Your Greatness Doesn’t Need Permission


Against the creative wall?  Feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere and nobody is noticing?  Everyone around you talks like they are against your idea?  Scared?

You aren’t alone.

If that’s not bad enough, there are those negative thoughts that are constantly running through your head like a never ending horror movie.  In fact, most people have self doubts at one point or another.  Am I good enough?  Am I making the right choices?  Do I have what it takes?

The answer isn’t just a yes, but a Hell Yes.

You are good enough.  You do have what it takes.  You can build on your creative idea and do something special.  In short, you are a badass.

All you need to do is find your tribe.  

A tribe is a group of like-minded people that will give you the support and advice you need to succeed.  They are out there floating around, just waiting to hear from you.  There are tribes for any interest or vocation too.

The natural place to find them is on social media.  There are public and private Facebook or LinkedIn groups, and lists of Google hangouts.  You can participate with a Periscope live-streaming discussion.  You can listen to thousands of podcasts, or watch blog videos on any topic.  There are also great online forums and even blog articles on any subject matter under the sun.  Find your tribe easily on Twitter or Instagram in seconds with the search field because they’ve been linked with a hashtag by someone.  (Yep, that’s what those #’s  are for…)  Just type in a keyword.

There are more professional tribes too.  These are called trade associations.  Do you belong to any?  Their sole purpose is to make you better and see you succeed.  Have you joined one or two, or are you that Scrooge that sees them as a “waste of money”?

With any tribe though, you only get what you put into it.  

Are you a lurker?  You know, the quiet one in the corner.  Never opening up, with the willingness to expose your weakness to the world.  It’s funny, but if you are in a group but never post, the tribe probably has forgotten all about you.  How else can there be 3,849 people in the group but you only see comments or questions by about three dozen people?  What are the rest of the people doing?

Not growing if you ask me.

Maybe they are in the wrong tribe.  Or maybe they are in so many tribes that they can’t keep up.  It’s not like there are any limits.

They are missing the point though.  Participation in the group is the value of belonging.  Asking a question.  Answering a question.  Engaging and befriending people.  Cultivating relationships.  Solving each other’s problems is the reward.  That’s the value of the community.

Your greatness doesn’t need permission to post, just the courage to be active.

Take pictures or videos of what you’ve been up to.  Share your dreams or your fears.  Write down your problem and post it to the tribe for help.  Ask, “What’s the best way?”.

Although some in the tribe might say, “Holy crap, he/she doesn’t know that?”…most people will think to themselves, “Hey, I’ve driven down that road before…”  A few people will actually give you good instructions and help smooth out the speed-bumps and even show you the way.  In any tribe, those people are the rockstars of the group.  You know who they are.  You might even be one.

Get Off Your Butt.  Please.

We need more though.  More people posting questions.  More people answering.  More people commenting.  More courage.  More effort.  More sharing.  More mentoring.  More people willing to be human.

That’s how we all get better.  That’s how we win.

We just have to work on the more part.

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” –  Albert Camus

“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” –  William Butler Yeats

“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” –  Audrey Hepburn

The Imposter Phenomenon

Marshall Atkinson on Beach

A long time reader of my blog wrote in with a remarkable question:

“Love your blogs, they always resonate. I have a topic I would love to hear your thoughts on: confidence. Specifically, when you have a crisis of confidence. My business has grown over 1000% since I took over 8 years ago, and we’re having another great year. But sometimes I lose faith, sometimes I think I just can’t do it, that I’m just around the corner from failure. Sometimes this feeling lasts a few hours (that’s the most common), sometimes it lasts for days or longer. It always goes away, but each time it feels like it won’t. Is this something you experience? That feeling that, despite your knowledge, your experience, and financial evidence that indicates otherwise, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing after all!” “

It’s funny, sometimes I have those same thoughts!  I doubt you are alone in that regard.

I think most people struggle with that sneaky voice inside their head that says “you are not good enough” or “you don’t know what you are doing” or worse of all, “you are going to be fired”.

Let’s face it, we all have our down days.  Some days it just sucks even getting out of bed, let alone coming into work and slaying dragons all day.

Even when your life is amazingly successful that inner demon on our shoulder starts spewing out nonsense about failure, doom, and disaster.  It can shake your faith in yourself and confidence.  So why do we buy into that crap?

It’s because we have a brain.

We know from our own past experiences and from witnessing what can happen to others, that things can go wrong.  Quickly.  We start over-analyzing.  What does this or that mean?  Maybe something about bad luck.  Maybe a harsh comment from some jerk from the past that always said you would fail, pops up in your psyche like a bad song.  La dee da.

There’s a reason those negative thoughts creep into the picture.  You are human.

At the end of the day, your personal outlook is completely made up of your life experiences and how you engineer your thoughts to make decisions.  We are all unique.  I’m different than you, because my life is different.  Trust me, I’ve got my own set of inner demons and crazy life stories.  Some of that bubbles up for me on occasion, and I have to find ways to deal with those bad feelings and insecurities.  Your personal history is what builds the framework of how you see the world.  The positive experiences in your life make you happy, but the negative ones influence your decision making more than you think.

