NICOLA AND JEFF SMITH, OWNERS OF MUSCLE CLUB APPAREL, DISCUSS HOW THEIR FAMILY’S HARDSHIPS SPARKED A HOME-GROWN BUSINESS
article by Tabby Soignier | photography by Martin G Meyers
When Jeff Smith was eight years old, he found a way to earn enough money to buy a Nintendo instead of waiting six months for Christmas to roll around. When he was in his early 20s, he won over the girl whom he described as having an instant connection with, and by the time he turned 26, he married Nicola Fremen. With a graphic design degree from Louisiana Tech, Smith worked at Tommy Tee’s in Ruston, while his new bride made the trek to Monroe every day to teach first grade. When Smith was 31, he and Nicola welcomed their first child into the world, a son named Kaden, and he made the couple’s perfect world into a perfect family. To this day, it is still perfect, and it can only be credited to a strong marriage.
Three weeks after Kaden was born, Nicola started noticing odd things, like her son’s inability to hold his head up. At first she thought she was just being an overly cautious parent, but over the next six months, the couple heard prognosis after prognosis that ranged anywhere from Spinal Muscular Atrophy to Infant Botulism, a disease that occurs when a baby ingests bacteria and creates a toxin inside the body and often leads to death. The new parents were frantic and went everywhere that was suggested to get to the bottom of what was causing their beautiful son to not develop the way most infants do.
They found their answer in Jackson, Mississippi when a muscular surgeon discovered that Kaden had a type of muscular dystrophy called Merosin Deficient CMD. The disease typically causes a weakness in muscles and sometimes even joint deformities.
“Muscular dystrophy is such a raw term,” Jeff said. “There are many subcategories for muscular dystrophy, different names for specific types, not just one group name like there was twenty plus years ago. His subtype makes him one in about 2,000 in the world as far as diagnosis is concerned.”
“We were told he was not going to walk or crawl,” Nicola added. “He might sit up. He might talk, but he talks all the time. If he’s sitting on the couch, it looks like there is nothing wrong.”
Within days of Kaden’s diagnosis, Nicola had searched countless websites to learn more about his condition and even found a convention in Philadelphia later that year. The family traveled to the convention, listened to some of the top doctors in the world and met numerous families living with the same disease as they traded information and asked and answered each other’s questions.
“It was hard to see,” Nicola admitted. “That’s our future. It’s hard, but these families are making it. Some of the kids we just fell in love with. There was a kid in college, and he is living in a dorm. He must have 24-hour help come in, but somehow he’s doing it.”
Somehow, Kaden is doing it also. He is now five years old and has been driving his own power chair since he was 17 months old. According to him, the world is just as it should be. He is a happy little boy, who is getting ready to attend Kindergarten in Ruston this fall – and in a regular classroom at that.
In the adult world, though, things look much, much different for his parents.
Soon after Kaden’s diagnosis, Nicola knew it would be nearly impossible to find someone to care for her son, so she quit her job to stay at home. Jeff continued his work at Tommy’s Tees, where he has been since 1999, but he knew he needed to find a way to replace the lost income, not to mention help pay for Kaden’s hospital bills.
An entrepreneur at heart, Jeff leaned on some of his natural talents – starting with the one he recognized at eight years old – and he started his own business.
Things were a lot different than they were at eight years old though. Back then he earned money by helping people move in and out of the apartment complex he lived in with his parents, along with other odds and ends, and the goal to sheer happiness – a Nintendo – was a little more than $100, which would take him less than a week to earn. At 31, it would take a lot more elbow grease, late hours and an endless amount of work to get Muscle Club Apparel off the ground. His work ethic went hand in hand with his graphic design background, and he started by showing a few designs to his friends at the gym for feedback.
From a piece of paper to a few shirts, Jeff created a business out of his gym bag with the help of Tommy Cline, the owner of Tommy’s Tees, who the Smith’s describe as “family.” A few shirts here and there quickly became a lot of extra shirts lying around, so Jeff created a website to begin selling his ideas. Then, he turned to social media to help spread the word, starting with Facebook, then Twitter. “(On Twitter) I would search people who posted something about a workout,” Jeff said. “Then, I would send them a message saying, ‘Hey, we sell apparel. Tell me what you think. It’s a new company.’ And a couple would respond.”
