At screen-printing shop Night Owls, the crew only uses water-based inks. “We chose to move to an ‘ink solution’ that offers a higher-quality print for us,” says Eric Solomon, owner of the Houston-based shop.
Although design quality is always a huge factor in the printing process, another growing factor for some is how to print in a more environment friendly way. To be more “green,” do you need to move away from the traditional plastisols and toward water-based inks?
Colette Wilhelm, owner of Contract Impressions in Cape Coral, FL, says that while water-based inks are touted as being better for the environment, they’re in fact, acrylic based. “However, they can give customers the great designs they crave, with a better ‘feel’ to the shirt,” she says. “We also recommend water-based inks for clients when it helps enforce their brands’ eco-friendly messaging.”
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of water-based screen-printing inks, along with some things to consider.
The Joys of Water-Based Inks
The screen printers who learn how to use water-based inks for vibrant, full-color and long-lasting designs love the versatility of the ink and its results. Here are seven reasons why they choose water-based over plastisols.
What if you could crowdsource all kinds of interesting, innovative and easy ideas to save money in your decorating shop? We decided to do the heavy lifting for you and asked nine successful embroiderers and screen printers to share some simple ways they boost their bottom lines.
From buying used displays and making the most of every inch of your stabilizer, to going paperless and getting free shipping from your shoppers, you’re going to love this top 10 list.
1. Buy used and save lots of cash.
Need to furnish or redecorate your office or shop? Try finding deals on things like desks from the thrift store, a conference table off of Craigslist, filing cabinets from “buy, sale, trade” groups, and display fixtures from going-out-of-business sales. “To save dollars, we don’t buy about 85% of our displays, desks and other office essentials as new,” says Tanya , owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault. “The majority of our shop’s things are new to us, and they function and look just fine.”
2. Save your extra embroidery stabilizer.
“We save all the extra embroidery backing we cut off of jobs to use for smaller projects,” says Jennie Livezey, owner of Z Shirts Custom Printing. She and her team pick up the backing scraps, mostly from left-chest embroidery.
“For example, we just ran 165 beanies and didn’t use one new piece of backing,” Livezey says. “What we cut off is the perfect size for the Fast Clamps we use on our embroidery machines.”
Lots of decorators have seen major shifts in their business, since the arrival of Covid-19. Some of those shifts were forced upon them by the sudden changes in business, which came along with the pandemic, and some were a result of them seizing new opportunities that began popping up.
In the video above, Mark Graham, of commonsku, leads four short 1-on-1 discussions with industry decorators to talk about, how they we’re affected by these shifts, what adjustments they made, opportunities that we’re already coming about, before the pandemic, and how 2020 created other meaningful changes at their company.
One of the biggest changes that occurred last year, was the complete stoppage of in-person events. Companies that would normally have ordered decorated items for their corporate events, trade shows or promotional needs, now suddenly had to rethink how they engaged with their customers and employees.
Lucas Guariglia, CEO at Rowboat Creative, mentions how he tried to find solutions for these businesses by really becoming more of a partner and consultant to them. Doing so gave him and his staff the ability to offer really creative ideas for how these companies could develop a unique at-home unboxing experience, though the use of kits with decorated swag, which really connected with their audience in a more personal way.
Print-On-Demand and the use of online stores took off in 2020. Marshall Atkinson, of Atkinson Consulting, leads a panel of industry experts to talk about this major shift and give you tips on how to do it right.
CLICK HERE to see the other videos from our virtual event.
Print-On-Demand is here to stay.
Not only did the events of 2020 lead to a huge spike in the creation and use of online stores, it also gave lots a businesses a chance to see the benefits that a print-on-demand model can bring with it.
Kevin Oakley, owner of Stoked on Printing, says that with many warehouses needing to close last year, businesses had to lean on them for fulfillment, because they weren’t able to do it themselves. With that, came revelations that P.O.D. allowed these companies to keep from worrying about warehousing and shipping out products, because decorators could now provide that service for them.
Imagine acquiring six other shops in the last seven years—and then getting listed on the Inc. “5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America” list, for that rapid (and sustainable) growth.
That’s exactly what Tom Rauen, CEO of Envision Tees out of Dubuque, Iowa, was able to do, by making the expansion of his business and obtaining new customers, a primary focus. “To move forward, get momentum in your business and grow it, you’ve got to step on the gas,” he says. “That’s what we call our ‘Growth Acquisition System.’”
