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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


Save That Misprinted T-Shirt! – 7 Secret Tips That Really Work


There are many reasons why printers occasionally misprint some t-shirts during the print run.  (Not that anyone in this industry will publically admit to making any mistakes.  We are all perfect you know.)  Hopefully, none of your staff is doing it due to incompetence, which probably would be an entirely different article.

This one though, is going to center on a few problems that could pop up, that if fixed, could allow you to ship that problematic “misprint” shirt with the order.  Some misprints are complete disasters, and you certainly can’t send those.  Those go instantly into the test print pile, or are used to clean the floor later.

Part of any shop’s quality control program has to move beyond just identifying problems, and move into fixing them.  Here are some tips for repairing some shirts to get that problematic order to ship complete:

  1. Fuzz balls or Thread Strings.  A piece of lint or a stray thread gets stuck on the underside of the screen.  After the squeegee stroke, there’s a hole or thin wavy line in the print that is pretty noticeable.  If your catchers are as well-trained as ours, they find these small inconsistencies and take steps to correct them.
    1. First, make sure you tell your printer to stop printing and correct the issue so the remainder of the production run does not have this problem.
    2. To fix the affected shirts just daub a little ink on a piece of cardboard.  Use a toothpick to gently smear the ink onto the shirt in the area.  Blend it, blend it in good…  Send the shirt down the dryer.
    3. Take a look around your press area.  If your equipment has not been cleaned for some time, you might consider taking a few moments to clean your press and surrounding area.  Also the lint challenge gets worse if you use spray tack, as the adhesive gets into the air causing all sorts of issues.  Try switching to a water-based adhesive that can be carded onto the platens.  Also, if your print crews are slobs, this is the main cause of the fuzz ball problem.  Owners: This is a floor supervisor management problem.  Make sure you have a word with your leaders.
  2. Distorted Circles or Squares.  Speaking of spray tack…too much applied to the platen can cause the printed image to distort when your press puller yanks it off the platen.  That left chest circle image is now egg-shaped.  That square is now a trapezoid.  Yikes!!
    1. Set aside all of the affected shirts.  Usually it’s limited to a few, as it normally occurs just after the platen adhesive is applied (too generously).
    2. What’s happening is that the fibers of the shirt have been stretched in the direction of the incredible force applied to get the shirt fabric off of the press.
    3. To correct the challenge, if you use your hands to stretch the fabric in the opposite direction that you see with the shirt, you can pull the image back into shape with a few tugs.  Eggs become circles, trapezoids become squares.
    4. To increase the chances that this problem won’t happen again, have the press operator and puller help fix the challenge.  Don’t just leave it up to the catcher.  Getting them involved in repairing the shirt and explaining how it happened will educate them on the cause and effect on how they are running the press.  This challenge is entirely preventable.
    5. Also, on the market are various lower tack adhesives to use.  These are especially valuable for shirts that don’t have a lot of fabric heft, such as burnout or some thinner fashion t-shirts.  These are more prone to having images distorted than a normal t-shirt.
  3. Board Marks.  This is when the ghost image of the shirt board shows up on your t-shirt, mostly due to a combination of heat and pressure.  It’s most visible on dark shirts, and this is avoidable with proper care during production.  Suggested methods of reducing board marks in your shop:
    1. Round off the corners of your squeegee rubber.
    2. Reduce squeegee pressure to as little as possible.  Remember, you are supposed to shear the ink through the screen not drive it into the shirt like a nail.  The answer to everything on press isn’t more pressure!!
    3. Minimize flash cure temperatures.  You only need to gel the ink, not cure it.
    4. Check your squeegee length.  Use squeegees that are just a little wider than your image if possible.  Never use squeegees that are wider than your platen.
  4. Scorch Marks.  Mostly on white shirts, you may have occasional light brown or tan scorch marks appear on shirts.  Check your heat and dwell times on your flash units and the heat setting on your dryer.  T-shirts aren’t pizzas; you just have to cure the ink so watch your temperature!
    1. You can sometimes take the scorch marks out with hydrogen peroxide on white shirts.  Use a properly labeled spray bottle, and mist some hydrogen peroxide on the affected area of the shirt and allow to dry.  This can sometimes take out the scorch mark, but depending on the severity of the challenge, isn’t 100% effective.
  5. Using the Spot Gun.  As ubiquitous as a squeegee in a t-shirt shop, the spot gun is a pretty common sight.  If you don’t have one of these miracle cure devices, you should look into it.  They are essentially power sprayers that focus a cleaning fluid with a tremendous force through the shirt to remove ink, stains, dirt, and other weird splotches on fabric.  Be sure your staff uses proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and check your SDS sheets for chemicals, as usually the better the chemical works the more harmful it is to people.
    1. The most common use of the spot gun is to blow out ink deposited on shirts from pinholes.  These are tiny spots in your emulsion that are missed by your screen room during their quality control step.  On press, these develop over time and small dots of ink will appear on your shirts.  These are caused usually by dirty glass on your exposure unit, or debris on the film positives.  If your shop switches to a Computer to Screen system, these problems are eliminated overnight.
    2. Dirty shirts.  Sometimes the shirts have dirty splotches, oil spots, or other weird spots on them.  More often than not, this is caused by the condition of your press or the work habits of your crew.  Believe it or not, you can’t eat Cheetos and load a t-shirt press at the same time.  Yes, I actually just wrote that…as I’ve had to say that to a printer before.
  6. Rough Ink.  Your print impressions should have printed ink deposits that are smooth to the touch and have a nice soft hand.  So what do you do if the ink is rough or textured like an old cobblestone street?
    1. After the shirt is dried, try using a heat press with a smooth silicone mat and apply some heat and pressure to smooth out the ink.
    2. While it’s easy to blame the ink for this problem, the root cause lies somewhere in the mechanical method of printing.  Every problem is different, but I would look to screen tension and off contact as the main culprits for this type of problem.  Properly made screens with good EOM (Emulsion Over Mesh) should allow the ink to be deposited into the opening in the screen during the flood stroke.  The squeegee just shears the ink in the opening and deposits it onto the surface.  If you have good screen tension, level platens and sharp squeegees this should allow you to print incredibly smooth, opaque ink deposits.
  7. We Forgot – The Case of Some Missing Art.  Occasionally, I’ve seen instances where the art department left off something in the seps, the screen room blocked out a chunk of the art, the print crew taped off portion of the art fixing a pin-hole or registration mark, or other “mysterious” reasons why a detail or item on the art was left off.  Worse, the print run happens and the challenge is discovered too late.  What do you do now?
    1. Depending on the situation of course, you may need to make a separate “fix” screen that just has that one tiny bit of art that was left off.
    2. Your best printer, taking their time, can load the shirts onto the platen and line up the already printed shirt with the newly added fix.  This takes some skill and special care.  And lasers.  If you haven’t bought lasers for your shop yet, get in your car right now and go down to your hardware store and buy several sets.  These project thin red lasers lines down onto your platen.  You can use these to line up the screen fix with the printed shirt focusing on a few landmarks on the printed shirt so each shirt can be loaded exactly.  (We use them for lining up pocket tees for ordinary jobs too).
    3. Does this work all the time?  No.  Will it take the entire afternoon to fix?  Yes.  You will get nothing else accomplished while you try to save these shirts.  However, that’s better than repurchasing them any day. Or the embarrassment of leaving off a key detail in the print and having to explain that to the customer.

