Top 10 Bonehead Apparel Decorator Business Blunders

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With a couple of decades in the industry and years talking to shop owners over the phone, in their shops, networking events, or in my trade show classrooms I’ve heard a lot of stories about shop struggles and mistakes that have been made.  “If we had only done something” is a common refrain.  It’s easy to look back and say that.  Harder to look ahead into the future and figure out what to do next.  Of course I’d like to say that my pencil doesn’t even have an eraser, and that I don’t make mistakes too, but that’s not true either.  As I like to joke, I make mistakes all the time…just ask my wife she’ll tell you some!  Mistakes and blunders are going to happen.

Below are the top ten things that I think are the biggest blunders people make in this industry.  Have you made any of these?  Maybe.  Are they business killers?  Not necessarily.  Most shops, and people for that matter, make mistakes.  It’s usually ok.  Time and money get spent fixing the error, but we learn from them and move on.  Here’s the list…post your thoughts or comments.  What did I leave out?

Number 10: Being a weak leader. Sometimes you need a strong captain to weather the storm, but when things are going ok we’re apt to just let things slide.  You give people an inch, they sometimes take ten miles.  Time passes and you wonder what happened to your control, and why the monkeys are running the zoo.  Then it’s crackdown time and you look like an evil monster trying to get things realigned to where they should be in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be that way though.  First, be sure to give your staff clear expectations for how they are supposed to behave.  Is it ok to straggle in a few minutes after lunch is supposed to end?  Can you operate equipment while chatting away on your cell phone crammed up in between your ear and shoulder?  Is it ok to stop what you are doing and go through your music selection for ten minutes instead of working to “get in the mood”?  Can you just quickly check your Facebook status while on the clock?  These are just a few examples, but you get the idea.  Write out your company policies and incorporate them into a concise employee handbook.  These are the company standards you need to operate your business with, and your employees will be held to these standards.

When things come up that need your attention, you need to be strong and make good decisions.  Whether you know it or not, everyone is looking.  Give one person a break, and everyone will expect it.  It’s hard.  Leadership though is about making tough decisions that are ultimately correct.  If you don’t know which way to turn, sometimes it’s best to consult with professional HR folks, an attorney, or maybe someone on your personal board of directors.  Get some advice.  In the end, go with your gut.  If something feels wrong, it usually is.  Your job as a leader is to stop it from happening again.

Number Nine: Business All the Time.  Believe it or not there is such a thing as burnout.  A good number of mistakes happen when people are over-worked or tired.  Smaller companies tend to staff on the low end of the number of employees, so these companies have people that wear many hats.  When things get busy, people get incredibly stressed.  After a week or two of fourteen hour days you might want to consider getting some help in to handle some tasks.  Maybe you hire someone, maybe you just get that neighbor’s kid to come in and get some time getting some minor things completed.  It all adds up.

You have to take care of yourself and your staff.  Get breaks scheduled throughout the day, even if they are for five or ten minutes.  Recharging will refocus your physical and mental state so you can accomplish more.  You shouldn’t end the year with vacation days you didn’t take.  Ever.

Also, your workplace should be fun.  Your job is to make it that way.  Encourage people to be creative and laugh.  Have cookouts.  Bring in pizza.  Hire an ice cream truck to stop by during the summer.  Have a Halloween costume contest.  Hold a Hawaiian shirt day in the middle of winter.  During your favorite sports season, encourage people to wear jerseys or team shirts on Fridays.  Get your folks inspired!

Number Eight: Who are you?  What make a top apparel decorator company great?  Usually one of the first things to come to mind is that they have figured out who their core business market is and they know how to reach them.  All the top shops really only market to a few core demographics, and anything else is just gravy.  It can be a huge mistake to just say I’ll appeal to everyone.  Without focus you are just a spider sitting in the web waiting to pounce on anything that lands nearby.  Unless you have a keen spidey-sense built in, that isn’t a good way to do it.

A stronger strategy is to determine what one or two core customers your shop should be going after.  What is your sweet spot for an order?  Think about it.  This type of art, with that type of shirt, multiplied by this many pieces and locations.  Now, multiply that order times 500. Or 5,000.  What if that “perfect” order replaced all the goofy losers that are clogging up your schedule right now? That’s what you have to determine.  Get more of the orders that make the most sense, and less of the orders that are junk.  The only way to do that is to focus on what really matters.  Define your shop.  Then, go hunting.