Rauen started his decorating business, in 2005, out his parents’ basement. After three months, he moved into a 2,000-square-foot shop in a high-traffic area, with a single-head embroidery machine and a six-color, manual screen-printing press. “My goal has always been to build a solid foundation for my business,” he says. “First, we reinvested in equipment and technology, and then as we began to grow, we reinvested in our team.” In 2012, Envision Tees moved into a 7,000-square-foot building. Now, the business resides in a huge 35,000-square-foot facility, operating two manual and four automatic presses, 50 embroidery heads, two laser engraving machines and two large-format printers.
Envision Tees’ latest, big acquisition was five years in the making and happened during a pandemic year: Franklin, NJ-based, 1800Tshirts.com. “I wanted that famous phone number, so I reached out to the owner in 2015,” Rauen says. “He wanted to continue the conversation in 2020, when he planned to retire. That seemed so far away at the time, but I stayed in touch every six months. Despite COVID-19, 2020 was the year we made it happen.”
Jason Parke is another decorator whose built his empire though similar acquisitions. President of The Greek Corner Screen Printing and Embroidery in Springfield, MO, Parke has acquired three screen-printing and embroidery businesses, since founding his own shop in 2007. When he first started, he didn’t know a lot about printing or embroidery, so he watched several videos done by screen-printing veteran, Ryan Moor.
“I soon realized that if I wanted to take off, I couldn’t do it as a one-man shop,” Parke says. His first acquisition in 2009 happened by chance: He subbed out an order that required a sleeve print. After he found the subcontract shop, Corner Graphics, he started the acquisition process. Within two months, he owned the 26-year-old shop for $35,000.
Parke learned a lot with this acquisition. “Although I purchased the business at a good price, it came with a lot of expenses like old equipment that needed replacing,” he says. “We had to rebuild a tattered reputation. However, I also inherited two amazing employees who are still with me today. The staff knew all aspects of the business and taught me what I needed to know.”
If you’re thinking about acquiring your first (or another) shop, you’re in luck. We picked Rauen’s and Parke’s brains to get all their insider tips on the whole process.
To acquire, or not to acquire?
Acquisitions aren’t easy if you’ve never experienced one before, Rauen says. “There are a lot of moving parts on both the buying and selling side,” he says. “Before you jump in, it’s important to know that acquisitions take a lot of time, energy and resources to complete successfully. Weigh your growth strategy options first because there may be better options, if you don’t know the ins and outs of an acquisition.”
Starting from the bottom
Parke cautions that acquisitions can be expensive. “Shop owners sometimes get more concerned with the art or craftsmanship of a shop they want to buy, rather than the actual business aspect of the screen-printing and embroidery business.”
In 2018, Parke wanted to grow his market share, so a business broker paired him with a local screen printing competitor. “This was our largest acquisition and I wanted it, so I ignored a lot of red flags,” he says. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong every step of the way. For example, the previous owner was difficult to work with and withheld information. More than half the employees who came with the business and quite a few of their customers didn’t want to give us a chance.”
Ultimately, Parke says, the team who remained has been great and they moved the merged business to a newer, bigger facility. “We bought a great building with tons of room to grow,” he says. “Without acquiring this new company, there’s no way we could have bought it on our own.”
Acquisitions come in other forms, too, such as purchasing media, traffic sources and intellectual property. “This could include art catalogs and portfolios that you’ll use or license to others,” Rauen says. “You can also acquire podcasts, social media accounts, events, and other sources of traffic to increase the number of clients coming into your business.”
What’s the value of your new acquisition
According to Rauen, you need to look at concrete numbers when you’re acquiring a shop: What’s the annual revenue? What’s the profit? “The numbers tell you the story,” he says. “When you look at the P&L, you can also see where you can reduce costs.”
Is there a good customer list?
“Make sure that they have their list with all the contact info you need in a CRM,” he says. “Is anything missing or is it just one big mess?”What’s the value of the customer list? “See if the top 20% of their clients are bringing in 80% of the revenue,” he says. “Focus on the value and volume of their larger national accounts that can still continue to bring in significant revenue post-acquisition.”
How about the equipment and inventory?
Rauen says the new equipment should align with yours. “If you have all M&Rs or Tajimas it might be harder to sync up with a different brand. And you’ll have different file types, platens and squeegees. Plus, you’ll need a different service tech.”
How about their art files?
“Are there 500 or 5,000 files?” Rauen says. “There’s great value in how much time their graphic designers spent creating these files, especially for embroidery digitizing, since that can be expensive if you need to recreate those. And are those files organized or do you have no idea how to find anything?”