Final thoughts.  While some problems occur beyond the control of your staff, a good many are due to employees not paying attention, shop cleanliness, improper training, and just ordinary focus on detail.  It’s up to the leaders of your shop to enforce some general rules on housekeeping, promote training, and build your quality control program.  Make sure you keep a log on these problems, and if you can track down the root cause of the issue.  Remember the tried and true maxim, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”.   Shop managers should be actively working on reviewing these challenges constantly and developing policies and procedures to eliminate them.

What are your secret tricks?  These are just the ones that came to mind for me, but if you have any that I’ve missed please share!





9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master


When I go to trade shows or industry networking events, I’m constantly amazed at the completely different stories from people about how they got into this industry.  It’s one of my favorite questions to ask, as it reveals so much about the other person and where they are on their journey.  Some have a business background and started their shop because of an opportunity.  Some, like me, have an art background and got involved because it gave them a paycheck to go along with using their creative skills.  At the end of the discussion though, you find that everyone lacks something and we’re all searching to fill in that gap.  Great business people aren’t really good artists.  Creative people are often not very skilled in business.  Then there’s the actual craft of learning to print or embroider.  Below, I’ve ranked the top 9 core skills that I think every shop should work towards mastering, and maybe a tip or two along the way too.  If I left something out, or you don’t like my rankings – leave a comment!!  Participation is a good thing.

  1. Communication.  That’s right; I’m not ranking “skills as a printer” or “skills as an embroiderer” number one.  Here’s why.  I asked my 9 year old son the other day why he had two ears and only one mouth.  His response was classic for him, “so you can turn your head to listen while eating a cookie”.  Almost right.  As I’m sure everyone knows the old adage is “so you can listen twice as much as you speak”.  Effective communication in your shop by your entire staff is the number one skill that you should constantly focus on developing.  This is outward, customer facing; as well as throughout your shop with your staff.  Information has been, and always will be the key to success.  Most of us (sadly including me) aren’t really listening all the time; they are just waiting for the opportunity to reply.  Communication in your shop includes how you handle everyday tasks, but also how you write an e-mail, talk on the phone, hold a meeting, and build a work order.  Obtaining all of the correct information from your customer, and then processing it effectively so that it travels through your company on the work order is imperative for everyone to do their jobs correctly. Tip: For more discussion on work order skills – read this – Blueprint for Success: Your Work Order 
  2. Skills as a Printer/Embroider.  Yep, it’s number two.  Although many will argue it should be number one, for shop success Communication has to top it, as there are so many other facets and people involved than just printing/embroidering.  Still, at number two it ranks high on the list and importance.  This is all about craftsmanship.  Probably the most wonderful thing about the decorated apparel industry is the mixture of art and science for business.  You have to do things correctly in each step along the way in order to have your final production run come out consistently perfect.  That takes a tremendous amount of effort in developing those skills.  Standardizing how your shop operates, training your staff, and developing the core production skills will be the main drivers for success.  I see all too often printers/embroiderers accepting jobs that are beyond their skill level, reaching out on the internet forums for help at the midnight hour.  Think you might have to print on a 2-ply jacket, turn a CMYK job, run a puff embroidered hat, or print over hoodie seams?  Spend some time researching, attending a trade show how-to seminar, or just mess around with it in your shop and learn how.  Take some notes.  Keep a journal or log book and record what you did, what worked, and what didn’t.  Build a recipe for success that you can come back to six months later when someone requests something out of your norm.  By then, maybe you are an expert; or at least skilled enough to know if you can do the job or not.  Keep pushing the envelope with your skills, and insist on excellence and quality on your shop floor.  Regardless of your decoration method, the key is to keep improving, training your staff, and learning!
  3. Business or Marketing Plan.  I talk or e-mail a good number of shops all over the world these days.  Some have challenges that relate to their sales.  All want more business coming in, and are looking for a magic bullet to make that happen.  The first question I ask is always “Have you written a business plan?”  Surprisingly few have.  A good business plan is a living document (it can change!!) that outlines your company, your customers and set some obtainable goals for the next three to five years.  Who are your ideal customers?  How are you going to reach them?  Who is your competition?  What are your company strengths?  Weaknesses?  The business plan aims your company in the right direction and sets the course of your actions.  Instead of shot-gunning your efforts all over the place, the business plan can help guide your efforts with better precision as you will have the direction you need to work on achieving goals you have set.  A marketing plan is similar, but outlines the communication and branding efforts for your company to achieve your established business goals.  The value in spending your time and effort in writing these plans is that they give you the tools and direction to aggressively target your core customers and bring business in, rather than passively waiting for orders to trickle into your company.  Ready, Fire, Aim usually doesn’t work.  So, if you are reading this and you haven’t written a business plan and set some goals; what are you waiting for?  Do yourself (and your company) a favor and grab a cup of coffee and get busy!!
  4. Sound Business Decisions – Pricing.  I talk to a lot of shops, and read on the forums, regarding companies taking orders that aren’t priced to be profitable jobs.  “I’ll charge less now and increase the pricing on the client later”.  Be careful of what you give away too.  Some shops give their art, screens or some other item away for free. This strategy ultimately doesn’t always work, as when you try to bump up the price they will just go elsewhere.  Instead, have a rock solid methodology on your pricing and build your stable of clients that are based on your value proposition and don’t revolve around nickel and diming you to death.  You want to be around ten years from now right?  Be competitive, but your value proposition is what will drive your success.  Tip: for a more in depth look at this discussion read this – Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars 
  5. Training.  The bedrock of running a successful business with employees is developing your core skills with a training program.  By hiring people with great attitudes, you can develop their skills over time by giving them the opportunity to grow and learn on the job.  This makes for a happier workforce, and a stronger company.  Key tasks within your business should have at least three people that know how to do something.  This could be quoting an order, separating an art file, digitizing a logo, registering screens on press, or shipping an order, etc.  You can’t have your entire business dependent on it coming down to the fact that if “Fred” (insert your key employees name here) is sick or on vacation that job can’t be produced today.  Tribal knowledge that is centered on skills can bring your company to a standstill.  A better plan is to list the top ten or twenty things each core skill that is needed in your company.  How do you do “x”?  Take pictures or screenshots.  Build a guidebook.  Use this as the key expectations for handling tasks successfully in each of your departments.  Give employees the opportunity to learn different tasks.  Tip: for a more in depth look at cross training read this – Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop 
  6. Counting & Keeping Track of Inventory.  We do a lot with math every day, mostly in multiples of twelve.  In receiving and in production, make sure the quantities add up to what they are supposed to be several times along the way. (Calculators are allowed! It’s ok…).  At a minimum your receiving team should count and verify everything the same day the goods come in.  Checked against the packing slip and your internal work order, every item on the job should be accounted for before anything is staged in production.  Any challenges should be reported immediately for action by the account rep or salesperson.  In production, the goods should be verified to be 100% complete before running the job.  During production, your crews should count and check off from the work order as shirts are being produced to verify that your quantities match up.  At the end of the run, all of the numbers should add up and be consistently the same.  Misprints and defective shirts during the run should be culled out and reported on the job too.  Why insist on perfect counting?  This is an easy question to answer from a pure economic standpoint.  Just think of each shirt as dollars instead of garments.  Would you misplace a box of money?  Smaller shops look at this problem and may not comprehend why it even exists…but the larger your shop grows, the more people that touch things along the way, the larger your schedule and stress increases.  Insist on excellence along the way.
  7. Creative Artwork.  A great art team can define a shop and send huge waves of business your way.  Most of your clients are not artists, and they are going to rely on you to provide them with artwork and ideas.  You need to wow them.  Finding, obtaining, and harnessing this creative talent can be a great thing for your company.  Unfortunately, learning the skills needed to design and separate artwork for this industry can take some time to develop.  They don’t teach simulated process separations in design school; it’s all on the job training.  Your art team should reflect the market that you serve, and understand and follow design trends and techniques.  Remember, production friendly art is always a good thing.  Some shops are known for their art, and have such a unique style or perfection with their work that people will come to them to use that skill.  Want more business?  Find a great art staff and pay them well.  Can’t afford to have artists on the payroll yet?  Find a network of great freelancers to use.  Unless you are a shirt distributor, shipping blank inventory isn’t part of the business model for most companies.  You are being judged on your ability to design, separate, digitize and create the most fantastic and wonderful art you can every day.  Tip: If you are new to this industry you might want to check out this article – Creating Art for t-shirts – Common Rookie Mistakes Defined 
  8. Continuous Improvement.  One core skill to possess is the desire to get better and constantly tweak how your shop operates.  This can be a people training initiative, centering some thought on workflow efficiency, or automating a task with some new equipment.  Every project that you start, finish and master will champion your efforts to improve your business.  Highly successful shops are always learning or developing something in order to obtain a competitive edge.  Think about your shop.  How many projects do you have right now, where you are trying something out?  A new chemical, ink, emulsion, process, technique…whatever.  The journey that matters is trying to find new ways that are better or cheaper.  This is hard work.  It requires teamwork, communication, leadership and brain power.  There is a lot of failure along the way too, and that’s important as that is where the learning comes in.  It’s ok to fail.  Keep trying, and eventually you will succeed!!  Also, this is where attending a trade show, taking a class, listening to your ink sales rep, posting a question on an internet forum or group, or using a consultant to resolve a challenge, can really pay off.  Other people have traveled down the same road you are traveling now.  How did they do it?  All it takes is a question.  Are you ready for the answer?  For more information read this: How to Increase Efficiency & Maximize Workflow
  9. Sustainability.  Yep, here I go again on this topic.  Why do I always talk about sustainability, and why should it be a core skill that every shop should master?  Besides being the right thing to do for health or environmental reasons, the main reason is purely financial.  Starting your sustainability journey will be the best choice you can make today to start lowering your operating costs.  Every shop uses energy.  Every shop uses materials.  Every shop can recycle.  We are essentially manufacturers, as we have production and use commodities to make things and ship orders.  This is an easy thing to talk about, but harder in reality as it takes work, thought, time and actual leadership to complete.  Do you want to make more money at the end of the year?  A sustainability program is an effective tool to lower your operating costs.  To get started, get a committee together in your shop and brainstorm on what would be a few easy projects to score some quick touchdowns.  Get an energy audit from your local utility, start a recycling program, look to see if you can reduce some of your materials you consume, maybe even invest in new equipment that will operate more efficiently and with less cost.  Depending on your geographic area, there is grant money available or low interest loans that you can qualify for if you investigate them.  I highly recommend that you look into getting third party certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) –   Tip: for a more in depth look at sustainability read this article – Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

