Where It All Goes


Curiosity got the best of me the other day.  I wanted to know what happens to the material when our recycling partner, Pioneer Industries, picks up from Visual Impressions and hauls it away.  Pioneer has been an integral part of our sustainability program for over a year now.  It was difficult getting a recycler to help with our program, as even though we are a large apparel decorator, we are small potatoes in the manufacturing sense in Milwaukee.  It was all a volume deal.

That was before I met Marty Oxman with Pioneer Industries.  A second generation recycler, the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding secondary materials, and is extremely keen on helping companies achieve their sustainability goals through recycling.  My goal was to get a recycling program off the ground, and make it easy for our staff to do the work.  The idea was to move as much material we could through a recycling program, and have it not go to landfill via our dumpsters.  Pioneer helps us with that task, as they provide, for free, large bins called gaylords that we fill with different materials.  We have these all over the shop, segregated by the material and within a few easy steps for our staff.  They also give us the big 90 gallon totes with wheels that are commonly used for your trash pick-up at your home, which we put to good use as well.

The gaylords have a decent size to them, and there are two kinds.  One is a made from heavy duty plastic, and comes with a lid that can be placed on the box for closing.  Then these become stackable.  We’ve found that we like to use them for our polybag remnants and assorted mixed paper.  We polybag our folded shirts for our clients, so they can be handed out easily or presented nicely to their customers.  The remnants are from the automatic machine that closes and heat seals the bag, and produces a small 2” x 8” scrap of clear plastic.  As we have four of these machines churning out product all day, we generate a lot of these little plastic scraps.  The mixed paper is all the general paper that you would think a busy operation like Visual Impressions would generate.  Any type of paper can be segregated into this bin.  Some good examples that a lot of people just throw away is the waxy backing from shipping labels from your Zebra printer, or the tissue paper insert that comes layered inside button-down shirts that you have to remove before you can start the embroidery.

The other type of gaylord is a little larger and is made from thick cardboard.  In these cardboard bins, we disassemble and place all of our scrap cardboard.  We try to reuse boxes when we can, but a good number of these get bent, torn or arrive to us in pretty bad shape.  Some clients prefer to ship their orders out in their own boxes too.  Any cardboard such as collar stays from polos or dress shirts, dividers, or inserts gets chucked into this bin as well.  Despite reusing boxes constantly for shipments, it is still amazing how quickly these cardboard gaylords fill up.

The 90 gallon totes are used for recycling smaller items such as aluminum soda cans, plastic bottles and strapping, glass, metal shipping banding, wickets and small parts.  We have these judiciously placed all over the shop, near where the material is usually generated, but out of the way enough that people can still work.  These totes take longer to fill, but using them is an easier way to divide up the materials, and makes it more convenient for our staff to do the right thing when the big gaylord is too large to fit into a work area.

When any of these containers are full, we pull them out of the line and bring them all to one spot in the building and replace the full container with an empty and start over.  We’ve worked a convenient schedule out with Pioneer, and they pick-up every Wednesday and haul off usually 12-16 gaylords of material a week.  Visual Impressions started our partnership with Pioneer in March of 2013, and as of today (June 28, 2014) we’ve recycled 44.17 tons of material.  This is all stuff that isn’t going to our local landfill.  Are we 100% zero waste and landfill free?  Not yet, as we still have that dreaded embroidery stabilizer challenge to contend with; but you have to start somewhere.  (See “You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit” for more details on that challenge)

Knowing all this you can see why I might be curious as to what happens to all this stuff after the truck pulls away each Wednesday.  Marty graciously accepted my “invite myself over” tour, and provided an excellent overview of his operation.  So, when his friendly driver Jim backed the semi-truck into one of our shipping docks and our crew loaded up our materials, I pulled my car around and followed him back to Pioneer.

The first surprise was that it was only about five miles away.  Nestled between an aging old Milwaukee neighborhood and a spaghetti maze of train tracks, Pioneer Industries occupies several large, rambling buildings.  I pulled in and parked, and as I was doing that the truck was slowly gliding onto a large truck scale.  Marty told me later that this is one method on how they verify the weights for the material for each load.  All of the material that is unloaded is weighed individually on smaller scales in the building so they can send us a documented report after each pick-up, but weighing the truck when it comes in ensures that it all adds up correctly later.  This is how we know exactly how much of each material type we’ve sent in for processing.

After I parked, I walked around the building and found the front door.  I was buzzed in, and Marty greeted me and issued me my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – hard hat, brightly colored ANSI safety vest, and eye protection.  Walking through the rabbit-warren like maze inside the Pioneer buildings, I was impressed on how many different types of material they actually handle.  If you didn’t know, Milwaukee is one of the largest printing industry communities in the country, and Pioneer handles a lot of their scrap paper, cardboard and other printed waste that is discarded after the manufacturing process.  Each of these different types of printed material scraps are baled, banded and segregated by type into huge stacks of material.  Once they reach a full trailer load, these are shipped out for processing to become new sheets of paper, cardboard, plastic or other material.