You sometimes feel like a fraud because there’s a mental ear-worm that works it’s way past your armor.  For super successful people this strikes usually when things are going really well, as maybe they feel like they didn’t earn the success, or that failure is just around the corner.  It feels like that facade can come crashing down at any moment.

For people that aren’t successful at all, this is what usually keeps them down and from even starting.  “I know I’m going to fail, so why even try?”  They hate the thought of losing so much they won’t even play the game.  They are forever on the sidelines, jealous of the people on the field, giving it all they’ve got.  (You know these people online as trolls)

Also, let’s be cognizant of the fact that modern society places an incredible amount of pressure on people to succeed.  Business articles these days are over-focused on one thing and that’s growth.  Do companies or people always need phenomenal growth?  What happens if one year we achieve the exact same success as the year before?  Is that so bad?  Is it still success if you are happy but made the same amount of money as last year?

When we place so much emphasis on achievement, are we constantly setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t have LEGENDARY success?  When your sense of self-worth is tied up into the total amount of achievement you’ve amassed, things could get tricky when there’s a plateau. Then what do you do?  Does your job define who you are as a person?

So what can we think about all this?  Well, I’m not a mental health professional (but I play one on tv) but I do know what works for me when that chord of self-doubt gets struck.  Here’s what I do:

Share.  Get your own personal board of directors or mentors and discuss openly what’s going on.  Don’t keep those feelings to yourself.  These people should be trusted partners in your success.  They could be your spouse, relative or a close friend.  Maybe someone in your industry or someone you look up to that’s successful as well.  

You absolutely don’t want people that will just parrot the situation and say it will be ok, but will give you good strong advice instead.  You want people to tell you that you are wrong and sometimes correct your direction.  You need to be challenged.  Who is on your personal board of directors?  Do you even have one?

Fail.  Nothing breeds success like failure.  Learning to fail is a skill, like any other.  You aren’t going to hit a home run every time you are at the plate, so why worry about it?  Life is about mental toughness, and the ability to fail and try again.  Every time you fail at something it’s also a learning opportunity for you to get better.  

I’ve always liked Thomas Edison’s quote when he was trying to invent the lightbulb,  “I have not failed.  I just found 10,000 things that won’t work.”  So take some risks and be ok with the results.  In fact, every time I publish one of these blog articles I’m still a little surprised that anyone wants to read them at all…let alone write in with a topic suggestion.  Guess what?  I would do it anyway, even if nobody read it.  You have to bravely push your art out.

Enjoy.  When you achieve some success, even if it is a small degree, enjoy it.  You’ve worked hard for that achievement.  Rather than focus on the doom and gloom of a potential disaster filled future, focus on enjoying on the results of your work!  Did you do or try something different?  Did you do something the standard way and it’s still working like a charm?  Replicate what just happened, and keep chugging along.  Remember the “P” rule: Proper Planning Predicates Peak Performance.  This includes relishing in the success you are having and keeping the momentum going.  It’s ok to celebrate!

Try.  This goes along with Fail.  Try new things.  Learning what will and what won’t work will always keep things interesting and push the envelope for success.  Remember when you were a kid and your dad helped you learn to ride a bike?  Nobody ever just jumps on and knows how to do it.  Most have spectacular wipe-outs and drive straight into a bush or a tree.  I know I did.  That’s why training wheels were invented.  To help.  Because Dad can only run alongside you for so far.  

Think about a skill or an achievement that you want now in your life.  Who is there to help you?  Can you get some training wheels for that?  What happens if you crash into a bush?  Will you get on the bike again and keep learning to ride it or will you start crying and run into the house?

Breathe.  Feeling overwhelmed?  Rather than subject yourself to a battery of self-doubt and mental nay-saying thoughts, practice some mindfulness exercises.  I’ve used these before when I get a little out of whack, and this really works.  Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight, and your head up.  Be comfortable.  Close your eyes.  Breathe in through your nose and take a big full breath.  Hold it for a moment.  Breathe out through your mouth.  Repeat.  Focus on how your body feels only.  Feel the floor with your feet, feel the chair with your body.  Relax.  Breathe deep.  This only takes a few minutes, but when you are finished you’ll feel better, be more alert, and you’ll be ready for whatever is coming up.

Trust.  As in trust your gut.  Something not right and you have that nagging feeling?  Well, maybe there’s something to that.  How many times have something happened, and you thought to yourself “I knew that was going to happen!”  Well, why didn’t you listen to your gut and explore what was going on?  Maybe that weird feeling you have deep inside is telling you something.  Of course, I just wrote a bunch of stuff about not listening to that inner demon, and now I’m stepping backwards on that notion a bit.  In my mind these are different.  One keeps saying “You suck”, and the other is saying “Something’s wrong.”  Learn to recognize the difference.

Quit Comparing.  All too often we measure ourselves against someone else’s success.  That’s just going to drive you crazy.  You will never be on top, as someone else will always have more.  Instead, learn to be thankful and happy with what you have.  Invest in yourself and help others succeed.  Plan for the future and strengthen yourself for a rainy day.  Stick out your hand and help others if you can.  True leadership is all about helping others succeed.

Being confidant is just knowing what you are doing.  It is developed by amassing the skills and experiences that will allow you to push through a challenge because you have the mental toughness to power through the situation, even if it is not one you’ve ever seen before.  This is why professionals train and keep learning new things.  