As an example of how to value your acquisition, consider Parke’s experience. For four years, Parke outsourced his embroidery to five different subcontractors, and it was proving to be time-consuming. On top of that, the quality wasn’t consistent either. That’s why in 2014, he decided to acquire an embroidery business. As part of its allure, the new retail and contract shop once had kiosks inside every Bass Pro Shop in the United States, along with kiosks inside Silver Dollar City and a store at the Branson Landing, both in Branson, MO.
“There was a skilled, experienced embroiderer who wanted to continue working with us,” Parke says. “There were also two machines, more than 10,000 valuable digitized files and a large book of customer contact information.” While there were some challenges to overcome, Parke felt that his $25,000 investment to bring embroidery in-house was definitely a win.
Is your shop ready to acquire another one?
There’s no-one-size-fits-all answer for this, because every shop’s situation is unique. However, there are still some general things to consider. “A good shop that’s set up to acquire another shop needs the management team and infrastructure in place to handle the growth and all the moving parts to make the acquisition go smoothly,” Rauen says.
When you’re looking to acquire another shop, a good rule of thumb is to look for one that fills a service need in your shop or works with your business plan. “An example would be a screen-printing shop that outsources their embroidery,” Rauens says. “Once their outsourced embroidery grows beyond a certain volume, it may make sense to look to acquire an embroidery shop to bring that service in-house or possibly acquire the contract decorator.”
Rauen and Parke outline five things you need in place personally—and in your shop—to acquire another business:
1. Do you have good systems in place?“You need to be organized and have a detailed plan going into the acquisition,” Parke says.
2. Can you improvise and adapt? The best-laid plans will sometimes go off kilter. “You need to be a leader who can easily change course and come up with a new plan when you need to,” Parke says. 3. Does your shop align with the seller’s? “Your vision and values should align with the owner’s, along with the company culture and customer base. If these things don’t align, you’ll realize very quickly that your shop won’t m esh with theirs,” Rauen says.
4. Are you ready to work with frustrated people? Parke points out that often, the employees in the shop you’re acquiring might be angry, confused or worried about the future. “They may not like change, so you need to be there to build that bridge,” he says.
5. Can you communicate well? Remember, you’re bringing a whole, new group of people, employees and customers, into your organization. “Be ready to openly and honestly communicate how things will look moving forward, so they know what to expect,” Parke says. “You’ll also need to go out and meet your newly acquired customer base. That’s the only way you’ll retain them.”
6. Can you handle risk? “Hopefully your acquisition will go well, but do you have a contingency plan if it isn’t successful?” Parke says. “Are you in a spot financially that you can recover?”
7. Are you willing to walk away? With one of his acquisitions, Parke had tunnel vision and didn’t care. “I wanted to do the deal and ignored multiple red flags,” he says. “If you see a red flag, it probably exists. For example, if the seller doesn’t give you the information you need, you probably need to walk away.”
Starting small at square one
If you’re a shop owner, who’s decided to explore an acquisition, Rauen advises looking small and locally at first. “There can be some big wins and also some major learning lessons, so if you start off small, your lessons learned will be less painful or make less of an impact,” he says. “Once you’ve gone through one or two acquisitions, you can learn to adjust and find the sweet spot that works best for you and your business.”
“I need 100 screen-printed shirts, but I needed them yesterday.” It’s a pretty common scenario for decorating shops to get a phone call that starts with that harried line. Rush and last-minute orders are part of doing business in this industry, and shop owners have mixed feelings about how to handle them.
“We’re in the sales and customer service business, so customers ask for things, not realizing how it affects our world,” says Jordy Gamson, co-founder at The Icebox. “You want to make their lives easier, but sometimes it creates havoc on our side of the fence.”
Sandy Jo Pilgram, owner of Rhinestonetemplates.com and The T-Shirt Shop 56601, takes last-minute orders and upcharges for them accordingly. “These last-minute orders don’t affect my other jobs,” she says. “I build in time to fulfill those requests after-hours, and we get it done.”
While you probably won’t see the value in taking every rush order that comes your way, there are times when it makes good business sense. “We do our best to accommodate a new or existing customer’s fast-turn request so it doesn’t affect our other customers,” Gamson says. “It’s an ongoing challenge, but we’re always trying to rise to the occasion.”
Now might be a good time to look at how you could incorporate last-minute requests into your shop’s operations, without stressing your team or normal workflow. You might even identify some bottlenecks that prevent you from flexing your production workflow with ease.
