Marshall Atkinson shares the 20 things he wishes he’d known when he started out on his career in garment decoration

Just starting out in this crazy business? Good luck. It’s a wild ride and constantly changing, and you’ll learn plenty of lessons – and make plenty of mistakes – along the way. Looking back there will be some things that you’ll wish you’d known from the beginning. So to save you from having to learn some of these lessons the hard way, the kind folks at Images recently asked me to list the top 20 things I wish I’d known when I started out. Ready? Here we go! In no particular order or preference:

1 Ask more questions

When I was younger I wanted to pretend I knew everything, so I didn’t ask questions. It is the facade of stupidity. Asking questions about things you don’t know can alleviate a lot of problems later on. “What does that mean?” or “When is this due?” or “What don’t you want in the image?” or “Can you please help me with this?” Be brave enough to ask more questions. It’s okay, they will appreciate you getting a clearer picture.

2 It is okay to say no

That’s right. I’m giving you permission right here to not take that job that won’t make you any money, or force you to work for that guy you hate, or do something unethical just to make some fast cash. Looking back on some of the biggest problems in my career, a good number have been with jobs that I knew in my gut I should have just politely declined. The word ‘no’ is your friend. Use it.

3 Experiment

This is huge. Try stuff. Most of it won’t work, so give yourself permission to fail. You will learn from those failures. Try more stuff. Fail even more. Eventually it will work out and you’ll be doing better work than the next guy. Experimenting is hard, but working things out is the best way to separate yourself from the competition. “It’s how we always do it” is concrete-addled thinking.

4 Use a calendar

I’ll admit it, I still struggle with this. In fact, Images sent me an email asking where was the copy for this article? Being busy is great. Being busy and forgetting something you agreed to deliver isn’t. In this business you have to hit your deadlines. It’s much easier if you are planning your work towards that goal. Want more customers? Get your work done on time or early.

5 Find a mentor

Out there somewhere is a person who’s already travelled the road you’ve just taken your first steps on. I’ll bet they know where the traps, speedbumps and charlatans hide. Get coaching early. This is how apprenticeships used to work.

6 Go and see

You can’t learn anything sitting in your chair chained to your desk. Why isn’t that print right? How are they mixing the ink? What type of squeegee are they using on that halftone screen? Don’t let the problems go to you, get up and go out and solve the challenge where it starts. That means snooping around, talking to people and suggesting things on the spot. Think for yourself based on the input in front of you.

7 Go to a trade show

This is a large and diverse industry. To grasp the full depth of the scope and size, do yourself a favour and go to a trade show. The bigger the show the better. Sure, there’s probably some expense and travel involved, but go anyway. Take the classes, attend the seminars, meet other folks in the industry, talk to the suppliers. You will quickly see that there are a dozen ways to do the same thing.

8 Use humour often

You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, but using humour is the best way I know to juggle all the balls in the air at once. Currently you have demands from your boss, your customer, your co-workers, your friends and even your dog or goldfish. Well, maybe not your goldfish so much. The point is that there is always a lot of stress floating around in this industry. You can be the nut-job that freaks out and instantly gets on everyone’s last nerve, or you can defuse the bomb with a little self-deprecating humour or joke. Or at least that’s what my dog told me.

9 Delegate

Just because it needs to get finished doesn’t mean that you have to do it. Want more completed today? Delegate it. Get someone else to handle the task so you can work on things that matter. This could also mean some automation. There are plenty of apps and tech around these days that you can employ to complete all types of mundane things. If you do delegate or use an app, however, make sure you are okay with how someone else finishes the job for you. It may not be exactly how you would do it. Which brings us to…

10 Shipped is better than perfect

At the end of the day, week or month, getting all of those jobs out is the primary goal. Sure, you can tweak that art endlessly, or print at a ridiculously slow speed to ensure perfection. Where you need to concentrate your efforts, however, is the range of what your customer deems acceptable. Time equals money. Over-thinking and over-engineering what you are doing often won’t correlate to bigger profits. I’m not advocating overlooking quality control issues, or not doing your best. Just that you should stay in the acceptable range for profitability. If a client is paying you for an hour to design a new logo – that’s the budget. Don’t work on it for six.