Confidence comes from repetition.

Think about other professions where the people have to exert confidence constantly in what they do.  Off the top of my head I’m thinking about Navy Seals, chefs, neurosurgeons, artists, firefighters, ninth grade English teachers, ballerinas, maybe even football coaches.  I’m sure you can name plenty more…  These are all people that constantly learn about their craft.  They practice.  They make mistakes.  They learn from them.  I’m sure at some point they have some doubts too, but they channel that into their success.  Think about how they get it done and what do they do to develop themselves professionally.

Are you on the same level as these professionals with your outlook?

Crisis of confidence?  More like proof you aren’t a robot.  At the end of the day, you just have to push through that doubt and keep reaching for your goals.  You can do it!

Guiding the Way: The Value of Mentorship

Aubrey Collins B&W Photo

Guess what folks?  For this blog I get to sit back, feet up on my desk and slurp down a nice long gulp of an imaginary margarita, while someone else sweats out the details of the blog.  That’s right!  Guest blogger time!  Wahoo!

Evidently other people write these things too, and I’m extremely honored to have Aubrey Collins pen the article below.  Aubrey and I have been ping-ponging ideas and discussions regarding blog articles and social media for a few months now, so it was only natural that she gets a turn driving my car, so to speak.  I know some of you might be disappointed that I’m not sharing some tidbit about running a t-shirt shop, or the latest idea in lint technology, but I’m sure you’ll get over it quickly once you discover Aubrey’s fine prose below.

By the way, my suggestion for the article title was “Better Value Through Procrastination”, which I wrote at the last minute.  Her suggestion is much better, as it has 100% less snarkiness and even double that in class.  Lastly, I’ll bet you will be as blown away by her article as I was, especially if you’ve ever thought about participating in a mentoring program or tried writing a blog article or three.  Thanks Aubrey!


From the time I started in the promotional products industry, I’ve been on the supplier side of a niche product. This meant that from the beginning, I knew the ins and outs of my line, but some days I had a hard time wrapping my head around all the complexities of an industry that is intricate on its best days and overwhelming on its worst.

Thankfully such a complicated industry also has plenty of resources, and I made sure to take advantage of them, most recently giving PromoKitchen’s mentorship program a test drive.

How The Program Works

Okay, test drive is totally the wrong term because the program is a six-month venture that the good folks at PromoKitchen offer to promotional products professionals to help individuals — and the industry on a whole — succeed.

Since PromoKitchen is dedicated to giving back and paying it forward, this program involves industry veterans donating their time to provide coaching and guidance for free. Yes, for free.

The process is simple. Fill out a form. Chat with a program coordinator. Get matched up with someone who can meet your needs. Chat again to make sure it’s a good fit. And go.

I was paired with a kind mentor who was generous with his time and career knowledge and whose frank approach helped me get over a hump I didn’t even realize I was stuck on.  You guessed it; this mentor was the one, the only, Marshall Atkinson.

Why You Should Do It

When I signed up for the program, I was more than a dozen years into my career and several years into the industry. Since I wasn’t a newcomer or a novice, I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of it.

All the articles, webinars, and TEDtalks in the world can’t offer you the same benefits one-on-one focused time with a person dedicated to helping you can provide.

What I Learned

Struggles are universal. Marshall and I are in two totally different aspects of the industry where specifics are different. However, in business, many of the struggles people experience are the same. While we may have different clients and target audiences, like most people in business, we’re both looking to stand out in a crowded market, aiming to offer the best product and customer experience possible, and trying to silence that little voice inside of us that tells us what we are doing isn’t good enough.

It’s okay to ask for help. We can’t do it all alone, and we shouldn’t. Work is hard enough. Don’t make it worse by trying to figure things out on your own when you’d be better off to ask someone’s opinion on a new product or service or for assistance in solving a problem that’s plaguing you. Seeking help doesn’t make you weak or inept. It makes you smart, savvy, and someone dedicated to personal development and progress, not bound by a fragile ego.

Develop a process. If you have a map, even if you get lost, you at least have a way to get back on the path. The same can be said for developing a process and sticking to it. Marshall shared a lot of his method with me, from how he writes, where he gets his ideas, how he structures his posts, how he promotes his posts, software and apps he uses, and more.  He developed his routine over time, evaluates it regularly, and changes it when necessary.

Stick to it. Consistency is key. Every Saturday morning, I can guarantee that as I’m drinking my coffee and playing with my daughter, my phone will ding and — like clockwork — an email with Marshall’s post will enter it. We talked at length about sticking to whatever schedule you set, respecting your own deadlines and not overworking things so much that you’re entirely sick of them before you even put them out into the world.  Game changer.

Perfection is not possible. (And that’s okay.) For being an easygoing person, I get pretty bent out of shape about making mistakes. When I am feeling vulnerable, my past errors cling to me like an albatross, hindering my progress. Marshall was frank in his assertion that you can’t let a fear of failure hold you back in putting things out to your audience. In his words: “Some will be great, some will be ok, some will suck. Picasso painted over 1,000 paintings, but I’ll bet you only know a few. It’s ok.” Remembering that mistakes are inevitable, perfection is largely futile, and done is better than perfect saves a lot of time — and anguish.

