Changes

CHANGES-PIC

Bob Dylan said it best. The times they are a changin’.

As people, we are the accumulation of our experiences. In this industry, I sure have had many wonderful examples of that.

My career in the decorated apparel industry began by accident. I was looking for a way to pay for architecture graduate school so I wouldn’t have to take out a student loan.

I handled the design end of things, and I hired friends for the sales.  This was back before the advent of personal computers, cell phones or other handy wizardry. Art used blue-line boards, Letraset rub-down type and a lot of patience. Scaling anything required a proportion wheel and a copy center. Sales was in-person.

Everything took time.

We contracted the printing to a local shop. They created the screens using my blue-line boards with a stat camera. It was always slow, meticulous work. (By the way this is where the term “camera ready” comes from.)

About a year into that an incredible tool came on board…the business computer. That changed everything.

Direction swerve!

I taught myself how to use Photoshop and Freehand during a Christmas break. I never went back to grad school and started down a different career path.  I started work in January with that same shop that printed my shirts.

Those first steps as an art director led me down a rich and rewarding journey. I made a ton of mistakes. I learned how to manage my time. I met my incredible wife as she worked for a client. I invented projects and tried new techniques just to learn how to do them.

As my responsibilities grew, I learned how to manage people. I made some industry friends that I still cherish today.

Constant growth forced me to learn to adapt to challenges. I constantly suggested new paths to take, so I earned a promotion to vice president of operations.

That’s when the real fun started happening.  As much as I like creating, solving problems is more rewarding.

I went down a greener road towards continuous improvement and sustainability. Eliminating waste. Creating value.

Employee development and training initiatives helped set the culture tone. Setting and achieving goals became my mission. I saved that company over $60,000 in one year through our sustainability efforts. Earned them an SGP Certification too. (The first apparel decorator to do so)

Then the bottom dropped out with the recession in 2009.  Lots of shops struggled during that time. In December of 2010, one month from my eighteenth anniversary with that company, they let me go.

Devastation. Eighteen years with one company is a long time.  I felt betrayed and abandoned.

What I didn’t know was that was the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

I started my consulting and coaching business the next day. I started my blog. I started writing for the trade magazines such as Impressions or Printwear. I started speaking at trade shows.

Taking those lemons and making my own special blend of lemonade proved to be the catalyst I needed. My career took off as I started down the on-ramp to a longer journey.

I spent most of 2011 in shops around the country coaching and teaching. I went to Visual Impressions in Milwaukee for a two-week efficiency improvement consultation. I ended up staying for five years as their COO.  Earned them a SGP certification too. By the time I left our team dropped the cost per imprint by nine cents an impression.

Another incredible road traveled.

Involvement with Wisconsin leadership groups taught me different industries have the same challenges. Giving back to the industry brought me new opportunities and friends. Thanks to PromoKitchen, PPAI, SGIA and SGP.  Serving with these groups has taught me more than they could know.  Always learning…

I left Visual Impressions in the spring of 2016 after my five-year contract was up. Started coaching shops again. Big or small, east or west, I’ve helped plenty.

Guess what?

All that was prep work for my newest leg of my decorated apparel industry journey.

One thing that I always longed for was a great production tool to help make sense of the craziness. Something to make better decisions. That’s easy to use. That’s logic based and has powerful automation, analytics and metrics.  The “easy” button for proactive planning.

I’ll bet that you want that too.

Lets face it, there are a lot of software platforms out there, but they are all order gathering based. It’s great to develop sales.

After that, what happens? Few do much for the production end of the stick, which is where most shops struggle. If you are still at the shop at 10:38 pm and frustrated because orders have to ship tomorrow, I’m sure you can relate.

What is your daily capacity? How efficient is your production? What happens if you take that rush order for Friday? Who is the best production crew in the shop based on metrics? How can you make your shop more efficient and profitable?  How does this year compare to last year? We’re busier, but we aren’t making any more money.  What happened?

I’ve listened to these challenges and more over the years.  These questions have been at the top of my mind for quite a long time. I know they are on yours, because I hear them constantly still.

What if there was a dashboard tool that made sense of it all?

Good news. It’s coming.

This Florida guy has moved to the desert to work in Phoenix with the brainiacs with InkSoft. I’ll be coaching shops still, as I’m starting a Professional Services division. You’ll see more and better content with videos, webinars and of course my blog. But the crown jewel I’ll be championing is the Inksoft Production Manager tool.

It is going to rock.

But, it’s early. We’re starting from scratch and the development has begun.

We would love your input. What are your scheduling issues? What matters to you most? When you fire up your computer in the morning, what would you want to see first thing?

List your top challenges and send them to me at marshall@inksoft.com.

If you’d like to subscribe to the update feed for the new InkSoft Production Manager software, please click here and enter your info. As news as developments are released, you’ll be the first to know in the industry.  Get to the head of the line early.

Like I’ve been doing for the past few years, I want to help make your shop better. InkSoft is giving me a larger platform to accomplish that.  I’m here to help.  Please reach out.

Change is a good thing. I’m still on my journey!

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Here’s what Bob says:

“Come gather around people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

And if your breath to you is worth saving

Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changing”

 

Measure Twice, Cut Once

measure-twice-cut-once

There are occasions during the workday when you need to deploy critical communication skills.  What you say and how you say it can be the difference between resolving a potential problem, and kicking up to the next level in disaster.

Last week I spoke to a shop owner that completed a rush contract screen-printing order.  It was a simulated process, two location job for a repeat customer.  They do work for them constantly, and this particular job had to go out in a hurry.  The client’s artist sent them the art, with each of the colors for the files already separated.

Because of the rush, and the fact that the client sent separated art, the shop neglected to send an art approval confirming the image.  The art department didn’t think to verify the separations matched the provided mock up.  The problem the shop faced was that an item in the design separations was the wrong color.  Nobody caught the mistake until it was out the door and already on an UPS truck.  Ut oh.

So what do you do now, my client asked?

In my view you have to get ahead of this problem.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the technical aspects of the print.  It shipped out on time, with the same fantastic print quality that the shop always produces.  The initial issue was that they skipped their own internal review steps in order to “save time.”  They just assumed it was ok because someone else did the work.

As professionals, this is our mistake when we let that happen.  I’m sure plenty of shops would just say to keep quiet, or sweep the circumstance under the rug.  After all, the customer provided the sep’d art files.  What’s the big deal?

My take however, is that the shop should have known better.  There were several chances along the way to catch the mistake.  In the art department, as the seps obviously didn’t match the mock up.  On the production floor, as they should have reviewed the mock up to the first strike off for manager approval.  And even on the catchers table, as the mock up was available to review as the shirts were rolling down the dryer belt.

This is why the shop has to own up to the mistake and let the customer know.  Sending an email or calling them with a “Please let me know your thoughts” type conversation builds trust.  It’s the honest and professional way to handle the situation.

It’s always difficult to say you made a mistake.  Those words never taste good.  But trust me, these problems get noticed sooner or later.  Especially with orders like this one that are destined to become repeat orders for a program.

Also, I like the “Please let me know your thoughts” sentence as it isn’t introducing to the customer anything about a reprint, a discount or any financial band-aid.  Maybe the art was changed and the printer wasn’t in on the loop.  Maybe it isn’t a big deal.  Maybe their world will come to an end and their head will explode like in the movie Scanners.  Ka-plow!

But when you use the phrase “Please let me know your thoughts”, you are placing the question at the feet of the customer to decide how important the problem is to them.  How much responsibility are they going to take?  Is it a minor inconvenience or a major disaster?  The client will decide if they need any sort of concession or reprint.  Then you can negotiate what makes sense to your shop.  Don’t just immediately go to “We’ll give you 50% off the order for the mistake.”

As it turned out, my client took my advice and used the magic phrase.  In this case, the customer actually sold out of the shirt quickly and already placed a reorder.  No discount was needed or given, and the client took full responsibility for the challenge.  Some trust was earned with the heads up alert.  Everyone vowed to be more careful in the future.  No harm, no foul.

They dodged a bullet though.

Bonus Discussion:

Stick to your guns for procedures when you are rushed.  Yes, it may be quicker to skip a step because you don’t have time.  However, what would happen if that order listed above would have had to be reprinted with the correct color scheme?  What if it was for an event?  Time can be your enemy too.  That’s when the cost of correction multiplies quickly.

Doing something twice is never faster.  Slow down.

  • When taking the order, know exactly what the customer expects and clearly communicate that on all work order instructions.  Yes, it’s your job in customer service or sales to be an art expert.  This industry deals with images.  Know how many colors it takes to do the job.  Ask for help or training.  Learn the industry vocabulary.
  • The art department needed to review the mock up against the separated file and double check it matched.  If you are provided art files, it’s your job to preflight them and make sure they will work as intended.  Let’s face it, we work in a specialized industry.  Choking an underbase plate in screen-printing or tweaking a digitized embroidery file for performance garments so they won’t pucker is an art unto itself.  Your job is to make what the client hands you work for the production in your shop.
  • While an art approval may not have prevented this problem, as the challenge was in the separated file, the shop could have sent one off.  Usually this step ferrets out challenges as the creative team would may have been more attentive.  By the way, for rush art approvals use action language such as “Your job is slated to print tomorrow, please approve this file by 2:30 today so we can burn the screens and your order can ship on time.”
  • They could also have sent a digital pic of the first shirt printed.  Especially with simulated process work, what the artist designs, and what is pulled off the press may be different.  Not everyone has great separation skills.  If something looks odd, is critical, or is a high-dollar print run, getting another set of eyeballs on the print can be a good thing.  Know your production schedule and let the client know that they will be receiving a digital picture at 10:30 am or whatever.  Be ready.  Get good lighting and snap a photo.  Zero in on key areas that maybe are a concern.
  • The production manager could have compared the shirt to the customer provided mock up.  Step one in starting any production needs to be quality.  Have a quality control review.  Check for print quality, registration, image location, “is it straight?”, moiré patterns in halftones, or any other challenges.  This is your last chance to catch spelling errors.  Absolutely compare the print to the art approval or a mock up.  I like to use my finger and just go one item at a time back and forth.  This to this.  That to that.  Make sure you break out that PMS book and check color hues too.  If anything is off, fix it.

Remember the old carpenter rule: “Measure twice, cut once.”

That adage applies to our industry too.  Double check.  In order entry.  With the artwork.  With the screens or digitizing.  With the registration.  With production quality.  With color matching.  With the shipping address and labels.

Sometimes another review on something prevents your shop from having a difficult conversation later.

Got a similar example?

“Please let me know your thoughts on this.”

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“You can’t fix stupid.” – Ron White

“Change is the end result of all true learning.” – Leo Buscaglia

“If you don’t like how things are, change it!  You’re not a tree.” – Jim Rohn

The No BS Rule

the-no-bs-rule

Want to make your shop better?  Run with more efficiency?  Bigger profits at the end of the day?  Here is one place you can start.  It’s a simple rule and it applies to just about everything:

No bullshit.

Sorry if that is offensive language to you.  But I think it is an appropriate business term in our industry context.  It sums the collective need to simplify things to push for the greater good.  Listed below are six key areas of your business where the NO BS rule could have a tremendous impact.  Feel free to add yours in the comments section!

Staffing

Your business isn’t just a line-up of computers, machines and other gizmos.  It’s made up essentially by the people you employ.  Yet shops all across the land often fail in this most important aspect of their business.  They hire the wrong people.  They don’t push clear expectations.  There isn’t any accountability.  They put off employee reviews and difficult conversations.

When it comes down to it, it usually is a leadership challenge.  Create a BS Free Zone with how you handle your people.

When you think about your employees or your co-workers does anyone seem extremely out of place or over their head?  Get them the help they need or go in another direction in terms of their employment.  They don’t “have to” be your employees.  That deadweight that’s holding you back can be someone else’s problem.  Especially if they have a litany of challenges in their personnel folder.

