Randy Choi '95, marketing
Not everyone gets to combine what they love to do with what they feel called to do, but Randy Choi does just that every day.
Choi (’95, marketing) co-founded Thompson Tee with his business partner Billy Thompson in 2011, and while the road to taking a company from a startup to a multimillion dollar enterprise hasn’t been easy, the pair has found success thanks to their grit, hard work and an appearance on a little entrepreneurial competition show called “Shark Tank.”
Choi said the pair had submitted an application to be on the show years ago but were not selected. After they did a crowdsourcing video to help push their product and appeared on a show called “The Doctors,” the producers from “Shark Tank” reached out.
“We somehow skipped the line,” he said. “We didn’t have to do the audition process. We got very lucky.”
In the eight-month lag between when they shot the show and when it aired in May 2017, Choi and Thompson had doubled the size of the business. However after enjoying the show at a screening party with family and friends, the duo realized that pitching their t-shirt on “Shark Tank” offered a boost that only television can.
“That kind of exposure you can’t pay for,” Choi said. “We watched the show and then we watched the sales meter go up.”
Choi also witnessed lives change.
The t-shirts he and Thompson sell, which come in cotton or rayon bamboo in shades of white, black, grey and beige, are not just about fashion. They’re also about function.
The shirt is designed to provide confidence for those stressful situations and effective enough for those who suffer from hyperhidrosis, a medical condition that causes heavy sweating. How it works is that there is an ultra-thin patented layering system sewn into the armpit area of the shirt that allows vapor to pass through for cooling but keeps sweat at bay so that there are no visible stains.
Nearly 5 percent of the global population has hyperhidrosis, with up to 35 percent grappling with situational stress sweat, according to statistics. Although both Choi and Thompson have known each other for around 15 years, neither were aware that the other had hyperhidrosis until they decided to go into business.
Choi’s wife Marife (’95, industrial engineering) grew up with Thompson’s wife, so the two men had chatted at parties over the years. In 2011, Choi was looking to possibly buy a fast food franchise when he and Thompson got together to talk about teaming up on Thompson’s idea for a line of t-shirts.
Thompson said he was on his way to American Apparel to discuss manufacturing the t-shirt he designed when he stopped by Choi’s house. Family and friends, aware that Choi had previously owned an apparel company that worked with designers to get their creations made, had suggested Thompson reach out to him. That is when Thompson told Choi about his hyperhidrosis and found out that Choi had the same condition, only the cranial variety, with sweating coming from the head.
While Thompson handles the sales and customer service aspects of the business, Choi focuses on the operations and supply chain side.
“It’s perfect,” Thompson said. “Our skill sets complement well and overlap to keep it cohesive. He’s an entrepreneur. Soon after Cal Poly Pomona, he went into business for himself, which is something I didn’t have.”
Choi was about 13 when he had his first episode of hyperhidrosis. He was hanging out with friends, chatting up some girls, when he felt sweat pooling around his head.
While a student at Cal Poly Pomona, the Villa Park native kept his hair long and gelled it up so others would think he was purposely going for the wet look. He also kept extra shirts to change into in his backpack, he said.
While driving on the 57 freeway in 2000, Choi saw a billboard he thought might change his life.
The message read something like “Got sweaty palms? Call this number.”
For Choi, who had tried everything from heavy-duty antiperspirants to prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, he hoped the doctor on the other end of the line would bring that long sought-after cure.
Choi underwent a procedure called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS), which involves slicing the nerve lines around the rib cage that control the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response in order to alleviate sweating.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Choi said. “The doctor said I might have phantom sweating. After a week I stopped sweating. Then there was sweat on my shoulder. And then it moved to my torso. What the procedure did was it reallocated the sweat and supercharged it.”
Choi now uses his platform to warn others who are affected by hyperhidrosis about the risks and potential side effects of procedure.
“Eighteen years later, I still deal with it on a daily basis,” he said. “This has given me the opportunity to share my experience with ETS.”
The company also gives him a chance to relish in the entrepreneurial drive he inherited from his father – who owned a variety of businesses from a pizzeria to a cleaning service to a chain of frozen yogurt shops to a contract embroidery provider – with Choi there to absorb it all.
Choi, the father of twin boys, has owned several entities himself. Beside the apparel manufacturing company, he had a smog testing center and a business with his father that he describes as a sort of PayPal for commerce.
“I’m like my dad,” he said. “We both have an entrepreneurial spirit and the drive to do whatever it takes to succeed.”