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

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.