From start-up to high volume print shop running a Kornit Storm II and Avalanche 1000 in just three years, with another Avalanche 1000 on the way, Shirt Monkey has wasted no time in climbing to the top of the direct-to-garment T-shirt printing tree

Nic Simons, founder and owner of Shirt Monkey

Nic Simons had already set up a few businesses in his early twenties – a website selling gadgets and gizmos, a paparazzi photography service… – but it was when he started his own clothing brand that things fell into place. “I was doing my calculations and I realised that the guy who was printing for me, he was selling all his T-shirts in one go and that was his profit done, whereas I was having to sell singles. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I start printing them myself?’ I went to the Printwear & Promotion show and came home from there with a Brother direct-to-garment (DTG) printer from John Potter at MHM Direct. He was our stepping stone into the printing industry.” And thus Shirt Monkey was born.

Nic was just 22 when he bought the Brother GT-381 printer and set up a printing operation in a small office in Snelson, Cheshire, that he shared with his mum, who runs an eBay business selling gifts and collectibles. He spent the first six or seven months “plodding along, selling on eBay, doing a few small custom jobs”. He then got a call from a UK-based start-up that had just launched a business offering customers the chance to create custom-designed T-shirts and to sell them online.

Quick upgrades

Shirt Monkey was the online start-up’s first printer. “They started sending us through quite a lot of work,” says Nic. “The company was growing quite fast and we were growing with it.” A year after setting up Shirt Monkey, in 2014, it became clear that another DTG printer was needed in order to keep up with demand. “We decided to upgrade to a Kornit Breeze, which is Kornit’s entry level machine. I’ve always known about Kornit – I can’t remember how I initially found out about them – but I always knew that there was this crazy piece of kit that I was never going to get my hands on,” he laughs.

He bought the machine from David Lineker of Lineker Machine Sales. “When David dropped off the Breeze he said to me, ‘You’ll need another one of these within six months’, and I said, ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ But getting the Breeze was a turning point for the company.”

Delivery of the Kornit Storm II

Nic has assembled a highly efficient and multi-skilled production team

Early in 2015, Shirt Monkey picked up a deal with a major print broker based in the US, at which point the number of orders went through the roof. Nic realised that Shirt Monkey, which was one of a few UK-based printers now working with this client, needed to upgrade it equipment and expand its capacity. “We felt the business was going in the right direction, we needed the extra capacity and so we got the Kornit Storm II to replace the Breeze.

“We ran that for six months and following further growth talks with our main client, it was at that point that we bought the Avalanche 1000.”

This single client wasn’t the sole driver of the need for more printers, though – a few days before Images visited, Shirt Monkey had taken on a large new client with a 50,000 prints a year requirement. The company is also starting to take on other printers’ overflow: this sideline was triggered by Kornit placing a simple ‘Sold to Shirt Monkey’ sign on the Avalanche 1000 machine that was on display at Fespa earlier this year in Amsterdam, before being installed at Nic’s the following month. “There’s a company that we’re doing a lot for at the moment as they are well over capacity. They saw the sign at Fespa and got in touch to see if we could help. We’ve had quite few enquiries from that one little sign – a lot of people who do DTG printing with some of the cheaper machines call us and say ‘We’re really struggling with this printer, can you do this job for us?’ And with the Kornit, it’s always been, ‘Yeah, no problem’.”

Nic says that Shirt Monkey has grown “quite quickly” to warrant moving from a Breeze to an Avalanche via a Storm II in just 12 months, as well as buying two Chiossi e Cavazzuti dryers, also from Lineker. The company has invested $700,000 over three years in machinery, although Nic point outs that he has sold or exchanged machines along the way, and so the total figure spent is lower.

The projected turnover for the year is £500,000, higher than Nic’s initial target of £400,000, while the company has seen at least 300% growth over the past 12 months. As part of that expansion, Shirt Monkey has moved premises four times since starting out three and a half years ago, and the current unit in Middlewich, although large, is not going to be big enough for much longer, especially with the planned arrival of a second Avalanche 1000 in six months’ time. A mezzanine has already been put in to house the office and the stock, but Nic is now hopeful the tenant in the next-door unit will move out soon, allowing him to take over that unit as well.

High quality, DTG-printed T-shirts are Shirt Monkey’s speciality

The company’s reception area in its orange and white corporate colours

Minimal marketing

Brilliantly, despite this investment in machinery, and to the despair of every marketing manager reading this article, Nic has achieved all of this with just £100 spent on marketing. That’s £100 in three years!

The website he built himself; he uploads the occasional interesting photo to the Instagram account (those months following Kerry Katona have definitely paid off); and the Facebook page is updated once every couple of weeks. Despite this, he and his five members of staff are working at full stretch, late into the evening and frequently putting in seven-day weeks.

Shirt Monkey also receives a high volume of emails each day from members of the public asking for T-shirts to be printed, despite the company being predominantly B2B-focused at the moment. The team is working on setting up a direct-to-consumer site so that these visitors, who currently have to email their requests and will go elsewhere if they don’t get an instant response, can easily order their tees online 24/7. As Nic points out, the numbers are coming through already, so they just need to provide customers with the means to design their tees and place their order. “At the moment our margins are really low and so we have to do crazy numbers, but with the direct-to-consumer side it’s fewer numbers and a bigger return.”

Shirt Monkey has recently taken on an office manager, which, somewhat remarkably given the massive growth of the company, has allowed Nic to actively chase work for the first time in a long while. The team he has put together works well – his girlfriend Charlotte Smith is the lead printer, while Lauren Parry is the print operator and Ally Rice and Vickie Hill both work in fulfilment – achieving numbers per hour from the Kornits that other companies Nic speaks to say they simply aren’t able to match. “If someone in the team thinks something is going to work more efficiently, such as how we lay out jobs, then they say so. Everyone in the company moves between the different sections to prevent boredom and to keep them motivated.”

As well as having his mum close by for business advice (her business takes up a corner of the mezzanine), he also talks each day to his dad, who lives in Abu Dhabi. “The first question he always asks is, ‘How has work gone today?’ He’s been my mentor really.”

It’s clear within a few minutes of starting to talk with Nic that he has an innate business acumen, and that’s the real reason he’s achieved more in three years than many will achieve in ten. He’s definitely not monkeying around.