Here are eight ways to think about adding rush orders into your shop’s regular workflow.
Six months before COVID-19 hit, shop owner Howard Potter was planning to invest a cool $240,000 on new equipment and a building addition. However, as the lockdowns started, luckily he was still in the “thinking phase” and hadn’t made final purchases. This gave him time to replan A&P Master Images’ next moves to stay profitable during the pandemic.
In 2020, Potter instead made some smaller strategic purchases to the tune of $20,000, like moving his shop’s server room into the office to offer more file protection and create more production work space (that cost $5,000). He also bought cameras and monitors to have a full view of production; digital phones, so staff can answer customer calls from any computer; software upgrades; new LED lighting in the screen-print room; and extra screen-printing press attachments.
Now that Potter pivoted his Utica, NY shop in 2020 and is even more profitable, next year he plans to invest in an $87,000 eight-head embroidery machine. He made this equipment investment decision after carefully reviewing his shop’s needs and where he wants to grow the most. “We produce more than $500,000 in embroidery every year with four heads in 350 square feet,” he says. “This one new machine will allow us to run everything three times faster, book three times more work, and still hold our high-quality standards.”
As we head into a new year, yes, it’s usual for decorators to review their business plans and consider adding new decorating equipment like embroidery machines, screen-printing presses, DTG printers, heat presses and more. But with a global pandemic still at large, investing in new equipment might look a little different, so here’s what you need to know.
Should You Invest in New Equipment Right Now?
Potter advises shop owners to take a realistic view of their shop status before jumping in. “In 2020, did you take a loss, break even or gain market share?” he says. “Is your P&L statement strong to where you have the cash flow to make the investment? If another lockdown happens, can you still carry the loan payment on the investment?”
If you’re thinking about investing in new equipment, there are lots of factors to consider:
Your older equipment isn’t cutting it anymore, so you need to upgrade it to become more production-efficient.
You need to increase your production capacity to keep up with your current business demand, as Potter did with embroidery.
You want to bring your production in-house, instead of contracting it out.
You’re a screen printer and want to offer a new service like embroidery. (Or you’re an embroiderer and want to offer screen printing or direct-to-garment printing.)
You want to reduce your tax burden. Older machines are often fully depreciated, whereas new equipment can open the doors for new tax programs and savings for your business. Always check with your accountant to be sure.
Once you feel new equipment is necessary for your shop’s growth, think about these questions:
Will you have to spend on advertising to help grow your business or hire an operator to keep the equipment running?
Do you have the capital for the investment? Have you talked to a bank or leasing company to apply for a loan to purchase the equipment? “Try to get the furthest terms possible, with the lowest interest rate, to create the lowest payment as a safety net,” Potter says. “You can always apply extra principal payments later.”
The Rise of Print on Demand
POD and direct-to-consumer fulfillment is a shift that many decorators have had to make in 2020, and might influence what equipment you purchase. “We see a lot of printers investing in POD decoration and fulfillment automation as more and more brands, retailers and groups need fulfillment services alongside printing,” says Ryan Moor, CEO of Ryonet and ROQ.us.
So, what types of equipment investments make sense here? First up, direct-to-garment printers. “DTG technology allows for on-demand printing and minimizes inventory, while folding and shipping automation allows for minimal touches and overhead during the fulfilment process,” Moor says.
S&S Activewear Account Manager, Frank Good, has talked to many decorators looking for easy ways to fulfill short-quantity runs. They usually choose DTG printers, sublimation printers and heat presses to fit that need. “If you aren’t quite ready to purchase a machine, there are many decorators able to offer reasonably priced heat-transfer services with a fast turnaround and all you need is a heat press,” Good says. “Heat presses come in at budget-friendly price points.”
When it’s time to buy your equipment, you need to choose the right vendor that will be a partner to you long after the machine arrives in your shop. Here’s what to look for in that ideal supplier:
1. A big footprint. Shortlist established companies that have a nationwide sales and support network. That way, you’re in a better position to get help exactly when you need it, from a real, live human. Read online reviews and see what people say in online forums. And don’t hesitate to ask other decorators for their feedback on different vendors. “Most people will jump at the chance to tell you a horror story or explain how happy they are with the company,” Potter says.
2. Extraordinary support. After you’ve taken delivery of your new machine, what happens? Does a rep come to your shop to train your staff? Can you reach someone 24/7 if you have a problem or question? Do they offer an online learning center where you can learn to use their equipment and troubleshoot issues? Can they send techs out to your shop fast to troubleshoot issues? What does the warranty cover and for how long?