Pioneer has a staff of fourteen people, and they were all busy working while we toured.  Numerous forklifts and bobcat tractors were nimbly moving material around and into balers.  Other staff were checking in materials and grading them, or getting a shipment loaded so it reach its final destination and be recycled.  Lots of clipboards, finger and arm gestures and really heavy stuff being moved around with coordinated effort.  It’s a ballet really, just without music.

Based on my observation, paper and cardboard is the majority substrate that they handle, which is segregated by type as the material comes arrives.  In one large area they have cordoned off a bunch of different bays made with large, heavy concrete blocks.  Each bay is about the width of a small garage, and contains a large pile of a different type of paper or cardboard.  From flimsy loose newsprint that is obtained from our Milwaukee newspaper, to thicker printed cardboard scraps that comes from local printing houses, all of the material is piled up like leaves in your front yard in the fall.

Once the pile gets large enough, it is scooped up with the tractors and placed on an enormous conveyor belt that feeds a 20 foot high baler.  The belt is about six feet wide at least, and an amazing amount of material travels up the belt and into the hopper bin at one time.  The baler squeezes out the compressed material into bales about as big as your couch, but square in shape, and I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a gargantuan Play-doh pumper set that I had when I was a kid.  They stack the bales by type of material in another huge room, and just patiently wait for the collection to grow until it reaches the point it can fill a semi-truck trailer.  It is then shipped off.  Some material is easily processed, as it is very common and there is a known pipeline.  Other material, such as paper that has foil or adhesive on it, is harder to find an avenue for processing.  Eventually it all goes somewhere though.

It was surprising to me that some recycled materials actually go overseas, not processed domestically.  Marty showed me a gigantic wall of spice-bags.  These bales were made of former industrial sized bags of food spices.  Heavy thick brown paper on the outside, but lined with a plastic bag on the inside.  Separating the two materials isn’t something that is handled anywhere but China.  Once they get enough to fill the truck, these get shipped off to join many others and will go overseas for processing.  Evidently over there the labor is cheap enough that these are pulled apart by hand for recycling.  The paper goes in one direction, the plastic in another.

As I was driving back to my office at Visual Impressions, I reflected back on my time spent at Pioneer Industries.  Finding value in the materials that previously we were discarding is something that is pretty amazing.  In fact, Marty and I had a good discussion on the fact that there is a tremendous movement afoot in the world for actually “mining” previously manufactured or processed materials for the core elements that have value.  Not everything can be saved obviously, but unlocking the minerals, metals, and other substances is big business these days.  When our sustainability committee identified recycling and trying to get to just 50% savings to landfill as our targeted goal for work this year for SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership), we had a difficult time finding a recycling partner that made the work easy on our end.  After all, we’re in the decorated apparel industry…not the move stuff around, and sift through trash industry.  Building a recycling program is hard work, but finding a company that gives you tools, makes it easy and values customer service makes that chore a little easier.  I’m very happy that we were able to start our sustainability journey and build a great relationship with a partner like Marty Oxman and Pioneer Industries.


Educating Your Customers


Let’s face it, as members of the apparel decoration community we produce items that a lot of people don’t have a clue about how they were made.  What does it take to screen-print, digitally print or embroider a shirt?  What about heat press names and numbers or even adding that rhinestone bling to a garment?  I’m sure you have probably given a shop tour and the phrase afterward was “Wow, I never knew how complicated this was!” or similar.  I just gave a shop tour to a potential client who told me he knew all about how shirts were printed.  During the walk through it was apparent that he didn’t know what a flash unit was, or why it was used on press.  He had been buying t-shirt printing for years with another printer, and somehow never asked or was never shown!   It was an epiphany for him…now he understood that price list phrase.  “Three colors on darks with a flash”.

Your customer base is the lifeblood of your business.  They trust you for professional guidance and knowledge as you are the expert.  As experts, we can position ourselves to teach our customers about the industry, and strengthen our relationship with them.  This is a tool you can use to sell beyond the price list.  Below are a few ways that you can use that to grow your influence and increase your sales:

Demonstrate your knowledge – website, video, blogs, Pinterest, presentations, prepared information kits

It’s not enough these days to just hang a sign above your door and wait for customers to just stroll in.  You have to reach out and engage them to attract new business.  A key part of that is demonstrating your expertise.  This can be achieved any number of ways, but the main purpose of that effort is to forward the thought that your company are the experts to turn to when it comes to decorated apparel.  So what’s the best method to do that?  Simple – any method that works.

The most basic form of communication for your shop needs to be some informative “one-pagers” that have the information required regarding orders.  For example, you could write and design a sheet regarding art that include facts about how to submit art files, acceptable file formats, the difference between vector and raster files, general placement and sizing guidelines for locations, or any number of items.  Others could be how you are handling the CPSIA requirements, sustainability program, or other compliance issues.  The idea here is to get the processes and procedures that your shop uses down on paper, professionally designed and branded for your shop, and ready to deliver to your customer.  String a bunch of these together as a multiple page .pdf and call it your “New Customer Information Packet”.  Customers ask you for this information all the time already.  Do you have all of their answers prepared?  How many times could you avoid getting art files sent to you in Word if your customers had this information before they placed their order?  Having the basic information regarding doing business with your shop prepared and ready to disseminate is the bare minimum that is expected to set you up as an expert.  Have all of your documents designed using some branding guidelines for your shop too.