So, did I cover everything that would make your list?  What did I miss?  Feel free to comment and let’s have a discussion!!  Want to see how I run Visual Impressions?  Check out our Pinterest board Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop

Redefining Your Shop Culture – Go From Good to Great


One thing that all business struggle with over time is the idea of identity and culture.  You spend a lot of effort every day in the struggle to obtain new business, forging relationships with clients, marketing yourself in the community and just working on the challenges you face in getting orders produced and out the door.  How much time though, do you spend thinking or building your company culture?  What is the notion of “company culture” anyway and why does it matter?

The basic definition is that a company culture is the personality of the business from your employee’s perspective.  How do they see it every day?  How are you defining the experience for them by living your company mission, values, expectations, work environment, ethics and goals?  Do you live by a common core set of rules, or does your shop have one set of expectations for the front office and another set for the production crew that has to get everything done?  Is it team-based or a dictatorship?  Do your employees enjoy working at your shop?  Do people quit their jobs and use the phrase “I just can’t take it anymore!” as they drive away from the shop with tears of joy streaming down their face?  Culture is important, but it’s an ethereal, hard to define and easily lost, thing.  Cue the old Johnny Paycheck song “Take this Job and Shove it”.

Whoa.  Hold on.  Cut the music, buster.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Let’s explore some things that you can do to build a positive company culture that will help drive employee retention, satisfaction and boost your company morale.

Shops are all different sizes of course.  Some are quite large with multiple departments, with many layers of managers, assistant managers and team leads.  Others might only have three people in the entire company and everyone wears many hats, but everyone reports to the owner.  One thing is certain though, is that there’s someone in charge.  What’s the leadership style of your shop?  Does it resemble a general, barking orders at a private to clean the latrine?  “Do what I say!!”  How are you setting the tone for the work?  Do you emphasize active listening?  Teamwork?  Think about these:

Set clear expectations and rules.  Have a written company handbook that outlines the “rules” for your shop.  Be very specific and detailed.  Include everything and have a policy.  Can you use a cell phone on the floor?  Check Facebook at lunch?  How do you ask for vacation time?  How many sick days does an employee have a year?  Can a manager receive a gift from a vendor to use their product?  Be as thorough as you can and double check the legality of your handbook with an HR professional.  Regardless of your company size, a handbook is a wonderful tool to set the standards that you going to hold everyone accountable to during the year.  Everyone, including all managers, follows these rules.  The handbook is the tool that sets the standards and baseline for the company culture.  Tip: If you are a member of SGIA, you can find good sample company handbook language that you can use as a baseline to create your own.  Check it out at

Accountability.  In your shop, do you play favorites?  People notice.  You need to hold staff accountable the same way when there is a problem.  One person can’t stroll in late without consequences if you are demanding timeliness from other people.  The most common example of this is how the front office and production crews are treated.  There has always been a divide with these groups and some animosity.  Make sure your thinking is about inclusion and teamwork, and not divisive.  A great way to establish a culture of accountability is with your performance review system.  Start with just a self-review and a manager review.  If the staff member is high enough on the food chain, have supplemental reviews for them by everyone they influence daily.  I like to do it every six months, and use a ten question survey for everyone (including the owners and managers).  Judge how each person performs their role in the company and is base the questions on Customer Service Focus (both internal and external), Attitude, Getting Things Done, Skill, Efficiency, and Communication.  Set three goals for the employee to work on in the next six months, and then review them then.  Want to drive home the notion that everyone matters and you want them to treat others with respect?  Make it part of the review and have your staff complete reviews on other staff anonymously.  You will see a dramatic change in behavior.  The more you talk about your expectations and set the tone for the company, the more you will realize it in reality.  Tip: Check out this article for more information on how to build a performance review program: “Build a Better Performance Review Program”

Take care of people.  Sure, your shop is jammed full of computers, equipment, ink, thread, chemicals, boxes, and shirts.  What makes it all tick?  People.  What do they have?  Problems. There is a daily constant barrage of challenges that your staff faces.  Some have huge problems such as alcohol or drug dependency issues.  Some have sick kids, or their grandmother just passed away.  Some have financial challenges.  Some have emergency situations as their car just blew a head gasket.  Some just can’t work an alarm clock.  Others are saving for a house.  Every one of your staff is different, but sooner or later their challenges are in your lap.  How you handle these, react to them, and deal with them is noticed by your staff.  Are you fair and honest?  A sucker for tears and a sad story?  An easy mark with an open wallet?  Believe or not, your company culture is quite often defined by how you react to these situations and deal with the multitude of problems your staff is confronted with every day.  Be honest and genuine.  Having policies and procedures in your company handbook can go a long way in dealing with some of these situations.  For others, you have to make a ruling one way or another.  Understand though, that for many small companies how you deal with a situation can set a precedent for others to follow.  I’ve found after a few decades of managing folks that if you handle situations honestly, fairly, and with an optimistic point of view, most employees with return the favor when you need them to.  That’s when you need a crew to stay late on a Friday, work through lunch, or come in on Saturday to get that rush job handled.

