people at Edenton Street who knew how to start a limited partnership, build a website and write a compelling online biography. They found an expert on fonts who steered them toward the right style of lettering. They tried out their first shirts on people like Stefan, who told them their first effort looked and felt cheap and needed higher-quality material.

Tom still had access to a little bit of money, and they printed four words in four colors and five sizes. So far, they’ve sold more than 100, and their goal is to donate a portion of all sales to the Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, hopefully making enough to help set up a day center.

“That little conversation,” said Stefan, “it isn’t little anymore.”

In just a few weeks, the shirts already have started working as intended. Rob told me about a recent encounter at a convenience store, where he went inside to tell the cashier that a pump wasn’t working but forgot he was wearing one of his products.

“She kept saying, ‘Really?’” Rob said, laughing. “So it kind of backfired on me.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

For more information about Conversation Tees, including online sales, visit www.conversationtees.com. Rob Frohlking and Tom Richardson also have a Facebook page dedicated to their shirt company, which had 300 “likes” as of Sunday. Stefan Youngblood at Edenton Street United Methodist Church also invites people to contribute to his fund that provides bus passes to the Raleigh homeless. It can be accessed through www.gofundme.com/homelessbnb.

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