The Future of T-shirt Printing – Magic Crystal 8 Ball Says Digital

Recently I had a conversation with someone regarding the future of the t-shirt printing industry during a shop tour of Visual Impressions.  The whole digital vs. traditional for t-shirt printing is good fodder for an article to explore where the future of this great industry is headed.  Here goes:

Digital Printing is the future, it’s that simple.  Many traditional screen-printers scoff at the idea of using a digital printer as it’s not their craft that they’ve spent years mastering and seems like cheating.  There is a love affair (maybe a love/hate affair would be more accurate) with the craftsmanship of pulling a squeegee and printing something.  Printers look at digital technology and complain that it doesn’t look right, the hand is different, the print speeds are too slow, and that the equipment is too expensive.  They argue that digital printers can’t handle specialty inks, technical fabrics, or some garments such as hoodies.

At one point all that may have been true.  However, as time progresses new technological features with digital printers will address all of these points and more.  Print speeds now are already over 300 per hour and that will increase further as print head technology expands.  Many brands of printers have the pretreatment step built into the printer so the extra pretreatment step outside of the print run will be a thing of the past.  Soon we’ll see Hexachrome ink systems instead of traditional CMYK, so color reproduction will become more accurate.  Also, there’s no reason to think that DTG print manufacturers won’t be able to add another slot for specialty ink either.  They want to sell you ink too.

Walk out into your shop and stand in the back corner.  Survey everything it takes to support printing one t-shirt order with traditional screen-printing.  Your customer service person had to take the order and enter it into the system.  Your art staff had to take (or develop) the art file and separate it into the individual colors for printing.  Each screen had to be specifically made for each color with steps for coating the screen, exposing the screen, washing out the emulsion, quality control & taping.  Production staff had to schedule the job, bring the screens and ink to the press.  If there were Pantone color to match, you may have had to mix the ink and get that to the press.  Set up and register the screens, get approval and print.  The job is checked off against the work order and shipped.  Count all the people that touched that job.  In some shops that might have just been one person (think of the time spent though), but in others it could have been 10-12 or more.

Now let’s think about a digital workflow of the future (or even right now to some degree).  Your customer places an order online.  The artwork is created online via your website and is automatically ripped using software that is instantly queued into the digital printer spool on your shop floor.  The inventory is pulled via electronic text message, and brought to your print station.  The DTG press operator prints the job and the packing list.  The job is checked off against an electronic work order and shipped.  A lot of traditional printing workflow steps are eliminated altogether.  One person could handle this entire order, but for larger shops maybe the number of people touching the order is now three or so.

The interesting thing about a digital print order is that not only does it have the capability of having lower transactional costs, but also lower production and labor costs as well.  The really big challenge currently is in the astronomical costs of the ink, and with more industry players and competition that should eventually fall too.  (At least that’s what me and every other DTG print user hopes)

Also, a direct to garment printer has a lighter footprint in the shop.  There is considerably less infrastructure to support, so more start-ups and other non-traditional printers will acquire them to build their business.  You don’t need the hassles of the screen room, or an art staff trained in high-end simulated process techniques to print amazing looking shirts.  Also, in an industry where customer order turn times are shrinking, the ability to get that order up and running and out the door quickly is a competitive edge.

In any industry, if the innovation makes something easier, more and more people will be drawn to it.  In fact, I can see a day when a traditional retailer that might have once engaged in print buying, decides to go vertical and just print their shirts themselves using DTG technology with an on-demand sales vertical process.  Why stock printed inventory when you can just print it for each order?  In fact, that day is already here with some online retailers.

Direct to garment printing is a different animal.  It prints differently on the shirt.  Feels differently on the shirt.  Sometimes it even smells differently.  However, the power of the DTG process is getting the image on the shirt quicker and more efficiently.  As it becomes more commonplace, consumers will accept the differences.  A good chunk of them just want a cool looking shirt…they don’t care how it was printed.  If your shop hasn’t invested in the future, or you are a traditionalist that still clings to the “old ways” of pulling a squeegee, one day in the near future you just may look up and realize that your customer base has migrated somewhere else.

So what do you think?  Agree with this?  Disagree?  I’d love to hear from you!!  Leave your thoughts in the comment section!

Sustainability Challenge – Embroidery Stabilizers

If you embroider apparel you are very familiar with this problem.  After your machine has completed the run, the next step in production is to remove the excess embroidery stabilizer (or pellon, backing, or whatever you call it in your shop).  Depending on the version, this could be tear-away, white, black and many varying thicknesses.  Most often you will have to cut closely around the item.  The remaining material is discarded.

And there’s the problem.  We just throw it away.  For the past year or so, I have been trying to find an after production use or strategy to recycle this material.  At Visual Impressions we run 120 embroidery heads with two complete shifts.  We nearly fill a dumpster every two days with this material.  We currently recycle every other material in the building: paper, plastic, cardboard, metal, batteries, light bulbs, electronics, etc.  Finding a source to pick up and use this has been proven to be the biggest challenge to date.

The stabilizer material is some sort of cotton and polyester composite fiber material.  I have discussed this with our vendor and salesperson, and although there is some interest in the discussion, nothing has developed yet.  To me, it make perfect sense that this stuff could be shredded and chopped up to be used for stuffing, insulation, filler, or maybe recycled back into its same form again.  I have shown it to about a dozen recycling companies now, and nobody has an answer.  This seems like a big opportunity for someone to step up.

So, if you are an embroidery shop out there in production-land, what are you doing with your stabilizer material?  Is it just going into the dumpster?  Are you recycling it somehow?  I would love to hear from you.  Maybe there is some way we can pool our voices and find a solution to this challenge.

Contact me at and let’s help each other!