Emphasis on Teamwork.  It’s been said that “No man is an island” and that’s very true for businesses with staff.  You need your staff to work together as a team.  Emphasize that it isn’t “their” order, but the company’s order.  No finger pointing.  No “I can’t do my job because they didn’t do theirs”.  If you can establish the culture of execution by having everyone band together, communicate and try to make it easier for other staff downstream, then you’ll start to see things getting through your pipeline faster, with less hassle and fewer challenges.  Getting everyone to buy into the program is sometimes a challenge, and you might have to break some things and rebuild them to get what you want.  Teamwork also includes managers and even owners getting their hands dirty and working with crews to accomplish tasks.  This means working on the production floor, helping with the billing or putting orders in, or even just manning a hang-tagging gun or sweeping the floor.  The sooner you set a positive example for others to follow, the easier it’s going to be to establish your culture of getting things done.

Make it fun.  Is working at your shop a big drag?  In order to truly engage your staff you have to make it a great place to work, where people feel like time passes quickly and they are valued.  Learn what your staff likes and work towards having some events that trigger involvement, discussions and laughter.  This could be anything.  Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Get your staff involved with their ideas, and implement them.  Here are a few examples of things we’ve done recently:

  1.        Employee Chili Cook-Off.  We just finished our first employee chili cook-off competition. (see the photo above)  We had eight entries, and invited customers to be the judges, and also had our staff judge too.  We had two awards, one for most popular employee chili, and the other was voted best chili from our client.  This was a fun event that we also coincided with a grill-out where we cooked hot dogs, hamburgers, and black-bean burgers (to recognize those that aren’t eating meat on Fridays due to Lent).
  2.       Fundraisers or Events for Charities.  At Visual Impressions we support many local or national philanthropies by holding events to raise money or activities that involve our staff.  These are often at the request of some staff members, and over the years we’ve cleaned up the neighborhood with trash pick-up days, donated to Toys for Tots or to the Hunger Task Force, raised money for cancer research and walked for the ACS Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event.  At the end of April we’re holding a garage sale, where employee donated items are being sold to raise money for our Making Strides fundraising.
  3.        Halloween.  Every year we hold a costume contest.  We award cash prizes for best costumes and have employees vote.  It’s a fun day when all kind of crazy zombies, nurses, and superheroes are printing or working.
  4.       Holiday party.  At the end of the year we’ve had a lot of fun with having a holiday party.  We’ve had it on site with catering and also at local restaurants.  We do a Secret Santa too (voluntary), and it’s usually pretty hilarious.
  5.       Victory Garden.  This spring we’re going to build a few victory gardens on our property and grow stuff.  We already have a bunch of eager gardeners waiting until the thaw (we’re in Wisconsin) so we can get started.
  6.         Biggest Loser.  Last fall we had a Biggest Loser competition with ten teams of four people competing to lose the biggest percentage of weight.  In a company voted decision, the final weigh-in was cruelly the Monday after Thanksgiving (do you really want that extra piece of pie?).  Overall we lost almost 600 pounds in three months.  Our staff can still be seen walking and exercising during breaks and lunch, and this has led to a healthier and happier staff.
  7.        Attendance Lunch.  For employees that have perfect attendance, we have either brought in lunch or all go out to a restaurant to celebrate.  These are staff members that have not been late or absent for a designated time period.   Believe it or not, we have over 40% of our staff rewarded with this usually every time.  That’s not bad, considering we have over ninety employees.
  8.       We have a grill and are not afraid to use it.  When the weather cooperates we’ll grill out on a Friday “just because”.  Sometimes we bring in pizza, donuts, or other treats.  Especially if we are working overtime or celebrating a company victory or milestone, such as completion of a huge order or hitting a sustainability goal.

Catch People Doing the Right Thing.  It’s easy to write someone up for a mistake.  Much harder to catch people in the act of doing something correctly or above what they normally are capable of accomplishing and rewarding them for it.  Nothing says makes someone’s day better than acknowledging achievement with a “Good job” or “Thank You” – or movie tickets, money, a half-day off on a Friday paid, or even a raise.  This is hard to do if you just sit in your office all day.  Get up, walk around and talk to people.  Be observant and pay attention to what’s going on.  If you have management staff, make sure they understand that they can nominate people or reward them so you don’t have to be the one looking for good behaviors to reward.

New Hires.  Do you have some openings in your company?  Don’t just fill the positions with a warm body.  Think about how the potential candidate will fit in with your existing group.  Ask questions, check references and do your homework before potentially causing a disruptive presence on your staff.  The old maxim, “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” applies here.  The other end of the stick applies too.  If you have long term employees that are in the way of a culture change, for example having someone that is a constant “this won’t work”, you may have to think hard about keeping them on staff if you are looking to improve and grow.  Instead of terminating their employment you might want to consider reassigning them to another department or train them in a new skill.  Be firm and clear about your expectations and your reasoning.

At the end of the day, your company culture is what you make it.  Not happy with the way things are going?  Talk to people in your company and find out what they want, need or desire.  Often they just want to be acknowledged and listened to, and it isn’t about money all the time.  (Sometimes it is though…)  Also, if you have managers, make sure you are also talking to your staff and not just your leadership team to gauge the pulse of the company.  I’m a big believer in the “Trust, but verify”, mode of following up on things.


Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars

Multi-Color Set Up - Marshall Atkinson

I’m frequently seeing more discussions online regarding local competition undercutting business by quoting or taking jobs at discounted rates.  Having competition in your market is a good thing, and at the heart of it seems very American.  However, having your customer base suddenly dry up because another company is slashing their rates seems shockingly unfair and can get anyone’s blood boiling quickly.  So what’s going on here and what can you do about it?

There are a few things at play here that we should start to dissect.  First, there’s the notion that someone is offering the same services as you, but doing it drastically cheaper – so they win the order.  Often, it’s not a case of apples to apples as they may not be using the same garment blank, number of screens or even breaking out the price the same way (you include screens, theirs is a separate add-on later).  If it’s not too late, make sure your potential customer is educated on the quoting process and all things are comparable.  Secondly, there’s also the fact that maybe the guy down the street isn’t dropping his pants at the price and trying to steal all your business, but legitimately has reduced his margins enough that they can operate with lower pricing and still make a good profit.  Don’t just naively assume that your costs and overhead are equal to your competition.  All shops are not created equal.

Next, I’d like to introduce you to the notion that you shouldn’t be selling on price anyway.  Maybe you’ve heard or read this before; but it’s dramatically true.  Price based sales reduce the services you provide down to a bare-bones commodity, like gasoline.  Think about all the creative energy, craftsmanship, years of learning the printing process – all shoved down through a hose and into someone’s tank like gas, sold for the lowest price imaginable.  Who the hell wants to do that?  The flipside of the coin is that your customer base revolves around clients that truly appreciate what you have to offer, are there for the long-term, and in fact wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else because they value everything you have to offer.  Your price is whatever it is, and they will pay for it.  At the end of the day Motel 6 and Ritz Carlton are still hotel chains, where complete strangers rent a bed for a night or more.  Two different markets, two different business models; but only one sells on price.  Are you the “leave the light on” guy?  Do you want to be?