It should be easy to work in your shop.  Clearly defined rules.  Crystal clear expectations.  Accountability.  Trust.  Humor.  Training.  Teamwork.  Empathy and understanding.  Effort.  Reliability.  Honesty.  Respect.  Even fun.

Shops that have this practically run themselves.  Shops that don’t look chaotic.  Lots of turnover.  Dysfunction.  Finger pointing and blaming.  Mistrust.  Basically the opposite of the paragraph above.

If you have ever lamented, “We just can’t find good help!”, often the answer to the challenge starts with the top.  Is that you?  Look at your own BS and see if you need to change something.

This also may mean that your staff just can’t do what they want.  If you have established procedures, policies or rules, then those are the guidelines everyone must follow.  If the rules don’t work, by all means change them…but if they are useful and pertinent; then that’s the direction your shop train is traveling.

Either employees are on board, or they need to get off at the next station.  That’s No BS.

Craftsmanship

This is crucial.  Either you have quality or you don’t.  What do you allow to ship?

The No BS rule here would be to clearly define that line.  It is binary.

Can you match a PMS color?  Can you print or sew in the correct location?  Are the garments folded neatly?  Is the quality of the decoration perfect? When you put a sticker or shipping packing slip on a box, is it on straight or just slapped on crooked?  Details matter.

If your team has any sort of craftsmanship challenges, what are you doing about it?  It’s the question for the ages.

Craftsmanship counts.

  • Does your shop think craftsmanship is just what happens in production?  What about in sales or customer service?  How is that mentality driven home in the work they do?  The quality of their work affects so many people downstream.  When was the last time you had an in-depth review of how orders or information are being used?
  • How many customers are lost every year because someone didn’t update the shipping information and the order missed the event?  Maybe the info was right, but the shipping label was printed incorrectly.  
  • How many shops get new business because of dye migration or an under-cured print?
  • How many catalog programs are lost each year because your team can’t do an inventory count?  
  • Take a close look at your art team.  How many jobs have to stop from the production floor because something wasn’t digitized properly or separated correctly for printing?  If a job on press has to wait so an artist can make a new screen because they don’t like how something prints, that’s a huge problem.
  • What happens if that round art is stretched on the shirt because of too much tack?  Are you shipping egg shaped prints?  Is the last person to see the garments before they go into a box reviewing for quality?  Or are you just stuffing them in without a care in the world?
  • Can your team load a shirt straight?  How many customers complain about crooked or off-center results?  This seems like such a basic skill, but you’d be surprised that it is the most common problem out there.

Your shop is the totality of the mistakes you make.  You can print 99 orders right, but the only one the customer is going to remember is that one that “got away”.  Plenty of shops get new customers all the time because “my old shop screwed up my order”.  Have any of your new customers told you that?

Customers have very little memory of past successes.

The NO BS rule changes that.  Don’t accept mediocrity.  Learn how to do it right.  Buy the right equipment.  Use it properly.  Train your employees.  Have good work instructions that clearly define the order expectations.  Insist on excellence in every step.  All the time.

  • Screen-printing: Load the shirt straight, use the correct ink, printed through the right mesh, on tight screens, with the right off contact, with the proper squeegee durometer, at the correct angle, pressure and speed, on a leveled press.  Watch your flash dwell times and heat build-up.  Remove the shirts from the press without distorting the image.  Cure at the right temperature for the ink.  
  • Embroidery: Hoop it straight, use the correct thread, with the right bobbin tension, sewn with the correct needle size, at the right speed.  Trim neatly without cutting a hole in the shirt.  Steam out the hoop marks.
  • Digital Printing: Load the shirt straight, use the right amount of pretreatment, with the correct print settings.  Cure with the right temperature and time.
  • Heat Press:  Read the instructions for time, temperature and pressure for each type of material used.  Place the image on straight.  Hot peel and cold peel mean different things.  Select your settings accordingly.

Do you cram mistakes in the middle of the shirt pile and hope your customer won’t find them?  Do you argue to your wit’s end that your color match is “close”?  Are you the master at inventing excuses?  That’s all BS and you know it.

Stop sweeping your mistakes under the rug and hoping nobody will notice.  They do.

Craftsmanship isn’t about doing just enough to get by.  Craftsmanship is all about creating the environment in your shop that pushes the limits of what is the best in the industry.  Vince Lombardi has a great quote that applies to this:

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

What level of craftsmanship do you think you have in your shop?  Are you working on this every day?

This is shop-wide…not just in production.  What are you chasing?  Name your top three weakest areas.  Start there.  That’s no BS.

Lean

From an operational standpoint how efficient is your shop?  In manufacturing, lean thinking is all about eliminating waste.  Wasted steps and motion are targeted.  A hypothesis is developed for the change.  It’s tested.  Implemented, and then constantly tweaked.

Are you on a continuous improvement journey?

Apply a No BS rule to your operational efficiency.  Take a long, hard look at the internal processes in your shop.  Just in how things are routed, organized and handled.  What sticks out?  Look for your bottlenecks.  Talk to your staff.  What are their biggest problems?

Within each task that has to be accomplished, you might go from A to B to C to D to E to F.   Map it out. Gather your team together and examine the process.  What do you need to eliminate a step or two?  Do you do something in your shop just because “that’s the way it’s always been done”?

There may be a better way.  Think about these things in your shop that are slowing you down:

  • Does each workgroup have all the tools they need?  Does a printer have to go and search for a PMS book to review the ink match?  Does a catcher have to go hunt down a tape gun just to close a box?  What if each workgroup had a complete set of everything needed so nobody had to share?  Don’t step over a dollar to save a dime.  The expense of buying something can be little compared the every day labor you are spending in doing without.
  • How can technology impact your shop?  Can you use automation to send out art approvals?  Coat screens consistently?  Import order information?  Handle communication?  Schedule jobs?  Gather information?
  • Preventative maintenance for your equipment.  Do you have machines that are down?  How often is your equipment maintained?  You are only making money when your machines are running.  Downtime = Zero Cash Flow.  Sadly, even though shops spend a boatload of money on the equipment for the shops, very few of them even read the owners manuals.  It’s just work, work, work, work until the machine breaks.  Then, it’s the equipment’s fault.  Take care of the things that matter.  Yes, that means you.
  • Using the wrong information to make decisions?  How is information communicated in your shop?  
    • In receiving, do they know what goods are coming in so they can check against the packing list?  This is for everything that is coming in the door. 
    • In the art department, do you have design changes due to lack of information or good instructions?  Sales teams or CSR’s often give sparse info and just leave it to the art team to figure it out.  What type of time suck do you think that creates?
    • In the screen room, are the mesh counts assigned to colors for the job by the art department?  They should.  When the art team has screen mesh count knowledge they can make better decisions with the technical end of creativity.  If your team doesn’t have this, get them the training.  A simple guideline is a place to start.
    • In production, are the job details for ink, thread, placement, shirt color, quantity by size, and any other details listed on the order instructions?  Does anyone have to stop and ask what to do for the job prior to setting it up?
    • Are shipping details perfect so orders can go smoothly through the system and out the door?  What if something changes during the production run?  How does your shop ensure that the job will ship correctly?

The goal of lean in your shop is to establish standards for work to eliminate any waste.  What BS is the way?  Old rules?  Junk nobody uses?  Barely functional equipment?  Spend-thrift decisions about supplies?  Personnel issues?  Clutter everywhere?

Get past that and work towards freeing up time and effort by culling out the problems that don’t work to increase operational efficiency.  Some of this effort will be easy.  Some of it may require a difficult conversation.

Compromise

For a lot of things a compromise will be reached to satisfy many different concerns or a group of people.  A new vacation policy for example.  Compromise in this context is great and truly needed.

Where the No BS rule comes into play for compromise is in bigger picture ideas.  Your company’s Vision Statement.  Core Values.  Purpose.

When you think about your shop are you doing what you set out to do?  For a lot of companies they work for a few years and realize that they left a lot of the “why” they got into the business at the feet of getting another order.

  • What is the Vision Statement for your company?  Do you even have one?  Have you ever described the overall macro view of your company to your employees?  What do they think your company should be doing?
  • What are the Core Values of your company?  Can you list them?  Do you have them written on a plaque on the wall, or posted on your website?
  • What is the Purpose of your company?  Your main mission is to what?  

There is a reason I’m asking.  I’ve had plenty of in-depth conversations with shop owners about their businesses.  For many, their core beliefs and ideals that they founded the company with aren’t present in their daily view.  They’ve sacrificed and ignored some of their principles.  Now, years later they are mystified about how they are running their own businesses.

It’s heavy.

Here’s the NO BS rule though.  You have to paint the picture about these important things everyday in order for them to be present.  What is your Vision?  What are your Core Values?  What is the Purpose of your company?

If you want your team to follow these maxims and use them to guide their actions and business decisions you have to talk about them constantly.  They just can’t be on a plaque on the wall or posted on your website.

They need to be in the heart, lungs and breath of your company.  Your leadership must instill these in the actions they choose to take every day.  You need to acknowledge or even reward staff members who demonstrate that they “get it”.  Conversely, you need to eliminate those that don’t.

There shouldn’t be any compromise on this big picture, and crucial ideals.  That’s No BS.

Creativity & Learning

What separates the wheat from the chaff in this industry?  It’s simple.  The masters of our craft are constantly learning and pushing the envelope with their creativity.  The best shops all pressure themselves to get better.

In everything.

What have you done this week to learn something new?  Are you asking your staff to experiment with anything?  Do you:

  • Constantly scour industry trade magazine for tips and ideas?  Then, you try out something or use what’s written to develop your own take on the subject matter.  You are steering your own boat in the sea of knowledge.
  • Fail?  By fail, I mean try to do something and not worry about if it succeeds or not.  Have you given your staff permission to try new things and not worry about the outcome?  Part of the journey of learning is to try.  Nobody learns to ride a bike, ice skate or cook French food without disastrous first attempts.  They same can be said of puff-embroidery, using foil, four color process printing, or maybe some type of multi-media effort.  Be fearless.
  • Celebrate learning?  Do you talk about big ideas?  Discuss that book that someone just read?  Pass around the latest TEDtalk?  Listen to podcasts instead of music?  Subscribe to blogs (hey, like this one!) or newsfeeds?  If your team isn’t searching for new inputs, don’t be surprised when everything constantly stays the same.

This isn’t just with your management team.  This is with everybody.  When you celebrate creativity and learning you are opening up the floor to new ideas.  You are saying “It’s ok to try something new”.  That’s where the real growth occurs.

Do you want to be just a group of order processors?  Where’s the fun in that?

This industry is a marathon, not a sprint.  In order to really succeed you have to separate your shop from all the look-a-likes.  There is a low cost of entry into this business.  Anyone can embroider or print a shirt.  Not everyone can do it well.  Few can stump the experts.

When your work stands alone as a shining example of the best the industry has to offer, you won’t be competing any longer on price.  Creativity drives value.  Learning to do it better drives value.  

That’s the No BS rule here.  Increase your value.

Plan

Have you ever read or heard this before?

“Failure to plan is planning to fail?”  

I’m only asking because one of the top challenges that I see with the shops I’m talking to daily is that a good number don’t have any sort of long-range plan for their business.

They’ve started it.  Worked it for a few years.  Seen some great growth.  Now, they are poised to take the next step and blossom.  Everything that they’ve accomplished as been due to hard work and a good amount of luck.

I say that because there are just as many shops that didn’t quite make it.  Where do you think all the used equipment on the market comes from?  They worked just as hard.  Except that they were in the wrong area, or tried to service the wrong market.  Or any number of things really.  For them, their Ready, Fire, Aim luck didn’t work out so well.

Want to push for better growth and fantastic success?  The only way to do that is to plan for it.  It is the long-range mental game.  It is strategic.  It is No BS planning.

One of the first things I ask for when I start coaching shops is for them to send me their current business plan.  About 75% of the shops that I’m working with don’t have one, or the one they have is several years old and doesn’t match up to their current state.