The biggest response early on came from Nicole Nagrani. Neither Jeff nor Nicola knew the name, but after a quick Google search, they might as well had said the name of the biggest movie star in Hollywood. “As it turns out, she was Miss Bikini Olympia 2011 and coming from a guy who didn’t really follow body building at the time, I did the research and it’s the highest honor someone could win in the bikini division of bodybuilding,” Jeff said. “So I sent her a message asking, ‘Do you mind if I send you some stuff for exchange of some love on social media?’” A few pictures of a famous fitness person wearing you apparel is a declaration of making it in the business.
“We’d get a spike in sales, then go look and Nicole had put a picture up,” Nicola said.
Word of the apparel quickly spread to the friends of Nicole Nagrani, and the spikes started occurring more often. Fast forward three and a half years later, and the Smith family has just reached 300,000 fans on their Facebook page and processes about 250 orders a week during its busy season. “You have to stay on top of social media to be relevant,” Jeff said. “It’s imperative, and with everything going on, it’s hard to stay on top of it.”
“Everything going on” is an understatement. To quickly bring you up to speed, their son Kaden had spine surgery at the end of March, to correct an 88 degree curvature in his spine due to severe scoliosis. Nicola was 7 months pregnant with twins at the time, but it was a necessity to have it done. The couple welcomed their newborn twins, Chase and Camille, on May 11th of this year, and was unfortunately met with more complications. Chase was born with a hole in his heart, and is currently still being monitored for heart failure. And sadly, Jeff missed the birth of his twins,fgvrth because he was with Kaden in New Orleans, who had developed a staph infection just five weeks after being released from the hospital from his previous surgery. Five weeks after doctors cleared up the infection, one of Kaden’s corrective rods became dislocated. In total, the five year old has had three surgeries just this year, and two other hospitalizations, and the family is not ashamed to say that they have pleaded to be dealt a break at any time. “I’ve done it several times,” Jeff said of asking for a break. “I’ll tell anyone this has been the toughest nine months of my life.”
While most couples are relishing in the first few months of their newborns’ lives, Jeff and Nicola are clinging to each other and focusing on the blessings that come out of more hardship than most families face in a lifetime. And through all the chaos, the couple is finishing up the final touches on a new home they built, which will help with Kaden’s power chair and will provide more room for the family that just jumped from three to five members. Oh, and then there is the business they still run out of their house no matter how big it gets. Their wholesale business is shipped all around the world, with their biggest fan base (outside the US) currently coming from Australia and Canada.
In the beginning, Nicola joked at Jeff about selling shirts out of his gym bag, but now the two compete to find which quip will be the most popular printed on a workout shirt. Females make up about 90 percent of sales, and include workout shirts with sayings like, “I’ve Got Flex Appeal,” or “Headphones On. World Off.” Nicola is proud to say which ones she came up with, but she does not shy away from admitting when she’s wrong either. When Jeff came up with an idea to print pillowcases that read “Beauty” on one and “Beast” on the other, Nicola told him to only order 20, because they likely wouldn’t sell. Within the first few weeks, they were ordering 250 more, and all of those were sold before they had them delivered to their house.
As the fan base grows, so does the merchandise, from shirts to pillowcases to hats and even gym towels. One towel reads, “You see sweat. I see a sexy glow.” However, their proudest shirt is the one that both wore sitting side by side on a coffee shop couch on an August afternoon as they told their story. The grey shirt had the saying “Stay Strong for those who cannot” printed across the front. They are Kaden’s shirts and 100 percent of the profits of these go to the CureCMD.org foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to bring research, treatments and in the future, and a cure for Congenital Muscular Dystrophies.
To learn more about Muscle Club Apparel and to shop for merchandise, visit www.muscleclubapparel.com.