So, let’s discuss how to change your thinking a bit.  Where you should be driving your thought process is thinking about your Value Proposition.  In the simplest terms, a Value Proposition is a statement that outlines the benefit that you provide for your customers and how you do it uniquely well.  It describes your target customer, the problem you solve, and why you are distinctly better than everyone else in the marketplace.  Think about that.  Who do you want to sell to every day?  Are you just taking any order from anybody that strolls in off the street?  Or, are you explicitly targeting a particular market by aligning your services to their needs?  And, to complete the thought, have you built your business to completely dominate that market by offering what other companies can’t?  Let’s keep moving and think about your business as you read this:

Define.  The first step in building your Value Proposition is to define exactly who you are, and who are your customers.  Rather than thinking about any person that could just amble through the door, narrow it down to the core group that you really want to serve.  Maybe your market could center on retail, museums, schools, military, resorts, bands, promotional item folks, area businesses, even other printers.  It doesn’t have to be one selection…the key is just define who are your best customers that align with your business skills and talents.  These could be future customers too, as maybe they haven’t partnered with you yet.  Make a list.  (Yes, actually do it you lazy bum!!)

Evaluate.  The second step is to honestly evaluate your business.  Does it offer a truly unique and demonstratively better offering for your defined target group?  If not, what do you need?  Better art, better skills as a printer, faster turn times, knowledge in apparel, updated equipment or technology?  Be brutally honest.  If you are lacking something, what are you going to do about it?  Maybe you need to hire or outsource an artist, take a class, add embroidery, or buy a delivery van.  This could be a goal while you work towards filling the void, but the main idea here is to identify what you are lacking and have a real plan in place to shore that part up if needed.  Again, write it down!!

Measure.  You can’t manage what you don’t measure.  You’ve heard that before, right?  It’s important to grasp all the factors in your company to truly understand what’s happening.  How often do you look at past sales history, production numbers, or overhead costs?  Do you normalize your costs to drill down to what your cost per impression may be?  When you think or talk about reducing your operating costs, do you know where to start?  Do you know where your sweet spot is on orders – meaning what would be your most profitable type of sale?  Getting all this information together and spending some time analyzing it isn’t just so you can’t get your inner geek fired up.  It’s crucial to understand the baseline of where and how your business operates so you can make some good decisions for the future.  If you know all this information like the back of your hand, you won’t sweat the small stuff like watching the price shopper guy walk away.  That order was a loser, and you’d rather cram your schedule full of more profitable jobs, with guess what?  Orders from your customers centered on your Value Proposition.  If your schedule is full of customers who pay you more, will send future orders your way, and champion your services to other people, would you honestly care if another shop quotes the guy $1 or $2 less?

After you’ve gone through the mental exercise of Defining, Evaluating and Measuring it’s time to spend a few minutes building your Value Proposition for your shop.  If you’ve done your homework this is easy.  It’s just a basic “fill in the blank” sentence.  Try it.

For (Your Target Market) who needs (The Type of Decoration/Service) (Name of Your Shop) offers (Your Unique Capability/Service/Advantage) and this is important because (List Why It Solves a Problem).

The idea here isn’t to make a complete sentence, so if your thoughts or words don’t exactly fit it’s ok.  Reword it so it sounds better.  The key take-away is to have at least one phrase that you can use to talk to people to build your shop’s business and not engage in the price war.  What do you offer that makes you unique, and why is it important to your customer?  This is the reason people will seek you out, hand over their money, and tell all of their friends…not because you are cheaper.  It’s ok to have several Value Propositions too.  Don’t just think you only have to have one.

At the end of the day, it’s the value that you create that adds more money to the order.  How you demonstrate this value should be in every conversation, on your webpage, in all marketing communications, essentially everywhere.  Don’t keep it a secret.  Scream it from the rooftop instead.

Blueprint for Success – Your Work Order

Work Order Sample - Marshall AtkinsonThe key to any complex endeavor is always centered on people understanding exactly what they need to do.  This is true in your apparel decorating shop too, and the instrument that is used is the ubiquitous work order.  These pages look differently in every shop, as everyone uses different systems to generate their pages, but the key information is the same.  The standards that your shop sets on creating these forms can go a long way towards how organized and efficient your production team operates daily.  Below are some thoughts, tips and tricks on creating a good work order document that can function as the blueprint for success in your shop.

Dates.  This is one of the most critical pieces of information on the work order.  The Date Entered shows when the work order was created.  The Ship Date shows the date that the job has to leave the building.  The In-Hands Date shows the date that the job has to arrive to its final destination. Tip: All three of these dates have to be real and not padded or just chosen randomly on the calendar.  The reason?  The rest of the shop uses these dates for scheduling, reporting and other tasks. 

The comparison between the Date Entered and the Ship Date allows you to see if you should be charging for a Rush Fee, your allotted production time to handle all your tasks, or even how to ship the incoming inventory.

The Ship Date is probably the most critical of all three as this determines the schedule for the all of your production departments.  If you have set operating standards for your production teams, they should be able to query your system and review incoming jobs.  Using the ship date, they can work backwards from there to determine when their piece of the job is due.  For example, if your standard is that jobs should be printed one business day before the order is to ship, then the screens have to be burned two business days before, and the art approved three business days before.  This means that the art creation deadline should be four business days before the Ship Date.  (Assuming the job is small enough to be printing on one business day)  If your sales or customer service reps use padded dates, then the standards used for production scheduling won’t work as well.

The In-Hands Date shows helps your shipping team choose the correct method to ship the order to make the delivery date.  They can use this information to pick the best route and carrier, if there is a choice.  I’ll get into the importance of Notes later, but if the order is event based or critical your shipping team can also ramp up the freight by guaranteeing the shipping or sending it priority.  Without an accurate in-hands date on the work order, your shipping crew won’t be able to make an informed decision themselves.

Client Information.  An order isn’t an order unless you have basic key information.  Customer company name, contact name, phone number, address, internal account number, etc.  These fields can’t be left blank for the obvious logical reasons.

Inventory Information.   So, what shirt blanks are you going to decorate for the order?  The quality information you include on your work order, the better decisions the rest of your staff can make on their own.  As strange as it sounds, some customers aren’t very specific on the details of what their order may include (usually on customer supplied inventory).  How can you quote, know what to decorate, or review the order is correct if you don’t have this information?  Tip: Your work order should include the product SKU or Part Number, description, color, and quantity for each size for the job.  The reason?  Receiving needs this information to check in the goods, Art needs this information to create or digitize for the job, production needs this information for scheduling and order review before starting.  Invoicing needs this information for billing.  Common mistakes include:

     1.  Entering the quantity in the wrong column or field.  You wanted to enter 36 in Small, but typed it in Medium.

     2.  Transposing numbers.  Instead of typing in 36, you typed 63.

     3.  Hitting the wrong key.  Instead of typing in 36, you typed 26.

     4.  Cloning an order to save time, but forgetting to change quantities.

     5.  Using the wrong part number.  Instead of using G-2000, you typed in G-5000.

     6.  Forgetting the shirt colors.

     7.  Forgetting that adult and youth, or ladies and men’s are different part numbers.  These different shirt-types need their own line items.  More often than not, this comes more from your customer’s purchase order information.