Why do you need one anyway?  Can’t you just wing it?  It’s been working good so far…

Here’s why.  Let’s say you want to drive from Miami to San Francisco.  Would you just get in your car and drive?  What roads would you take?  Where are you stopping to rest or sleep?  Is there anything you’d like to see along the way?

I’m sure plenty of people could find their way without planning the trip, but constructing a plan would bring a long list of benefits that would help on the journey.

Writing a business plan works the same way.  Can you just shoot from the hip?  Sure.  But knowing your direction, key landmarks, understanding your metrics, challenges, competition, and most importantly your customers, is the No BS way to get to the next level.

Success is strategic in nature.

Don’t have a current business plan?  There is a wonderful free template available at the Small Business Administration.  Click here to use it.  Here’s what you will need to write:

  • Executive Summary – this is a brief overview of your business.  It lists your company information, products or services you sell, your audience, ideal customer, and the future of your business in the industry.
  • Company Description.  Details about your company.  Your key staff members, such as your CEO, President or other executives.  List your Mission Statement.  Describe the qualities that makes your shop a success.
  • Market Research.  This is an overview of your customer demographic.  Do you have a solid understanding of the marketplace?  Who is your target customer?  Provide a competitive analysis of how other businesses are targeting these customers.  What legal requirements are impacting your industry at the local, state and federal level?
  • Product or Services.  Provide in detail the product or services you are marketing to your customers.  Explain the benefits, the advantages you have over your competition, any any future developments that you may employ to gain a better market share.  In a nutshell, why should they buy from you?
  • Marketing & Sales.  Describe in depth how your company focuses on your customers through your marketing and sales efforts.  How do you reach your customers?  What are your companies’ growth strategies?  How does your company communicate with your customers or potential customers?  How do you advertise?  How will you know your marketing efforts are effective?
  • Financial Projections.  Provide financial information.  Spreadsheets should include: Profit and Loss Projection, Cash Flow Projection, Projected Balance Sheet, and your Break-even Analysis.

Here’s the No BS…to grow your business you have to understand your journey.  Where you’ve been.  Where you are going.  Can you describe where your shop will be in 3 years?  5 years?  Maybe 10?

If so, that’s great!  If not, it looks like you have some homework to do.

…and it’s N0 BS.

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“Strategic planning is worthless – unless there is first a strategic vision.” – John Naisbitt

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

“Stop setting goals.  Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.” – Stephen Covey

Boom!

boom

Boom!  In a business context, what does that word mean to you?

  • Gigantic explosion of new business?
  • Disintegration, as chunks of your sales channels and market share fly away in a cloud of smoke?

Boom!

This article is a just a pondering “What if?”.  It is for planning purposes only.  These days everyone is a little touchy, so I want to point that out.

Conversation starter.  Not argument starter.

Here’s the set up.  President Trump has declared that he is going to renegotiate the trade policies of the United States to favor domestic manufacturing above all else.  He hates NAFTA.  He hated TPP.  He is a deal maker and he wants a better deal.

Showing the world who is boss means one thing for US imports:

Tariffs.

He’s big on walling off and being divisive.  Soon, it’s going to cost more to ship stuff into the good ol’ USA.  How much more, nobody is certain.  My magic 8 ball is a little hazy at the moment.

Adding cost for landed garments to the United States decorated apparel industry could mean something significant though:

More shirts sewn stateside.  More shirts decorated stateside.

Boom!

Except there may not be enough companies to handle that work.  Think about it.  How many garment manufacturers for this industry actually make their blanks in the US currently?  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States currently employs only 129,400 people that manufacture textiles.  That’s down from 938,600 in 1990.  Those jobs are gone.  That equipment is gone.  That knowledge is gone.  A lot has changed in 27 years.

Gildan buying American Apparel suddenly looks like an even better move for the Canadian company.  Although nothing is manufactured like it was in 1990.  The use of technology and automation has changed the landscape.  What will they do with that opportunity?

Still, most everything is imported.  97% of all apparel and 98% of all shoes are imported into the US, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association.  How much of a difference could new domestic manufacturers make?  Will new manufacturing companies even move the needle?

I was speaking with an industry colleague last week.  He was complaining about the looming sourcing challenge facing large apparel programs.  These are the one that currently are sourced on another continent and shipped in.  The production lead time for these extends into quarters.  There is tremendous pressure right now to find domestic apparel sewing facilities that can handle the scale of business.  The thought of large tariffs, the end of TPP and soon the end of NAFTA, has these folks scrambling.  They want better answers now as they fear what’s coming.

Even nearshore manufacturing isn’t safe, as Trump wants to build his Mexican wall funded by these tariffs.  The money for that albatross has to come from somewhere.  He has big problems with Mexico, but will that extend to the Dominican Republic?  Haiti?  Costa Rica?  Other usual trade and manufacturing partners in the nearshore South American region?

Oh, you don’t decorate millions of shirts a year?

You are in the crosshairs on this too.  Look at the shirts stacked up on carts and tables in your shop right now.  Doubtful many say “Made in the USA” on the neck labels.  This problem is going to hit you squarely in the face sooner or later when Trump’s trade ideas go through.

More US Apparel Manufacturing?

If you want to get into the shirt manufacturing and sewing business within the continental US this could be an opportune time.  A great example to follow would be to look at the impact that Shinola has with bringing manufacturing back to Detroit.  Can someone do that for apparel and textiles in North Carolina?  Lowell, Massachusetts?  California?  There may be a lot of political juice to get something going.  I’m sure Dov Charney is foaming at the mouth about this opportunity.  Plus, he’s got a chip on his shoulder anyway.

Of course if domestic shirt production ramps up, someone has to decorate these garments!  Contract decorators may soon see a big jump in business.  Maybe Trump’s unfocused plan could be a good thing?  It’s too soon to tell.  More magic 8 ball unclarity.

Boom!

Trump seems headstrong to upset a lot of businesses.  Depending on if your business is in the US or not, this may mean something different to you.  Currently most import tariffs are around 2%.  Trump wants to increase this, but he’s been all over the map with the number.  He’s stated 5%.  He’s stated 10%.  He’s stated 20% for Mexico imports.  He’s stated 35%.  If something is from China, it’s a whopping 45%.  Trump hates China evidently.

His modus operandi seems to be declare something outlandish and then back down to a fallback position that is still high, but less inflammatory.  Still high somehow looks “normal”.

Will the real number be that far out?

Plan for the Worst

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the apparel blanks entering into the US cost 35% more.  Plan for the worst, right?

How will that affect your business model?  It might be positive.  It might be negative.  It all depends on where you sit in the industry.

Boom!

Either way, there should be some sort of conversation in your shop.   At least crunch the numbers.

Boom!

What are you going to say to your customers?  Will you need to revamp your pricing?  Maybe all you need to insert is the percentage increase.  Customers are well aware of Trumps plans.  It’s inescapable news content.  But will they understand when it hits them in the wallet?  Hmmm.  I think not.

Maybe if you are already using a Made in the USA blank, you can use this as an opportunity to find more margin.  Those shirts won’t be hit with the border tax.  That is, of course, if the Made in the USA blank is actually cheaper.  Most aren’t.  Which is why 97% are made somewhere else.  It is circular logic.

Boom!

Outside the US

Also, maybe you don’t live in the United States.  Plenty of my blog readers don’t.  (thank you for reading by the way!)

Will Trump affect your daily decisions? I’d love to hear how something like this would affect you.  (Leave a comment below! – Be nice!)

Boom!

Vocabulary (no tests!)

Let’s look at some key definitions (all sourced from Wikipedia):

Made in the USA – The Made in USA mark is a country of origin label indicating the product is “all or virtually all” made in the United States. The label is regulated by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  See below for the definition of Rule 16 CFR 303.

In general, goods imported into the United States must have a country of origin label unless excepted.  Requirements to label domestic content include automobiles, textiles, wool, and fur products. Any voluntary claims made about the amount of U.S. content in other products must comply with the FTC’s Made in USA policy.

FTC Textile Fiber Rule 16 CFR 303 – The Textile Fiber Rule requires that certain textiles sold in the United States carry labels disclosing the generic names and percentages by weight of the constituent fibers in the product, the manufacturer or marketer name, and the country where the product was processed or manufactured.

This is why shirts have to have neck labels with fabric content and country of origin.  It is this law.

Import Tariff – A customs duty is the indirect tax levied on the import or export of goods in international trade. In economic sense, a duty is also a kind of consumption tax. A duty levied on goods being imported is referred to as an import duty. Similarly, a duty levied on exports is called an export duty.  What you call it depends on what side of the fence you sit.

Nearshoring – is the outsourcing of business processes to companies in a nearby country, often sharing a border with the target country. Both parties expect to benefit from one or more of the following dimensions of proximity: geographic, temporal (time zone), cultural, social, linguistic, economic, political, or historical linkages. 

Offshoring – is the relocation of a business process from one country to another.  Typically it is an operational process, such as manufacturing.  Most often this is focused on cheaper labor costs.  Access to materials and supplies can also factor into the logistics.  While nearshoring application is about trade with a neighboring country, offshoring pushes that trade across the planet.

NAFTA – is the North American Free Trade Agreement.  It was enacted in 1994 and eliminated most of the tariffs between the US, Canada and Mexico.  This agreement opened up the floodgates of business activity, and in 2016 there was a $63 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. In 2016, the trade deficit with Canada was $11 billion.  This agreement saw lots of companies set up facilities in Mexico and send their goods into the US for sale.  Consumers saw prices drop.  Manufacturing companies in the US closed their doors, as they couldn’t compete with the cheaper labor.  This is the agreement Trump wants to replace.

TPP – was the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.  This was pending legislation that Trump signed away with an executive order in early 2017.  The free trade deal was to lower barriers between Japan, Vietnam, Australia and the United States.  Companies like Nike and Reebok were tremendously in favor of this agreement, as this geographic area is their manufacturing base.

Trade Deficits – in terms of how the United States trades business with the world.  America is a consumer nation.  We buy more stuff than we sell because we have the money to do so.  Here are the top trade deficits for the country for 2016:

  • China – $579 billion traded with a $347 billion deficit.
  • Canada – $545 billion traded with a $11 billion deficit.
  • Mexico – $525 billion traded with a $63 billion deficit.
  • Japan – $196 billion traded with a $69 billion deficit.
  • Germany – $164 billion traded with a $65 billion deficit.

So, What Now?

Trump sees these trade deficits as something to change.  He’s a business guy, and not a social justice reformer, so this where he wants to make his mark.  How goods coming into this country will be taxed is the vehicle that he will use to handle it.  The cornerstone of “Make America Great Again” has a lot to do with his vision of international trade.  Trump wants to kick ass and chew bubble gum.  By the way, he’s out of bubble gum.

To me, there are three basic ways your company needs to look at any US tariff increase discussion:

  • Direct impact in a positive way –  Simply put, if the cost per garment blank due to a tariff should go up your business is poised to make more money.  Is this you?  Maybe you’ve taken an inventory position and stocked up.  Maybe you grow your own cotton, produce your own blanks, and decorate your own shirts like Cotton of the Carolinas and TS Designs.  Whatever happens, the surge pricing for blanks won’t affect you negatively…in fact it will benefit you in some manner.  You are already giggling your way to the bank.  Will that last?
  • Direct impact in a negative way – any price increase due to a tariff will be an incredible buzz kill.  The only way to offset this is to increase your prices to your customers.  They won’t like it.  Will there be backlash?  Will this start a round of price shopping?  Do you offset this by eating into your margin a little to keep business and avoid any drama?  Some tough decisions are headed your way.  You hate the guy above with a passion.  You should work on using the lemons to make lemonade.
  • No impact.  Your shop is in the Philippines or Australia.  Maybe England, or somewhere else.  Anywhere but America.  What the US does or doesn’t do won’t affect you at all.  It’s a raised eyebrow, another sip of tea and then back to work doing your own thing.  Those Yanks are crazy.  This is where it gets interesting though.  After listening to the US bark like a mad junkyard dog, the US neighbors just go about their business and ignore the noise.  If you are running a print shop in Manilla, you aren’t too concerned with what happens in Ohio.  Unless of course you are printing for the swoosh.