Introspection is essential. When I entered the mentorship program, I was hoping to learn more about the industry, partly for personal development and partly to find new ways to relate to the challenges of my customers. I did not realize I would learn just as much — if not more — about myself. I learned that, in many ways, I was getting in my own way and holding myself back. Being totally honest with ourselves about why we do (or don’t do) certain things is hard to admit, but this self-awareness is what will propel you forward.

Mentorship has no age limits. Mentorship is helpful no matter where you are in your career. Even if you are decades in, it doesn’t mean you don’t have anything new to learn. Conversely, if you feel lacking in one area, it doesn’t mean you aren’t an expert in another. While, in this situation, I benefitted greatly as a mentee, I know I also have knowledge that I can (and plan to) pass on as a mentor. Plus, by nature, mentorship is symbiotic; you will learn something regardless of your side in the relationship and you’ll develop a relationship that can continue to serve you both over time.

Bottom line: No matter who you are, role you serve at your company, and whether you enter the program as a mentor or a mentee, you will benefit from mentorship even more than you can imagine.

I have only one regret — that I didn’t do it sooner.

Aubrey Collins is the Director of Marketing and Communications at MediaTree, the leading supplier of branded digital entertainment cards. She fell in love with the promotional products industry in 2011 and has vowed never to leave since the moment she walked by the Moleskine booth at her first PPAI Expo.

Be sure to follow or connect with Aubrey on Social Media by clicking the links below:

Aubrey’s Blog – be sure to follow!! – click here

Twitter: click here

LinkedIn: click here

Facebook: click here

Instagram: click here

Pinterest, which Aubrey says is a shameful mess: click here

Lending a Hand Helps More Than Just the Other Person

Lending a Hand - Marshall Atkinson

There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone, and I mean everyone, struggles with daily challenges.  I don’t care who you are, what you do, how much money you make, or how talented you are…there is something going on every day that is incredibly challenging.  Guess what?  Typically, other people around you could help conquer that problem.  Are you too afraid to ask?  On the other hand, are you too afraid to lend a hand?

It goes both ways.  When I think of my family, friends, coworkers, and even people that I haven’t even met yet…I know that in some way I can help them.  Maybe I can’t do something for all of them, all of the time.  Small things such as helping people move, cleaning up the neighborhood, volunteering time for a cause or idea, mentoring people professionally, raising money for a cause, help teach a class or lead a Cub Scout pack, or just giving someone advice or consul when things are not going so smoothly.  All of these things made me feel great afterwards.

I’ve also received help too.  Hundreds of fantastic people have been there for me and offered advice or trained me in a new skill.  They’ve been there when the days are darkest and I’m confused and discouraged.  I’ve learned a lot from those quiet conversations you have with people you love.  Sometimes a five minute phone call can make all the difference when the right words are said.

When I think back on the crazy chain of events on my life and start connecting the dots, I realize that there is a common golden thread.  If I didn’t help this particular person, volunteer for a certain project, get involved with that cause or group, start talking and helping others in my industry, sit in on a roundtable discussion at a tradeshow and listen, start teaching that one class…then my life wouldn’t be where it is today.  A good many of the great things that are going on for me currently, all began with a small action I took years ago.

It all started with helping someone else solve a problem.

So when we sit there, heads down, nose in our cell phones, are we capable as a society of recognizing the struggles of other people?  Think about your coworkers, friends, neighbors, or just anyone that you meet normally throughout your day.  What are they struggling with that you could instantly solve because you have the skill or means to do so?  Wouldn’t that small effort push the needle a little bit forward?  What are you involved in right now that could benefit someone else?  Are they too proud to ask for help?  Are you too busy to notice?

The reason I’m asking is that thirty years from now you could maybe look back on that as the pivotal thing that changed the direction of your life.  All you have to do is stick out your hand and say “Hey, let me help you with that” or “I can show you how this works”.

Here is a list of some things you might consider:

  1. You know how to do stuff. Other people don’t.  Teach a class or mentor them and spread some knowledge.
  2. Volunteer your time. How many groups out there just don’t have enough people involved?  Find one and go!
  3. Raise money for a non-profit. It doesn’t have to be thousands of dollars.  Everything helps.
  4. Spend time with someone that needs it. As humans we crave interaction.  Talking on the phone doesn’t count.
  5. Share your resources. Maybe you have extras of something.  Do you need to horde them?  Let go.
  6. Help train someone. You have skills that matter.  Others don’t.  Help someone get a leg up.
  7. Give gifts. Do we have to wait until there’s a disaster to provide for others?
  8. Add to your interest. For example, maybe you like to read and you can volunteer at the library.
  9. Is someone doing something that should be noticed?  Say Thank You in a public way.
  10. Just be nice. You might make someone’s day just be holding the door open or picking up a box.

Today’s Challenge: Paying It Forward With Cause Marketing

2014 Visual Impressions - Ink to the People Making Strides Walk Team - Marshall Atkinson

Recently I attended the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer kickoff breakfast here in Milwaukee.  It was a wonderful event, full of amazing stories that inspired the crowd.  I sat at a table and introduced myself over coffee, and one of my new friends asked me why I was there.  “Simple” I said, “It’s important that as a company we give back to the community and it’s my job as a leader to help point the way.”  This is the third year in a row we have participated, and last year was a phenomenal success for our team as we had over forty walkers participate and raised $5,100 towards fighting breast cancer.  Events like these are great for company team-building spirit, as they are fun and fighting cancer is certainly a worthwhile cause.

However, does it have to stop there?  Do we only need to think about others once a year?  Can we “Do Good” on a continual basis?  Companies are increasingly moving towards cause marketing as a way to generate sales, while simultaneously helping others.  We can do more it seems.  Watch this great video about Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia that allows customers to “pay it forward” by buying a $1 slice of pizza for anyone that might need it. (Click Here)  A simple hand scrawled Post-it-Note serves as the coupon.  They help feed the homeless and less fortunate in their neighborhood.  Genius.

This happened by accident, but the owner was cognizant of the opportunity and didn’t squash it because it was “weird”, or didn’t fit in with what people might think are established norms for restaurants.  By looking at his bulletin board in the video, there are a lot of fantastic people in his community.  I wonder if they realized that before this program was a success?

Is this just limited to smaller companies though?  Maybe, but think again.  Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years you’ve seen the success of Tom’s Shoes.  When a customer buys a pair of shoes, Tom’s gives a pair away to someone in need.  To date, they have provided over 35 million pairs of shoes to people that need them.  That’s a lot of happy people.

Did you know that Hanes has donated socks for the homeless for years?  Hanes works with the Salvation Army and provides the most requested, but least donated item.  They’ve been doing it since 2008, and they donate 250,000 pairs of clean new socks for the homeless each year.  Can you imagine what this must mean to people that have all the challenges of being homeless?  Think about that the next time you put on a pair of shoes.  What if you didn’t have a clean pair of socks today?  How would you feel?  Unless you are wearing flip flops, pretty stinky I’ll bet.

As many of you know, the theme of sustainability often winds its way onto my blogs sooner or later, so whoop here it is.  Patagonia, the celebrated adventure brand, has a great cause marketing campaign which is to not buy their merchandise.  That’s right, when something is worn out they would rather you try to repair it than go out and buy a brand new one.  In fact, they’ll help you repair the item.  In a consumer age where we constantly celebrate the new and trendy, it is amazingly refreshing to see a major brand step up and take a new tack on an old problem.  This spring they are packing up a special repair vehicle and going on tour repairing people’s favorite items.  I wish I had something worn out from them just so I could try it out.  That’s probably the point.

So what are we doing here in Milwaukee?  Our Ink to the People website has had tremendous success over the last few years helping others raise money nationally for their causes by using our platform to create and sell t-shirts to fund their endeavors.  Recently we have built two new platforms that offer ways to help.  Our “Design for Good” program allows us to pair great artists with causes to develop the creative images needed to fuel philanthropic success.  The “Affiliate Program” helps causes large and small find better positioning with an easy way to use t-shirts as their financial generator.  We’ve helped animal shelters, veterans groups, high schools, college students, religious groups, walk teams raising money for their cause, and many others along the way.  Let’s not also forget our biggest success, the Boston Strong campaign.  It’s people needing to raise money for something they believe in, and using a t-shirt to do it.  This is one of the reasons why I love my job.  We’re not just printing shirts for people, we’re helping out.

If you recall, I titled this piece “Today’s Challenge” and now I’d like to direct the article’s focus to you.  How can your company pay it forward or do something different to make a positive change?  Sure, we’re all interested in creating a nice bottom line that’s robust and deeply black, but can’t you do more?  Can you pay it forward with a pizza slice, create a one for one, donate your product to a worthwhile cause, or find a way to change how your product is used in the marketplace by having it last ‘forever”?  Can you build your entire business model like Ink to the People, so it’s about building effective change for good?  I hope the foundation of this article isn’t lost, and I don’t sound too preachy.  That’s not my intent.  To me, leadership is about more than just hitting your production or quarterly fiscal numbers.  It’s about trying to make a difference and improving when you can.  If we can combine that with entrepreneurial success, everything scales up wonderfully.

However, if you can’t build that business model today it’s ok.  Nobody is out to shame you. Maybe it doesn’t fit, or there are other challenges that are at play.  I’d like to encourage you at the very least to go out and support a local effort to help others.  Participate in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer for the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, Toys for Tots, March for Dimes, Autism Speaks, Make a Wish Foundation, Wounded Warriors, your cities symphony or arts group, your local Food Bank, or any number of great causes that surround you.  If you don’t have the money, volunteer your time or skills.  Just do something!

Finally, I’d like to encourage you to help me with my fundraising efforts in fighting for a cure for breast cancer by contributing to my fundraising efforts.  Yes, this is my on my knees money plea. 

Maybe you know someone that has been affected by this terrible disease.  If so, I’m walking for them.  If you have five minutes and can spare even ten bucks, (yes, we’ll take more!), I’d love for you to click here and go to my fundraising page for the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event here in Milwaukee.  This is a fantastic organization, and they truly help.  I know, as I was crying into my coffee cup during that breakfast listening to a few survivors talk about what it means to celebrate more birthdays.

C’mon you can do it!  Your wallet and peace of mind will thank you!

Gotta know more about Cause Marketing?  Read these:

10 Best Cause Marketing Promotions of 2014 – Selfish Giving –

Cause Marketing Matters to Consumers – Entrepreneur

Statistics Every Cause Marketer Should Know – 

Cause Marketing is Hot, But Does It Pay to Do Good? AdAge –

Cause Marketing Leaders of the Pack – Forbes –

What is Cause Related Marketing – Grant Space –

Victory Lap – atkinsontshirt Blog Reaches Milestone


I’m sure some blogs get millions of views.  Mine doesn’t and I’m ok with that. (One day!!  We all need goals.)  As many of you know this blog is centered on the decorated apparel industry, a decidedly tiny community in the scheme of things.  You have to pull a squeegee or thread a commercial needle to really understand it.  Or maybe just own a t-shirt and have some sort of weird interest in how things are printed or sewn.

Two and a half years ago I started the blog to give back to this wonderful community and as a personal creative outlet.  I think it makes me a better manager, as I’m constantly looking at things from several unique perspectives.  I’ve found that I like writing in the morning.  It goes great with coffee.

This past week, the 20,000th person read an article on this blog.  That is a milestone that makes me happy and proud.  People from 136 different countries have read something, and most read a second article while they are here.  That’s incredible to me!  Talk about global outreach!!

In 2012 I had an average of one reader per day.  In 2013, I started using social media to help gain readership and built it up to an average of 32 readers per day.  This year so far, it’s now at 69 readers per day on average.  April currently is at 114!  It’s been slow and steady growth.  Believe it or not I still haven’t run out of ideas to write about either.

Here are my all-time most popular articles.  Have you read them all?  Which one was your favorite?  The top one, which I refer to as “Alligators” in my house, gets about a dozen or so views every day.  It’s one of my favorite things to check when I’m reviewing my stats…

  1. When You Are Up to Your Ass in Alligators
  2. Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined
  3. When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong
  4. 20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
  5. Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars
  6. Feed the Eagles & Starve the Turkeys 
  7. The Ironical Hard to Hear Truth About the T-shirt Industry 
  8. 10 Creativity Tips for T-shirt Designers 
  9. Save That Misprinted T-shirt – 7 Secret Tips That Really Work 
  10. 9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master 

If you are interested in creating your own blog, this is what currently works for me: I use Word to write and edit the articles.  I spend about ten to fifteen minutes a day writing each morning.  I start with an outline on Monday, and by Friday the article is ready to go usually.  I reread on Saturdays and publish.  It gets copied to my WordPress blog, and I use Buffer to push it out as I like to review the statistics.  Buffer is a great app for social media, as it allows you to schedule all your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook.  I usually do my scheduling on Sunday’s and Wednesdays, and in about ten minutes have all my posts set for the next few days.

I hear back from many readers as they write me to express how I helped them overcome a challenge, or to ask a follow up question.  A good many have been from shops in other countries, and those are really fun to read and respond to with a short note or helpful hint.  If you do need to contact me you can e-mail me at  I would love to hear from you!

I would like to ask a favor though.  I’m currently raising money for breast cancer research through the American Cancer Society for their Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event here in Milwaukee.  If you have enjoyed my articles or if anything on my blog has helped your shop improve, please spread the gratitude by donating to help end Breast Cancer!  Even $1.  Donate by clicking here.

Thank you very much for your continued readership.  I appreciate it.  Without your readership and involvement, this blog would be just some sort of weird hobby with a lot of typing and coffee consumption.  So consider this a virtual high five “Thank You”.  Bam!


Boston Strong – One Year Later – The Phrase That Defines the City


Boston.  Arguably the most resilient city in America.  A year ago the unthinkable happened and tragedy struck with the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.  A couple of college kids, Nick Reynolds and Christopher Dobens, studying at local Emerson College wanted to help out and used the Ink to the People website to start a small fundraiser from their dorm room.  They coined a simple phrase “Boston Strong”, because they liked the phrasing as it was similar to Army Strong or LivestrongBoston Strong.  It’s like you’ve heard it all of your life.

They didn’t trademark or copyright the phrase on purpose, and immediately the entire world would recognize these words as a character trait for the city in anguish.  Dobens has said, “What we believe in is that this logo, this phrase, belongs to the city, not to us.”

Pairing the Ink to the People website and a dramatic flair for social media, the duo enlisted their friend Lane Brenner, and relentlessly pushed their fundraising efforts into hyperdrive.  They originally just wanted to sell 110 shirts.  That’s when things exploded for them.  It went viral.  It’s been a year, and they have raised over $1,000,000 for the One Fund for Boston selling their original Boston Strong t-shirt, and two others on our Ink to the People website.  It has been a great journey and wonderful opportunity for everyone at Ink to the People to help them in their efforts.  We’re like a company full of proud parents.

A year ago I wrote about the initial reaction and the emotional response of the tragedy with Boston Strong.  Read the article here.

One Year Later

Across the country in Milwaukee, Wisconsin we’ve been printing the Boston Strong shirts off and on for a year now, and have been literally amazed at the incredible effort and response.  We created Ink to the People to give people an outlet to sell t-shirts using social media.  We have shipped these shirts all over America, and beyond.  Every time these go to print, I’m happy to be associated with this effort, as I know the impact that this idea from a few college kids in Boston is having on the world.  Who said that this generation is all narcissistic and self-centered?  Not all evidently.

It doesn’t stop there either.  Other groups have seen the success of the Boston Strong campaign and have started using the site to raise money for their causes.  American Cancer Society, Make-A-Wish, Firefighters, High Schools, March of Dimes, Little Leagues, Political Issues, Animal Shelters…virtually any notion that you could think of someone has created a shirt and is raising money risk free.  Boston Strong is leading the way for these groups to be successful in their efforts too.  Think about all the good people can do with just a simple t-shirt.  That’s what Ink to the People is all about.

Here’s a collection of recent media coverage for the Boston Strong or Ink to the People:

Boston Strong Creators Talk About Ink to the People

Boston Strong Creators Talk About Their Future

Boston Strong Team’s Website – buy a shirt today!!  Help their cause!!

Boston Strong One Year Later – Joe Water’s Blog –

How Boston Strong T-shirts Became a Rallying Cry for the City

A Year After the Bombings Some Say Boston Strong Has Gone Overboard

Students Behind Boston Strong Top $1M in Money Raised for the One Fund 

The Business of Boston Strong 

Boston :: Stronger Than Ever – Ink to the People blog article

Milwaukee Company Prints Boston Strong T-shirts 

7 Unique Fundraising Tools for Non-Profits – good article and lists Ink to the People fourth on their list –

10 Best Cause Marketing Promotions of 2013 

Students Coin Boston Strong – Emerson College blog article


Chasing Tigers and Eating Strawberries

This past week I had the distinct pleasure of attending two meditation sessions taught by my sister-in-law Jamie Beck.  She is a wonderful art therapist in the Boston area.  (Here’s the obligatory website plug –  Personally, I’ve never thought about meditation much but being the open minded person that I am, gave it a shot.  It was really fantastic.

During one of the sessions, she told an incredible story that I thought would make a great blog article.  So, in the spirit of meditation…sit back and get comfortable.  Don’t close your eyes, because you need to read, but just pretend you are meditating in a quiet tranquil room.  Breathe.

This is a story about life.  It’s starts with a young woman, and she is being chased by a bunch of tigers.  They are big.  They are mean.  They are relentless.  Nearly at the point of exhaustion, it is all she can do to run away from them.

She comes to a cliff at the edge of the jungle.  The woman can hear the tigers crashing through the underbrush.  She knows there isn’t any way she can escape back the way she came, but luckily she sees a thick vine growing over the edge of the rock face cliff.

She scampers down the vine well out of the reach of the snarling pack of tigers.

Relieved, she keeps climbing down the vine and eventually looks down to where she is heading.  Another ambush of tigers waiting below her.  Oh no!  She looks up and the tigers are all peering over the edge.  She looks down and the tigers are leaping up to try to get her.  Quite the predicament.

Just then she notices a tiny mouse up on the craggy rock face above.  It is grey and small and very inconsequential looking.  The tigers aren’t observant enough to see it, as their focus is totally centered on the woman.   But the woman sees the mouse, and it is chewing on the vine.

She can’t climb the vine to go up.  She can’t climb the vine to go down.  Eventually the mouse will chew through the vine.  Options?

Just then she notices a luscious patch of strawberries growing on the side of the cliff face next to her.  They are quite possibly the plumpest, reddest and most gorgeous strawberries the world has ever seen.  She reaches over and picks one and bites into it.  Juice drips down her chin and onto her shirt.  It is the best strawberry she has ever eaten.  Perfectly ripe.  Sweet.  Delicious.

She swings over and sits on the ledge and eats another strawberry.  It is just as good as the first one.  She then sees the trail leading down the mountain.  Away from either ambush of tigers; away from the mouse that would be the reason for her demise.

The lesson?  The jungle tigers are the past that we carry around with us, and are always chasing us.  The tigers below are the worries and concerns we have for our future.  The mouse is of course, the trigger of outside forces that may alter our future.

By only being open to options in our immediate present can we eat the strawberries placed before us and find our way down the mountain.  Quit being distracted by the frenzy of our past, or the anticipation of the future and how you may get there.  Just bite into the strawberry in front of you and enjoy it.

Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee


Recently the owners and top executives from Visual Impressions “graduated” from the initial class of a project entitled Scale Up Milwaukee (  This was a very interesting class that was taught in four two day sessions by different professors from Babson College in Boston.  It was organized and led by Dan Isenberg, who is a professor of entrepreneurship practice at Babson and frequently writes for Fortune magazine.  The premise was simple, instead of focusing on start-up companies why not teach existing and successful thriving companies the skills and focus to grow their businesses and take them to the next level?  Who wouldn’t want to participate in that?

For me, there were a number of key take-aways and enlightened moments.  One of which is that if you get a bunch of top executives in a room for a few weeks you quickly learn that all of them have similar challenges.  Employee problems, hiring problems, customer retention issues, what do we do next questions, how do we challenge the competition questions, etc.  You are not in this alone.  It was interesting to note that if you look at a company, any company, and think they are perfect and running smoothly you would be wrong.  They are probably struggling with the same challenges that you are facing every day.  During the class, I loved the interaction and “here’s what we did” comments that were freely given during the discussions.  Lightning in a bottle…

A good chunk of the class was devoted to understanding the current state of each company, and actually focusing on where you want to go, what are the next steps, and developing a game plan for execution.  This fostered a lot of internal discussions at Visual Impressions; that are still continuing actually.  I think a lot of companies miss out on this growth opportunity because everyone is just focusing on getting through their day, getting through their week.  Shipping the orders in front of them keeps the blinders on.  Sure, there is always loose talk about next year or next quarter…but actually drawing up a game plan for execution?  Usually that doesn’t happen with growing businesses.  (Notice I didn’t use the phrase “small businesses” – thank you Dan!!)

I took copious notes, and I’m not going to publish them here, but I do want to share some key insights and points that were made during the lecture series as I think many companies could use some direction when thinking about growth.

As I stated, the basic idea about the class was focusing the thought process on developing a plan for growing your existing business.  Every business owner is an expert on their own business and understands their market, customers, pressures, and competition.  Using what you already know, think about these elements and try to envision what would make a successful strategy for the business.  Choose the least risky:

  1. Current Product to Current Market.  This method strives to build more on capturing market penetration with your current business model.  How can you take what you already have and bring in more sales, and capture more of your existing market?  You should consider how well your company performs currently, and what you need to do to strengthen your infrastructure to build on your success.  You should also consider your competition; as they aren’t going to give up their business without a fight.  Also, what are the current challenges with your current product?  Can it be improved?  Can you build more margin somehow?
  2. New Product to Current Market.  Think about how introducing a new product to your current customer base might increase your sales.  You already have customers and successful relationships, so what can you bring to them to bolster your sales?  What is the cost for entry with a new product?  How quickly can you bring it to market?  What do you need to do in house to handle the new sales?  What is the potential downside for adding a new product to your business?
  3. Current Product to New Market.  Think about how you can take your current sales and find a brand new set of customers.  You don’t have to invent anything new, but you do have to expend energy and maybe money finding, recruiting, closing and handling a new set of customers.  What do you need to accomplish this?  Would you need to hire a new sales force?  Increase your current infrastructure?  How do you locate the new market?  What are your competitors doing?
  4. New Product to New Market.  This is the riskiest, as you are basically launching a rocket into outer space and hoping for success with untried products and markets.  To pull this off, you need to quickly grasp and comprehend factors that are going to either lead you to success or failure.  You may need to make adjustments often and early.  Be quick and nimble in your decision making.  Here’s where the phrase “fail fast” comes into play as you don’t want to drain unnecessary capital chasing your tail.  However, the reward for success could be higher and lead to even greater opportunities down the road.  Are you willing to roll the dice?

So, what would you do?  Pick one (or more) of these and develop your strategy.  Be sure to have a crystal clear strategy surrounding the plan that details expectations, investment capital, job duties, estimations on metrics, and the most important “how will you know if you are successful” statements.  Use SMART goals.  (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic & Time Based)

Another great point that was shared during the discussions was how to handle objections.  You want to get to “NO” as fast as you can, as there is opportunity with NO.  NO is a natural part of the buying process, and presents a good opportunity to learn about your customer, your product or your company.  NO says your client is listening, and outlines their concerns.  If you address the concerns, you can get to something better…which is a YES.  Some factors of NO:

  1. Misconception.  Maybe the customer doesn’t understand the product.  Think about how you are presenting the product, its value and how the customer will use it.  Do they comprehend all the facts?  Make it easy for them to understand the benefits, and take away any misinformation.  How are you currently educating your customers about your product?
  2. Skepticism.  Maybe the customer is too cautious or uncertain that your product will work the way it is supposed to.  Demonstrate your product and show the benefits.  This is your opportunity to show them the value and build the trust that they need to say YES.  Make it obvious.
  3. Real Drawback.  Maybe the customer is correct and your product doesn’t meet the challenge that they need it to perform.  Here’s your chance to redesign it or add new features to the product to get to YES.  Or, do you have something else to offer that would work?  Here’s your chance to learn from your customer.
  4. Real Complaint.  Your customer may have had past experiences that are influencing their decision.  Ask more detailed questions and find out the circumstances.  Build your case that your product will meet or exceed those challenges.  Handle the complaint first.  Empathize.

The lesson here is how do you handle your NO’s?  What do your customers say?  Write down their objections and find the counter-argument and develop the strategy to get to YES.  This could be with more education about your company, or maybe you have to change something with your product offering.  Boil it down and focus on eliminating anything that gets in the way to the YES sales statement.

Our team at Visual Impressions is working to develop our strategy for 2014 based on the lessons learned during this class.  Can you guess what that strategy might be, based on the two points outlined above?  By the way, our stated goal during the class is to shoot for an 18% sales growth over the next year.  We used conservative numbers, and really looked at a lot of factors to determine that number.  I’m very optimistic that we can hit our target.  Of course, I’m not going to publish that strategy – loose lips sink ships – but over the remainder of the days left in 2013 we will be diligently refining our plan and working on executing it with gusto.  This is where things get exciting!!