Another way you can demonstrate your knowledge is with pictures.  Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words; so what do you think a collection of pictures might be worth?  This can easily be handled just with your camera phone as you work.  Take interesting shots of different aspects around your shop.  Try to capture people doing the work, different types of jobs, inks used, equipment and the steps it takes to produce anything.  I like to upload my shots about once a week or so to a Pinterest board called “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop”.   Once a month I push out the link on social media, and I get a good number of hits.  It’s like giving a couple dozen shop tours.  When I talk to new customers (or even old ones) about something on the phone or e-mail, I’ll forward the link and call out attention to a particular shot that is applicable to the conversation.  We also have this board linked to the Visual Impressions website on the About Us page.

How does your website look?  Is it clean and easy to navigate?  Educating potential customers with your webpage is a good place to start.  Typically, this might be the first place where someone looks after they’ve started an online search for apparel decoration companies.  They are looking for someone to hand their business to.  Many shops just have a placeholder type webpage that offers little information.  Why?  Put yourself in your customer’s shoes.  Pretend you have a 500 piece order for a company outing coming up at the end of the month.  Two locations, 1 color front, 8 color back and they want to use four different neon colored shirts.  If they went to your website could they tell if you are capable of doing that work?  Can they see past examples with pictures or a portfolio?  Is there a capabilities list to see if you could run the 8 color job?  Could they get a quote online, or is there information on who to contact?  Your customers judge you by your website every single day.  The reason your phone isn’t ringing or your inbox isn’t full could be from this reason alone.  I’m a curious guy, and I like to look up other apparel company’s websites.  Some are outstanding; some are extremely dated; some leave you with the wonder if they are still in business.  Your website could be one of the main points of contact with your customers, and full of information they can obtain about your company.

Nothing beats giving real shop tours too.  If you have customers in the building, I would highly advise walking them around and showing them how you create and produce all of your amazing designs every day.  Talk about their job or order, but show them how it will be produced and even who might be doing it.  Think of it as small ten minute presentations.  If you can, weave in something about their upcoming order or personal interest into your discussion.  I like to have visitors touch a hot and freshly printed shirt coming off the dryer belt, or hand them a neatly folded and polybagged t-shirt.  In embroidery, it is fun to watch them be amazed at how fast the needles on a row of embroidery heads can blur into a row of logos on a polo shirt or baseball hat.  These are the experiences that move people beyond thinking of you as a commodity, and moving you into the realm of trusted partner.  You have to take the time to do this!!

Teaching sells – people don’t want pushy, they want to be educated.  How can you solve the customer’s problem?

Everyone has their pain points.  These are the challenges that people are facing, and if you show and teach them how to solve the problem by working with your company, then you have just gained another long-term client.  The shops that sell only on price and just scream discount, discount, discount don’t have any value to offer so this is the only song they can sing.  The value that you bring is your experience and creative knowledge base on how to solve your customer’s challenges.  You become a trusted partner the instant you solve that problem.

Sometimes it is about the garment.  “I need ANSI certified safety shirts for my landscaping company.”  Sometimes it’s about timing.  “I need 24 t-shirts for an important client presentation on Thursday – Help!”  Sometimes it is about the art.  “I’ve started a new company and need employee uniforms.”  Sometimes it will make you smile “My last printer botched the job on these performance tees for our gym – everything turned pink”.

You get the idea.  Each one of those examples above is an opportunity for you to educate your customer on something about your company, and how/why you can handle the job for them.  Start with educating your customer by offering not only the solution to their present challenge, but maybe even an array of possibilities that they haven’t thought of yet.  Will working with you open their eyes to a new realm of possibilities?  Show them the difference between you and that other shop down the street, or better yet being an anonymous customer from an online t-shirt platform.

Keep it simple.  Don’t overwhelm.  One item at a time.  Educate for learning – No sales pitch

Make it easy for your customer to gain the knowledge that they are seeking.  It’s important to share things, but keep it simple and brief.  People will ask follow up questions, ask to stop by for a visit, or maybe indicate that they would like to see more if they are interested.  If you are e-mailing them a quote, be sure to include your new customer information packet, and one or two of the one pagers regarding your company.  We also like to include a .pdf of an article or two about our shop, and the link to the Pinterest board.  This gives them the information that they are requesting, with a little more, but doesn’t overwhelm anyone like a crazy used car salesman pitch.