10 Tips to Getting Your Design Approved Faster

As designers we’ve all been there.  You crank out design after design in a busy week, but a couple of your creations just don’t get approved by the clients quickly.  Your production team needs to get the art approved so they can do their job as those deadlines are looming.  After it’s all said and done, if you take stock in why your customer doesn’t approve the artwork immediately, or worse requests change after change, you might find that the problem lies with how you approach the design work initially.  Here are some tips that have worked for me over the years in getting design work approved faster.  (in no particular order):

  1. Truly comprehend the assignment.  If you have instructions on your work order or creative brief, read them.  If you are the one talking to the client, really listen to what they are saying.  Either way, ask good questions if something is unclear or if you have that “crazy idea” that sounds great to you, but might be going in a surprising direction from what the customer really wants.  I’m a big believer in that good design work starts with creating something that pleases you the designer first, but at the end of the day the client is the one paying for it.  To put it in a food perspective, if you go to a restaurant and order a cheeseburger and the waiter brings you cedar plank smoked salmon because the chef thought “hey, I’ll do something over the top and they’ll love it!!”, would you send it back?  There’s no harm in a discussion.  Communication is a good thing, don’t be shy.
  2. Sometimes ask what they don’t want.  This is a good tool to use when you are talking to a client and they are very indecisive or give you the dreaded “do something cool” art instruction.  Instead of wasting your time on a design direction that might ultimately fail, start the conversation by discussion things that the client doesn’t want to see on the design.  What are your limits?  The story I like to use for an illustration on this concept is a Bass Fishing Tournament t-shirt as the assignment.  The client gives you little direction, but you come up with this great graphic of a fisherman landing what appears to be a spectacular world record bass in his boat.  You spend about four hours putting it together and send it off.  It looks great and you are shocked with the client hates it.  Asking why, you come to find out that they really just wanted an illustration of the fish as the main graphic, and don’t want to show people or boats.  This is where a short conversation about what shouldn’t be included would pay off, and get you an approval out of the gate.
  3. Send them the thumbnails.  Before starting a new graphic design project, I always make a bunch of thumbnail sketches because as we all know, there isn’t an idea button on the keyboard.  I like to use Post-It-Notes as the sketch pad as I can easily discard any I don’t like, and the layout that makes the grade I can stick to the side of my computer monitor for reference.  Sometimes if I’m uncertain my idea will be liked by the client I’ll just scan in the sketch and e-mail it to the client.  These sketches only take about thirty seconds or so to doodle up, so if you can get your idea approved before you slog through the actual design construction work, the final approval will come much faster as the client will already understand the concept.
  4. Get some feedback.  The old phrase “Man supports what he helps create” is sometimes true in the design world.  If you let the client participate in the design process all along the way by having discussions, sending them the thumbnails, and keeping them in the loop, they are more apt to approve the design when you send it to them as they have been in on the process and know what’s coming.
  5. Double check everything.  Before you send your design to your client, reread the work order and compare the instructions to your design.  Everything match?  Forget anything?  If you didn’t use spell check before you converted your fonts to outlines (and why not?), make sure you review all text.  Especially phone numbers or any critical verbiage.  Make sure your Pantone colors are right, and all elements will separate and aren’t on a layer that won’t print.  (Especially true if you are using someone else’s art file initially)  Check your dimensions.  Only once you are satisfied that your design hits all the criteria points should you send it off for approval.  It’s the old carpenter rule “Measure Twice, Cut Once”.
  6. Use an Approval Form and mock up the design on a shirt.  I’ve seen a lot of different art approvals forms from shops over the years.  They all vary in style and quantity of information.  The best have all the critical information you would expect, including dimension information, PMS colors, Order & PO numbers, dates and the like.  However the one thing that I think is the best idea to put on the form is how you show location placement, with some guidelines like 3” down from the collar for a full front.  By illustrating the exact placement your customer will know what to expect; and it also gives your production crew a blueprint to use when printing the image on the shirt.  Some shops also add some deadline verbiage regarding exactly when they need the approval from the customer in order to keep their order on the production schedule so it ships on time.  This is especially needed for rush orders.
  7. Do it early.  Need your art approved so it can go into production faster?  Get it scheduled and out the door earlier!  If you need it handled by Friday, make sure you send it by Wednesday or Thursday.  Don’t put things off.
  8. Make sure you use the customer’s correct email address.  Seems simple, but you would be surprised at the number of e-mails people don’t receive because the sender typed in the address incorrectly.  If you have any text on the standard e-mail that goes out to the client, double check to see that you are spelling their name correctly too.  I get one or two e-mails a week still with my name spelled incorrectly, and it always taints the perception of quality I have for the sender.
  9. Follow up.  If it’s been a day or two since you sent the graphic out for approval and you haven’t heard back, follow up with a quick e-mail or phone call to verify that the customer received the file and everything is ok.  In your e-mail you can include a sentence or two about the importance of approving the file so the order can stay on the schedule and print on time.
  10. Do great work.  Challenge yourself to keep your designs fresh, in your creative voice and technically sound.  It is hard work keeping up and sending out killer ideas one after the other.  Sooner or later you are going to send out one that you just half-assed your way through it.  Keep your focus and keep searching for inspiration.

So there you have it!  I’m always interested in how other people maintain their creative edge and work through their problems.  Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me directly at  I’d love to hear from you.

Managing Your Shop Floor – First You Need Leaders

This time of year most t-shirt shops around the country are getting tested every day by a higher than normal percentage of new orders arriving.  In our shop, we’re about 20%-30% above our historical norm right now, and it’s good to be that busy.

However, with the volume comes a completely new set of challenges that need to be addressed daily.  Managing these challenges can only be controlled with leadership from the floor.  This means staff making decisions and moving onto the next challenge, without running to you to clarify a detail.  It’s all about leadership.