Notes.  This simply is the area on the work order that you write out your instructions to the different departments in your shop.  Depending on your form, these could be different areas on the page, or all compressed into one space.  Standardizing how your team enters notes, information used, and what should be included is crucial to maximizing the production efficiency of your shop.  Your staff has to be trained to read and understand notes to their departments, and held accountable for reading them.  Notes entered that aren’t read are worthless, and will just lead to a lot of finger pointing.  Notes entered and actioned are a gold mine and lead to an efficiently run shop.  Tip: The key is to agree on common terms and verbiage and have your staff trained to comprehend the information and make informed decisions.  You want to strike a fine balance between having the right information and information overload.

     Notes to PurchasingAny information you may want to include for the staff that has to purchase the inventory for the order.  Notes here could include where to locate goods on the web, client instructions regarding style or color, a reference to a key distributor sale price on an item, or other necessary details regarding how to source the inventory for the order.

     Notes to Receiving.  Helpful information to add here would obviously be tracking numbers on in-bound freight.  Other information could be some special instructions or a heads-up regarding some detail on the order.  You could also have notes on where to stage the goods after they check in the inventory.

     Notes to Art.  Art instructions should never include these words: “Do Something Cool”.  Rather, write a better creative brief that will allow them to use their creative talents and design something that can make your company money, with the minimal amount of time invested.  Art instructions could also include instructions on the origins of the customer supplied art: art to be e-mailed, art in folder 123456 on server, art uploaded to ftp, etc.  This helps your art staff get started in the race by locating the file quickly.  For art instructions on how to create the piece, include all necessary details from the client.  Have your sales or customer service dig for key details that may also include all verbiage (spelled correctly), Pantone colors, locations, dimensions of art, key placement on shirt, any and all customer provided logos or art, etc.  The more this is spelled out and made easy from the front end of your shop, the easier and less painful the art creation will be.

     Notes to Production.  Having key notes in this area is critical for correct production execution.  Examples could include placement on the shirt (Print 1” down from the collar please), production sequence (Print LC and then heat press numbers), post-production steps (Relabel, Hangtag, Polybag), shipping notes (ship with order #123456), packaging (Use customer supplied boxes), ink selection (use Polywhite Ink), key reminders for scheduling (EVENT – MUST SHIP WEDNESDAY), other reminders (Client Press Check Tuesday at 9:00), or tips (Burnout shirts – Watch heat – Easy to Scorch).  These notes should be formatted the same way every time and easy to read.  Absolutely critical notes should be bolded, and if possible enlarge the text so it jumps off the page.  Your press crews have to be trained and held accountable for reading these notes too.

     Notes to Shipping.  If you are using this feature it’s critical that your staff reads and understands the notes in this section.  Mis-shipped orders can get expensive quickly.  Common examples of notes to shipping could include reminders (Ship with order #123456), instructions (Event – please guarantee freight), requests (Please insure freight), account information (Ship on third party account #xxxxxxx), packaging (Use customer supplied boxes), carrier selection (UPS), reminders (Customer Pick-Up – bring to front desk), or financial information (Credit Card Order – Bring Shipping $ to CSR).  Shipping is such a critical part of the order it pays to carefully scrutinize this part of the process.  It doesn’t matter how good of a printer or embroiderer you are, if you ship the order wrong and miss the event you’ve got a huge problem on your hands.  Including and using notes to shipping can really help you in the long run.

     Notes to Invoicing.  Some customers have special financial needs, such as invoicing multiple orders on one invoice, using a credit card to pay for an order, a discount or deal applied to the order, or other financial considerations.

Art Approval Forms or Mock Ups.  A key part of your Work Order packet has to be a production friendly example of the job.  This will probably be an extra page or two, and has to be printed in color.  Nothing drives home success in production as an easy to understand art mock up that your operators can use when setting up the job.  Have your creative team develop this page, and show as examples how the art will look on each color of shirt.  Tip: Going through the exercise of mocking up the job on the right color of shirt, and even the style of shirt, by your art department will ferret out any potential production problems.  For example, a line of type at the bottom in black might not show up so well on the navy shirts for the order.  This is a far cheaper way of discovering the problem than the midnight hour realization on press, with the job due the following day.  Here are some key items to have on your art approval form:

     1.  Job Information.  Order name, Work Order #, design number, client name, and client PO #.  Get these on the form for easy reference.

     2.  Artist Name or Initials.  If you have more than one artist, this helps if there are any questions.

     3.  Art Location Information.  Use terms like Full Front, Left Sleeve, etc.  If you have more than one location, you need to label each one on the approval form.  Include design dimensions for each location.  Also include key location placement information such as “3” down from the collar”, or “line up with third button”, or “print 3” up from hem of shirt”.  Include all screen ink colors, and list them in order that they will be printed.  Include mesh counts.  Also include any special instructions or tips for your operators to use when running the job.

     4.  Art – Screen-printing.  Show the job on a mock-up of the shirt for placement.  Have the art proportional to a size large, and make a note of it on the form.  Your art staff should measure the shirt if necessary to ensure the art is sized correctly, and so they can illustrate how it will look on the mock-up.  Also include an enlargement of the art so you can show detail.

     5.  Art – Embroidery. Same as screen-printing, but show thread colors, steps and the center point for the file.

In closing, the idea that you should revolve your critical thinking about your work order construction is to try to answer all questions by having the information on the form.  If anybody has to stop and ask “What does this mean?” you are not doing it correctly.  Sure, getting all of this information prepared, entered, designed or printed takes time; and your front office or art staff may complain or push back on getting these details on the form.  It’s extra work for them and they probably don’t see the benefit.  However, for every minute your screen-printing or embroidery machines aren’t running, you are losing money.  The key to turning over more jobs daily, and improving efficiency all begins with having the correct and necessary information at your staff’s fingertips.  Don’t let your staff bully you into thinking that they “don’t have time” to write a work order correctly.  Instead develop the tools, training, and teamwork needed to comprehend the benefits of building a work order that is easy to understand and practical.  Your bottom-line will thank you.

9 Rungs of the T-shirt Shop Ladder of Success

Shop Floor - Marshall Atkinson

A guy e-mailed me from Bangalore India last week and wanted to know the formula for success in the t-shirt printing industry.  Sorry to say, but listing everything needed to run a shop is a pretty complex task.  It does, however, offer a great opportunity to jot down some ideas from my perspective to try to answer the question from a general success perspective.

To start I’m going to use a quote from Ayn Rand, “The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity”.   Let’s define that quote with some examples:

First Rung: Skill.  This could be skill as a business person, skill as an artist, skill as a printer.  Do you have the skills to pay the bills?  If not, what are you doing about it?  I think skill has to be the first rung on the ladder, as this is the “thing” that drives us to start down a particular path.  For me, my skill has always been art.  I’ve been blessed with some creative talent.  Looking back, I had a fourth grade teacher that noticed I would always turn over my homework paper and draw pictures instead of actually doing the assignment.  During a parent – teacher conference she suggested that my parents develop this interest by sending me to a local community college art class over the summer. (I didn’t even get in trouble!)  As a nine year old boy, I learned the skills with different mediums – water color, charcoal, pen and ink, scratchboard, pastels, and others.  This was the first step in developing my creative skill that would eventually lead me to this industry.  Acknowledging your skills, developing your skills, and taking action with your skills are what get you started on the ladder of success.