If a customer is placing an order for a decoration method that they aren’t used to, for example placing a direct to garment order, you can use this as an opportunity to discuss that type of decoration method.  How is it different from standard screen-printing?  What are the advantages or disadvantages?  Why is the pricing different?  If they are in your shop, you might show them how a print is made using both DTG and traditional screen-printing, so they can see the difference.  By simply focusing on educating your customer, you are setting not only this order up for success but for all the other future orders from this same customer as they will develop a relationship with you based on the trust earned from your short educational tour.  These are the interactions that build a large stable of repeat customers that are value based.

Social Media – Broadcast what you are up to.

If you haven’t already written a social media marketing plan for your shop, I would suggest finding the time soon.  One of the things that can be a key part of your social media outreach is just simply showing what’s happening in your shop.  You can’t just constantly yell “Sale!!” and expect anybody to listen.  Those get deleted almost instantly if they haven’t unsubscribed from you already.  Instead offer them some interesting tidbits about your shop.  Cooking out on a Friday?  Show the grill and post an invite to drop by for some lunch.  Printing on an unusual location or for some big event in town?  Show the shirts coming down the belt.  You have to make your social media posts interesting and relevant.  Avoid screaming how cheap you are, and instead focus on your quality, technical ability, craftsmanship and capabilities.  Nobody knows that you can print with metallic ink or offer embroidery unless you show them.

The key is to share not only the business end of things, but make it fun and interesting.  Your customers are people too, and they will react positively if you show them how your shop dresses up for Halloween or participates in the charity walk event.  While you are doing that, you can show them that you know how to print purple gel ink on a cuff, sew puff logos on hats, foil on some fleece, heat press numbers for a soccer team, or print a logo on a stack of iPads.  It’s up to you to push out the content.  So what are you waiting for?  Start teaching!


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 matkinson4804@gmail.com for more information or help.

2014 ISS Long Beach Wrap Up

Marshall HollywoodSixteen degrees and snowing…  That was the weather in Milwaukee when I left for the sunny, and high seventies/low eighties weather of Long Beach, California for this years Imprinted Sportswear Show.  If anyone needed a reason to jet out and check out what’s the latest from hundreds of vendors and trade experts; that just might be the best.

From my perspective though, this year’s largest apparel decorator event kicked off 2014 in a big way.  Crowds were not only huge, but overwhelmingly optimistic on their business outlook for this upcoming year.  I spoke with printers, shop owners, vendors and industry media, and everyone was pointing to this year being a great one.  Let me tell you, that is really encouraging.  Why?  Well, it’s been my experience that sometimes this industry puts on the “doom and gloom hat” and that’s one party favor that’s sometimes hard to take off.

From the shop perspective, the dozens of folks that I spoke with were all on the hunt for something special for their company.  New equipment, the latest styles of apparel blanks, ink, chemicals, emulsion, screen-frames, embroidery, heat transfer, dye-sub, applique, shop supplies…you name it, they had it on the floor.  It was great bumping into long time industry friends and making new ones.  I had a huge list of people that I wanted to see, but if I missed you – I just flat ran out of time (or I came by your booth and you were too swamped)!!

For the third year running, I taught a class on Sustainability and how shops can lower their operating costs by adopting a better strategy for running their companies.  The turnout was great, with 30 some-odd people in the class, but the interaction from the group was better.  It is always wonderful when people open up and share, and I am very thankful that these people took time out of their day to learn something new. (Thanks!!)  Adopting a Sustainability program has proven that you can do the right thing, while operating with bigger profits.  If you took my class – I’m still challenging you to start your program and work towards getting your Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) certification!!  www.sgppartnershp.org

So what were my show highlights from the floor?  I’m not going to name everyone that I spoke with (who would want to read that?)  But maybe some of the experiences stand out…here goes (in no particular order):

1.  Loved the huge booth for the alphabroder rebranding, not to mention the great live model catwalk with the latest fashions.   It was a good splash!!

2.  Catching up with Bill Hood hanging out in the Action Engineering booth.  That guy still knows everything.

3.  Was it me or were there less dye-sub machines on the floor than last year?  I swear at the 2013 show, you couldn’t turn around without seeing another “entry-level” dye-sub machine available.  That’s still a great process, but I just don’t want to see every yahoo around starting a t-shirt decorating business in their dining room.

4.  Speaking of technology and equipment, I’m really excited to see where the new developments with some major equipment manufacturers will ripple down and inspire others.

a.  Kornit’s Avalanche Hexa printer is a 6 color direct to garment printer that features the traditional CMYK channels, plus an additional red and green channels for an extended color gamut.  Visual Impressions already owns an Avalanche, so we are intimately knowledgeable about the blazing speed and color control of this series printer, but having Hexachrome based process printing really adds something to the mix.

b.  M&R’s new direct to screen printer with the LED exposure unit is still knocking everyone’s socks off.  Debuted at the 2013 SGIA show in Orlando, the company’s dedicated showroom for this product was standing room only all weekend.  It’s great to see sustainable technology improving existing equipment.  Why was everyone interested?  You can image a full size sep on a screen and expose it in under one minute.  I timed it with my art, so that’s no foolin’.  Couple that speed with not having the huge electricity hog that is an exposure table, and that’s a big winner.