So how do you grow or find that leadership when you need it?  Here are some tips:

  1. Set clear expectations.  It’s easy to make decisions if your company culture has matured enough that your entire staff knows what’s expected of them, and what won’t be tolerated.  That being said you still have to reinforce, promote and discuss these expectations constantly.  If it’s widely known that “Receiving must check in all goods by 1:00” or “Rush orders are staged and printed first” or “Invoicing for orders occurs one business day after the order ships”, etc., then managing your company is that much easier.  Ambiguity breeds indecisiveness. 
  2. Who stands out on your team?  Regardless of seniority, who is stepping up and getting things done?  That’s the person that you need to mentor on leadership.  Keep giving small projects to them to nurture their growth.  Cross train them in other departments.  Like a shortstop on a baseball team, these folks will quickly become your “go to” people when you need them the most.  Encourage them with praise, training, and yes even more money if you can afford it.
  3. Not all of your leaders are managers.  Look out among your staff, these people easily stand out as they are the ones that come in early, stay late, and are not satisfied until everything that are tasked to do today is complete.  Hold them up as examples for encouragement.
  4. Leaders are dependable.  It won’t do you much good to have someone volunteer to help out with a special project and then not show up.  Learn that some people are all talk and move on.  Find the people that you can count on.  Sometimes this means letting go and hiring new people.  You can train a skill, but you can’t train an attitude.  That comes from within.
  5. Trial by fire.  Got a big project looming?  Who is on your A-Team that you are going to need to get it accomplished?  Everyone on that crew that helps grows a little bit, as they have provided an over the top value to your company.  Publicly recognize these people as leaders, and that they earned their stripes by helping.  Don’t forget that the people you may want on your team may not necessarily work in that area…  If you can get them some training beforehand, you’ll be that much better prepared.
  6. Find the mechanic.  Who in your company wants to fix the problem instead of pointing fingers?  That’s leadership.  Finger pointing and assigning blame is for cowards.  Problem solvers make the attempt, and regardless of the outcome, are showing leadership potential.  Get those people some help.
  7. Leaders understand the value of accountability.  More often than not, they aren’t happy when something happens and want to find a solution so it doesn’t happen again.  One tool to use is your performance review process.  I’m a big believer is using a 360 degree review, with all of the discussion during the review is focused on improving performance and setting goals.  Everyone should get a review every six months.  This includes your management team and owners.

Developing leaders in the apparel industry isn’t something that most shops do naturally.  Most are just focused on getting product out the door on time.  However, if you take a step back and honestly review your company from a 30,000 foot level you can see where you need help.

Got some questions on leadership development with your group?  Contact me and let me help you develop an all-star team that will set you apart from your competition.

Shop Owners – Train Your Staff So That They Are Decision Makers

A frequent discussion I have with my consulting clients is that they spend an inordinate amount of time solving seemingly minor problems in their shop.  You know the drill, there’s a problem on press…they come to you.  An order didn’t ship right…they come to you.  A client’s invoice is messed up…they come to you.  Which mesh should we use for metallic inks again?  They come to you.

They come to you for every question under the sun, and you stop what you are doing and answer them each and every time.  Even if your office door is closed and you are in a meeting, someone will stick their head in the door and interrupt with the next crisis.  Why not you ask?  Orders have to ship!!  I’m the boss, and it’s obviously important to get things handled.

Guess what?  All of those interruptions are your fault.  You let it happen by conditioning your staff to not make any decisions and to always come to you for the answer.  However, there is a better way.  Try this phrase the next time a problem is dropped in your lap to solve.

“What would you do?”

The challenge that you are going to find, it’s that either you haven’t supported them enough to be responsible for the problem on their own or they haven’t been fully trained in their position to understand the situation.  By turning the question back to them, you are making them think.  I know that might sound dangerous, but having a thinking and self-sufficient staff is the key to moving at a faster pace, and of course, freeing up time for you to tackle bigger challenges.

“What would you do?” posits the problem with them.  Most of the time, they will have the correct answer.  What if they don’t?  Not a problem, as here’s where you would normally step in with the correct answer.

Here are some tips to use to build a better, more self-sufficient and critically thinking staff:

  1. Build standards and rules in place in each department on how all operational tasks are to be handled.  For example you could, design a mesh count chart for the screen room, write a policy that states that all invoices should go out the day after a job is shipped, or art for jobs needs to be approved two business days before the job is scheduled to be run.  You get the idea.  The more standards you have and training you implement, the easier it will be for your staff to know what to do when situations arise.
  2. Have your department managers really manage.  Meaning that anyone with a question should go see them first.  Your managers should be empowered to make decisions.  If any of your staff circumvents your management staff with a challenge, redirect them to the appropriate manager first before you get involved.  The more you continue to have the final rule on things, the more you are going to be asked these questions.
  3. When outlier challenges emerge that don’t fit your norm, pull your staff together once the dust has settled and discuss the situation with everyone.  What happened, and how did we solve the problem?  Celebrate decision making at lower levels.
  4. Let your staff know its ok to make mistakes.  You have their back.  It’s part of the learning process.
  5. You can also train and set limitations for staff on anything that has a monetary value.  For example, give your customer service reps a $500 limit (or whatever you are comfortable with) to resolve problems for their client without having to ok it with management.  This goes a long way to instantly make your customers happy when challenging situations arise.  They could upgrade the freight, use it for a credit memo, or throw in a free screen, whatever.  Have the rep add some notes to the order under invoicing to justify the decision and move on.
  6. After you ask, “What would you do?” be sure to listen intently and ask good follow up questions.  You may even role play a little bit and pretend to be the client or another department to get them to understand the implications of their answer.
  7. Make decision making part of the performance review process.  Celebrate it in these conversations and discuss the employee’s decision making abilities during the review.  What went well?  What was a problem?  Keep pushing it forward, and give your expectations so that everyone is clear on your objectives.

To sum up, the more that you entrust your staff and train them to make decisions, the more time you are going to have to work on bigger challenges.  After all, you are paying your staff to do this work already.  Critical thinking and brain power is part of their job description too.

Still need help resolving some challenges in this area with your shop?  Shoot me an e-mail at and let me help you raise the bar with your staff.

What is the Voice of the Customer for T-shirt Shops?

Let’s pretend that you have some sort of science fiction mental telepathy mind meld with your customers. (Uh, you mean you don’t already?)  You can see and understand their every thought, just like reading a book.  It’s all right there.  What do you think they are saying about your company?

