Digital Decorating:

Passion Becomes Profit

By Dylan Derryberry, Contributing Writer

Rau’s Designs started when Amy Rau designed a few shirts for family members, who were supporting her uncle through stage-four lung cancer. She then sold the shirts for $10.

September 4, 2014

All it took was an overpriced T-shirt for Jefferson, Maine-based Amy Rau to discover her passion.

When her uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, Rau’s family wanted to show their support. Shirts that included the phrase “Cancer Sucks” seemed fitting enough. After looking into prices per shirt and a simplistic design, Rau decided she could make the shirts herself at a cheaper cost and possibly even make a profit.

Armed with a circuit cutting machine, heat transfer vinyl and a hand-held iron, she made friends and family their own shirts, asking just $10 to cover her costs. The shirts were a wild success and when Rau found herself with a surplus of $100, she knew exactly what to do with it.

“So, [are] you thinking about going into business?” Rau’s uncle asked when she presented him with the check during one of his cancer treatments. Worn out from the time-consuming process of the at-home T-shirt business, Rau laughed off the idea. Demand, it would seem, wasn’t going to stop though, even if she attempted to. With the help of social media, Rau began getting a variety of order requests and knew she had to step up her game.

“At this point, it was clear that there’s always a demand for personalized T-shirts and it could possibly be a profitable side business for me,” she says. “I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. So I did some research and got a better cutter and an inexpensive heat press. I told myself that it wouldn’t be a success until I was able to make back the money I put into these machines.”

Six months later, the 35-year-old, self-proclaimed “small-town girl with big-city dreams” was making a profit and had more business than she knew what to do with. After being approached by the fund-raising chair of a local youth softball association, Rau expanded her work into auto decals. Using a similar vinyl-cutting process, she offered the organization relatively cheaper options than her big-time competitors. With another happy client, Rau was asked back the next season with an invitation to attend the Capital Area Youth Softball Association’s (CAYSA) opening-day festivities to sell her products.

“We agreed on a price for each product I would offer, and CAYSA would get a percentage of everything I sold,” she recalls. “So I loaded up my laptop, cutter, heat press, vinyl, and apparel and set up for a long day of softball. It was great; in the end, I produced over 34 decals, 20 T-shirts, nine pairs of socks and 35 pairs of mesh softball shorts. I had a blast, made a significant amount of money, and was able to give CAYSA over $300.”

Rau’s Designs is still more or less a one-woman operation. Rau, who works for the Maine Department of Transportation 40 hours a week, uses nights and weekends to solidify her business venture. For her, this isn’t just a passion for design, but also a chance to make some extra money and treat her family to fun activities. Her husband of 19 years and their two daughters give her a helping hand with work and she rewards them handsomely for it.

“My business has provided me with the ‘fun money’ to do things with my family,” she says. “They are my world, and the main reason I do what I do.”    

Though bittersweet, a large part of Rau’s business has come from the popularity of her “Cancer Sucks” shirts. She continues to produce shirts for breast cancer awareness events and fund raisers, and was awarded “Best Shirts” at the 2012 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Portland, Maine.

“I often feel guilty profiting off such a despicable disease but in my own way, it helps me mourn those that we have lost and helps me feel as though I am helping raise awareness,” Rau says. “I think of my uncle, who passed this past August, every time I do a cancer shirt.”

This mobile heat printing business may just be a side venture for now, but her profitable hobby continues to expand. As she attends more events and garners the attention of the industry, she hopes to continue to grow to meet the demands of her expanding customer base. To get Rau’s Designs ready for the next step in its 
evolution, she has invested in a laser printer for full-color prints and is experimenting with foil applications.

“I still can’t believe I managed to put a hobbyist-level cutter, heat press and laptop on an 8-foot table in my bedroom and turn it into a successful business venture,” Rau says. “This doesn’t feel like work because it’s so fun for me. Someday it would be nice to think I could do it in place of my 9-to-5. Anything is possible, right?”

Dylan Derryberry is a McKinney, Texas-based sports reporter and freelance writer. For more information or to comment on this article, email him at