Number Seven: Marketing Mess.  Unless you have determined who are your customers, there’s no way to accurately determine how or where to reach them.  A lot of shops only think about marketing when they are slow.  When things are good and everyone is running on jet fuel to keep up, who needs to think about where those next orders are coming from?  Well, you do for one.  Stop the feast or famine cycle by spending a good chunk of time and invest in learning how to market your business to the correct demographic that matters.

There is an entire industry dedicated to marketing, so if you feel you can just do this from your kitchen table at night after dinner…good luck.  Marketing correctly requires a lot of effort.  This isn’t something you do for ten minutes at the end of the day on a Friday.  Taking a picture of the job you just finished and throwing it up on Facebook doesn’t count as marketing either.  Humble brags don’t drive sales.

If you’ve spent some time defining who your shop customers are that matter most, the next step is marketing to them.  Your shop’s customers may behave differently in their buying habits than other shop’s or different industries businesses, so it’s critical that you do the research and develop the best methods of marketing to them.  This is going to involve a lot of trial and error.

Refining and tweaking your message, frequency and distribution channels is a full time job.  However, once you have things dialed in it does get easier.  But you still need to keep track, measure and change things to fit the market climate.  Does this require a lot of money?  Maybe.  It all depends on who your customers are and where they look for marketing messages.

Building a social media game plan is a good way to develop your marketing strategy to reach out to your core customers.  Look to see where they are and what they are posting.  Know your competition too.  Who is your strongest competitor?  What are they doing?  Chances are you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can just push your message out on the same channels to disrupt your competition.  Don’t think because someone is already in one place that you can’t be there too.  Ford and Chevy both buy tv ads during football games.  Which one does it better?

Number Six: Know and understand your competition. It’s your business to know what the hell are they doing over there!  Are they hiring, upgrading equipment, redesigning their webpage, offering discounts, maybe even trash talking you?  Regardless of your size and stature in the industry someone can come along and take a gigantic bite out of your business if you aren’t careful.   That new shop across town?  I’ll bet they are really hungry for business.  What do you think they are up to?

Does this mean you copy their price list?  Absolutely not.  You just need to know and understand how they work, their problems, and any other information you can glean so you can use that as ammunition against them.  Business isn’t fair.  It never will be.  It’s survival of the fittest.  Are you the lion or the gazelle?

So what’s the secret for keep your clients regardless of what your competitors are doing?  Know, like the back of your hand, the “Voice of the Customer”.  What is critical to them?  What is the one thing that absolutely has to happen?  How can you take that idea and knock out home run after home run for them?  If you do that, your competition won’t matter at all.  If you don’t, your competition will eat away at your business.  Picking at scraps isn’t a sustainable business model.

Number Five: Fumbling the ball.  Sometimes mistakes happen.  Your print something in the wrong color.  UPS misdelivers the shipment and the shirts for the event aren’t there in time.  You embroidered on the wrong sleeve.  Whatever.  It doesn’t matter what happened.  What matters is what you are going to do about it.  Do you try to weasel out of the responsibility?  Blame anyone that sorta kinda maybe would make sense and stick?

Or, do you make it right?  Taking ownership of challenges and working towards a positive solution is the only choice.  Weasels don’t get much lovin’.

This industry is built on reputation and trust.  Backing your work and taking care of your customers goes a long way to building a large stable of clients.  Sometimes this is financially painful.  Sometimes it might mean coming in on the weekend or staying up all night to finish a replacement order so the shirts can get there in time.  The beauty of the internet is also it’s biggest curse.  Everyone knows everything instantly.  What are they saying about you?

Number Four: Hey, how hard could it be?  This one is aimed at all the rookies out there that think that printing or embroidering a shirt is easy work.  The Navy Seals have a great saying “The only easy day was yesterday”.  That rings true in this industry also.  We aren’t quite at the superhero level those guys are by any means, but there are still our fair share of daily struggles.

There are a lot of kitchen or breakroom table conversations about breaking into this industry.  Some dive off the cliff without looking and just buy some equipment and start trying to print or embroider goods.  That leap of faith is fantastic, but really reckless.  It’s insanely difficult for inexperienced people to understand just how many steps there are in this industry to decorate a shirt.  Regardless of if the job is for embroidery, digital printing or traditional screen printing, the end result is always a certain mix of craftsmanship, art and science.  There isn’t a tree of knowledge for this industry, but instead an entire orchard is needed.  How many apples have you picked from this orchard do you think?

So, if you are one of those people starting out take some advice…do some research.  Write a business plan.  Go to a trade show.  Take a lot of classes.  Talk to people that would make up your supply chain.  Ask for help.  Refine your skill level.  Would you hire you?  Know what you are doing.  “Faking it until you make it” only gets you so far.

Number Three: Financial irresponsibility.  Once your shop gets going it’s easy to take your eyes off the ball financially.  Most shops aren’t that large and quite often the owner is the chief accountant too.  So who do you pay when you owe everyone? How did you get in that mess in the first place?  If you don’t know or aren’t sure about how to do the books, hire or outsource the knowledge.

It doesn’t take much to get off track.  A large order comes in, and they have problems paying for it and hit the receivable list.  You still have to pay for the shirts and your employees labor.  Maybe you had to order ink or other supplies.  Those have to get paid too.  The absolute worst thing you can do is to not pay the people or companies that support you.  Once you get that reputation, it is hard to get that trust back.

This all leads to the next one which is…

Number Two: Cutting Prices.  When times are tough a lot of shops will drop their prices to bring in business.  There is a huge problem with that in that for some reason, customers will expect that low, low price 100% of the time from then on.  When you treat your hard effort like a commodity like gasoline, don’t be surprised when your customer base demands this expectation from you.

There is being competitive, and then there’s being foolish.  Often it is hard to know which from which.  Stick to your guns.  It’s ok to say no to requests from people or demands if the order just doesn’t make financial sense.   Years ago I did an analysis for a shop for a month’s worth of work and easily half of their jobs didn’t make any money for them, even before they set up the first screen on press.  The owners were always wondering why they didn’t make any money despite being “so busy”.  Busy isn’t profitable.  Doing your homework and understanding what it costs your shop to operate in labor, consumables and overhead and setting a goal as to how much money you want or need to make based on those concrete numbers is how you build your price list.

Once you start traveling down a different path it’s hard to end up where you want to be.  It’s not impossible though.  Crunch your numbers.  What does it cost you to print or embroider something?  Are you giving stuff away, like free screens or digitizing, to bring in work?  How much is that really costing you?  Could you be charging for that?  A lot of shops charge for those plus art, rush jobs, polybagging, drop-ships, and fulfillment or whatever tasks are on the order.  Some weaker sales people or shops often gives these away for free as that’s the only way they can close the deal.  See that gigantic pile over there?  That’s money you left on the table pal.

So it is it better to be moderately busy with highly profitable work, or insanely busy with work that barely pays you anything?  Which camp is your shop?

Numero Uno: The Inexcusable  So what’s the biggest blunder that becomes the shop killer?  It could be anything, but from the stories I hear it all comes down to the owners not understanding the business and getting in over their head.  Most often they aren’t very present in the process.  It’s hard to know what’s going on in your company if you sit in an office and just look at numbers on a balance sheet, or never even set foot in the building.

A lot of contests have a phrase that’s true in business too.  You must be present to win.  If you want to succeed you need to understand the nuts and bolts of the business.  You have to get dirty.  You have to know what it’s like to set up and print a two location, ten color per side order for 48 shirts or change a thread color for every shirt for a 200 piece order.  Oh, and those jobs have to ship today.  Being present means talking to the people that are doing the work, and understanding their effort, stress and pain points.

Regardless of how large a shop is in size, the leaders of the company dictate the firm’s culture, how things work, and the standards of operation.  Even with a good management team in place this can all unravel if the owners aren’t dedicated and present in the business, as they will make financial or policy decisions that aren’t based in reality, but are based on their limited tunnel vision and need to pull money from the company.  Short term thinking doesn’t always produce long term results.  Don’t get me wrong, plenty of companies are successfully run by absentee ownership groups or investors.  How do they do it right, when so many do it wrong?

Having clear expectations.  Ready, Aim, Fire goals…not Ready, Fire, Aim.  It’s hard to hit a moving target.  So the more the owners can do to let the troops know what is expected of them, how they are going to support them in their efforts, and have clear and constant communication about what’s going on day to day…the better.  Approval or disapproval regarding the shop’s results can’t be a surprise.  If your shop has been really busy, but the owners aren’t happy because they aren’t making the return they want on their investment but don’t offer any communication, guidance or support to achieve that goal…whose fault is that?

This is why shops go out of business and the used equipment dealer always have a full inventory of items to sell.

So, this was my top ten list.  Did it meet with what you might feel are the worst blunders in the industry?  Did I leave anything out?  Did I rank them the way you would have?  Leave a comment and let’s discuss!


  • Great Top 10, spot on. I have made several of the blunders over the years, however learned from them and this is a great reminder of what can happen at any point in the life of a business. Thanks for sharing!

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