Second Rung: Knowledge.  It’s been said that in order to become an expert at something you have to work a minimum of 10,000 hours to develop the understanding.  How many hours have you put in?  Where do you get those hours?  Want to know the t-shirt industry?  Do what everyone does and go to work for someone else.  Top chefs don’t start off with their own fancy restaurant.  They start off chopping onions somewhere else.  You can take classes, read books, mess around and experiment on your own.  The key to building knowledge is to get out there and get your hands dirty.  Knowledge in this industry isn’t found by worrying about it over a desk; it’s found coating a screen, pulling a squeegee, trying to mix some ink, or working late hours to finish an order that has to be picked up tomorrow.  Get your hours in.

Third Rung: Other People.  No man is an island.  Like any business, you need to interact and develop relationships with other people to be successful.  It doesn’t matter if you are a one person shop, or run a company with hundreds of people; your success is going to be completely tied to your ability to develop long term relationships with other people.  These people are your vendors, customers, educators, bankers, employees, etc.  Developing trusting and mutually beneficial relationships with these people is crucial.  Entire libraries are full of books dedicated to the quest of developing interpersonal relationships.  My outlook has always been just a few core things: Be honest.  Be helpful.  Be yourself.  Listen.

Fourth Rung: Failure.  What?  Climbing the ladder of success is based on failure?  Of course.  You aren’t always going to succeed.  Things don’t go your way.  You are going to make mistakes.  It’s ok.  Learn from them and build procedures or steps to eliminate them from happening again.  Why did something fail?  Figure it out.  Printing is always a mix of art and science, with a good bit of old fashioned craftsmanship thrown in for good measure.  How you handle these failures in your career will determine how your journey goes.  Can you learn from them and adapt?  Can you get up from the ground when disaster strikes?  I’ve had some devastating blows in my career and have used them as a learning tool and catalyst to drive me onward.

Fifth Rung: Success.  You land a big account.  You learn how to print four color process.  Maybe you finally purchase an automatic press.  For many, there are certain landmark events in their careers that they talk about as when they knew that they “made it”.  I love talking to other printers about their businesses and their growth over the years.  Everyone has a great story to tell, and can point to a meaningful time or event that was extremely impactful.  Often those events were years ago.  So what happened after that?  They kept on growing, learning and driving.  Celebrate that landmark.  Drink in the glory.  Don’t rest on your laurels though, as there’s always another challenge.  And that challenge is coming with an impossible order to print for a client.  It is due Friday.  Can you handle it?

Sixth Rung: Continuous Improvement.  You’ve been at this business for years.  Your shop is successful.  Guess what?  There’s always a better way to do something.  There’s always new technology, inks, chemicals, processes, techniques or another “something” that you can use to refine your craft.  Stagnant shops are usually on the downward slope towards failure.  The ones that are constantly searching for something new, something that can help them, are the ones that keep moving forward and remain at the top.  All businesses need to adapt, as market conditions, customer behaviors, and technology will change with a blink of an eye.  For example, these days if you aren’t worrying about how you are competing with online competition instead of just that guy down the street, you may already be doomed.  How are you adapting to the changing climate now?  Shops that are constantly evolving, adapting and learning are the ones that will be around for another decade or two.

Seventh Rung: Best Industry Practices.  As your company climbs to the top of the ladder in the industry, the wealth of knowledge and craftsmanship learned will eventually translate into your company doing things the right way, every time.  From the way your customer service staff handles your clients, to the way your art is developed, screens are made, shirts are printed, orders shipped and the job invoiced…everything is a model of efficiency and perfection.  Your staff is trained to think for themselves, make good decisions and communicate constantly on what’s next.  Visitors to your shop can just walk through and will marvel at how you handle everything.  Yet, your shop is never satisfied.  Every department is always tweaking their processes, learning new skills, teaching others and growing.  These top shops aren’t always the mega-huge shops either.  They just have their act together.  They’ve climbed the ladder rung by rung and are still reaching for the next level.

Eighth Rung: Leadership.  Leaders take the position of “follow me”.  They are usually the driving force into what’s next.  Not only have these shops handled everything with aplomb, but at this level they give back to the industry by sharing their success with others.  Sharing “here’s what’s worked for me” helps others flatten out the learning curve and makes our industry stronger.  Want to know where this industry will be heading in a few years?  Take a tour of these guy’s shops and see what they are working on, what equipment they are trying out, what ink they are testing, what software are they goofing around with late at night.  They ask a lot of questions.  They listen to a lot of people.  Sharing information is important, as believe it or not, they are learning while they are teaching.  Often, the leaders in our industry are also leaders in their own communities too.  They sit on the school board, chamber of commerce, or volunteer with local philanthropies.  How do you start to become a leader?  It’s all about sharing your time, your knowledge, or your gifts without asking for anything in return.  Leaders just do it.

Ninth Rung: The Unknown.  This is the mystery that we all need to prepare for every day.  Nobody can predict the future, but you can have a better chance of success if you open yourself up to as many opportunities as possible.  Network with other people in other industries.  Get active on social media.  Volunteer.  Read.  Discover.  Get out there and enjoy life.  Be open to change.

At one point in time everyone wore hats.  These were made from beaver skins, silk, straw, fabric…all kinds of materials.  Think of English gentlemen, Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, cowboys, or even the typical 1940’s businessman.  Sure, people still wear hats now – but not like before when every single person had something on their head.  Like it or not, printing t-shirts is part of the fashion industry.  Anything could happen.  Cotton is already becoming a short supply commodity world-wide, digital printing is on the rise, governmental regulations are creeping into the industry, the minimum wage debate rages on…  Factors that you don’t have control of can influence your business and your future.  This is the unknown.  Are you ready for this rung on the ladder?

Vince Lombardi Was Wrong

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  That phrase has been closely associated with the legendary Green Bay Packer football coach, and often very widely quoted.  He supposedly used it as early as 1959 in his opening talk of training camp for the team.  Here in Wisconsin, publicly stating that the coach was anything less than perfect is tantamount to heresy and I’ll probably be tarred and feathered sometime next week.  Bring it.

My point is contextual in nature though.  Recently the company that I lead, Visual Impressions, was named a finalist in the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year awards.  There were thirty four companies that made it to the final list and in our category (Small 1 – 99 employees) there were a total of nine companies named.  The black-tie award dinner was fantastic, with Governor Scott Walker giving the keynote address.  It was the Academy Awards of companies that make stuff.

At the awards, right before they announced the winner in our division I reflected on all the great people that give tremendous effort daily at Visual Impressions.  Our talented and creative staff accomplishes more than just screen-printing or embroidering apparel all day.  They provide for their families.  As our customers aren’t just local, every order we ship drives the economic engine for this country.  Shirts that we have decorated are everywhere in the nation, and some even get shipped abroad.  You’ve seen them, you just don’t realize it.  Some of the shirts we’ve printed even have a higher purpose, such as the ones we printed after the Boston Marathon tragedy that raised a tremendous amount of money for the One Fund Boston. (Read my blog article about that experience here – When Lightning Strikes)

That’s how I know Coach Lombardi was wrong.  Winning truly isn’t everything.  It was ok in my heart when Tailored Label Products  won, and we watched them celebrate one table away.  (Congratulations to them – they are awesome by the way!)

Sure it was extraordinary to have Visual Impressions be acknowledged as one of the best run companies in the state.  That doesn’t hurt.  However, I know how incredibly hard our staff works to make Visual Impressions the leader in our industry.  It’s our daily journey that counts.  Our dedication to quality and continuously improving our process has led us to the success and growth we’ve achieved. 