5.  Loved discussing sustainability with everyone on the show floor.  Very impressed with PolyOne, as they were out in front with their marketing on the subject.  (Also very happy that they are committed to being a patron for SGP for 2014 – great job!!)

6.  Good seeing Rodney Blackwell with TShirtForums.com – that’s one cool cat!

7.  Ink Kitchen – Tom Davenport and Rick Roth have a new adventure starting for this industry.  Stopped by their booth for a chat, and Tom asked me to help contribute some content this year towards their effort!!  Happy to help.  Good job guys…  http://theinkkitchen.com/

8.  Two things really intrigued my sustainability class, and they are worth a mention as there was some good discussion regarding these topics…

a.  SmartWasher – the latest in squeegee cleaner – parts washer development.  Replace that parts washer you get from Safety Kleen with a new sustainable technology called “bio-remediation”.  Essentially this is a process where microbes suspended in a fluid eat your excess ink when you clean them in this washer.  Their branded process is called “Ozzy Juice”.  It’s far cheaper than how most shops do this, and a lot safer.  www.chemfree.com  – there’s a free 30 day trial available.

b.  How Visual Impressions has virtually eliminated the use of masking tape with our screens.  I wrote about this in the April edition of Impressions (“Making Economic Sense of Sustainability” – http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/nielsen/impressions_201204/#/56).  If you are using static frames, we outsource ours from a company called Graphic Screen Fashion, as they have a Screen Sealant process where they border the frame where you would put the tape and then caulk the edge between the mesh and the frame.  Frank and his crew were at the show, and they actually had a copy of the article on the table.  http://www.graphicscreenfashion.com/

9.  Got to chat for a bit with Marci Kinter from SGIA.  I’m ready for next month’s SGIA Leadership Meeting in Ft. Lauderdale.  Yep, another chance to leave the snow and work where it’s sunny and beautiful.  (Watch it rain now…)

10.  Had a great time at the Thursday night official “unofficial” meet-up.  Over twenty or so folks showed up and discussed everything under the sun over wings and beer.  Many thanks to Greg Kitson for help organizing, and to everyone that stopped by!!  Awesome!!

11.  Loved talking to people and they tell me that they read my blog or articles in Impressions!!  Thank you very much for taking the time to read my musings…I love it.  I just want to help people in this industry.  It’s wonderful to get feedback and expand on ideas that I’ve shared previously.  One of the benefits is always learning a different aspect of something that I’ve worked on or struggled to resolve.

12.  That PolyOne party Friday night was awesome!  Now that’s how you throw down.  Just curious how everyone was able to work the booth on Saturday morning…

13.  (it’s lucky!!)  January is already almost over.  How’s your year going so far?  2014 is going to be a great year for this industry I can feel it.  Maybe I’m just an optimist though.  I know there are some companies that are struggling, and want or need to improve now.  Need some help?  Contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s talk about how I can help you achieve your goals.

2013 Work Sets Up Goals for 2014

First, thank you for reading my blog!!  I appreciate your time and hope that I have contributed something valuable for you.

So the year 2013 has finally come to a close, and like a lot of people there is some time for some introspection.  All in all, it was a good year.  I owe a lot of accomplishments to my great support team at work (Visual Impression’s awesome staff) and my family at home (wife Jody and son Jack).  Without them, I’m really just a squirrel in a cage running on the wheel by myself.  Some highlights below:

1. Blog.  My goal this year for the blog was to build readership through the use of social media and write at least one blog article a week aimed at the decorated apparel industry.  Using the WordPress analytics tool, I’d say my goal was an outstanding success.  For 2012 I averaged 1 reader per day, and only had 291 readers for the entire year.  Granted, I rarely posted and never really marketed the site so even that number is surprising.  2013 however, was a different story.  I averaged 32 readers a day and had 12,000+ readers for the year.  My record readership for one day was 452.  8,572 readers were from the US, but other readers were from 118 different countries.  Top five blog articles were:

Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined

When You Are Up To Your Ass In Alligators

When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts

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

10 Creativity Tips for T-shirt Designers

2. Impressions Magazine Contributions.  I have really enjoyed my relationship with Impressions Magazine.  This year, I had a lot of fun writing pieces for the magazine or their newsletter.  Just recently I also put together a video Tech Tips for them (the last one on the list below) which was another enjoyable challenge.  In my mind’s eye, I don’t really think of myself as a writer but between these contributions and my blog, it’s proven to be a good outlet for me.  Here are the links to the pieces from this year:

Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop

Secrets to Rush Order Success

Key Traits for Customer Service & Sales Teams

Key Traits for Your Art Department

Key Traits for Your Receiving and Shipping Departments

20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

Key Traits for Your Screen Room

Beat the Heat: 20 Tips for Hot Market Printing

A Social Media Game Plan for Apparel Decorators

Key Traits for Screen Printing Press Operators

Multi-Media Decoration of Color Blocked Hoodies

3. Boston Strong.  The tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon and how two college students responded using our Ink to the People website (www.inktothepeople.com) proved that there is indeed hope for this world.  My blog article summed up the initial reaction (When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong T-shirts ) but it didn’t end there.  Since then, they have raised almost a $1,000,000 for the One Fund Boston and they are still going!  I am very proud to be associated with this inspiring effort.  Check them out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/StayStrongBostonStrong.  If you haven’t already, buy a shirt!!