Ramping Up

The challenge looming of course is that adding apparel manufacturing production will take planning, capital investment and logistics.  You just can’t flip a switch and presto!, shirts are shipping tomorrow.

The business opportunity here is for those that gamble that something is going to happen and are set up for that situation early.  The window from an action to other businesses catching up could be a limited one.  A year?  Two?  Less?  Trump’s idea has to worm its way through the 115th Congress.

Trump has a lot of power cards to play, as the Republicans control  Congress.   The House of Representatives (239 to 193, with 3 seats open) and the Senate (52 to 46 with 2 independents) have clear majorities. Expect lots of positioning, posturing and rhetoric before it is all said and done.  Which in the end will mean Trump’s tariff bill passes.

Can a business lasso a hunk of the market in that window?  Only their sales team will know.  How much growth and market share can you capture if you get a head start?

Boom!

For apparel blank distributors, there is one obvious question.  Can they increase their inventory position and ship it in early to avoid the tariff hike, but sell it quickly enough to cover the added carrying costs?  My guess is that we might see warehouses a little more stocked than usual.

This is when it pays to have some brainiacs on your payroll.

Boom!

Lot of Questions Unanswered

Will there be a sudden increase in American apparel manufacturing?  Will apparel companies just offset the tariff with  price increases, as that’s easier?  How long of a window will this industry have before there is a significant increase?

Let’s not also forget that many of the materials we use in our shops are also imported into the country.  Will the cost of production rise when the ingredients for ink, emulsion or thread and other products get hit too?  The supply chain isn’t commenting much.  I would love to hear their side of the story.

Whatever happens, you’ll be better off if you start planning now for it.  Now my magic 8 ball says, “Worry”.

Boom!

Not a fan of an increased border tariff?  Click here to sign the petition.

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“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.  Let us not to seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept the responsibility for the future.” – John F. Kennedy

“We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.” – Winston Churchill

“Beware of little expenses.  A small leak will sink a great ship.” – Benjamin Franklin

 

The Gig Economy

the-gig-economy

gig e-con-o-my

noun •  “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.”

Most businesses don’t think that they fit this description.  However, as markets become more unpredictable, many different companies are faced with working this way.

Balancing your labor variable just makes sense.

In the decorated apparel industry, the gig economy working class surrounds us.  You know them too.  Let’s take a peek:

  • Have you ever hired a freelance artist?
  • Have you ever outsourced your digitizing for embroidery?
  • Have you ever used a temporary worker agency?
  • Have you ever had an electrician, plumber, carpenter, or machine tech fix something “after hours” to save a buck or two?
  • Have you ever used someone to help build your webpage?
  • Have you ever had someone write a blog article or pay them to post content for your social media?
  • Have you ever outsourced some garment relabeling work to a seamstress?
  • Do you pull in more workers for seasonal help such as in the summer or Christmas holiday boom?
  • Have you ever brought your kids or relatives in to help clean screens or catch shirts when you are really busy?  Always the favorite.
  • Do you use a bookkeeper or accountant to review your financials?  What about a lawyer?
  • What about a recruiter?  Tons of industry positions open up every day and need to be staffed.  (here’s a great one: Textile Staffing Link)
  • How about me?  I do decorated apparel industry coaching constantly for shops.  But I’m not really on anyone’s permanent payroll.   

Any occupation in which workers may be hired for on-demand jobs has the loaded potential for gig employment.  To tell you the truth, I think that this type of employment is steadily growing.  Recently the McKinsey Global Institute posted that in the US and Europe there are 162 million workers that have some sort of gig economy job.  That’s 20%-30% of the entire workforce.  Quite the chunk.

You see it now in business insider-site headlines about drivers that want to work for Uber or Lyft.  That’s a gig economy job.

Where nothing existed like this five years ago, now you have an entire wave of workers willing to essentially become independent taxi cab drivers.  Why didn’t they want to drive for the taxi companies before?  Simple.  All the power rested with the taxi company and not the driver.

Recently I used Uber to get to the airport from a client’s office.  I asked the driver, Anthony, his thoughts on the work.  He said, “It’s great.  I’m my own boss.  I work when I want.  Make the money I need for the day.  When I’ve had enough I just quit, take a nap, and then get back to what I really want to do which is create music.”

The secret to this section of the gig economy is that the control resides in the worker.  He/she has 100% control of what they do, when they do it and who they do it for.  For them, this fits their lifestyle choice for the work.

Someone posted on an industry Facebook group I belong to that they wanted to be a freelance t-shirt printer and just travel the world.  Six months or so in one city and then off to somewhere else to learn what life is like there.

What an awesomely brave idea.

Successful gig workers like the control they have over their lives.  Want to go for a run at 10:00 in the morning?  Just do it.  The day becomes more about the work, and less about when you are actually doing the work.  It’s not necessarily confined to a 9 to 5 job schedule.

Let’s not forget the fact that many decorated apparel shops started off as a gig economy side job operating out of a basement or a garage, before they ever blossomed into  a mainstream “real” businesses.  You gotta start somewhere.

The biggest problem for most gig workers is the uncertainty of what’s around the corner.  Getting a steady stream of work is extremely difficult.  Most gig economy workers spend just as much time tracking down their next opportunity as they do working the ones in front of them.  Sometimes more.

This means that quite often that it’s hard to turn the gig into a full time career.  It’s a struggle.  And if you aren’t working?  Zero pay.  Sorry, no soup for you.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.  As independent contractor or freelance business opportunities become more mainstream, it may be easier to find new opportunities.  Usually this starts with a few successful finished contracts, and then as referrals come in, more business can swing your way.

For Gig Economy Workers, “Hey, I’m a Freelancer!”:

Here are some tips if you are considering doing something interesting with your career:

  • Network.  It pays to know people, especially those that may need your services.  This usually means locally, but don’t forget to use your social media contacts too.  Find a few people that can champion your services and keep them abreast of what you have been doing.  You have to keep doing this.   Whether you are an artist, web developer, software engineer, machine service technician, digitizer, embroiderer or printer…you need to meet a large number of people so they know you exist.
  • Ask questions.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially of those doing the work you are wanting to try.  What do they charge?  How do they get paid?  What has been the biggest problem?  Some might not want to share, but most will.  Look online in forums, Facebook groups or other sources for inspiration.  This industry constantly amazes me with the generosity of the information.  Even to competitors.
  • Research.  Like any business, write your plan on how you are going to succeed.  What do you need?  What makes the most sense?  Who are your customers and how will they do business with you?  Write everything down and build a business plan.  
    • You may also want to check out the governmental Bureau of Labor Statistics to see info on trending jobs.  Here’s a link to the Occupational Outlook Handbook which compiles statistics from the US census.
    • Want to start a small business as a freelancer or other gig economy type business?  Use SCORE to get started and create your plan.
  • Branding.  Learn how to differentiate yourself from others.  What is going to make you different?  While you might not need a logo, you will need to come across as a professional.  What documentation or information will you routinely need to share?  Will you need a business card or a rate sheet?  Get those made and have them ready to hand out.  Don’t forget to tune up your resume too.  Being professional equates to being ready.
  • Use social media.  Find the channels your gig customers share and then market yourself online there.  Social media means you need to be social.  Read, share or like what your clients post.  Use the private messaging feature to introduce yourself.  You want to create as much dialog with your customers as you can.  This helps drive your engagement, which leads to more gigs to complete.
    • Use online tools such as the mainstream Behance, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
    • Don’t forget about more esoteric online gig economy choices.  Freelancer.com, Toptal, & Upwork are some top sites that link workers with companies with needs.
    • Maybe you just need some help with funding to push your creative awesomeness.  Many artists are now using sites like Patreon to help get the financial aid they need to get those projects built and live.
    • You have to show people what you do.  Machine repair tech?  Have plenty of pictures of you crawling under a press.  Artist or webpage designer?  Better have a great portfolio.  People need to see examples to build trust.  “Oh yeah, he does that!” is the reaction you want.
  • Work in more companies.  I know plenty of screen-printers or embroiderers that work the day shift in one company and part time night shift in another.  Some even have deals worked out that they can use the equipment on the weekends for their own apparel line.  For them, it’s a necessary mercenary/financial decision.  More effort equates to more pay at the end of the week.  Are you willing to put that extra time in?
  • Get referrals.  The secret is to constantly get in front of people that could direct some traffic your way.  These are usually on the manager or owner level, but influential staff members can hold sway as well.  Just ask.  “Hey, I do this.  Know anyone who might need it?”  You have to ask.  Nobody sells you better than you.
  • Start a Company.  These days it isn’t too difficult to start a small company.  Create a name, file with your state, get a tax ID number and create your own LLC.  Keep good records and you can deduct your expenses.  There are tons of online legal assistance sites like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer.  Cheap and fast.  You don’t need to recreate the wheel usually.

Welcome to the Dark Side

Of course there is a rougher and darker side to this coin too.  Many people are pushed into this type of work due to circumstances out of their control.

In many areas, jobs aren’t as prevalent or easy to come by as in others.  This may mean that some people take what they can get, even if it’s not a good long term fit for them career wise.  People have bills to pay, so they work to be responsible.  Do you have folks like this in your shop?

I don’t think anyone ever sets out to be a t-shirt printer or an embroiderer.  However, a lot of great people have made wonderful careers out of “just helping out one day”.

Maybe they just migrated into this industry by the back door.  Believe it or not, my original plan was to be an architect.  I started a t-shirt company to pay for the tuition, books and supplies.  A few decades later and I’m still learning new things every day.  Which is probably the most fantastic thing about the decorated apparel industry.  It is a never ending journey.

I don’t know if that’s public knowledge though.

Shop Challenge

Here’s a challenge for you.  Do you have someone on your staff now that just seems to be marking time until something better comes along?  You know what I’m talking about.

What do they do for you?

What if you developed a career path and training program for your shop?  A to Z, soup to nuts, everything someone needs to know.  Chances are if you showed them that the entry level job is just a starting point to a bigger and brighter future.   They might just apply themselves and begin to grow roots with your company if you showed a little more interest in their development.  Paint the picture of what they could do and what it might mean for them.

Your absolute best worker five years from now could be this person that seems incredibly lost today.

Not all people are in the gig economy by choice.  Your entry level workforce doesn’t have to keep holding onto the revolving door handle either.  Can you help them earn their stripes on your team and scale their skill set?  I bet you can.

Have that conversation.

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“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”  – Buddha

“The noblest search is the search for excellence.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

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Thanks for reading!  Please take the poll below and don’t forget to share this article on your social media channels!

 

Catch the Chicken

catch-the-chicken

Speed.

What is the average production turn-time your shop?

Remember Rocky II, the movie?

Sure, 1979 was a long time ago…but I’ll bet you remember this one.  Rocky fights a rematch with Apollo Creed, and has to go through an uncomfortable change to defeat the champ.  The trick is simply to become a faster fighter.  He starts this training by having to chase and catch a live chicken.  Yes, a chicken.

Did you watch it?  If not, Netflix and chill my friend.

Of course, Rocky resists the idea of change.  At one point the wise-old trainer Mickey gruffly lectures Rocky and says “Chicken chasing is how we used to train in the old days!  If you catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!”

Then, the fun ensues with Rocky, slow and clunky, runs around the alley to grab the quick moving bird.  Watch the video clip here.

So how does this relate to your company you may ask?

In the current business climate, you need to be able to catch the chicken.  Simply put, does your shop possess greased lightning production turn speed?

Slow = Death

One thing that the online business economy has created is the craving for ever-faster delivery times.

It’s the chicken scrambling around the yard clucking.  Bock. Bock. Bock. Bock.

Nobody is patient any more.  Including me.

These days customers can go online and in a click or two get the order filled and shipped in a few days.   Especially in the decorated apparel industry.  Trust me, as special as you think you are…there are tons of shops out there that do it better than you.  You need to be able to compete.