Based on my personal experience, here are some top ideas to get you more connected with your own customers.  (Sales gurus everywhere call this understanding the “Voice of the Customer”)

  1. Price.  For a lot of customers, incredibly it’s not always about price.  People are willing to pay more if they like the sales experience, or see that you are providing value.  The apparel industry has somewhat of a reputation of companies undercutting each other and eating the dead.  Here’s a fact: There’s always someone that’s willing to do it cheaper.  However, not many companies are willing to do it better.  The guy that does it better is the one that typically has larger margins, and is more successful.  Add value to your sales proposition, and don’t give away the shop.  Charge for your work.  “Price shopper” type clients will never be loyal, but the customer that sees and understands your value and trusts you with their relationship will always be there.  That’s who you want.
  2. Expertise.  Position yourself as the expert in the field.  Build your shop reputation with demonstrating your vast industry knowledge.  Customers want and need someone to solve their problems for them.  Is that something you can offer?  Do they know to turn to you for guidance?  Get the reputation as a problems solver and watch your client base grow.  Demonstrate that expertise by doing things other printers can’t, including keeping your quality up and hitting deadlines.
  3. Partner.  Long term clients are seeking a solid foundation to expand their business.  You are not selling printed t-shirts, you are selling trust.  Your customers want you to be integral to their success by constantly hitting home runs for them.  Make that relationship easy.  A few times, you may have to help them with something without getting anything in return.  Earn that trust by being a good partner and provide the value your customers are seeking.  Missing deadlines, quality issues, making excuses, being hard to deal with, or other challenges erode that trust.  It’s hard, but not impossible to earn it back.
  4. Listen.  Trust me, it’s not about you.  Your customer wants you to listen to them.  Close your mouth and open your ears.  What are their problems?  What are their challenges?  Remember the old Stephen Covey rule from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  This is profoundly true in your customer relationships.  Don’t just sell them a box of printed shirts – solve a problem for them.  Stop “selling”.
  5. Make It Easy.  Make your buying process easy for the customer to do business with you.  Regardless if you are a brick and mortar shop or online, the more hurdles people have to jump over to hand you their money, the less likely they are to do so.  Make the check out or buying process smoother by thinking it through.  Provide accurate and timely information for them.  Help with artwork or digitizing.  Discuss creative solutions for problems.  Suggest different ways a client could structure their order to save time or money.
  6. Avoid Problems.  Customers see you as the expert.  Help them understand situations by explaining ways they can avoid problems by doing something proactively.  Anybody can “sell” them something.  Not everyone can walk them through the process and provide them with good information to proactively avoid a challenge.
  7. Be Creative.  Let’s face it, not everyone is loaded with creative talent.  Customers will often turn to you for help with their art.  If your art department rocks, then so will your sales.  If you are somewhat lacking in this area, think about how beefing this up can help strengthen your business.  Don’t have the money for a full-time staff?  There are tons of freelancers out there.  It’s no secret that the top shops around the country have the best art departments.
  8. Professional.  Have you ever looked at your company through the eyes of your customer?  When they walk in the front door are they greeted by someone warm and friendly?  Is your shop clean and orderly?  Is everyone on your staff courteous and helpful?  Do you have preprinted information handy that is branded and well-designed?  If your customer experience is somewhat lacking, or your staff has the social skills of a doorknob, put some thought and effort into revamping this area.  You wouldn’t expect any less from stores or companies that you use, so why do you put up with it in your shop?  If your customers aren’t raving to you about your staff and how awesome they are, you aren’t doing this right yet.
  9. Connect Personally.  It seems that the larger the shop grows, the less likely they will personally connect with the people behind their orders.  Purchase orders come in, are routed through your system, invoices are paid.  There might be little face to face or human interaction.  Get out from behind your desk every once in a while and go say thank you.  Personally deliver the next order.  Be sincerely appreciative.  Don’t have time for all that?  How about a five minute phone call.  Don’t talk business, just say thank you and ask about them.
  10. Value.  Yep, #1 was about value too.  It made the list twice as it’s that important.  Trust me on this…everyone can print or embroider a shirt.  You have a lot of competition.  Like other industries, your competition is moving online.  It’s a commodity.  Do you know what your value proposition is for your company?  What do you offer that can’t be matched?  Artwork?  Quality printing?  Customer service?  Turn-around time? Your customers want value for their money.  This is what you develop and market.   Brand this idea, and constantly talk about it.
  11. Bonus – The UnexpectedFor each order, your customers come to you for whatever they are ordering.  What can you do to make the experience so over the top that they rave about it to everyone?  “Because you are such a great customer”…  Throw in a few extra embroidered polos or printed sweatshirts with the next order for free.  Maybe some coozies with their logo printed on them.  Deliver it a day or two early.  Waive the screen fees.  Have it delivered with a box of doughnuts or a pizza.  Be creative.  Your goal is to wow the customer to the point that all competitors fail in comparison, and they will brag about you to everyone they know.

Hope these ideas help you with your shop.  If you’d like to explore some of these points more in depth, please contact me at and let’s set up a time to chat.

12 Ways to Resolve Any T-shirt Shop Problem

One thing is clear in running a t-shirt shop is that there will always be a problem handed to you.  Sometimes these challenges are something that you create.  Sometimes these challenges are something that’s handed to you by a customer, stinky and steaming and you cringe just thinking about how you are going to pull it off.  Either way, there are some foolproof methods to help resolve these and get back to “normal” business quickly.  Here’s a list of things that I do when confronted with a challenge:

  1. Stop and try to understand the problem.  Quite often you won’t get all of the information and you need to dig a little deeper than just what someone hands you.  Maybe they don’t know everything; maybe they are covering their tracks; maybe they were misinformed.  Regardless of the circumstance, I write my own notes and look up the information myself.  I try to talk to everyone involved to get an accurate picture of the challenge.  Don’t stop until you completely understand the situation.  If you are working on something for a client, make sure that you repeat it back to them so that you are absolutely clear on how they see it, and what needs to be done.
  2. Ask who can help?  Maybe the situation is such that you need to bring in other people to help resolve the challenge.  This may be especially true if this is a technical issue with machinery, or a situation with ink, emulsion or other supplies.  There are a lot of reference sites and help available online too.  Not to mention your vendors, call them and ask for customer service or speak to your salesperson.  Don’t just sit there, start asking!!  It’s ok to admit that you don’t know something.
  3. Check to see if you are following procedures, policies or recommendations.  Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing?  How do you know?  Don’t rely on someone just telling you that they are following directions; make them prove it to you.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked about something and was told “we’re doing it right”, only to discover they weren’t.  The next step is always about training to make sure your staff knows what to do, and understands your expectations.
  4. Do you have the training in place?  Quite often it’s not a “worker error”, but a management error that causes the issue.  People need the training and expectations to know what to do.  They simple don’t just get this by osmosis by being in the shop, you have to train them and hold them accountable.  How are you error proofing your shop to eliminate challenges?  Does everyone have access to 100% of the information they need to do their job correctly?
  5. Ask “Why” five times.  This is always a good one and usually works when trying to diagnose and resolve a situation.  Example problem: The ink wasn’t cured properly on the shirt after printing.
    1. One – “Why wasn’t the ink cured?” – The ink needs to be heated to 320 degrees to cure.
    2. Two – “Why didn’t the dryer cure the ink?  The temperature was set for 320?” – Donut probe tests showed that the dryer was set for 320, but in reality the ink was only heated to 295.
    3. Three – “Why do we have the dryer set so low?”  Nobody is doing regular donut probe tests or been trained on this procedure.
    4. Four – “Why don’t we have the training in place?” – Production management failed train and properly supervise the challenge.  Nothing has been scheduled.
    5. Five – “Why haven’t our managers scheduled any training?” – There’s little expectation or accountability for training.  Here’s where you start – build your policies and training.
  6. Do you make it easy?  Do you make it easy for your customers to provide you with the right information?  Do you make it easy for your workers to do their jobs correctly?  If it isn’t effortless, does this add to the problem?  Be sure to ask everyone how you can make things easier.  Listen to what they say.
  7. Documentation.  Check your documentation for the facts.  For receiving issues, look at the packing slip.  For machinery issues, your preventative maintenance logs or settings.  For work orders, check the notes in the system or the client’s PO.  These are just examples, but the idea is the same.  Look it up.  If you don’t have the information, why not?  Get something built so you have the information when needed.  If you can’t find the information how can your staff?
  8. Get out in front of the problem.  Write an action plan, and discuss it with everyone involved.  Set it in motion and get to work.  Be sure to discuss the expectations with everyone and set time lines if possible.  Everyone must agree to the plan, and understand their role in it if they have tasks to accomplish.  If there is any pushback, resolve the challenge further.
  9. Let go of the need to blame.  Who cares how you got into this mess?  How are you going to get out of it?  Sure, you can write somebody up or terminate them if it makes you feel better (and sometimes it is necessary), but that doesn’t resolve your immediate challenge right now.  Get the fire and explosions put out first, then backtrack later and figure out how the blaze started.
  10. Breakdown the problem into smaller chunks.  When faced with an enormous challenge, breaking it down into smaller bits and working on those can get the project started.  I constantly use the phrase “How did the pygmy eat the elephant?” (One bite at a time).  This works!
  11. Be proactive.  Resolve the problem before it starts by working smart.  85% of problems in your shop are the result of management’s failure to properly organize, train, document, build a policy or procedure, or think about how to do something properly.  The 15% remaining balance is just some knucklehead doing it wrong.  Insist that your teams work smart and communicate.  Develop policies and procedures that work.  Train your staff and constantly drill them in the execution of their work.  Follow up.  Make it hard to fail, but easy to succeed.  What’s left is just managing the knucklehead’s in the shop to make sure they are doing everything properly.
  12. Look for more than one solution.  Sometimes the first answer isn’t always the correct one, or the one that ultimately works.  This is better if more than one person is tackling the issue.  Thomas Edison famously had teams of people working on problems, all from different backgrounds.  His famous quote was “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.  Try one thing, if it doesn’t work what did you learn?  Try something else.  Keep going…

Hope this helps.  If not, and you are stuck on a certain challenge and need some assistance you can always reach me at

Don’t Be That Customer

Let’s face it, if you’ve had any sort of longevity in business you’ve probably had your share of really great, and also really bad clients.  When we are sitting at our desk in the morning, with a fresh cup of coffee ready to face the day, we all day dream about the perfect customer.  One that hands us tons of money for an easy job, is great to get along with, and just absolutely loves us.  Unfortunately, that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about the other one.  The mean and nasty one that just leaves you muttering under your breath, or forces you to go take a walk around the block before you strangle someone.  Read below, and if any of these are your traits, you may want to consider making some “small” changes.