It’s why we are a certified sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  Leading the decorated apparel industry in sustainability is part of our value proposition, and we leverage that fact every day when building our relationships with clients.

It’s why we participated in the very first ScaleUp Milwaukee program which was dedicated in developing the local Entrepreneur Ecosystem.  Getting out of our comfort zone and learning something new will pay off large dividends in the future.

It’s why we love participating in local non-profit fundraising events and activities.  Giving back matters.  It’s not all about you.

It’s why our customers turn to us in the first place.  There are tons of companies that can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo shirt.  Our customers know and appreciate the level of service and dedication to quality that we provide every day.  They constantly turn to us to help resolve some challenging order, or impossible request.  Hitting homeruns for them is a great feeling.

Well, I guess that’s enough chest thumping for now.  Whew.  I feel better too.  All the tuxedos and pretty dresses have been put away, and everyone is back to work.  We didn’t get to snake through the crowd, high-fiving everyone on the way.  I would have loved to hear owner Jay Berman’s speech thanking our staff, customers, vendors and friends.  I’m sure it was a good one.  We’re still the same company.  We’re still going to be giving 110% every day for our customers, striving to improve and learn something new.  Maybe next year our name will be called.  Until then…

Making Our T-shirt Shop Promotional Video – Lessons Learned

Before starting this article, check out our new shop video!  Here’s the link:  Visual Impressions Shop Video

As part of being named a Top Shop from Stitches magazine for the March 2014 issue, they asked us to submit a short video that illustrates Visual Impressions as a company.  Sounds easy, but once you get started it’s a daunting task; especially if you don’t have “movie making skills”.  Daryl Cardwell, our talented web master for Ink to the People and I were the main members of our staff selected to build the video.  We leaped at the chance to try to learn something new.  Soon afterwards, we met and brainstormed, and with some input from Todd Richheimer and Jay Berman, the company’s owners, we put together a game plan.  (Also a shout out here to Ross Brandt, a creative and knowledgeable source from Coil Media in Atlanta who gave me some great phone advice during the initial discovery phase)

By the end of the process, we had a great video, learned some valuable lessons and will definitely be doing more shop videos in our future!  I’m definitely not Martin Scorsese, but here’s a step by step outline of how we constructed the video, and some tips that might save you from making the same mistakes we made.

  1. Outline & Basics.  Our first thought was “what are we going to film”?  We discussed interviewing different staff members, and also filming multiple shots of things happening at Visual Impressions.  We also Googled tons of other shop’s videos, non-industry business videos and other sources to see what others had accomplished and give us a basic knowledge base.  The basis of every video we liked had some sort of narrative, some action shots of processes being completed, on-screen text to describe things, and an overall theme.  We had a series of meetings, and through those narrowed down some key elements that we wanted to discuss.  Our core concepts that we would use for the interview portion of the video were decided: Trust, Quality, & Dedication.  Tip: Do research. Watch what others have done. Find what you like and take note of it. Think about how it was done.
  2. Storyboard.  I spent some time storyboarding what we wanted to shoot, and working on arranging the sequence of shots.  For this I just scribbled out some notes and cartoons of people on individual Post-It-Notes.  I stuck these to the back wall in my office across from my desk.  From here, I would arrange and rearrange them to see if we could come to some sort of agreement on what we needed, and how it would come together.  Our goal was to keep it to a short video, and keeping it simple looked like it was going to be a challenge.  This is definitely harder than it looks.  Tip: Plan. Storyboard your ideas, and create a solid concept. Don’t just shoot and wing it.  Talking about what we wanted to do made the filming much, much easier.
  3. Equipment.  We wanted to do it cheaply, and by cheaply I mean with whatever equipment we had on hand at the time.  Other than our time, our budget was $0.  Nada.  We used our camera phones for some shots, but most of the filming was handled with an existing Nikon camera on a tripod.  Comparing shots from the phones vs the normal camera on the tripod, the tripod shots all looked better.  Tip: use a tripod if you can.  Shots are steadier, and easier to take.  If you don’t have a tripod, balance the camera on a box, ledge or something.
  4. Filming.  We decided that we wanted an interview style format.  I wrote a series of questions that we would ask different people in the shop.  The goal was to unearth authentic sound bites that we would use as transitions into video shots of different production processes in the shop.  If you watch the video, I’m off camera (except when I was interviewed by Daryl for my shots), doing this way I think gave the video a conversational feel, and a natural look for us.  We interviewed a lot more people than we used for the actual final video.  Judicious editing to get the video down to 3:30 was necessary.  I’m sure there are actors out there that will tell you their best work is on the cutting room floor too.  Tip: Check your memory card and battery life often.  We had to reshoot two interviews because our memory card on the camera was full and we didn’t realize it.  Also, when something like that happens….chalk it up to rookie mistakes and don’t worry about it.  It was actually kind of funny when it happened!

We took some test shots around the building to find a location that would work for sound and lighting.  This took an afternoon, as we tested a bunch of locations and then would run back to Daryl’s computer and review them.  We chose the couch in our lobby, because it had some great natural light and we liked the casual but modern feel.  Tip: Blocking and checking where you want to film before you start helps you understand how the final shots may appear.  It may also give you some much needed practice with the equipment (we sure needed it!!).

Overall, we filmed about 120 clips for the video.  There is a lot of footage we didn’t use, and Daryl did a great job editing and paring it all down to three and a half minutes.  Interviewing people was really fun, but the shots of the production processes were hilarious to make.  We had a great time thinking up camera angles and planning shots of things moving to make the video exciting.  Some of the shots were planned, but others were just us taking advantage of what was going on at the time.  Tip: If you are doing an employee interview style, try to get everyone to say or do something that was the same.  At the end of the video, we have all of our people smiling and getting up off the couch.  I actually asked everyone to “laugh and say something funny”.  At the time, nobody did anything funny and everyone just smiled and got off the couch.  It actually turned out to be a good way to end the video.  It was pure luck, but prompting an action was the catalyst.

  1.  Lessons Learned.   In a nutshell, here are our take-aways…
    1. Plan. Storyboard your ideas, and create a solid concept. Don’t just shoot and wing it.
    2. Know your strengths. Do what you know. If you are more suited talking in front of the camera, do it. If you enjoy shooting and editing, do that.
    3. Daryl imported all of the clips into iPhoto and used iMovie to edit it.  These were already on the Mac he had, so we didn’t purchase any special software.
    4. It only took about a day and half for filming, but over twice that for editing.  If you are under any time constraints, make sure you plan accordingly.
    5. Don’t go overboard on humor, graphics or transitions. It may be tempting to use a spiral cross-dissolve to transition scenes, but remember…less is more. Keep it simple and professional.
    6. Don’t buy background music.  There is a ton of free and well organized clip sites.  Just do a Google search.
    7. We learned that even if you do a sound check, you won’t know the sound levels for each interviewee.  After we finished we went out and spent about $10 for a lapel microphone for next time.
    8. Review your footage several times to see where the good stuff is before starting to edit.
    9. Check your camera battery and memory card often.
    10. Take some test footage to get familiar with the equipment, software and different camera angles.
    11. Don’t use everything you shoot. Shoot a lot and pick the best clips.
    12. Shoot as high quality as you can. You can always make it smaller when you need to.

Well, that’s about it!!  I hope you enjoyed our video and admittedly beginner’s effort.  Like the former art director in me says, “Done is better than perfect.”  If you do try to tackle this, post your video below and let’s share the experiences so others may benefit!  You can also always e-mail me at for more information or help.