If you are still clinging to the seven-to-ten business day model, you may be in for a rude awakening soon.

How are you ever going to knock out the champ?

Ten days?  Some shops have it down to a five or seven day turn.  Online powerhouse Merch by Amazon is now shipping in two to three days.

Now, that’s chicken-chasing!

Mickey knew that speed would defeat Apollo Creed.  Rocky’s superior strength didn’t do it the first time around.

Production turn-time speed is the weapon that you can use to gain more business.  Even if you can’t quite handle the less than five business day turns.  (Yet)

Improving this area of your shop can have tremendous benefits.

Just like Rocky, you’ll need some help to finally grab that bird.  Below are some ideas that will challenge you to think about how you can decrease the gap from order taken to order shipped.

Ready?  Let’s go!

Order Entry

It all starts here.

Plenty of speedbumps occur at this phase of the game.  Information is missing.  Customers are indecisive.  Employees have to slog through a confusing system or make mistakes along the way.

Name most any problem that takes your foot off the production gas pedal, and I’ll bet it could be resolved in just how you enter an order.

In your shop, what are the main sticky points that prevent things from happening faster?  Have you ever bothered to list them and investigate?

Let’s face it, we are in the custom production order business.  Even though the orders are all getting the same type of decoration, they are usually completely different from one another.  Even reorders tend to have different quantities and size spreads.

Using the same starting point and order entry methodology gets you to create the answers faster and know what to ask for if something is missing.

Standardize this part of the workflow.  Make it easy for your crew downstream to do their jobs.

This means training your front office staff and equipping them with the knowledge base to make good, chicken-chasing fast, decisions.  They are your first line of defense for the rest of the shop.

What orders are you taking?  When is something due?  How does it fit with the rest of the current production schedule?  Is that a four color or an eight color job?  Can you print a logo on the waist band of some yoga pants?  What thread color is a tonal match for Nike Anthracite?

Blah, blah, blah.  It’s a never ending stream.  But that stream of questions shouldn’t ever be answered by your production teams.

Anything that could hang up production later on must be resolved before the order is entered.

Cramming an incomplete order into the system and hoping it works itself out along the way is a recipe for disaster.  Ready, Fire, Aim doesn’t work.

If you want all of the other departments in your shop to work faster, you have to set them up for success by providing them with the answers to the test.

When anyone has to stop and ask “hey what’s this mean?”, it means the order wasn’t entered correctly.  Solve it long before they ask.  Yes that means you.

Make A Change

Having trouble getting the right information to make the order complete?

Other industries have solved this problem by pushing the challenge back onto the consumer.  How many times have you filled out a form online where the fields were mandatory and you couldn’t proceed to the next step until you entered the information?  

Why can’t our industry adopt this mindset?

This can be as simple as having an order entry form on your website or a work kiosk in your shop lobby for customers to use.  What is it worth to you to have the information in your system without any data entry on your part?  How much time and labor savings would that create?

Just set it up that way.  It’s your shop.  Your rules.

For companies that have customers that use Purchase Orders, you could incentivize them by offering a faster turn time, free screens or even a monetary incentive to use your system.  What you want is the information getting into your production funnel faster with more accuracy.

Think beyond the empty order form box.  What do you need to get the order information complete?  Are you asking the right questions?

Inventory

Another crucial cog in the chicken-chasing machine is how you are handling inventory.

For many shops, they are geographically blessed with being a one day ground ship from major apparel distributors.  Order Monday.  Shirts delivered Tuesday.   Simple.

That essentially solves most inventory-based production time challenges.  Unless of course, they are out of stock on an item or size and it has to ship from across the country.  Then, that can throw everything off.

Some shops aren’t so fortunate.  They may be two days or more from these distribution centers or in a more remote area.

Solving that challenge usually means stocking an assortment of brands, colors and sizes.  Like restaurants with house wines, shops have go-to stock shirts they have on hand.

The most popular t-shirt colors will always be White, Black, Sport Gray, and the local team colors.  Currently the trend is pushing popular style colors into heathered varieties.

Getting all of these choices into one area of the shop could be a footprint challenge.  Not to mention the hassle of actually taking care of the inventory.  Figure it out if this can make your shop faster.

For a better customer service experience, do your research and know how long it takes to get the inventory in for the best selling and popular brands, styles and colors that you are going to offer.  Make this information available.  Your goal is to compress the shirt delivery time for orders as much as you can for a lion’s share of your work.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy assortment either.  What if you just stocked white or black in one brand?  Do some data mining in your system and determine if that makes sense just from the color standpoint alone.

“Sure Mr. Customer we can order these black t-shirts, but if you go with our stock Gildan (or insert your shirt of choice), we can produce that order a few days earlier.”

Would that make a difference?

Plenty of customer driven production programs are built by ordering in a larger stock of items and then pulling from that for daily or weekly orders.  Shirts in the building means immediate production capabilities.

Press two, no waiting…

Manage the Inventory

One of the biggest hangups with keeping a production schedule tight lies with how the inventory is being managed.  You can’t decorate shirts unless they are counted, received and staged.  How good is your crew in this area?  Clean, organized and efficient?  Good at math?  The good at math part is essential by the way.

A good rule of thumb to follow, is that the inventory has to be checked in the day it arrives.  All shirts are counted and inspected against the vendor’s packing list.  The packing list is then reviewed against the system order information.  If everything is complete, the job is marked as such and then staged for production.  Challenges with counts, color, styles or damages have to be reported immediately and acted upon.

Want faster shop speed?  Get your inventory under better control.  Don’t leave it to chance.

Art

As you know in the decorated apparel industry we don’t ship many blank shirts.  There has to be some sort of image applied to the garment.

That something comes from the talent and skill of your art team.  While some artists  can work faster, the friction point for turn-time speed doesn’t usually rest with these folks.

The problem for getting art approved almost always is with the customer.  In your shop is it any different?

Some shops are using a new app called Instaply to get these approvals opened and approved immediately.  I wrote about this in my Shop Tech Solutions article a few weeks ago.

How are you managing this process?  The faster you can get from order entry to art approval, allows you more time for the production crew to work their magic.

Some more points to consider:

First, if you are constantly having to make multiple changes to designs before they can get approved, something isn’t quite right with your process.

  • Sales people are notorious for the “Do something cool” set of instructions.  Or, my other non-favorite, “just do two or three designs and they’ll pick the one they like the best.”  Can you say lazy?  You are better than this.  Why do two or three times the work for one order?  Dumb.
  • The second is just a picky client.  There are people out there that always have to make a change as that denotes “control”.  Nothing much you can do about that, except try to reign in these folks by getting hyper detailed instructions from the onset.  Shoot them layout thumbnails that you’ve scribbled together early.  Bring them along in the process so that control urge is sated, and the final art approval comes faster as they have already made their changes known.  They just want to taste the soup and say add more salt.

Production 

To increase production turn-time speed you need to look at a few areas.

First, where are the bottlenecks?

Maybe you have room on your machines, but you are waiting on the files to be digitized or screens to be burned.  Maybe you have the job set up, but your crews are waiting for someone to get that PMS 3005 blue mixed.  Maybe you’ve produced a sample, but need the client to approve it before running the order.

I’m sure you can not only relate, but can name your top issues as fast as you can name your children.  The point is that you need to resolve those challenges to increase your speed.  Are you doing anything about them really?  Most shops know they have problems, but lack the willpower or knowledge base to squash them.

Get more people trained to digitize embroidery files.  Buy an LED CTS screen system.  Have inks mixed the day before the job is to run.  Have sample orders created as their own jobs separate from the production order.  When the sample is approved the clock starts on the real one.

Next, look at your equipment and staff.  Do you have enough of both?  Are they the right kind?

Typically, newer equipment and seasoned staff members work better and faster.  Is that what you have in the shop now?  Or, are you making do with used fifteen year old machines and a bunch of temporary workers that don’t know anything?

Want greasy chicken-catching speed?  Maybe it’s time to rethink your production equipment and staffing strategy!

Make It Easy

Catching a scared chicken can get easier if you corner it.  Then, it doesn’t have anywhere to go and you can reach down and just grab it.

Increasing speed in your shop is the same way.  Just make it easier for people to do the right thing.

How many more turns a day in your embroidery department do you think you get if you brought pre-hooped shirts to the machine and just lined them up?  Can’t afford a gazillon hoops?  How about just adding one more person to the production table to hoop?  Especially on low stitch count jobs.  Those always go quick.

You can even think about how you stage things.  Line up everything needed by each of the production workstations, in the order that they need to be produced.  Take the “what are we doing next” question off of everyone’s lips.

This means that you need to be proactively looking ahead.  Imagine the joy and delight your production crews will have when everything they need is two feet away.  Someone stages the shirts, ink, thread, samples, work order documents, approvals and anything else needed to run the job.

It’s just magically there ready to go.

Repeat After Me:

Today’s production is set up yesterday.  Tomorrow’s production is set up today.  That’s your new mantra.

The push is to constantly get things out early.  The earlier the better.  Jobs that have to ship today should be produced yesterday.  Two days ago or more is even better.  Go!  Go!  Go!

What do you have to do in your shop to get to that level?  Is this something you are even discussing?  Or are you the shop that had the job that was supposed to ship Thursday, but it didn’t go out until the following Tuesday?  In fact, the client had to call and ask when it didn’t show up on Monday.

That’s not doing you any favors.

What are you willing to do to build speed?  Are you happy with just watching the chicken run around?  Bock.  Bock.  Bock.  Bock.

Other shops are training in the alley to grab the chicken.  Here’s what they are doing:

  • Investing in production technology.
    • Digital printing on garments means zero screens.
    • If you use screens, Computer to Screen technology means screens ready to wash out incredibly quickly.  M&R’s STE handles it in under a minute per screen.
    • Automated coaters means perfect emulsion on screens.  For better flow, buy the one that coats two screens at a time.
    • Instead of one overbooked single head embroidery machine, what about several lines of eight or twelve head machines?
    • Paperless production.  How much time would you save if you never printed another piece of paper again?  Think about the effort you spend right now walking paper around your shop.  What if that went away?
    • Touch screen monitors on the floor.
    • Managers with tablets.
    • Barcodes on boxes.
    • Everything in the cloud.
  • Shop operating software.  This stuff has been out there for a long time.  Are you still using whiteboards and spreadsheets?  Do you use an abacus instead of a calculator?  Did you remember to tie up your horse when you rode into work today?  Seriously, time to modernize don’t you think?
  • Limiting choices.  Build your business plan and focus on developing things so they make sense.  Why worry about struggling with printing that yoga pants waistband order when your main customer is servicing rock band tour merchandise?  Let some other shop have that job and keep your schedule uncluttered.  Or just outsource it and still make the money.  Use your noggin’.
  • Eliminate clutter.  A clean shop is a faster shop.  Being a slob slows you down.
  • Quality is job one.  Doing it right the first time is always faster than a million miles an hour and wrong.  Redoing anything is a waste of time.  Measure twice, cut once.
  • Focus on technique.  In our industry, it’s the science behind the craft that drives the results.
  • There are 24 hours in a day.  How much of that time are you producing? Want to drop your published turn times by several days?  What about more shifts?  What would you need to build that?
  • Look at your downtime too.  During each shift, how much of that is actually decorating a shirt?  Are you measuring?  What’s your up-time percentage?  If you don’t know, why not?
  • Hiring better staff.  You get what you pay for.  When you only hire minimum wage folks, you get minimum wage thinking.  Don’t think you are saving any money by being cheap.  Maybe that’s what is holding you back.
  • Setting standards and building staff training programs.  Decide how you want your business to work and train on it.  When everyone is on the same page you move faster.

Getting faster in anything is a culmination of a lot of work.  Trying and tweaking many things is going to produce the results you want.  Eliminate the wasted steps.  Ask why a lot.  It’s going to be a team effort.  It can’t be just the owner or a manager barking orders.

Teamwork will drive your success.