11 Technique solves problems

How can little old ladies outplay younger, more athletic golfers on the course? Technique. It’s not how hard you hit the ball with the club, but ‘how’ you hit it. It’s exactly the same in this industry. More squeegee pressure doesn’t help your print. The right mesh, with the correct tension, coated with the proper emulsion over mesh ratio, with the right press off-contact, printed with the proper squeegee stroke, angle and pressure – all will produce a superior print than just mashing the image as hard as you can. Not getting good production results? Before you blame the ink or the shirt, look to the ‘how’.

12 Take time for yourself

Everyone needs to recharge. Plenty of studies have shown that people who make time for interesting hobbies or activities outperform those who just work never-ending hours per day. Remember: work smarter, not harder. Attack your day with enthusiasm and energy. This only happens when you are fresh.

13 Train on the things you can’t do

Sure it’s easy to just concentrate on the things we do best. It’s easy. Taking the time to investigate and learn how to do the things that you can’t do well will help you become well-rounded in the industry. Maybe you will master those areas, maybe not. Getting that understanding, however, will help you be more professional, even if ultimately you outsource or delegate those chores to someone else. A ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for. Explore.

14 Listen more, talk less

Active listening is a skill that needs to be developed early. Take notes. Let the other person talk. Don’t interrupt. Repeat back what they just said. Ask questions. Follow up. Remember to say “Thank you.”

15 Re-read the instructions

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to do something over because I misinterpreted the instructions the first time. The answer was right there. I just missed it. Read everything twice and write out what you have to do in short bullet points. Confused? Get clarification before you start. Many times changes have to happen because of comprehension challenges. Seek to understand, then to be understood.

16 The underbase doesn’t have to be white…

A few years after I started designing on apparel I realised that the underbase screen doesn’t have to be white ink. Mind. Blown. It could be tan or grey or any other colour. Those choices affect the colours printed on top, but what if that could be controlled and become part of the design? What if we didn’t use an underbase at all? It’s the “What ifs” that are going to take you places.

17 Talk to the customer

Don’t be scared. Sure they gave you the order. I think a lot of salespeople are scared to talk to the customer again about anything to do with the job because they fear it will be cancelled or they will look foolish. Got a question about the art, the job or the ship date? Get out in front of that problem early and discuss it now. Don’t wait. A lot of problems in the shop can be easily answered with “Hey, I was working on your job and I just noticed that….” Get the info.

18 Let it go

Steam coming out of your ears? Feeling angry? Maybe you had to do something over again or someone said something to you that didn’t sit right. For every minute you spend fuming over the issue, that’s another minute of your day that won’t be enjoyable. Let go of the things you can’t control. That wise-cracking jerk in the office? His comments say more about his insecurities than anything meaningful coming out of his mouth. How you react to things puts you in control. The people that are the strongest are the Teflon-coated ones. As my Uncle Bill says, “Quack, quack. Water off a duck’s back.” Just let it slide off.

19 There always is a better way

This applies to virtually everything. In this industry, there is always a better way to create art. A better way to separate the files. A better way to make the screens. To print. To ship. To invoice. Are you looking for these solutions now? (Pro tip: you better believe that’s what your competition is doing.)

20 You only get paid what you negotiate

Everybody I know says they are worth more money per year than what they are paid. Make yourself more valuable and marketable. Find better opportunities. Create your own. Also, ‘paid’ doesn’t have to mean money either. It could be more holiday days per year, reimbursement for more education, picking up the tab for association memberships or training, or any other thing that you might find valuable. Prove your worth and negotiate accordingly. Don’t think “What if they say no?” Think “What if they say yes?”

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.