4. Sustainability.  The idea of focusing a better way of manufacturing (printing) for business has proven to be a great platform for me to use at Visual Impressions and beyond.  At Visual Impressions, we’ve lowered our operating costs significantly by focusing our efforts into four core objectives: Energy Reduction, Materials (Ink, Chemicals, & Supplies), Courier (local deliveries), and Trash/Recycling.  If you are in the apparel decorating industry and haven’t started a sustainability journey, I urge you to look into it.  It’s a fantastic way to build margin, while doing things better for the planet.  How can you lose?  Some key highlights for sustainability for 2013 include:

a.  Speaking at ISS Long Beach again on “Sustainability – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle AND Lower Your Operating Expenses”.  I’m giving the same talk again this year – but with new and updated information.  Register for it at http://tinyurl.com/loms9eu.

b.  Speaking at SGIA 2013 in Orlando on “Sustainability Pays Back” – this was a great show, and I even had a client in the audience!

c.  Panelist at the 2013 Wisconsin Sustainable Business Conference for the “Profit in Sustainability” breakout session.  You can view the recorded panel discussion here – http://tinyurl.com/k7cquot

d.  Last but not least, being named to the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Board of Directors in December.  Being part of SGP on a national level is a great honor for me and I’m very proud to be working for them to advance sustainability in the printing business.  With Visual Impressions obtaining the certification, that makes two companies that I’ve captained through the process directly.   www.sgppartnership.org

5.  Fitness.  On a personal level, I started going to the local YMCA on a weekly basis.  I’m averaging 3 or 4 visits a week, depending on my schedule.  I’m certainly not getting any younger (turning 50 in 2014) and going to the gym has been a great release and outlet for me.  I love listening to Spotify while I workout.

a. Ran and finished my first 5k run ever!  The Dragon Dash 5k for my son’s school was great!  http://www.thedragondash.com/

b.  On Thanksgiving I ran and completed the 4 Mile Turkey Trot in Memphis with members of my family, despite the 22 degree weather.  http://memphisturkeytrot.racesonline.com/  It was very challenging for this old guy, but I finished 1987 out of 3100 runners, and 105 in my age group!  Happy not to be last.  A few days before this race I ran over 5 miles in Memphis on their Green Line – it was super!!  http://greatermemphisgreenline.com/

c.  Visual Impressions had a Biggest Loser competition.  We had 10 teams of 4 people compete to see who could lose the biggest percentage of weight by the week following Thanksgiving. It was a wonderful experience and a lot of fun.  My team came in 2nd place, and I lost almost 6% of my body weight during the competition.  At the final weigh in I was down to 208 pounds.  Thanks YMCA!!

6.  ScaleUp Milwaukee.  Visual Impressions participated in a fantastic entrepreneurial program called ScaleUp Milwaukee (www.scaleupmilwaukee.org).  The goal of the program is to develop skills and critical thinking with existing businesses to grow their business in the following year.  I wrote a blog article that better describes the classes, Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee.  Our goal for 2014 – 18% growth.  It is a big, hairy and certainly achievable goal.  Anxious to see how it pans out!!

7.  Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Nomination.  Here’s a great Visual Impressions team award!!  Of the 34 companies nominated only 9 are small businesses like Visual Impressions.  The winner will be announced in February 2014.  http://www.wmc.org/news/breaking-news/2013-wisconsin-manufacturer-of-the-year-award-nominees-revealed/

8.  Having our Visual Impression’s team achieve the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership Certification (License Certification ID: 0413-1364915293), this was a year’s worth of effort and some outstanding improvement for the company.  The certification is with an independent third party audit; and achieving the certification has allowed us to market our company and acquire new client’s with our efforts.  Being an industry leader is a good thing…

9.  Finally finding a company in Milwaukee for Visual Impressions to partner with for our recycling…only interviewed 6 or 7 companies…  Pioneer International makes it incredibly easy and since March of 2013 we have recycled 26.9 tons of cardboard, paper, plastic and metal.  www.pioneerintl.com

So what professional goals are targeted for 2014?  Here’s the list so far:

1.  Major participation with the SGP Board of Directors.  My goal is to represent the decorated apparel industry with this group and get more printers, suppliers and industry media involved.  I already have one supplier, PolyOne committed to becoming a major sponsor. (Thank You!!) If you want to learn more and can help, please contact me and let’s discuss why you should get involved!

2.  SGIA Leadership Committee.  I will be traveling to Ft. Lauderdale in February for the committee meetings and looking forward to serving on the garment decorating and sustainability committees.