Then the victory phrase is “Winner, winner…chicken dinner.”

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“Life is like a ten speed bicycle.  Most of us have gears we never use.” – Charles M. Schultz

“The speed of the leader is the speed of the gang.” – Mary Kay Ash

“When you call upon a thoroughbred he gives you all the speed, strength of heart and sinew in him.  When you call upon a jackass, he kicks.” – Patricia Neal

 

 

 

 

Risky Business: Repetitive Motion

risky-business-repetitive-motion

Repetitive motion.  That two word phrase defines the decorated apparel industry.

Regardless if you are a screen-printer, embroiderer, or digital print shop, your workers repeat the same task all day.

Yet, most shops don’t spend much time training the staff how to do things properly from an ergonomic point of view.  In any task, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach the job.  When it comes down to it, our industry is based on the physicality of our workforce.

Even the most automated shops still require people to run the machines.

Pulling squeegees.  Mixing ink.  Hooping garments.  Loading garments on press.  Cutting with scissors.  Counting shirts.  Packing boxes.  Lifting.  Sorting.  Shipping.  Cleaning.  Typing.

You name it, we do it.

Yet, is it done properly?  Have you set your employees up for success to make sure they understand the proper way to stand?  To sit?  How to lift that box?  How posture comes into play?  How to work a full day and not have a sore back or achy feet?

What if we defined our work group instead of just employees, but as “Industrial Athletes”

I know, quit giggling.  I’m serious.

In a sports setting, great care is emphasized for the players to keep themselves in shape.  To stretch and warm up before participating.  To wear the proper clothing and footwear.  To perform a certain way with proper technique to maximize the efficiency and power, while minimizing the chances of pain and injury.  To listen to coaches as they point out weaknesses and push the team to improve.

I think there is a lot we can learn from sports to apply to our businesses.

What if you thought about your staff as a sports team?  Do you think your overall performance and efficiency would go up if you emphasized the proper technique for each work task?

You already made sure that the equipment and supplies were the best available. What if you focused more attention to the “how” your workers are completing each activity?

Ergonomics

Consider the word “Ergonomics” from the Greek origins.  Ergon means work.  Nomics means natural.  In other words, “Work Naturally”.

Think about the culture in your shop regarding health and safety.  Do you have a user friendly workplace?  Answer these questions:

  • Does your shop take responsibility and provide a workplace that reduces the ergonomic challenges associated with the tasks?  
    • For example, are tables raised to prevent back injuries?
    • Do you have ergonomic keyboards or mouse pads with gel cushions for the wrists?  
    • What other examples can you name?
  • Do you have cushioned mats for workers to stand on, instead of bare concrete?  Are they new or ripped up and torn from years of abuse?
  • Do you have large touch screen computer monitors instead of keyboards in the shop?  What type of automation or barcodes have you implemented to reduce typing or data entry? 
  • Do you train your workers to “lift with their legs” for boxes?
  • Do you hand out free PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gloves, ear protection, or safety glasses?  Do you train your staff in how to use them?  Are they mandatory?
  • Do you train at least once a year on ergonomics, injury prevention and safety training?
  • Do you train your staff in the techniques of their job to prevent injury?
  • Do you schedule regular break periods?
  • Do you have a company wellness program?
  • Do you have an employee handbook, and suggest proper attire such as shoes that offer support?
  • Have you noticed a decline in overall job performance or possibly some quality control challenges?  This may be due to a workplace ergonomic challenge.
  • Do your employees report injuries to their supervisors, or are they afraid to say anything?
    • Possible injuries include pain or aches in the hands, wrists, arms, neck, joints, back, legs or feet.
    • Also be on the lookout for numbness, cramping, fatigue, strains, burning sensation, weakness, swelling, stiffness, redness or tingling in an affected area.
    • Look for these too: reduced grip strength in one or both hands, reduced range of motion, tension and/or stress headaches, dry/itchy or sore eyes, and double or blurred vision.
    • If you are reading this article and work in the shop…how many of the above symptoms do you have right now?  Have you said anything?
  • Have you had a record of any workplace injuries in the past?  Strains, muscle pulls, carpal tunnel injuries?  What happens if something occurs?  Do you make any changes to prevent it from happening to someone else?  How often are you reviewing your OSHA 300 logs or supporting OSHA 301 forms?

Prevention is the Key

According to a 2014 study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 38.9% of occupational injuries involving days away from work were the result of a muscle sprain of some sort.  This resulted in over 420,000 worker injuries and had an average of ten days away from work.

Have you put any emphasis into injury prevention?

Musculoskeletal injuries and disorders are the largest category of workplace injuries and are responsible for almost a third of all worker’s compensation costs.  That’s a big chunk of change.

Think about how we work in our shops.  How often is someone picking something up that weighs 30 lbs or more?  What happens if they twist to load it onto a table or skid?  How often is someone bent over?

In production, workers are constantly twisting with their upper torso.  Printing, loading, catching, and moving around.  Are they working in an athletic position?  Knees slightly bent, feet shoulder width apart?  What happens to the feet when the work is being performed?  Do they stay locked into place, so the entire leg twists?  How much pressure is being placed on the knees or ankles?  Consider the amount of stress that may be causing over time.

How we work is important.

What is the relationship between the worker and the machine or table near them?  Do they stoop over to use it, because they are tall?  Do they have to reach up and over because they are short?  Even a few inches of help could make a big difference for that worker by the end of the day.

So now that you are worked up and worried, what can a shop do to prevent injuries or emphasize worker safety better?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Talk to your staff.  What do they need?  Are they complaining about fatigue?  Discomfort?  If you ask, they will tell you.
    • Also, maybe you have noticed your crew changing something about their workstation on their own to make it more comfortable.  Ask them why?  If something is a good idea in one area, maybe you could expand it for the rest of the shop.
  • Identify where your problems are by getting out on the floor and observing.  You won’t know anything sitting behind your desk postulating.  Watch your crew work.  Who is struggling?  Can you adjust something to make it a better ergonomic fit?
    • Look at three things and consider their impact on the work being performed:
      • The Duration of the activity without relief or a break.
      • The Frequency, which is the cycle time between the repetitive task.
      • The Magnitude, which is how much effort is spent doing the task.
  • Look at your worker’s clothes, especially their shoes.  You want comfortable support.  Flip flops or bedroom slippers aren’t a good choice.  Yes, I’ve seen those.  
    • Personally, I’ve worn low-rise hiking shoes for years, as they are light and offer great support.
  • Eliminate excessive force.  When you have to really exert a tremendous amount of effort to do something, you are risking injury.  Is there a better way?  Maybe that ink is really stiff on a cold morning and needs a stir before using.  Instead of your Goop Scoop, try a mixing blade with a power drill.  Think through your problem and see if there’s an alternative solution.  Work smarter, not harder.
  • Excessive Repetition.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a job is considered highly repetitive if the cycle time is 30 seconds or less.  Well, that just about defines our entire industry in production.  While you want to be conscious of reaching your production goals, it’s important to remember that there are people doing the work.  A good idea to help prevent any repetitive stress injury is to take breaks, and even switch out workers in tasks.  Rotate your crews into different job functions throughout the day.  This keeps them up on training for different roles, and also makes their day more interesting so they are paying attention.
  • Posture is key.  Watch how your staff works.  Are they slouched over?  Do they look uncomfortable?  Awkward posture positions puts excessive force on different body parts and can overload muscles and tendons on an affected joint.  Over time, injuries can occur.
  • Poor work practices.  You should be looking for good body mechanics.  Are they practicing good lifting techniques?  (Squatting down with bent knees, back straight, using the leg muscles to lift.  Not your arms or back.)
  • Be careful.  Have you seen a 120 lb person move a 900 lb skid fully loaded with t-shirts across the shop floor and have to suddenly stop or change direction?  I have.  It’s frightening.
  • Can you change how you perform the work?  Pushing a squeegee exerts less stress than pulling.  Can you adopt a different method?  Maybe use a hand-truck to move that heavy box?
  • Do you promote mentoring?  Have the old guard train the new workers.  People who have been handling these chores for years will often know the best way to stand, sit or move to complete the task easily.  Pair up newbies with veterans and rotate them around as part of their on-boarding.  Specifically list what they are to learn.
  • Poor nutrition, fitness and hydration.  If we consider our workforce to be industrial athletes, how do you think the staff’s personal choices relate to their performance in their daily tasks?  
    • Consider how an professional athlete connects the relationship between their diet and overall fitness, and how our work staff thinks about it?  
    • How many people on your staff would be out of breath just climbing one flight of stairs?  In a production environment, I’ll bet there is a correlation between overall physical fitness with the amount of work completed by the end of the day.  What have you seen?

Many insurance companies offer free ergonomic consultants to come in and review your workplace.  Preventing injuries is less costly than insurance claims.  Check with your insurance agent and see if this may be available to you.

Larger companies often have an HR department than can facilitate worker safety and ergonomic programs.  Smaller shops often just don’t have the manpower, and will have to do it themselves.  All is not lost though.  Gather your interested parties and seek help.  Get a committee together and refine your program by establishing some priority goals.  Do a self audit just by walking around and list the top items you see that could payoff quickly.  Make sure you talk to your staff about what they need.

You can do it!

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“Success is no accident.  It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pele

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” – Confucious

“Success isn’t always about greatness.  It’s about consistency.  Consistent hard work leads to success.  Greatness will come.” – Dwayne Johnson

Shop Tech Solutions

shop-tech-solutions

Not so many years ago, our industry operated with simpler tools.  Squeegees and ink.  Needles and thread.  Maybe a whiteboard or spreadsheet for scheduling.

Remember when you used to plaster parking lots with flyers for your shop?  That was caveman social media.

These days things are far more complicated.

Whether you are the “one-man band” and operate your business by yourself, or your shop has a multitude of employees and is an around-the-clock juggernaut, there is one thing that can help simplify your business:

Technology.

The use of tech in your business can extend the number of things you are working on simultaneously.  It can make a particular challenge easier.  It can handle a specific task faster.  It can save you money.  Or, it’s just plain cool.

For this article I’m purposely avoiding production equipment and shop operating systems.  I know, I know.  I’ll get to those with another article.

Interested in that?  Check out this outstanding issue of Screenprinting that is dedicated to automation.  Especially my article on page 30 “Five Steps to Take Control of Your Printroom.”

Let’s take a look:

Instaply

Are your customers sending you orders or requests via text message or even Facebook Messenger?

Do you find that annoying?

“Dadgummit! Why can’t people email like they are supposed to?  How dare they contact me with a method that’s convenient for them!  What are they thinking?”

It is simple.  Because texting is easier. Why talk when you can just type?  For younger users, it’s probably the preferred method.

In our got-to-have-it-now truncated universe, texting eliminates the need for any social norms.  It gets down to the nitty-gritty without any “hey how are you?”.

It just doesn’t fit well with our established industry business model that is based on emails or even talking on the phone.  I’m old enough to remember when emailing started.  Are you?

Text messaging for communication isn’t going anywhere.  In fact, as your customer demographic changes to skew towards a younger generation, text usage will continue to increase.  You can either adapt, or become irrelevant.

That frustration you are feeling now?  It’s just going to get worse without some sort of change.  But there is a solution on the horizon!

Instaply is an app that you can use to redirect this challenge to suit your needs.

The trick here is that you can build the communications backend in Instaply with pre-written messages to handle those after hours requests.  Better yet, you can turn the tables on your customers that prefer to use text messages by sending them their art approvals, invoices or other business files to them via text.  Make that communication channel work for you, instead of against you.

Emails often go to spam filters or sometimes are never opened.  Conversely, 98% of all text messages are read within three minutes of receipt.  You know this is true, because you read text messages instantly too.  We all do it.

What’s really great is that in Instaply you can seamlessly handoff text message conversations to other members of your team.  It’s all recorded in one text stream, regardless of how many members of your staff are handling the questions.