  1. Too lazy to fill out a Purchase Order correctly.  If you are someone that just constantly can’t fill out a PO right to save your life, get some help!  To enter an order easily on our end, all of the information needs to be organized, accurate and correct.  Some examples are: the delivery date as 00/00/0000, missing information, wrong information, points to an e-mail that was sent three months ago, or was cloned from a previous order but now some of the information isn’t accurate.  This really could be a longer list, and I’m sure if you are customer service rep reading this you have about five thousand more to add.  However, the point here is that missing information makes it hard for someone to help you.  They have to stop what they are doing, try to contact you and get the information, and then get everything corrected and entered quickly.  Two minutes of work is now twenty.
  2. The Price Shopper.  Sure, everyone wants a bargain, it’s understandable.  However, what can be a big problem is when a customer hands us a laundry list of items to quote, all with big quantities.  When the order comes in, it’s only for two of the items and the quantities are minimal.  The words we don’t want to hear are “Congratulations!  You got the order, but for right now I just need these 50.  You can keep the same price as if I order 5,000, right?”  Uh, no.
  3. The guy that’s always late.  Are you that guy?  Every single order is a rush.  Artwork = last minute.  Shirts show up same day as production.  Freight expedited.  It’s like there’s a fire all the time.  Alarm!  Alarm!  Alarm!  Rush!  Rush!  Rush!
  4. The Diva.  You expect to be catered to like a movie star because you bring in big business.  You are condescending and rude to our staff.  Everything is your way or the highway.  After you leave, some staff members are actually crying.  We all wonder if this is worth it, but we put up with it because frankly we like the business.  The most commonly heard phrase after the door closes after you leave is “Wouldn’t it be great if she was just a little nicer?”
  5. The Perfectionist.  This is the customer that micro-manages everything, and absolutely has to complain about every single minor detail all the time.  No matter what…even things that aren’t related to a job.  Just stop it already.  We like it that you want to point out our weaknesses – and believe me, we’re working on them.  However, it’s not our fault that the UPS guy delivered the shipment twenty-two minutes later than yesterday, or the shirts you chose to use were from two different dye lots and don’t exactly match.
  6. Just Do Something Cool.  Just throwing this in from my days as an art director.  This is the absolute worst way to give a creative person some direction, and it holds true for building an apparel program.  Without some good information from you, our team won’t understand where to start and may end up wasting everyone’s time as our definition of cool might not match yours or your clients.  Before you find yourself saying “just do something cool”, spend five minutes and jot down a few things that you would like to see, and maybe five more with something that you absolutely don’t want to see.  At least we’ll have some direction.  Trust me, we don’t mind doing the work and being creative…we’re good at that.  What we don’t want to do though is invest three hours working on something that isn’t even remotely close to what you want, and we have to start over.  That’s not cool.
  7. The “Do Me A Favor” Guy.  Is this you?  Swooping in at the last minute like a seagull on a dock, and dropping off a present that everyone gets to work on?  Sure, we appreciate the business; but your event is in two days and we’ll really have to hustle to get everything accomplished by then.  Thanks for the over-time!  We all wonder if you have a calendar.  Planning?  What’s that?
  8. We aren’t telepathic.  Yep, you heard it here first.  Mind reading skills aren’t on our job descriptions.  So, when we send you an art approval, and your e-mail back reads “Change it”, we aren’t really sure what to do next.  Change what?  We understand that you are in sales and do a lot of business from your phone, but it would be better for everyone if you included more detail in the response.  This helps everyone!
  9. Professionals aren’t profane.  You aren’t Eddie Murphy.  We don’t need to hear F-bombs every five minutes.  You aren’t funny.  Stop it.
  10. Things sometimes go wrong.  Trust me, we don’t like it either.  We’ll make it right, and we always stand behind our work.  However, what separates a great customer from a bad customer in this area is how we’re working together to solve the problem.  Sometimes, it’s our fault – sometimes not.  Regardless, we want to make it better somehow. There is a lot of stress and anxiety in the air already.  The great customers know that empathy works both ways. The great customers don’t point fingers, but just work to resolve the challenge at hand – make the end user happy, and we’ll talk about the money part of it later.

So there you have it.  Just ten.  As we’re dealing with people, there are probably an incredible number of examples of bad customer definitions.  Am I missing any of yours?  Leave a comment…

20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

I have over 25 years in the apparel decorating business, and I’ve seen a lot of challenges come and go.  I’ve also heard my share of horror stories from other decorators from hanging out in trade shows, classes, seminars, webinars, and trolling the various internet forums over the years.  Below is a list of the 20 Biggest Mistakes that I’ve heard of, and a comment or two on how you can avoid them.  These aren’t ranked – I’m writing them as I remember them.  There’s a comment section below if you’d like to add yours…as I’m positive that won’t touch on everything in the industry.

