Unique designs boost artist’s business venture

News & Features Apr 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm

By Beatrice S. Paez

Waiting for the perfect alignment of circumstances – a modest sum of capital, a community network and a sudden appetite for risk – to fall in place can hold you back further. It’s a truism that accidental entrepreneur Francis Yecla knows well.

Down and without a job, Yecla, 37, pulled himself up by the bootstraps with but a glimmer of an idea for his next move and less than $2000 to start. The image struck him one day when he spotted a sticker of a Filipino flag on a car, and he began toying with a design that speaks to Filipino-Canadians.

“[I said,] I have to create my own design that would represent us here as Filipinos [in Canada],” recalls Yecla. Taking the iconic maple leaf, he superimposed elements of the Philippine flag to fill its outline, with the rising sun at the centre.

Among his line of products, which includes toques, shirts, caps, jerseys and stickers emblazoned with customized designs, his best-selling item remains his first: his twist on the Canadian maple leaf. He has sold about 5,000 stickers for $5 each since he started the business, Pinoy Unik-D, three years ago.

It’s an image that resonates with Filipinos, it allows them to put their pride in both cultures on display, and speaks to their sense of belonging to the two countries.

But the Filipino community wasn’t always receptive to his concept. A chorus of naysayers tried to dissuade him from setting up his own enterprise, but he refused to listen. He remembers them saying, “Why are you doing that? Nobody will buy that.”

Laid off from his job at a call centre and a recent immigrant, he set out to prove them wrong. Yecla’s first calling was in Information Technology, but the market was difficult to break into.

FATHER and son team of Pinoy Unik-D: Francis Yecla (right) and Charlie Yecla

Self-taught and self-motivated, he learned how to transfer his designs onto fabric, built a network from scratch, and started marketing his wares.
“This is a one-man team,” he says laughing.

His basement first served as his incubator, his friends the focus group and his father the apprentice. Now he has a showroom lodged alongside a bustling Filipino-run hair salon within the core of Bathurst & Wilson.

He slowly won over a handful of Filipino stores, convincing them to carry his goods and he presently has almost 30 stores on his list of clients. His first attempt at consignment was at FV foods, a chain of Filipino stores, but they turned him away.

Though he felt scorned, he can now relate to their unwillingness to bend to his proposition. Within just weeks of opening his showroom, he has received requests from other vendors to stock their products. He declined them to keep the showroom from transforming itself into a sari-sari store, with a hodge-podge of knickknacks for sale.

His service to the community, he believes is in keeping the prices low, but selling high quality products made in Canada. The toques go for $12 and customized t-shirts range from $15-17 apiece.

The prices are tweaked to a discounted rate to appeal to what he describes as a Filipino aversion to high prices. Yecla says people have a tendency to whine, “Ay, bakit ang mahal.”

The other reason for keeping the prices low, he explains, is to attract more bulk orders and expand his clientele. He is now angling to diversify his reach and cross into other provinces, and is also taking steps to approach Wal-Mart with his designs.

The next move is in progress: he created variations of the maple leaf merged with the other flags of Toronto’s ethnic communities — Jamaica, Greece, Italy, China, to name a few. He plans to reach out to more ethnic grocers and businesses to grow his base.

Word of mouth and striking an arrangement with a Chinese-Canadian supplier propelled him to extend his operations past the confines of his basement. The supplier enlists him for design work and gives him a favourable rate for t-shirts in bulk.

Popular demand gave way to an opportunity to open a showroom. Though he continues to take on side jobs as an IT worker to supplement his income, he pours all his efforts into his fledging enterprise.

Experience taught him the danger of being too nice — one customer commissioned him to design a logo, but the person reneged on the payment. But the karmic balance was restored when he landed his first major order of 500 t-shirts with the North America chapter of Jesus is Lord (JIL), a collective of worshippers that gather regularly. With their business, he hopes his contacts will multiply into opportunities.

His initially reluctant supporters — the Filipino community — are now his biggest cheerleaders, urging him to market his brand to break out of his anonymity. It took some convincing, but Yecla wants you to know he’s the man behind the sunny maple leaf.

The Pinoy Unik-D Showroom is located at 371B Wilson Avenue.