Source: St. Louis Business Journal • January 23, 2004

In Gear
Joseph Tantillo turns a waiting-room idea into a million-dollar business
Susan Kerth

Joseph Tantillo has big ideas. They often come to him in unusual places and ways. Some, he files away for future reference; others, he acts on immediately.

Take Tantillo's idea for an e-business Web site. It came to him "on a whim," he says, in the waiting room of his wife's obstetrician. It was May 1999, and Tantillo was waiting to learn whether his wife, Jill, was pregnant. To pass the time, he picked up a magazine and happened on an article about starting an online store.

Turns out, that visit to the doctor's office signaled the start of something big in more ways than one.

Tantillo now has a 4-year-old daughter, Grace. He's also the founder and sole owner of Express Design Group Inc. -- the parent company of five online stores, including,,, and Together, they attracted more than 3 million customers to their websites.

"From being in a fraternity in college, I knew what kinds of Greek items they bought," he said. "I'd always had a list of things I wanted to do. One of the ideas was to sell Greek merchandise myself, so when I got home from the doctor's office, I started working on designing the Web site."

The company's growth has been nothing short of phenomenal.

In its first month of operation in May 1999, Tantillo said had two customers. His first order, for a Phi Gamma Delta hat, still sits on his desk.

Less than five years later, Tantillo said now ranks as the largest online source of fraternity and sorority merchandise. Items available include everything from custom-printed shirts, shorts, hats and other apparel, to afghans, pillows, license plate frames, flip- flops, jewelry, and party favors, among others. and the other online stores Tantillo subsequently created now attract some 3 million visitors a year. Last year, those visitors ordered 70,000 items from Tantillo's five Web sites. The Web site specializes in Italian gift items, such as logoed sweatshirts and other apparel, party favors, mugs and signs. Likewise, features religious and Christian wearables, stickers and other merchandise.

Tantillo is quick to point out that his success isn't merely a stroke of good luck. Rather, he credits his prior experience in the sales promotion industry and his background in communications and marketing.

Tantillo attended William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he grew up. After graduating in 1992 with a degree in communications, Tantillo started a sales promotion company in Ridgewood, N.J., (a suburb of the New York City area) with Michael Gray, one of his Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brothers. "We did mostly corporate work," Tantillo said. "Back then, we were doing about $500,000 (in sales) a year. We had good clients, like Revlon and Chiquita Banana."

In 1994, Tantillo sold his interest in the business to Gray and moved to Orlando, Fla., where his family had relocated. He worked in sales for the family's commercial printing business there. A year later, Tantillo met his future wife, Jill, who had settled in Orlando after college and a Disney internship to work in special events and fund raising for the March of Dimes. The couple married in 1996.

The Tantillos moved to the St. Louis area in January 1999 so Jill could get involved with her families business. She runs its country restaurant, bakery and custard shop.

Joseph Tantillo, meanwhile, quickly immersed himself in the online commerce industry.

At first, Tantillo operated Express Design Group out of a spare bedroom at home. "It was slow going at first," he said. "But I had been in the promotions industry since I graduated college and had contacts with vendors I could turn to when I was first setting up the business."

Once the orders started flowing in, Tantillo said he quickly realized the importance of owning his own screen-printing equipment. "That enabled us to handle some of the production and have control over quality and turnaround time," Tantillo says.

Express Design Group has its own embroidery, screen-printing and engraving machines for customizing wearable items; other items are manufactured by outside suppliers and shipped to Express Design Group for final distribution to online customers. The company employs eight people full time.

Tantillo said the ability to order just one item and have it shipped quickly, usually within 24 hours, makes his online stores particularly appealing to individual customers. "We can make one of just about anything," he said.

The key to his success involves the ability to identify niche markets, Tantillo said. His goal is to open a new online store each year. "I want to stay focused and stick with our plan. It's limitless at this point."

Susan Kerth