  • “Hey can I get a new quote with hoodies instead of t-shirts”?  Have a customer service rep take over.
  • “What if the logo was blue?” – new art approval coming your way!
  • “Can you send me an updated invoice?”  In the admin, shoot that over to your accounting team.
  • “What’s the tracking number for that shipment?” Get their sales rep or your shipping folks involved.

For the security minded this is a fantastic tool.  Instaply removes that text message chain off of your employee’s phones and into a saved channel.  Those business conversations are kept with the company, not on anyone’s cell phone.  If someone was to leave your company, all of that dialog history stays with you.

There is even a webpage widget that you can apply to your website to install the text messaging communication as the first round of contact.  Many people just want answers, not necessarily to “talk” to anyone.  This solves that problem.  And at $100 a month for your entire company, it’s an inexpensive elegant solution.

Want to learn more?  You can book a free demo by texting “T-Shirt” to (805) 204-7138.  Ask for Don.  He’s a nice guy.

Pantone Lighting Indicator Stickers

Have you ever nailed that PMS color in production only to have your customer call you and complain that the printed result doesn’t match their swatchbook?  How are you ever going to win that argument?  You know you printed it right!

Here’s how.

Can stickers be considered tech?  Make sure your customer is viewing the color in the correct lighting temperature with these easy to apply lighting indicator stickers from Pantone.  Yes, colors can change in different lighting conditions.  The quality of the light can make a critical difference on how color is viewed by the human eye.

There are two types of patches to apply to your sample.  Under ideal lighting conditions, they will match.  If the lighting isn’t quite right, the patches will appear to be different.  This ensures that your work mixing and printing the ink color is being viewed by your customer with the optimal lighting.  If it matched on your end, it will match on their end.

Do things the right way and be confident in your color reproduction.

For graphic reproduction use the D50 series Pantone Lighting Indicator Stickers.  They are $55 a sheet, which may seem expensive to some shops.  However, to ensure proper color communication with a nit-picky or a critical client that may be cheap. 

My Pantone App

Speaking of Pantone colors, have you ever wondered what color something might be in front of you?  Want to double check that you mixed that hue correctly?  Did your client just request you print that logo in 7653 but you aren’t in your office to check your PMS book?

Did you know that Pantone has an app that you can use with your phone to find out?  The My Pantone app works with all devices and for only $7.99 it’s a deal.  

After you download the app it wants you to ensure you are set up properly with using the X-Rite color calibration tool.  This is an extra expense and logical step.  So if you truly are interested in making your cell phone or iPad an accurate tool, then you’ll need to go this route.

But, the app works great without it too.

What’s nice is that all of the Pantone books available are now loaded on your phone.  Sure, they aren’t a directly printed official match, but if you want to view a color easily it may be a way to go.  Phone screen color cast be damned.

Don’t have $130 to blow on a proper Pantone book?  This may be a cheaper, but albeit not perfectly accurate, route for color matching.  For salespeople or customer service reps that just want to view what a particular color looks like for conversational purposes, this may be perfect.

It’s easy to use.  Just take a picture of something with the app.  There is a focus tool that works with your finger to dial in the area you want to review for the color match. I’ve played around with it with some printed pieces I had available.  Like the Pantone stickers above, you’ll need good neutral lighting for the app to work best.  It still gives you some good readings and may be helpful in your shop.

For designers, there’s a great feature that shows five color harmony selections for any color.  This could be a wonderful tool if you are working on a project and need the exact color wheel opposite of PMS 7421.  (It’s PMS 2266 by the way)  It also shows the cross references for any color in all of the Pantone books at a glance.  So when your customer says their Pantone color blue is 70-5-3 C, you can instantly determine that PMS 2757 C is the perfect match.

And that’s not all!

The app also gives you LAB, CMYK, RGB and HTML numbers for every color too.  No need to run to Photoshop to look those up any longer if you are trying to convert.

Just go to your app store to purchase it.  You’ll never know when inspiration may hit.

Ink Mixing Systems

Speaking of color, can your shop accurately mix ink for any Pantone color in just a few minutes?

Plenty of shops, especially smaller ones, just use ink right out of the bucket because they lack the special skill in ink mixing.  Not everyone has an eye for color or has the artist background to know how to mix for color matching.

When someone does request a particular color, either they order that ink from their supplier or they try to stumble through and mix it themselves through the age-old trial and error method.  That’s how that quart you needed for that job wound up being a gallon.  Or more.  And it still wasn’t quite right.

Why struggle?  Why limit the numbers of crayons in your design box too?

Both of the two top ink companies, Wilflex and Rutland, offer online ink mixing systems that can take the burden out of this chore.

These are component based systems.  You start with a digital scale.  Everything is measured in grams, so you’ll need that scale to go to .01 for exact mixes.  Zero it out with your bucket, and then add the right amount of the ink base, plus all of the pigments needed to make the color built on the pre-calibrated formula.

A pro tip is to use inexpensive condiment bottles for the thinner pigments so you can add them by a drop or two easily.  For thicker pigments, just use your mixing blade.

This type of workflow works for plastisol, waterbase and silicone inks.  Just like in music, it’s all about the base.  No treble.

The Wilflex IMS 3.0 system is what I’ve used professionally and it’s very convenient and easy to use.  You can repurpose one color of ink to mix another, which will save you money in the long run.  Imagine using 2500 grams of PMS 186 to mix PMS 202?  Yep, the system calibrates it for you.  You can create and save custom ink mixes and even print bucket labels too.  The new Rio system has added two more pigments to the line-up for even truer Pantone color matching.

Rutland’s version is from the Rutland Group Color Center and is called the DMX system.  This mixes for Rutland, QCM, Printop and Union inks.

Regardless of the ink platform, the tech application here minimizes the headaches and flattens the learning curve in mixing colors.  Plus, you can mix only the amount of ink you need for a job as the formulas are based on grams, not the size of the bucket.  Professionals are specific about their printed color, and with such an easy way to manage your ink workflow, you need to get this technology working for you.

Don’t limit your shop’s color selection because mixing is “too hard” or “too expensive”.

Shop Floor Plans

Ever wish you had a professional planning guide to play around with shop layout and workflow?  Sure, it’s easy to just sketch things out on a pad of paper.  However, nothing beats the thrill of dragging and dropping your shelving, equipment and other things in a computer program.

So, what can a small business use that’s not too pricey?

How about SmartDraw?  I discovered this app when I was looking up something else online.  There is a one week free trial, and then after that it’s 14.95 per month, billed annually.  Which means, ahem, get your planning completed in the first week or so.

When you log in, the site shows mostly residential housing but if you click through you can find the commercial building section.  It is fantastically easy to drag walls out to make them larger, or add a doorway somewhere.  Just click and enter the dimensions of your floorplan.  Add in everything in your shop.

Want to work on your workflow and shop efficiency?  Get some basic measurements down and enter them into SmartDraw.   Flip stuff around.  Brainstorm on how changing your workflow direction might work if you put your shipping department on the other side of the room.  Want to add embroidery or a DTG printer?  Plan where that work area could squeeze in with your existing floor plan challenges.

This app answers the question “What if we did it this way?”

TweetBuzz

Many shops struggle with growing their social media accounts.  Is there anything that can help?

For Twitter, TweetBuzz is a service that allows you to enter specific keywords, hashtags, names or other user defined keywords.  The service will automatically follow accounts based on these preferences for you.  After three days, if they haven’t followed you back TweetBuzz unfollows the account automatically.  #winning

I have to admit that I was leery about having a service handle this for me, but I like the results.

In just a few months, my Twitter account has grown organically with some fantastic results.  Sure, there’s a bunch of odd looking ducks in there from time to time.  Those weirdos all seem to go away with the programming. But once you get used to refining the keyword parameters your followers tend to shake out much better.

For the first week or so, be sure to include the keywords to “Not Follow” and also enter accounts to ignore.  It’s a robot doing the work, so it grabs everything.  The more selective you are about who to target, the better results you’ll have.

I’m getting more followers that are in this industry.  These people are interested in my content and my blog readership has increased with more than sixty new readers a day.  Which is working towards my goal of developing a bigger audience.

For your shop, this could be your target demographic following you.  Automatically.

Tired of just having a few followers on your Twitter account?  This service is something I know that works.  Go to this TweetBuzz link and see for yourself. 

Buffer

Buffer is how I schedule all of my social media.  I usually have all of the posts you see pegged out at least two weeks in advance.   When I know I have a busy slate ahead, sometimes I’ll push that scheduling out to a month.

What’s valuable about Buffer is that it measures anything with a hyperlink.   You’ll know how many people clicked on each post you share.  It also tracks likes and comments.  This is a great way to test not only what type of content works to build your online brand, but what day and time to post that content.

You can share up to ten posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest for free.  If you want to go over that amount, you’ll have to upgrade.  I was a free user for a long time.   But I liked the flexibility of scheduling things out, so I opted to upgrade to get more posts in the queue.

The beauty of Buffer is that is very simple to use.  Write your post.  Select what social media channel it should drop into.  Then, you can “Add to Queue” which means that it plops it in as the last post to go out.  You can also select “Share Next” or “Schedule”.  There are a lot of options to refine how you share your posts.  Experiment and see what works best to drive the interaction with your audience.

Once you get the hang of it, you can load all of your social media posts in advance in a very short amount of time.  When I ask shops about their social media marketing the number one excuse I hear about social media is “I don’t have enough time to do it right.”

Buffer is a great mechanism to handle that chore.  Try it!

Infographics

Let’s face it, content creation is hard.  That’s why people don’t do it.

I’ve spoken before about the 90-9-1 rule about content.  90% of the content that’s published is read by people online that follow or are connected to you.  9% of those people will like, share, comment or retweet that content.  Sadly only 1% of the people online are actually creating the content that everyone enjoys.  So that 1% fills the channels that 90% of the people consume.

It pays to be in that 1%.

But you are busy.  And busy is actually an understatement usually.  So, how do you create content that is unique to your brand?

Have you ever thought of an infographic?  These are short, fact-filled graphics that can convey a message to your audience.  Think about the top four or five questions you get asked every month.

  • “What is the most popular t-shirt color?”
  • “What size graphic can fit on a shirt?”
  • “What’s the difference between a raster and a vector file?”
  • “How many stitches is this logo?”
  • Fill in the blank for your shop “___________”.

Imagine if you created an infographic that answered one of those questions.  Then you share it every few weeks or so on your social media channels. (Using Buffer of course)  Post it on your website.  Email it to customers when they ask the same question.  It’s a handy tool.

Then create another one next month.  Soon, you’ll have plenty of evergreen, fact-filled pieces of content to share on a regular basis.

I’ve been using an app called Visme for about a year now.  You can use it for free.  It’s extremely simple to create animated infographics that resonate.  Check out this one I made called “Operation Critical: Screen Prep”.  

What’s easy about Visme is that there are plenty of ready to use templates.  Once you add your own images, logos and flair, you’ve created your own infographic in just a few minutes.  Getting started is a piece of cake, just scribble out in list form what you want to say.  Gather some images and upload them.  Select a template, and then put everything together.

Voila!  Instant market differentiator.

This is how you can educate your customer base.  Put more knowledge in their hands.

Learning Can Be Tech

Ever wanted to learn how to print better?  Lack the funds to take a workshop or maybe you just don’t know how to get started?

Well, you are in luck.  Just released from MagnaColours is a comprehensive ten module online learning tool.  These modules are built to be half-day learning sessions that focuses the attention on particular area of screen-printing on garments.  This is simply brilliant.