“Service and warranty is big, especially as the labor force tightens up,” Moor says. “You need a vendor that offers a good warranty and has the resources and reputation to support it. If your equipment goes down and you no longer have the team in place to fix it manually, you want to ensure it gets up and functioning right away.”
3. Ability to help you grow. As your business grows and changes, can this vendor be there for the long haul to help you? “Remember, expandability is everything right now, so can the equipment you invest in today expand to a new world of tomorrow’s customer needs?” Moor says. “You’ll want to ask your vendor, and find out what else this equipment can, or cannot do, in the future.”
A New Age of Automation
In 2020, many shops reduced their staff due to COVID-19. That means shop owners like you might be searching for automation solutions related to garment decorating, to help offset a smaller team.
Moor has seen a lot of decorators looking for newer, more efficient machines that run faster with fewer people, especially in the pre-and post-press screen printing areas. “An equipment payment is typically 30% to 50% of the equivalent human overhead to do the same job on less efficient equipment,” he says, “so not only is this a cost savings, it’s also adding an asset to your business books.”
Let’s look at a few examples. If you have a manual screen-printing press, you might turn out 40 to 60 pieces an hour. Investing in an automated screen-printing press can increase your production to 60 to 120 prints every 60 minutes. “This keeps your crew fresh, by putting the bulk of the work on the machine,” Potter says.
“By adding automated computer-to-screen equipment, automatic screen-coating machines or automated screen reclaiming machines, you’ll also save considerable labor costs,” Good says. “Automated folding and packaging machines reduce the amount of staff required to prepare goods for shipping or pickup.”
Similarly, if you purchase a better-quality sublimation printer that can handle larger prints and more prints in the feed tray, buying a heat press that runs off an air compressor allows an operator to do other tasks, while also controlling the press.
On the embroidery side, Potter cites this example: Say you have two single heads and one two-head machine. If you have a large run, you need to load a design three times with three setups. If you invest in a six or eight head, you can save time by setting up a design once and running more pieces at the same time. “Your runs get done faster and you improve profit margins,” he says. “If the machine takes the workload, your staff can work on other tasks.”
Another thing to consider? Here’s an alternative to investing in new equipment: contract decorating. “Working with multiple contract decorators gives you many options without the overhead of equipment or additional staff,” Good says. ”It’s a good option for a any small or growing business.”
One thing that contract apparel decorators sell most is Trust, with a capital “T”. Sure, you can focus on the embroidery, screenprinting, heat transfer or other methods of embellishing a garment, but seasoned contract professionals know that sales for them are not transactional. Everything is about the relationship.
As a 25 year decorating veteran, Traci Miller, of Color3 Embroidery, knows this all too well. Listen as she shares advice on how to establish strong business relationships and how to sell trust instead of decorations.
Does your decorating shop stand out from competitors? Really think about it—there are thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of screen printers and embroiderers, many offering the same blanks and services as you. Don’t worry, we’ve got a smart way to separate yourself from the pack: Become a rockstar decorator, within your special niche.
While this isn’t something you can do overnight, when you position your shop as a “go-to decorator” for something specific, you’ll score repeat customers and watch your profits rise.
We talked to three successful decorators who’ve established themselves as experts in lucrative niches. (And, we’ve got insider secrets to fast-track your success!)
The Bling Brigade
Husband-and-wife team Andrew Sequeira and Lee Romano Sequeira call their business a “big, sparkly niche.” For two decades, the Sparkle-Plenty.com co-owners have focused on offering custom rhinestone, stud and crystal transfers. “We use Swarovski crystal, the ‘Waterford’ of sparkle,” Andrew says. “It’s a decorating niche, since most shops focus on embroidery and ink. We offer something different for a specific market: women.”
How do you tie creative art development into more sales?
On this edition of the Success Stories podcast, we’ll dig into that by discussing how Jeremy Picker and his team of creative professionals have found success by going the extra mile when developing ideas for their clients.
We’ll also touch on AMB3R Creative’s approach to developing impactful designs, that’ll get end users choosing to wear their clients’ promotional apparel over and over again.
AMB3R is a Colorado-based apparel design firm that brings fashion to people by creating products that people love. They serve non-profits, churches, restaurants, corporations, and other businesses with their team of talented designers and project managers that takes a kernel of an idea from start to finish.
We’ll learn how they use t-shirts for everything from an entire clothing line, to a merchandising campaign for promotional products.