3.  More public speaking events on Sustainability.  I’m already slated for the ISS Long Beach show, but am also participating at the Manufacturing Matters conference in Milwaukee at a breakout session on the business value of sustainability – http://www.manufacturingmatters.org/sessions/sustainability-driven-business-value

4.  Recycling – Embroidery Stabilizer.  This is the backing material that we use to keep the embroidery secure on the garment.  Currently there isn’t a way to recycle this material.  This is a project that I’ve believe will change the embroidery industry if we can find a way to recycle this material on a broader scale.  Embroidery shops all across the nation are throwing this material away and it’s all going to landfill.  At Visual Impressions, we fill two 8 yard dumpsters a week with this stuff.  The problem is that it costs more to transport the material to be recycled than what it is ultimately worth.  If you have an idea on how this material can be used, or if you are currently recycling it I’d love to hear from you!!

5.  Social Media growth and networking.  I’ve spent a good deal of effort growing this part of my personal branding and it’s paying off every day.  If you are not connected with me currently, I’d love to network with you to share ideas and learn from each other.  Here are my major channels:

LinkedIn – www.linkedin.com/in/marshallatkinson/

Twitter – www.twitter.com/atkinsontshirt/

Pinterest – www.pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/

Blog – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/

6.  Visual Impressions.  As stated previously here, we are all about growth…but this growth has to make sense and be beneficial to both parties.  We want to be your trusted apparel decorator that you can turn to for any order or program.  We are currently adding personnel, equipment and infrastructure to accommodate the growth and get ready for 2014.  It’s an exciting time to be in this industry as there are a lot of new technologies emerging.  Contact me and let me know how we can help you with your success!  marshall@visualimp.com or (414) 379-6231.

7.  Fitness.  Keep working out weekly and have my weight consistently under 210.  I’d like to run in at least two 5k runs and one 10k run this year.  I’m considering this a professional goal, as my improved fitness has helped me daily with my work goals.  I do a lot of thinking while I’m running or sweating my butt off in the gym.  More than one blog article was “pre-written” while doing laps or grunting through some reps with weights.

8.  Professional Networking.  It’s great to share experiences and stories with others.  Learning and growing are always on the forefront of my mind.  Let’s learn together!

9.  More articles published in industry trade magazines.  I’m still going to write for Impressions, but I’ve also have been asked to contribute to Wearables Magazine and Stitches Magazine this year.  I’m on their Advisory Boards as well.  I’m writing my first piece for Wearables right now!

10.  Be a great husband and father.  Really this should be my number one goal, but it’s a personal one too so it’s good to end the list with this one.  Since working for Visual Impressions I’ve come to appreciate a better work/life balance than what was my daily life in Florida.  The grass is greener over the fence sometimes…   I love you Jody & Jack!!

Promoting Sustainability for T-shirt Shops – 2014 and Beyond

ATKINSON SPEAKING SUSTAINABILITY 3This has been a big week for me.  Let’s recap and then get to some information that you can use to improve your business.

On Wednesday I was elected to the Board of Directors for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership at their annual meeting in Chicago.  (www.sgppartnership.org)  As someone who has successfully navigated two large t-shirt printing shops through the maze of third party audits and certification, it’s apparent that I’m all in on how sustainability can be an incredibly positive idea for businesses (not to mention margin builder).   I’m extremely honored and proud to serve on the board and represent the apparel decorating industry…I’m still smiling about it!  These guys rock!!

On Friday I helped the 6th annual Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council Conference by serving on an expert panel entitled “The Profit in Sustainability” in one of their morning breakout sessions.  (http://www.wisconsinsustainability.com/annual-conference/)  This was a wonderful event hosted by Lands’ End in Dodgeville, Wisconsin on their beautiful campus.  (Yes, we did the tour – very impressive)  The conference was dedicated to how all businesses in Wisconsin should be pursuing sustainable choices, and there was plenty of discussion on how, where and why.  One thing that became very obvious is that companies are using their sustainability programs as a competitive advantage to gain market share more frequently than ever before.  There is an expectation now that companies should be sustainable, and if you are not something is wrong.  It is a differentiator for sales choices.

So let’s share what I discussed in my session, “The Profit in Sustainability”.  In a nutshell I reviewed the process from starting our sustainability program at Visual Impressions when I started there in late 2011, some areas of focus, and our current direction today.  We keep tabs on basically four cost items: Our Energy (Electricity, Natural Gas, Water, & Propane), our Courier (We use a courier service for local deliveries to our clients), our Ink and Consumables (Ink, emulsion, chemicals, boxes, and other necessary supplies), and our Trash.

2011 (Baseline year – before starting anything) = cost per imprint $0.12

$530,450.72 (Energy + Courier + Ink & Consumables + Trash) spent to produce 4,407,767 impressions

2012 (Sustainability program started) = cost per imprint $0.08

$443,263.03 (Energy + Courier + Ink & Consumables + Trash) spent to produce 5,193,543 impressions

2013 (YTD with two weeks left) = cost per imprint $0.065

$360,386.08 (Energy + Courier + Ink & Consumables + Trash) spent to produce 5,495,984 impressions

We started our recycling program in March and to date have recycled 24.9 tons of cardboard, plastic, paper & metal

As you can easily see, our hard cost normalized by the work performed drops, while we are actually getting busier.  This entire effort goes straight to the bottom line.  So what are we doing that you are not?  Here are a few things that I highly recommend:

  1. Start a Sustainability Committee with your staff and get going!  Discuss what you can do, divide up the work, set due dates on a calendar, and get some momentum started by taking some first steps.  Make it fun, and set some clear expectations and goals.
  2. Get an Energy Audit.  Your local utility will come out (usually for free) and examine your building and give you a grocery list of things you can do to conserve energy.  This will have immediate payback if you take their advice.
  3. Examine how you operate in your shop.  Your workflow, your purchasing decisions, the Cost of Poor Quality, virtually every facet of your shop can have an effect on your bottom line.  Sustainability isn’t a buzzword about saving trees, it’s about doing things better and more responsibly.   Two words: Continuous Improvement.
  4. Fix or replace broken or problematic equipment.  Upgrade if you can.  New technology operates faster, more efficiently, and often with less energy than older models.  Sure, that old piece of junk is paid for…but there is a cost to keeping it too.  How many more impressions, printed at less cost could you obtain with newer equipment?
  5. Talk to your vendors.  What choices can they give you to operate more sustainably and at less cost?
  6. Check out the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) for guidance and best industry practices for developing your Sustainability Program and the benefits of obtaining certification.  www.sgppartnership.org

If you want more detail and a step by step on how we did it a Visual Impressions you can sign up for my talk at ISS Long Beach 2014 “Sustainability: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle AND Lower Your Operation Expenses” on Friday, January 17, 8:30 to 10:00 am.  It’s an hour and a half discussion jam-packed with tips, photos, suggestions and helpful ideas.  Come and learn and then walk the show!  Click here to register: http://tinyurl.com/loms9eu

As always, you can always feel free to use me as a resource if you need some advice, mentoring or as a consultant.  Reach out to me at matkinson4804@gmail.com.  Also, I’d love for you to leave a comment below on what you are doing in your shop, any new products or techniques that you are using, or any question on sustainability that you might have!

Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Two Heads Are Better Than One – What About Twelve?

This past week Visual Impressions has been participating in a pilot business development program here in Milwaukee entitled either “Scalerator” or “Scale Up Milwaukee”.  (http://scaleupmilwaukee.org/)  I feel incredibly privileged to be part of this fantastic event, and thought a brief update on this initiative would make a good blog article for this week.

The concept from Dan Isenberg was simple.  Many business pundits and experts are constantly focusing their attention on startups and use that as an indicator for growth.  As most startups fail, or take a good chunk of time to grow their business into something worthwhile, maybe the focus of the discussion should be taking existing successful businesses and giving them the tools to grow their business and hit the next level.  Taking a $5 million dollar company and turning it into a $10-20 million dollar company would have a bigger impact on the economy than taking a startup from $0 and having it reach its first $1 million in sales.  Dan’s viewpoint is rock solid and he’s calling this an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem project.

There are twelve diverse businesses involved in this first group.  Every one of them successful, and based on the insightful and laser focused comments presented during the first two days of the class, it is easy to see why.  The class is divided up into four, two day discussions.  Each segment has its own set of goals and individual itinerary, with the end goal being getting a new roadmap for success outlined that is individually tailored to each business participating.

The first class was taught by Professor Vinny Onyemah, from Babson College in Boston, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babson_College) the leading entrepreneurial academic institution on the planet.  His energy and enthusiasm that he brings to delivering the information is incredible.  He presents his material and guides the class into some really fantastic discussions.  Class members are keen to help each other and offer suggestions, or ask focused follow up questions that provoke some “what if” scenarios that each company can start to work on.

For Visual Impressions, we are going to be working on how we can focus our attention on what has driven our past success, and what we need to do in order to replicate that success and drive more growth.  As we are a key player in the textile contract decorating industry, our growth is going to be tied into finding new partners in the ad specialty, promotional item, and advertising industries.  Our client base is already made up of many of the leading firms in these areas.  Over the course of the class, we will determine our methodology and planning on how to attract more business from this sector and develop a successful game plan.  What is truly wonderful about the Scale Up initiative so far, has been the fantastic dialog and interaction with other companies in the group and the leadership of the class instruction.

Full credit for the Scale Up Milwaukee initiative must be given to the Greater Milwaukee Committee (http://innovationinmilwaukee.com/), Mayor Tom Barrett, University Wisconsin-Milwaukee (http://www4.uwm.edu/), and American Express Open (https://www.openforum.com/explore/) for backing the project.  This event could have been held in any number of major business areas in the United States.  To start this endeavor in Milwaukee really shows that the area is truly “Open for Business”.