Here are the modules:

  • Module One: Printing with high solids
  • Module Two: Printing with medium solids onto non-dischargable fabrics
  • Module Three: Discharge printing
  • Module Four Soft base printing onto light garments
  • Module Five: MagnaMix colour matching
  • Module Six: Pre-press artwork, separations & screen making
  • Module Seven: Special effects printing
  • Module Eight: Quality Control
  • Module Nine: Troubleshooting
  • Module Ten: Toxic textiles

These classes are set up so you can learn at you own pace, when it is convenient for you.  Check this great FREE learning tool at MaganColors Academy

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“We must use time as a tool, not a couch.” – John F. Kennedy

“Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“The science of today is the technology of tomorrow.” – Edward Teller

 

Finding Your Next Big Customer

finding-your-next-big-customer

In December of 2016 I posted on my social media channels a simple essay contest for decorated apparel shops that read this blog.  Send me a few paragraphs outlining your shop’s biggest challenge.  Using that info, I’ll craft a response as the basis of an upcoming article.  The winner receives an hour of free coaching help from me in return.

For everyone that submitted their questions that weren’t chosen, thank you very much!  Loved your questions, comments and appreciation.  You rock!

The winning question was submitted from Devon Brabenec from Superior Merch in Ashland Ohio.  You can check out Superior Merch by visiting superiormerch.com.  I’m sure they would love the traffic and business!

Here’s his quote:

“Our shops biggest challenge would have to be finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.  Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.  Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.

We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.  Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.

I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

The reason I chose Devon’s answer was that it pretty much sums up the challenges faced by many readers.  My own consulting clients as well.  Does his story ring true to your journey?

We all want more.  We want to get to the next level.  We aren’t happy with the status quo.  We need growth.  Dadgummit, we got some big dreams!

I wish I could just say to Devon that all he has to do is just call this one guy I know and he’ll just hand over a ton of work.  It’s never that easy.  If it was, I’d be working five minutes a day and be on a beach somewhere.  Did I mention I have big dreams too?

Answering Devon’s query, let’s start by breaking everything down into smaller chunks for examination.   We’ll go through each one by one.

“Our shops biggest challenge would be to finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.”

I hate to break it to Devon, but that’s every company that’s ever been in business challenge too.

This in a nutshell is why you need a Business Plan.

Shooting from the hip and just getting lucky only takes you so far.  A Business Plan is a tactical roadmap that you build with research and lots of discussion.  It’s work, just like printing an order.

You can’t skimp and get good results.

There are several questions that need to be detailed with specific answers.  These drive all your sales work and strategic planning:

  • What pain or problem are you solving for the customer?  Be logical and critical about what they need or want.
  • What makes you different?  Can you serve the same market better or in a different way than your competition so that it makes you unique?  If you don’t have anything different, can you change your work to find your blue water strategy?  Can you craft your elevator pitch so it resonates?  What is your value proposition?
  • Who is your customer?  It can’t be “everybody”.  Boil it down and focus like a laser beam on just a few set of key demographics.  How do they buy?  How much do they spend?  When do they buy?  Who makes the decision? What is the trigger to buy?
    • I know a shop where their minimum order is 1200 pieces.  If you don’t want the 7 piece order, where should your standard order quantity start?
  • Who is your competition?  I’d say not just locally in your city either.  Why are your customers using them?
  • What production channels make sense for the customers you serve?  If you are inundated with smaller orders, maybe that’s a signal to invest in DTG or at least a heat press.  Does your production fit the market you serve?  Idle machine time doesn’t make you any money.
  • The money questions.  How are you going to sell?  Where are you going to sell?  What are your operating expenses?  What is your monthly break even amount?  How much money do you want to make at the end of the year?
  • How are you marketing your shop?  What is your strategy to reach the customer’s you have defined above?
  • What are your top challenges to overcome to achieve your goals?  List these in order of biggest problem to solve first.  There could be only a few or maybe there’s a list as long as your arm.  It’s important to construct and work on the solutions by identifying them.

These are hard questions to answer.

Constructing a plan that has targeted goals will increase your chances to land those more valuable customers.

Also, the funny thing about that business plan?

It never just sits.  It needs to change.  There will be new competition in the marketplace.  There will be a new trend that you may need to follow.  Your business will need to adapt to some different pressure point.  Write the business plan and constantly review it to make sure it’s relevant to your circumstances.

You can’t have it just in your head.  Get it on paper.  Show it to people, especially in your company.  Tweak it.  Some parts of it won’t work.  Change them and try again.

There isn’t only one answer to the test.

“Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.”

I’d like to ask Devon how they are leveraging the repeat and handful of annual jobs?  Or just any job in house in general.

As I’m sure many shops around the globe can attest, that small order you did for someone can blossom into a huge opportunity if you please them enough.

What can you do to make them go from “just another customer”, to the most passionate advocate of your shop?  Are you just decorating shirts or are you shipping happiness?

What will make customers go bananas?

The number one thing that drives more sales than anything else is the Wow! factor.  “Look what I just got! Superior Merch is Awesome!”

If they go and brag about the order to their friends and colleagues you win.  That’s building trust with a capital T.

Personal recommendations on social media leverage that sale with their personal connections.  They could rave about your creativity. Maybe they express their love for your company because you pulled off that miracle order.  They could recognize to their friends the vibrant color or the smooth print hand.

Singing your praises shows the world that you know what you are doing.   Recommendations propel you to stratospheric levels above others in your area.

But to do this people might need a little push.

That’s why companies have Facebook or Instagram contests with “show us in your shirt” campaigns.  Maybe you can provide a funny cutout “Selfie Frame” in your shop for people to take a quick pic and post online when they are picking up an order.

What about a referral program where you do something if someone brings in another customer to you?  This could be some sort of deal or possibly a charitable donation.  Cause marketing works great.

Think about how you can get your customers to do to your marketing for you.  That’s what victory looks like.

“Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.”

Sure, these tiny orders are a pain.  Lots of shops hate them.

Yet, let’s look at the other side of the coin.  Here is someone wanting to spend money with your company.  Are you going to take it?

Think about a hardware store.  I’m sure they would love to sell you that $1500 fully-loaded tractor that’s been chained up by the front door all year.  How many people walk by a day do you think?  They want to ring up that big order, you bet.

Yet, inside they’ll happily give you the greatest customer service ever if you just buy a bag of nails.  Because that’s all you need today.  And if you keep liking them, maybe you’ll be back for other stuff you need.  Including that expensive tractor.

Buyers are creatures of habit.  To get more customers you first have to sell them something.

The same is true for apparel decorating.  For a lot of customers, all they need now is seven shirts.

Create that awesome customer experience that absolutely stuns them.  When they get ready to place that gigantic order they need a few months later you will be their first phone call.

Smaller orders are easily handled with digital printing, sublimation or even plastisol based transfers.  You can still take those smaller orders if you don’t have those production channel in your shop. Just find a contractor that you can send these orders to and let them produce them.

Be in the customer pleasing business by just finding the solution.  Introduce your Wow!

You can still make money even if you don’t do the production.  Cost + Markup = Sale.  You are still winning in the end.

“We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.”

It’s true.  New customers often cost as much as five times the amount than retaining an existing customer.

But what can you do to lower those acquisition costs?

Can you cross promote with another business?  For example, partner with an event planner and give them a package deal.  Now every time they book a wedding, retirement party, trade show, or bar mitzvah you are their apparel decorator.  Solidify just one relationship, and receive steady orders all the time.  Not to mention, if the people receiving the shirts get a promotional card or hangtag on the shirts, they might call you later for something too.

What other similar opportunities are there around you?

Paid search is huge right now.  If that works for you great.  Don’t change a thing.  But, if you can get the same results with optimizing your SEO, then that might lower the cost.

After all, your goal should be eyeballs on your webpage or your phone ringing with questions about how to order, right?  This is where your effort in defining your core customer is going to pay off.  Updating your webpage constantly with new material will give you a boost in your rankings.  Do this with additions of portfolio pics, new shop videos demonstrating techniques, blog articles, newsletters, or even an “in the news” feature.  Be sure to tag the items with searchable keywords with everything tailored to the customers that you are trying to reach.

Of course there is traditional social media marketing too.  You want top of mind, so your customers think of you first when they are ready to order.  If you have done a good job of identifying your customers, then it will be easier to follow them on social media too.  Like, share or comment on their posts.  Private message them when there is some personal interaction.

Social media is what it sounds like, social.  This doesn’t mean you just auto-generate posts and forget about them.  It’s all about engagement.

Once, I posted an embroidery picture on Instagram and got five good interactions with it within an hour. Three developed into new customers.  All in the behind the scenes with private messaging.

Creating a Pinterest page can show off not only your design work, but real-life examples of your production with happy employees smiling in the background.  Just take pics as you work all week and load them up on Fridays.  Every so often blast out a “virtual shop tour” post on your relevant social media channels.

Educate your customers and potential customers by demonstrating your awesomeness.

“Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.”

Nothing wrong with living in a small town.  Yet, when we look up Ashland, Ohio on Google Maps it shows that you are just north of I-71. About halfway between Cleveland to the northeast and Columbus to the southwest.  Both within a one day ground ship.

Cleveland is has a population of 390,113 (2013 census).  Columbus is 822,553 (2013 census).  That’s about 1.2 million people that your shop is nestled between.  Probably a bunch more in the surrounding areas or have moved there since the 2013 population census.  That’s a lot of people within a one day ground shipment.

ashland-ohio-map

There are two things to point out here.

First, you are always going to have competition.  Three printers in your area?  There are plenty of shops that have several dozen if not more in theirs.  Count yourself lucky.

You can’t be scared of your competition.  If you build your shop into the best kick-ass business it can be, then you will quickly outdistance them and they won’t matter as much.  You can’t service every single order that’s out there anyway.  Instead, target the ones that you can be profitable on and that makes the most sense for your business.

Focus on you.  How can you do it better?  How can you do it faster?  How can you design it more creatively?  Cater to your market.  That’s who you should be worrying about.

Secondly, Thomas Friedman was right.  The world is flat.

Where your business is located is increasingly a trivial matter.  A good number of businesses the world over will never come face to face with their customers.  Ever.  Who says you have to solely cater to the citizens of Ashland Ohio?  Especially since you are cradled between two bigger metropolitan areas.

Do the research on your shop’s demographic in the your surrounding areas.  Where are the opportunities? Draw out a bigger circle around your shop on the map.   Try a one day ground ship from you.  Can you identify the potential customers inside that circle?

If so, quit reading this article and get to work buster!

“I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

Devon, you are on the right track.  Believe it or not, overnight success takes years to develop.  I love it that you are investing in yourself, and applying your entrepreneurial mindset to learning.

Reaching out and getting help is a brave choice.  It’s a mature one as well.  It’s hard to face up and talk about what we don’t know, or admit that we don’t do a good job with something.

There are plenty of other ways you can find the help you need too.  I’m always available (Please visit my More Info and Consulting Rate page to see how I work), but here are a few choices as well:

  • Your city, state or the federal small business agencies.  I’ve recommended the US Small Business Administration free business plan template for years.  It’s easy to use, editable, and asks all the right questions (it’s up to you to find the answers).  Go to the SBA Website to get the template.
  • SCORE – offers business help and advice.  Visit the SCORE website for more information.
  • Your local bank.  They want to see you succeed too.  How can they help?
  • Your local Chamber of Commerce.  I know of shops in small towns that received some sweetheart deals for real estate, training, building improvements and other financial incentives for just bringing in jobs to the area.  What’s available to you?
  • Vistage Leadership Training – offers leadership training for CEO’s and business leaders.  Work on your leadership development by checking out the Vistage Website.
  • Local community colleges or universities.  Talk to a business professor.  Use your business and challenges as a student’s assignment.  I’ve done this several times and it’s great.
  • Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.  Several of my consulting clients are enrolled in this program.  It’s great!  If you want more information on how to start your journey here go to Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses website.

All in all, a lot of business boils down to a phrase I learned in college at a leadership training retreat I attended.

“Your best friend is only a handshake away.”

Meaning, you can’t be timid.  Stick out your hand and introduce yourself.  Ask the other person questions.  What are their problems?

Then, your job is to solve them.  Got your elevator pitch ready?

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“Failed plans should not be interpreted as failed vision.  Visions don’t change, they are only refined.  Plans rarely stay the same, and are scrapped or adjusted as needed.  Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible with your plan.” – John C. Maxwell

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point of another.” – John Dewey

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu