Is Your Shop Stagnant? Why Innovation is the Road to Success

Let me ask you some simple questions.  Be honest to yourself while you think about your answer.  Are you a shop that constantly seeks to reinvent itself, improve and get better?  Or are you the shop that sits there enviously and wonders “how do those guys do it?”  This is important, as I see all too many shops closing these days because they can’t compete.  The used equipment resellers are loaded for bear, and their inventory has never been more stocked.  Why is that do you think?

It’s not just the smaller shops either.  Bigger ones are going down in droves as different market forces and other factors affect their business.  So how are some shops not only staying in business, but actually growing?  Innovation.

Stronger, healthier companies are constantly seeking new avenues for continuous improvement.  They are looking toward the future, taking some calculated risks, experimenting, and driving change in their shop.  Professionals practice and develop their game.  It’s the ones with their heads down that just take orders and print, never looking up or facing the market that are going to be left wondering where their business went.  Below are a few ideas that I’ve been working on lately.  Think about how these might affect your shop a year or two down the road.

Innovation for Better Margins.  The margin is simply the difference between what it costs you to decorate the garment and what you are charging.  There’s always enormous price pressure in the apparel decoration industry, regardless of the market niche you are serving.  Yet, few shops really do anything to help build their margins.  Some can’t even tell you realistically what their actual margin even is.

  1. Sustainability.  Sure it’s good karma being “green”, but building a sustainability program in your shop forces you to review all of your processes, materials, and wasted motions to see if they really matter.  It’s hard work, and takes a good foundation of solidly trained staff members to pull off, but you can add thousands of dollars to of your bottom line by implementing a sustainability program.  For a more detailed answer check out this article I wrote for Impressions Magazine – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml
  2. New Products to Try.  Your vendors come out with new products constantly.  In fact, I’ll bet you have some unused samples sitting in the same box they were delivered to you in from six months ago.  You never opened it for whatever reason.  Too busy, didn’t ask for it, loyal to a competitive product, etc.  That, my friend, is foolish.  You should always be looking for the newer, better, cheaper product.  When was the last time you went to a trade show?  I try stuff constantly, and let the staff using the product gauge whether it works for them before deciding about it.  Some are instant hits, some are ok, and some are complete dogs.  You will never know unless you open the box and find out.
  3. Training.  Innovation by Training?  Sure…as unless your staff actually knows how to do something, how would they have a concept on how to improve it?  Taking someone from customer service and teaching them how to ship, or taking someone from the screen room and instructing them on how to set up a job….those just may be the next people on your staff to have the epiphany on how to do something better.  Here’s how you can effectively build a Cross Training Program in your shop: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml
  4. Automation.  When was the last time you looked at the labor steps needed to do anything in your shop?  From typing in an order, all the way through production, to invoicing.  Many hands touch that job.  How much time would you save if you reduced the steps necessary for each task along the way?  Have you conducted any time studies?  Technology, software and help is out there and early adopters seize a competitive advantage when they understand their numbers so well that they can spend the capital it takes to acquire new technology.  Are you doing anything to innovate in these areas?  Why not?  Your competitors are.

Innovation for New Techniques.  Do you ever just “try” something to see if you can make it work or figure it out?  Other industries call this Research and Development, or R&D for short.  Stretching your creative muscles once in a while when it doesn’t matter and nobody is looking can reap big benefits as you could master a technique or even invent something new.  Take that new skill and bring it to market.  Make money on it.  Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  1. Listen to Your Customers.  What do they want?  Where are they going?  When was the last time you actually sat down with them over a cup of coffee or a plate of BBQ for lunch and asked them?  Partner with them and solve a problem for them.
  2. Experiment.  When was the last time you tried to foil a DTG print?  Print off the seam of the shirt?  Screen print on an inflatable toy?  Fold shirts differently to get a drop ship set in a smaller (and less costly) polybag?  Eliminate masking tape on screens?  Print eight metallic inks on one shirt, without pick up?  Print over hoodie seams without a special platen?  We’ve done all of those, and more.  The “What If” question is a big one.  How are you handling it?  Here’s a bunch of shots of our shop that I’ve taken and loaded on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/
  3. Ask Your Vendors.  I do this all the time.  I state the challenge that I’m trying to resolve and partner with them to work towards the solution.  Some are easy, as there’s a ready-made product.  A few aren’t really in their wheelhouse, but they may have experience or knowledge that could steer me in the right direction.  How good is your relationship with your vendors?  Do you treat them as partners, or do you put them off and keep them at arms-length?
  4. Adopting or Trying New Technology.  Still using film for screens?  Do you waste time digitizing your own files?  Have you looked into Direct to Garment printing?  Do you have an order entry system?  Do you have an online presence? There’s an old adage that says “The only constant in life is change” – this is true of business.  Either you adapt or you will soon become obsolete.  There is technology, services, equipment and expertise out there that can make your business stronger, faster, leaner, and more profitable.  What was the last thing you tried?

Innovation for Exercising the Creative Mind.  Unless you are a blank apparel distributor you probably don’t sell much undecorated product.    We all have our market that we sell to…but what have you developed lately that is creative and would set yourself apart from your competition?  Or, even worse, what are they doing that is going to take your customers away from you?  Adding value to your sales proposition should be one of your key strategies this year.  Have you even thought about it, or are you just like a lot of apparel decorators and just sit and wait for the orders to come in by themselves?

  1. Look to Other Industries for Inspiration.  Put your thinking cap on and try to see things from another person’s perspective.  How would a technology driven company or an equipment manufacturer look at the challenge?  Would they make the same choices you would?  Any material, training, process, or thinking that you could apply to your situation?  Being creative isn’t all art related, as creative thinkers are problem solvers.  Step outside what you know and see things from another’s viewpoint.  What would you change?
  2. Borrow Ideas from Others.  I like to watch the show “Chopped” on the Food Network.  The show’s premise is that they take four chefs and give them a basket of crazy ingredients to use to compete against each other for three separate dishes.  With each round, one chef is eliminated until there is a winner.  What’s creative about the show is that they are taking diverse elements that might not ever be paired together and forcing the competitors to create something not only new but delicious.  What if you took this idea and used it in your shop?  What list of weirdo things could you combine to make something that would sell?  This is where the “Gee, I never would have thought of that” ideas come from.  If you are only taking and producing orders you will never do this.  Get out of your rut!!
  3. Ask Your Staff.  Maybe you aren’t creative.  But I’ll bet you employ some that are very creative.  What’s the one thing that they have always wanted to try?  Find some time and have a shop contest to develop the wackiest idea to showcase your creative juices.
  4. Take a Field Trip.  This could be just to the mall or a trade show.  Bring a notebook.  Take pics.  What do you see?  Sit around the coffee shop later and debate what was really cool, and what would work for your shop.  The best discussions are the ones that are freely and unconsciously made.  Don’t try to squeeze them into a meeting.  Talk.

Hopefully this article is the catalyst that starts some innovation with your shop.  I would be very interested to know if you developed any ideas after reading this article.  I’m all about sharing ideas, so let’s trade!  E-mail me directly if you don’t want the world to know…  matkinson4804@gmail.com.

Sometimes the Word “No” is Your Friend

Quite often a lot of companies get into trouble by saying “Yes” to situations that they really should avoid.  It is harder to say “No”, as we’re wired to please, to accept a challenge, to “Get ‘Er Done”.  However, if you stop and think about the situation before you react, you might save yourself a lot of valuable time, money and effort that could be wasted on unfruitful orders.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the word “No” just could be your best friend one day.

Here are some tips to help you make a good decision:

  1. Do you have all the facts?  Quite often, by thinking about the order and writing down everything you’ll need, including a timeline of deliverables, you’ll uncover a hidden challenge that could tip your decision one way or another.  Be sure to ask thorough, detailed questions.
  2. Are you sure you have the expertise?  Accepting a job that requires a skill that you don’t possess is just asking for trouble.  Learning on the job is a great way to travel down the road to ruin at breakneck speed.  Either factor in the cost of bringing in an expert to help you with the lacking skill or just say no to the deal.
  3. Do you have an exact idea on all of your costs?  If you are the guy that just marks everything up by percentage, without understanding all of your production costs, this could mean trouble.  Sometimes extra labor, materials, or other factors are needed to complete a job and if you don’t do a good job on the estimating step you could be working extremely hard, for free.  What’s the point of that?  Use a pricing matrix or schedule (that is built on actual data based on your company) and stick to it.
  4. Do you trust your customer?  There are some clients (you know you have some) that are less than truthful with you about things.  There are just some things about them that would make a used-car salesman proud.  If that’s the case, tread lightly when accepting a deal from them, or someone like them.  Sometimes a polite “Sorry, we can’t handle that order” is better than taking an order that is going to blow up in your face.
  5. Can you fit this order into your production schedule?  Do you even have one?  Hopefully your shop is busy enough that coordinating the jobs and orders requires some planning.  When handed a challenging order request though, if you don’t have a production schedule that you can easily refer to you may be in trouble.  Salespeople are notorious for blindly taking jobs and not worrying about the repercussions.  After all, there not the ones that will have to pay the overtime.  Here’s a follow up article I authored on building a production schedule – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/How-to-Build-an-Accu-1469.shtml
  6. Is there even enough time to do it?  If you know your capabilities per hour, you can deduce how long it will take to run the job.  Unless you can print the job on more than one press or bend the laws of time and physics, sometimes it’s best to pass.  This request is usually centered on a rush job.  Here’s a follow up article I authored on tackling rush orders – http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/nielsen/impressions_201302/#/46

So how do you say NO and not lose your customer or send the wrong message?  Here are some ways you can gently break the news or turn down the order:

  1. Be firm, but not overly defensive or apologetic.  Be honest about the situation, and explain that the project isn’t in your wheelhouse and you are concerned that you will let them down.
  2. If you really would like to do the project, but circumstances are preventing you from agreeing to the proposal, rephrase the challenge by saying “I can’t do this…but I can…”  Rephrase the topic into what you need to be able to accept the deal.  Maybe it will work out in the end.
  3. You can also say NO in the present state if you need more details on how the work might have to be performed.  Have some good notes or research ready and be prepared to explain what you need or what details are unfocused.  You may end up turning down the deal as offered, but your client will be impressed that you thought of an entire series of points that they haven’t contemplated.
  4. How about saying NO to only part of the project?  Maybe you could produce part of the order, and they could contract another part to another vendor.  This could be a good solution if you have some other companies that you share business with from time to time.
  5. Don’t forget that there are only so many hours in a day.  Accepting something that you know you should say NO to, may have a domino effect on other business.  Can you adjust your production schedule accordingly?  If not, explain to the client and show them that you value all of your clients and have a responsibility to them.  After all, they wouldn’t like their order to get bumped if you accepted something else…right?
  6. Another way of saying NO is giving them the cost and time estimate for you to do the work on your terms.  This way, if it does come in you will get paid for what you are worth and have the correct amount of time to produce the job.

Saying NO is hard.  As apparel decorators we are hard wired into thinking that we have to accept every job that comes along, as every company has been through some dry spells.  However, some orders just plain stink.  You can tell they are going to be problems from the moment you hear or read about them.  Sometimes that voice in your head that says DANGER! is right.

Pinterest: Visual Social Marketing for Apparel Decorators

By now you’ve surely read one or two articles about the value of incorporating a social marketing strategy into your business plan.  Connecting with your current and potential customers is an ever-demanding and crucial step in growing your sales and working towards successful sales goals.

You may already have a website, blog, Facebook page, LinkedIn account, and Twitter feed.  Adding another element to that may seem overwhelming and daunting, but if you haven’t heard of Pinterest (www.pintrest.com) you may want to jump on this gigantic growing social media phenomenon.  Pinterest is the hottest social media website on the internet, with millions of users and it’s growing every day.  In a recent study released in April (http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexknapp/2012/04/09/new-study-pegs-pinterest-as-the-number-3-social-website/), Forbes Magazine reports that Pinterest is the number three social media service, with 105 million users, ranking only behind Facebook and Twitter respectively.  Below, I’ll explain what Pinterest is and how you can use this to your advantage as part of your social media marketing strategy for your business.

Pinterest has been likened to a “Visual Twitter”, and that’s pretty accurate.  Your account is essentially one or more bulletin boards of visual pictures that you want the world to see.  Instead of blasting out a short 140 character message users “Pin” a picture of something that “Interests” them to one of their boards.  Others may find that image likable and can either “Like” or “Repin” the image to one of their boards.  Popular images can go viral and spread across the country in minutes.  The fun of Pinterest is exploring other people’s boards to see their interests and connect socially.  After I created my account a few weeks ago, the business epiphany of using this as a tool for marketing was readily apparent.  I’ve loaded an image and in literally ten seconds, someone I don’t know Repinned or Liked the image.  It’s amazing.

Obtaining and creating a Pinterest account is pretty easy.  You can sign up for an invitation from Pinterest (www.Pinterest.com), or be invited from someone that already is using the service.  After you’ve joined, you can sign in using your Facebook or Twitter account so logging in when you want to poke around is easy.  After you’ve joined you can create your “Boards”.  These will be the landing zones for your visual images that you want to pin.

  1. The easiest way to add a new image is to use the “Pin-It” bookmark, as this is the tool that adds the image to one of your boards.  Go to the Pinterest Goodies section and drag the “Pin-It” bookmarklet to your bookmarks toolbar in your browser.
  2. When you want to share images from the web with others, simply click the “Pin-It” tool and all of the available images from that page will appear.  Move your cursor over the image you want to share and a “Pin This” icon will appear on the image.  Click on the icon, and you can choose one of your boards to pin your image.  Simple.
  3. When you pin the image you can include a description of the image if you want.  You have 500 characters, which is considerably more than the 140 character limit that Twitter imposes, but most people using Pintrest only post a sentence or two at the most.
  4. When you Pin something, the image will be placed on your Board.  Anyone viewing that can click on the image to Repin it to their board, or if they click again it will take them to the original source of the Pin.  This is what’s driving the world-wide craze, as Pinterest is quickly outdistancing other social media referrals.
  5. The enjoyable part of Pinterest is exploring and sharing images.  Warning: It’s addictive.  Once you start, good luck getting anything else done that day.
  6. Pinterest has a free app for iPhone users and they are working on one for Android phones now.  You can still do everything from your phone if you have web access though, so don’t let that discourage you.  I have the iPhone app, and it works great for viewing your pins, but they haven’t worked out the “Pin It” bookmarklet yet for the iPhone – but it’s coming soon.

The downside for Pinterest is that it’s already battling some copywrite infringement challenges.  Webpages that don’t want to allow Pinterest users to capture images can install some short code to their site that will push a disclaimer that reads, “This site doesn’t allow pinning to Pinterest. Please contact the owner with any questions. Thanks for visiting!”  You might want to tread cautiously if you are unsure about an image.  Also, some companies are still waiting for the legal dust to settle before moving forward with any marketing use of Pinterest for their business.  However, a simple rule of thumb to consider is that if it’s your image, it’s yours to post.

Ok, so that takes care of the basics of how the site works.  You should play and explore around a bit to see how others are using the site and the mechanics of doing the steps.  Remember, nothing is permanent and you can edit, delete, rearrange and redo whatever you want, whenever you want.  Make some mistakes and play around.  Have fun!!

For apparel decorators here are some ideas on how you can use Pinterest to your advantage and make this a part of your social media marketing strategy:

  1. Educate your customers about your shop.  What do you do?  Have a board showing different facets of your business so everyone can see all the wonderful things you can print.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, twenty pictures from your shop is an entire article devoted to your business.  Quite often nobody really knows how a shirt is printed or embroidered and pictures of the process are very fascinating to the general public.  Photos of your staff smiling and working are great.  Include some descriptive texts and your company name so your photo is more searchable.  Check out my board “Behind the Scenes at a T-shirt Shop” here – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/
  2. One of the coolest features of Pinterest is that you can Pin videos too.  If you have some video shots of your company or an introductory video, here is a great place to include them.  Have a board just for videos and Pin all the ones that you like.  Take some short videos of your presses in action or your embroidery machines humming.  Make a video tour of your shop, or show someone how a high density print is made.
  3. Create a board for blog articles that you read and share your favorites.  If you have a blog, this is a great place to share your blog as well.  I have a blog board and a few times, there weren’t any available photos from the blog that could be pinned so I wasn’t able to link the blog and share it.  Remember, everything on Pinterest is visual so the key for sharing on Pinterest is to make sure your photos can be shared.  Web designers take heed.
  4. If you have an art staff, encourage them to join Pinterest and use the service as a tool to create inspiration boards that they can learn or spark and idea from.  Each board can be categorized by a theme, such as “Elephants”, or “Motorcycles”, or “Distressed Textures” or “Blue”….whatever makes sense to the artist.  As they bump into great looking or inspiring ideas on the web they can Pin that idea to the appropriate board, so when someone wants a shirt with a distressed graphic of an elephant riding a motorcycle on a blue shirt, you have some reference material to start that work already available.  Type in Logos, Design, Type, Graphic, T-shirt, Image or any other key word in the search field and be prepared to be mesmerized by the high volume of insanely great work flowing to you.
  5. If you have a brand or retail line, Pinterest is right up your alley for marketing your designs.  You can simply Pin your collection from your online catalog, and your designs will be in front of a huge mass market instantly…and for free.  The great thing about Pinterest is that once someone discovers one of your images or your boards they can follow you, and have instant access to all of your Pins in the future.  This means for example that if you are promoting a line of t-shirts that feature creative images of a dragonfly, all of the people that like dragonfly t-shirts can immediately be updated with your new designs if they have found you and are following your boards.  If they like a particular design, in two clicks they are on your ordering page and could be buying that shirt!  It’s that easy.
  6. You can create boards to spark ideas for your customers such as “Sale items”, “Things We Love”, “Promotional Ideas”, “Unique Placements”, “Distressed Graphics”, “Mixed Media”, “All-Over Prints”, “Foil”, etc.  The list is probably endless, but you get the idea.  Customers want to know what you do, and by showing your repertoire you can get their creative juices flowing.
  7. Give your customers reasons to follow you by creating boards that are more than just a visual portfolio.  Create contests where they can link back to you, such as “Pin It to Win It” or “Corporate Pin It Challenge” where they show your product and how they use it for a reward of some kind.  Remember, this is a SOCIAL media and it’s all about connecting and sharing.  At my company we are already tossing around ideas on how to develop this strategy, but we haven’t released anything yet.
  8. You can also make a collaborative board, and have others Pin images to the board.  Under Settings you can change the board controls from “Just Me” to “Me+” – this might be an interesting way for your art staff, sales force, or clients to collaborate on an idea.  For example, maybe you can start a board for your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary group, or networking circle.  Maybe a client oriented board or two that shows of the work that you print for them?  People can share and post their visual Pin to that particular board, driving traffic to your Pinterest account, and maybe while they are there they will check out another one of your boards.  Get creative!

In closing, I think that if you try Pinterest you’ll quickly see that it can become a major part of your social media arsenal.  Remember, you need to include good looking visuals of anything you Pin.  Boring or trite images will get passed over for funny, interesting, or stunning shots every day.  Make your boards fun and informative, and include some personal interests too.  If you’d like to check out my Pinterest boards here’s the link – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/.  I’m always adding to this page and playing around.  It’s such a new and interesting tool, and like you, I’m still learning how to incorporate this into some big picture ideas. Happy Pinning!