21 Things To Be Excited About In 2021

21 Things to be Excited About in 2021

I don’t know about you, but I’m very optimistic for 2021. There is a lot to be excited about, and to prove it I’ve compiled an unranked list of twenty-one things that I think are going to make this year fantastic for the decorated apparel industry.

Check ’em out!

Number One – Online Stores

This isn’t going away. In fact, 2021 will see a boon of new online stores, platforms, tools, and companies looking to take advantage of the new way consumers shop, connect, fundraise, and promote using the web.

Question: where do you fit in with online stores? Are you building these for your customers and making it easy for them to solve a challenge?

There are numerous platforms and tools at your disposal. InkSoft, Stahls’, MerchLoop, Gooten, Shopify, Etsy, and even your own webpage with WooCommerce. Personally, I know plenty of shops that not only have a few online stores but actually build and promote hundreds of them.

In a sales slump? Look to using online stores to generate revenue and solve challenges for your customers.

Number Two – Sustainability

It is no secret that the apparel industry ranks only behind the oil industry as the number one source of pollution on the planet.

Yep. We are a big part of that.

What I am excited about these days is that plenty of companies are adopting a sustainable mindset when it comes to the choices they are making. Just look at the fantastic growth of a brand like Allmade, and you know there is traction here.

But, we can’t stop short with just the apparel blank. Look at your processes, consumables, habits, and energy consumption in your shop. How can you do more with less? Examine your carbon footprint. Work to reduce your VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Reduce waste. Reuse things if you can. Recycle more.

If you are really serious, get your shop third-party certified with the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership. The time is now to start doing something.

Number Three – 2021 Reopening

I hate to tell all the doom and gloom folks out there this, but sooner or later the economy will reopen. This is all going to be based on a sense of trust. Trust that people won’t get sick if they participate in life. That maybe, it’s ok because people will have received the vaccines, have practiced healthy habits, and the published statistical numbers have dropped.

Personally, I think this will start to happen sometime around late Q2 of this year.

There are already some good signs. I like the positivity that is in the air. When I talk to shop owners, colleagues, industry suppliers, friends, and family…people are looking ahead a few months and a good chunk of them are making plans already.

Plans to escape the COVID-cave they are in and do something.

Your microwave in your kitchen works by causing the water molecules in the food to vibrate and get active. The longer that happens, the hotter the food gets.

The economy is the same way. The more people start to vibrate and get out and do things, the more the economy is going to heat up. This can only be a good thing for our industry. Are you ready?

Number Four – Leaner Companies

I’ve been speaking with shop owners for the last few weeks about how the year ended for them. Some of them are still struggling, but the majority either nearly reached the sales goals that they set for themselves at the beginning of 2020, or slightly surpassed it. Losses in Q2, were made up in Q3 and Q4.

But the most significant revelation for these shops is that their profit margin actually increased.


Because they were forced to jettison a good chunk of their staff when the pandemic struck. Only the rockstars for the company made it through the purges, and businesses looked to dump payroll expenditures.

What they found is that even though they were slower, they were still working. The skeleton crew did the job. Top line sales were down, but bottom line numbers were up.

That is a lesson that isn’t going away.

Now, more than ever, shops are looking to do more with less people. This means hiring a better quality employee to begin with, and not settling for anyone that can fog a mirror. Plus, many shops are investing in more automation tools and technology.

“How can we do more with less labor” will be a theme for this year.

Number Five – Print on Demand

You are going to be hearing a lot about Print on Demand in 2021. This is taking the notion of contract decorating to an entirely new level. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

Remember all those online stores that I mentioned earlier? THOUSANDS of people are setting up online stores on these platforms and are absolutely not interested in doing the decoration and fulfillment for the orders.

Virtually anybody can set up their own brand on these platforms and begin selling designs. This means that they need someone to handle the backend for them.

Are you ready for a tsunami wave of orders coming your way where each order to be completed and shipped is only one or two shirts at a time? Multiple designs, shirt styles, garment colors, and packaging requirements. Plus, everything needs to ship in three to five days from the second your receive each order.

The only way that this happens with with great technology, workflow, and a dedicated crew that is trained to keep hustling all day. Not just one DTG printer, but rows of them. During peak times, this is a 24/7 operation.

If you are a contract decorator take note. This is where the industry is heading at Mach 7.

Number Six – Information Accessibility

Years ago, what we do for a living was a closely guarded secret. I can remember distinctly trying to get my hands on the secrets of how Jon Weiss and Dave Gardner at New Buffalo Shirt Factory were building their art files for the first generation of simulated process separations with their championship ring or football helmet shirts.

Fast forward to 2021, and everyone shares everything. But not everything that is shared is accurate or true.

What a weird place to be in if you are just starting out and hungry for information.

There are no secrets now. But, if I were you I’d be curating who I’m listening to or watching. Best practices are being shared by the best people. Be careful about who you listen to or follow.

Number Seven – The Apparel Community

Let’s face it, we are a family.

I absolutely can not wait until our “family reunion” that could/should/will happen later this year when people feel it is safe enough to travel and mingle at a trade show or industry event.

Sure, I do my share of Zoom calls and virtual networking events. It’s not the same, and it never will be.

And, to emphasize my point here, I’m looking forward to meeting you if we have never met. One of my personal maxims is “Your best friend is only a handshake away.” While I probably won’t be shaking hands for some time, I’m still wanting that connection.

If they still happen, I’ll be at all three ISS Shows, plus the Printing United Alliance show in October. Come find me and let’s chat!

Number Eight – Emergence of Waterbased Ink

Everywhere I turn, shops are pushing into using waterbased ink. In other countries this is the norm, but here in the US, plastisol reigns.

Frankly, I like what companies such as Virus, Matsui, Magna, and Avient are doing in this space. Their job is to educate the industry about the benefits and techniques of using these products and are doing a great job of it.

Bigger brands are adopting the use of waterbase inks namely because they want to get away from the PVC content in plastisol. That’s part of the sustainability journey that I mentioned earlier.

If you haven’t looked into waterbase ink lately, I would suggest getting some samples and start playing around with it. You might surprise yourself.

Number Nine – Return on Intent

The term ROI used to mean “Return on Investment.” This year, as more shop owners are still shaky from the affects of the pandemic, everyone is looking ahead and doing more purposeful planning that ever before.

Currently, I’m working with a good number of shops that are revisiting their business plan or actually writing one for the first time.

Identifying your best customer and outlining that bullseye is serious work that will pay off, as more market segments have closed off.

Now more than ever, business are not just letting work come to them, but they are intentionally seeking out new markets and opportunities. This is the work that is paying off more than anything and will help make 2021 a banner year for those that roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of thinking before acting.

What are you working on with intent right now?

Number Ten – New Markets Emerging

It wasn’t too long ago that marijuana was illegal everywhere. Regardless of your opinion on this, plenty of states are now adopting the legalization of this famously recreational drug.

What’s that mean to you? Well, if you are in the merch business these shops and brands need to market to their customers.

An entire industry is opening up before your eyes. In some states, the dispensaries will deliver their product to your house. Those drivers need branding too.

In your neighborhood, what new businesses and opportunities have emerged? Plenty of new companies have started up because of the outbreak of COVID. Service industries, such as cleaning and disinfecting. Testing companies and vaccine distribution centers.

Is your head up and paying attention to what’s going on? I can honestly tell you that plenty of shops are having record sales right now.

If you are not happy with your current sales, own it. People are buying. They just aren’t buying from you.

Number Eleven – Technology

Technology is all around us, and I think to a certain degree we take things for granted.

How often are you auditing your internal technology to see if there is something better on the market? Look at your processes and workflow. How sales are generated. Maybe how you follow up and touch your customers on a regular basis.

Are you doing the best you can with what’s out there?

I’ll bet, there is a new consumable, supplier, piece of equipment, software, app, or some macro function on a spreadsheet that could make your life easier. I’m finding and exploring these all the time. Here are three as examples:

Free background generator

Track your time with Timeular

Measure and dial in Pantone colors with a Color Spectrometer from Spectro 1.

Number Twelve – 2021 Cabin Fever

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of not doing anything. Plenty of people are tired of their “COVID Jail.”

Give them an opportunity to get out of the house. Get some food trucks together and set up something in a parking lot. Erect your merch tent, and sells some stuff. Engage with people.

Do a pop-up store inside a mall or abandoned storefront. Get a DTG printer in there and offer “Print while you wait” or limited edition prints on shirts.

If you want different results, you have to do something differently. 2021 is going to be the year for that. Embrace it.

Be weird. Get out and do something just to do it.

Number Thirteen – I Feel Lucky

This is 100% gut feeling.

I feel lucky. Lucky to be alive and lucky to have such amazing clients.

I’m lucky to have a network of fantastic industry colleagues that help when I need an answer or just someone to chat with about stuff.

Personally, I think 2021 will be a lucky type of year. Be positive and make things happen!

Number Fourteen – Taking a Step Back

As you progress through the days, weeks, and months of 2021 don’t forget what happened in 2020.

A lot of what everyone went through was difficult, and at times heartbreaking. Let’s admit the truth, it sucked.

But, lessons were learned and if you didn’t just sit there and cry into your cereal, you changed some things. I tried a lot of new ideas out and took them for a spin.

Was everything successful? Of course not.

But, taking a step back and thinking about it, it helps me set up and plan for more adventures this year. Constantly doing new things was the lesson from 2020.

Expect more of that from me in 2021 too. For example, I just created and posted a TikTok video. No, I’m not dancing. Please follow me! @atkinsontshirt


Fruit of the Loom Iconic Tee sample box! Fresh from the mailbox…let’s see what’s inside! #atkinsontshirt #shirtlabtribe #fruitoftheloom #tshirts

? Acoustic Guitar Stroll – Dow Brain

Number Fifteen – Podcasting

I want you to think about something. Have you ever considered creating a podcast?

Not one about this industry. One that is focused on your customers, your city, or maybe even a sport that you enjoy. You are the host, and your shop is the sponsor.

If I can do it, you can do it.

Check out my podcast, Success Stories with Marshall Atkinson, and listen to an episode or two. Imagine that instead of me talking, that’s you. Instead of one of my guests telling their story, those are your customers.

2021 is the year to start. Happy to help you do this if you need some advice.

First step, get a Buzzsprout account.

Number Sixteen – Sales Rebound

In the past six to eight weeks I have spoken with scores of shops about how they ended 2020, and what they are focusing on in 2021.

The ones that are having the most success are the ones that did not stay in their traditional lane that they built their core business with over the years. They did something else.

Some became their own customer and started online stores and marketing designs that were highly targeted to a segment that they had a lot of traction with already. This was a sport, a hobby, or a local idea. They knew the lingo and made something fun that appealed to these people.

Other shops, reinvented themselves and built an entirely new sales direction from scratch. Their older channels were closed off due to the pandemic. Shifting to something they didn’t have any sales in previously is what saved them. They just did it.

A few sold new things to their existing customers. Facemasks, neck gaiters, and hand-sanitizer were the sales drivers mostly. Others created or helped create “work from home” or “school at home” kits for their customers and worked with creating online stores or fulfillment for them.

Everyone hit rock bottom in late Q2 of last year. The rebound happened in Q3 and Q4 with shops that didn’t sit on their hands. These shops are now continuing that sales growth, and when everything opens up and their existing core customers come back they are going to be poised to have banner years.

That’s exciting.

Number Seventeen – Aspiration

The dictionary meaning of aspiration is “a hope or ambition of achieving something.”

I have to tell you, that sums up 2021 very nicely. We all want to achieve something. I know I do.

What are you doing this year that will make a difference on this planet or to some person out there that you don’t know?

Want to read a fantastic book that may help you understand the reason you need to include more purpose in your business? Check out my friend Roger Burnett’s book, “Red Goldfish Promo Edition.”

You can hear about it more on the podcast episode I did with him earlier this year.

Number Eighteen – Shirt Lab Summit

In 2020, we made the decision to not hold any live Shirt Lab events. It was a difficult one to make, but out of that decision came the idea to hold a virtual free event, and the first Shirt Lab Summit was born.

We had 2,432 people participate from 32 countries around the world.

This year, we are having the second annual Shirt Lab Summit and it will be on March 19th and 20th, 2021. We’re lining up speakers now and more details will be available soon.

Number Nineteen – Shirt Lab Women’s Nexus

Late last year I wrote this article for Screen Printing Magazine regarding the need for more women leaders and entrepreneurs in this industry.

When I wrote it, we were already planning on holding the Shirt Lab Women’s Nexus in Chicago on June 5th, 2021. Due to the pandemic, and that’s cities response to it, we’ve decided to still have the event on the same date, but it will be 100% virtual and also live.

Which is exciting and scary at the same time.

Also, to elevate things a bit, we are also making it interactive. We’ll have more information on this soon as we’re dialing in the technology.

Number Twenty – Shirt Lab Ft. Worth

As the pandemic has forced us to change our event line up, one step that we are making is scheduling and renaming our Shirt Lab Dallas event to Shirt Lab Ft. Worth.

The ISS Ft. Worth show will be held on September 10-12, 2021. I’m talking to many industry insiders and everyone is agreeing that this could be the show of the year mainly due to the timing of the event and easy accessibility.

Our only live Shirt Lab event this year will piggyback on the ISS Ft. Worth show and be held the Monday and Tuesday after the ISS Ft. Worth show. (September 13th and 14th)

We are retooling everything for the event now, so mark your calendars and stay tuned.

Number Twenty-One – Shirt Lab Tribe

Frankly, I saved the best for last.

The best mastermind group in the industry, Shirt Lab Tribe is only getting stronger. I’m not sure if you know much about this yet, but you should.

If your shop needs to grow sales, solve problems, motivate employees, and is looking for a place to learn and network with other top industry professionals, then Shirt Lab Tribe is exactly what you need.

It is more than just another Facebook group. The Tribe is a community.

Sure, there are daily interactions, but on Tuesday’s we have a live Q&A Zoom session. On Thursday’s we have industry professionals present their knowledge on topics that can help you solve your problems.

Plus, we challenge you to get better as with our current Screen Print Badass competition that we are hosting.

Interested? Right now, we have sale (ends 2/28, 2021). Get your first month Shirt Lab Tribe membership for $1. That’s right. One dollar.

Plus, did I mention that membership is for your entire company? Not just you.

Click the button and get your membership in Shirt Lab Tribe going today.

“Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” – Jim Carrey

“Only the mediocre are always at their best.” – Jean Giraudoux

“I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.” – Walt Whitman

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