  1. Not being honest.  Seriously, this is the biggest mistake you can make, and I know I said I wasn’t going to rank these…but this would be number one if I did.  In any business you have to be honest with people.  Your clients, your employees, your vendors…everybody.  Once you start stretching the truth, it’s hard to get that genie back in the bottle.  Believe it or not, there are people that I know in this industry that are less than honest (you know who you are…) and feel it’s acceptable to conduct business this way.  If you run your business and cover up your challenges (missed ship dates, art issues, inventory counts, shirt defects, employee pay, freight tracking, etc.) with small lies, it’s not too late to stop.  Sooner or later those small lies come out too easily, and larger lies start surfacing too.  Then word gets out, and everyone knows…  Instead, just accept the fact that mistakes happen, things don’t go your way, and be truthful about the situation.  Own up to your shortcomings and do whatever you need to in order to make it right.  It will be ok.  Read this for more info:
  2. Not documenting your inventory.  Whether you are purchasing your own stock, or your customers send it in, your receiving team must be 100% accurate with their counts and verify everything as quick as they possibly can.  Accuracy is key, but speed is a factor too as you want to report any discrepancies as soon as possible for resolution.  If possible, get your vendors or customers to send in packing lists with the goods and check against that.  Everything must be counted and checked in by your team.  Don’t take anyone’s word – as if anything comes up “missing” you may have to purchase the deficit to complete the order.  It’s just a better practice to count everything, no matter what, and verify you have what you need.  Otherwise, this could be a very expensive problem.
  3. Hourly employees clocking in late.  Before I instituted a tardiness program a long time ago, I had an employee that would clock in late all the time.  His cavalier attitude made me wonder how much time was he really late.  I had his timesheets pulled for a three month period and he was late a cumulative amount of over 40 hours!  Build a policy, make it fair, put it in your handbook, and stick to it.  This relates to:
  4. Hourly employees clocking in whenever they want.  Overtime is not a right, and should be approved in advance.  Just because someone “wants” to work late doesn’t necessarily mean that this is really needed.  Especially if other members of the same department aren’t getting their full 40 hours.  Make a schedule, divide up the work.  Stress teamwork.  If you are really busy and extra time in a project is warranted, then OT is ok of course.  Keep track of everyone’s hours with a spreadsheet or other reporting tool.
  5. Agreeing to work you can’t do.  Salespeople are notorious for this the world over, and this probably will never change.  They will sell a job – the particulars don’t really matter for this example – that is beyond the capabilities of the shop to produce, it gets dumped in productions lap with the instructions “just make it work”.  Hopefully your shop has a production schedule that’s easily understood by everyone, with comprehension on what can be booked and added to the schedule.  What are the technical limitations of the shop?  How much can you possibly print or embroider in one shift?  What are the costs of overtime?  Do yourself a favor and track the actual costs of some of these gems and compare to what was actually charged.  Are you still making money?  Check out this article to learn more about rush orders:
  6. Putting up with “Deadwood Fred”.  A lot of shops have someone like this – you know this guy.  He has a real lazy attitude, but sometimes has flashes of real skill, so management puts up with him.  He’s a morale killer, and your floor managers talk about him at least once a week.  Nobody has written him up or disciplined him ever, so HR says if you terminate him it could cost the company money.  This is why a robust performance review program will either get Fred to be a solid performer, or if he doesn’t improve either drive him to self-terminate or build enough documentation on his unprofessional work performance that you can defend your decision in court if need be.  Make sure your managers are documenting and disciplining him for any challenge as it comes up.  I’ve always believed that if you have to terminate for performance issues it shouldn’t be a surprise to the employee.  Check out this article to learn more:
  7. Ink don’t think.  Not very grammatically correct on purpose, but before you start blaming the ink you are using look at all the mechanical processes that go before it.  It may be the ink, but it may also be the art, the screens, the press, the print set up, squeegees, your people….really any number of things.  Volumes of books have been written on the proper ways to screen-print, so I’m not going to get bogged down in them here; but let’s just say that you need to rule out some things first.  Lastly, and very contradictory, maybe it is your ink.  At least that’s what the other sales rep says.
  8. Know your market.  In just about every t-shirt shop across the country, someone comes in about once a week with the “GREATEST T-SHIRT IDEA EVER”.  Very, very few succeed in developing their idea and bringing it to market.  Why?  They just don’t understand it and are lazy.  Pick any day and read comments and questions left by these people on the t-shirt forums and you’ll see the same refrain.  The successful start-ups all do the homework.  They have a written business plan.  They understand their market, their competition, how to sell and at what price.  They go in conservatively and usually with pre-sold inventory; which reduces their out of pocket expenses.  The t-shirt shops don’t really care – it’s a sale.  Get that cash up front though.
  9. Lack of training – When I visit shops all across the country two things immediately stand out.  Shops that are organized and well trained hum like a well-oiled machine.  These shops have a cross-training program, deploy people as needed.  Press operator sick?  No problem as they have three or four people that can fill in for him.  On the other hand, shops that are highly segmented and have the mentality that certain staff members are pigeon-holed in their jobs…or worse, the production management is too lazy or undisciplined to build a training program are rife with problems.  People don’t know what to do; and must always be “told”.  The shop runs like a dictatorship.  These shops have an apathy and morale problem, usually more overtime, and a higher defect rate than most.  Check out this article to learn more:
  10. Lack of Organization – Running a shop by the seat of your pants can work for some folks, but there are probably times where this method becomes a big challenge.  Thoughtful, organized and creative managers know that eliminating clutter, putting the tools next to the work, and planning every single aspect gets them to their goals faster, cheaper, and better than just using the “cross your fingers and pray” method.  If you have to have a daily production meeting with your production and sales staff in order to sort out what’s going to be produced today, you aren’t doing it right.  Be disciplined in your approach and have high levels of communication that everyone in the shop can understand.  For more info on how to build a production schedule that works read this:
  11. Not understanding cost control.  Larger shops understand the benefit of keeping a tight rein on material costs.  I hear this all the time as smaller shops complain that they can’t understand how a larger shop can undercut their price by such a large margin and still make money.  Chances are that they could be making even more of a percentage profit, as the larger shops filter through more work through their shop and have standardized and automated a lot of the processes.  Better run shops also do their homework and analyze everything.  While one shop may purchase their ink in one gallon buckets, more forward thinking ones won’t think anything of bringing in a 30 or 50 gallon drum of the same ink (usually white or black ink), as they know that they’ll use this ink up over the course of a year.  While a smaller shop can waiver on whether or not to purchase some new equipment; more aggressive and smart shops do the math and determine the ROI (return on investment) of purchasing the equipment as they can calculate the reduction in material, labor, energy or other factors for their shop.  It isn’t a “gut decision”, but one proved with math, which makes it easy.  Also, shops that understand the value in building better margins, also understand the value in building a sustainability program.  Sure, it’s good for the environment and your karma to be green – but the main business value-add is towards your bottom line.  Here’s the link to my article on this:
  12. Lack of Communication – This is crucial.  When I meet other business people in a social setting – chamber of commerce breakfasts, after hours events, or receptions at tradeshows – one of my favorite icebreaker questions I ask is “What is your biggest problem that you work on daily?”  I ask this question to everybody, even people outside the apparel decoration industry.  The most common response is lack of communication.  This can be internally with your staff or externally in dealing with your customers.  How are you handling this common problem?  Do you have a disciplined approach to taking orders?  (Purchase orders or forms must be filled out)  Or do you shoot from the hip and an e-mail is good enough?  Do you send out art approval forms and have the client approve the art before anything gets produced?  Do you have all the notes, instructions and anything that can make the production for the order go smoother in your system, on the work order, and available for your staff to read?  If production has to stop to go ask someone a question before running the order, you aren’t doing this right.  An extra three to five minutes by your sales or customer service staff adding more detail to your order, can save someone in the back shop up to an hour in production time.  You have to insist that this communication happens, and constantly train on it with your staff.
  13. Safety – I’ve been in a lot of t-shirt production shops over the years.  Some are surgical operating room clean, with everything neat, orderly and ready to work.  Some look like a tsunami just hit.  Some are in between.  The apparel industry in general is that is prone to safety challenges if not managed correctly.  About once a year, you read online about a shop that went up in flames, or someone was seriously hurt, because a staff member wasn’t paying attention.  This is 1000% a management challenge.  It doesn’t take much for some hanging lint to catch fire, a can of spray tack to go down the dryer and explode, the forklift driver to run over somebody, or someone to get whacked by a rotating platen on an automatic press.  These things can happen in an instant.  Are you ready?  Better yet – what are you doing to prevent these accidents from happening in the first place?  When was the last time you had a fire drill at your shop?  What about fire extinguisher training?  Do you have written policies and procedures?  Do you even know what PPE’s are and how to use them?  (Personal Protection Equipment such as safety goggles, gloves, or earplugs)  Do you have a training program?  For some thoughts regarding this topic, check this out:
  14. Lack of Strategic Planning – A lot of shops are reactive.  That is to say they just sit there and wait for the business to come to them, or wait until they need or forced to do something to alter their thinking.  Why wait?  Like a chess game, the shops that have a leadership mentality are usually the ones that are ahead of the curve and take a proactive stance on everything…they think three moves ahead.  They research and constantly are looking for an edge.  This could be in how they market their shop and attract new business.  It could also be how they look at decorating by adding new techniques or experimenting with developing new revenue streams that are different than their core business.  Strategic planning is innovating and constantly changing their business to suit what’s going on in the real world.  They take advantage of opportunities.  For example, it’s no surprise that digitally printing a shirt is growing in popularity, speed and techniques.  Eventually, this could surpass traditional screen printing for a lot of shops.  Where are you on this topic have you done any research at all?  How will you adapt to changes in your market sector?  What are you innovating?  For some thoughts on preventing problems when planning check this out:
  15. Being prepared to work – What I’m referring to here is how your shop is laid out, and how you are prepped to get more work through your shop on a daily basis.  In a lot of shops I’ve seen, the press crews have to go looking for stuff – the next order, a new squeegee, their ink, screens or even the shirts to print.  You should have the next job ready to go, with the work order, shirts, inks and screens available.   I call this “kit-packing”.  Management’s role in this is to determine ways to make it easier for their staff to work.  You should have duplicate tools at every press.  If you haven’t done so already, either take a video camera and film your press crew working or make a “spaghetti-diagram” of a press while they work.  Record every step, every motion it takes to get the last job broken down and the next one up and running.  Hopefully the press crew stays around the press and doesn’t have to walk across the shop to get anything.  If they do, you aren’t managing the process efficiently.  What can you change to minimize the downtime?
  16. It’s the way we’ve always done it – Have you ever heard this statement at your shop?  Ten years ago, a production manager instilled a process at your shop.  That guy is long gone now, but his goofy way of doing something is still around.  Every day your staff still does it like he wanted, but nobody ever thinks to change it.  Why is that?  The answer is simple – it’s because they aren’t empowered to think for themselves and nobody has ever asked them their opinion if there is a better way.  You can’t just be so narrowly focused that you miss big picture ideas.  Have an open mind.  Ask your staff daily what their problems are, what they need to succeed and better yet, what ideas they have that they would like to implement.  Worse yet, YOU are the guy that has the goofy way of doing something.  You run the shop with an iron hand and aren’t interested in anybody else’s ideas or new ways of thinking.  That’s not you is it?
  17. That guy is trying to sell me something!  Do you have a good relationship with your vendors?  Are you open to new ideas, new products, and new relationships?  How many times have you not opened an e-mail or taken a phone call because there is a salesperson on the phone and “he’s trying to sell me something”.  A long time ago I remember reading a two panel cartoon that had a great effect on me on this topic.  The first panel was a drawing of an inside of a teepee with an Indian tribal council.  The chief was being stopped by one of his warriors who pointed outside, and the chief says “Not now, can’t you see I’m busy?”  The second panel has the same warrior telling the Gatling gun salesman that the chief wasn’t interested because he didn’t want to waste his time talking to a sales guy.  Ever since then, I’ve always been interested in whoever has something to sell – as you never know.  I always listen, read, or try out the product and evaluate if it’s something that has merit.  Through the years, new products have been the difference on some major projects and innovative ideas.  Not everything is a golden gem, but it often pays to increase your understanding.
  18. OJT – On the Job Training – I’m throwing this in here for all the knuckleheads that I read about on the apparel forums that are always complaining about the rush order they took that centers around a process that they’ve never produced before.  CYMK printing, rhinestones, applique, high density, flocking, etc.  Some aren’t so difficult to learn or master, but they wait around until they sell the job and are forced into a production corner.  This really comes down to the owner or salesperson accepting the job in the first place.  Sure, there’s a chance for success and I’m positive that plenty of people have knocked a home run out of the park with their first try at something.  However, strategy-wise it’s much smarter and less risky to learn how to do a process and then over-promise and under-deliver.  Smarter shop owners would out-source the job to keep the client happy, and then spend the necessary time learning and mastering the technique.
  19. Artwork matters.  I’m sure it’s the ex-Art Director in me, but it’s surprising how few people understand the relationship and difficulty with not only designing a creative image for the shirt, but also being able to technically separate the art so it will print well.  You see this constantly when dealing with folks in the ad agency or fashion world.  They will create art that’s either extremely difficult to print, or virtually impossible due to location, number of colors, or just simply how the pasted the art onto a t-shirt template.  A great piece of art is not only technically sound – meaning it’s created to be able to be mechanically reproduced with minimal challenges on press; but it’s also designed with some creativity and flair.  You know a good t-shirt design when you see it, just as you know a bad one.  Not a lot of t-shirt shops ship blanks shirts, so let’s pay more attention to the art part of the process.
  20. Not pricing jobs correctly.  The key to long term survival in this industry is just basic business sense.  Pricing jobs correctly and understanding all the costs involved with your shop are crucial.  As with any business, labor is your biggest variable and expense.  That’s why the exercise of just throwing more people at a problem to get the order out the door might work in the short term; but if you are constantly doing and the cost isn’t reflected in what is on the invoice you are headed into trouble.  Every year, the cost of freight, supplies, apparel, taxes, etc. all rises slightly.  Are you modifying your price lists?  Undercutting your competition to get the job, may keep you busy but it won’t guarantee that you will be profitable.  A stronger and more viable method is to understand the relationship between all of your costs, how you are building your quotes, and outside market factors.

Ok, so that’s 20 things to think about for how your shop operates.  Are you being as effective and efficient as you can be?  What challenges weren’t on the list?  If you’d like share your experience add your comment below, or shoot me an e-mail at and let’s discuss it.