Marshall Atkinson explains how new ideas are the fuel for your shop’s growth and development in 2015

Marketplace competition will always breed the need to build a better mousetrap. So how do you distance yourself from others in the decorated apparel industry and add value to your business? By doing things that others aren’t doing yet or becoming the leading expert in something that others can’t do quite as well: that’s how you make your mousetrap into an industry-dominating machine. It sounds so simple, but nobody is going to hand over the keys to the kingdom, so you are going to have to start from scratch. Are you ready for that, or are you content just to take orders as they come in and hope things will work out?

To get the ball rolling, here are the top things for you to consider when you get started:

Take stock

What skills do you possess and which areas do you excel in now? Instead of setting off from zero and working to 100, you may discover you are already at 35. But be tough on yourself and your company: brainstorm all the ways you can push your business to succeed.

Ask your staff and your current customers for their opinions on what’s needed. Pull all those answers together, then narrow down your options to the top two or three. These could be different decoration methods, creative ways of designing, or maybe workflow-related, like turn-around times or international shipping.

Also, think about what business opportunities exist now, or could exist in the future for your company. How is your current market shifting? Maybe you are at zero with something, but solving a tough challenge might be the way to break into a new sales area and allow you to scale up from there.

Taking stock is all about close examination and establishing a baseline of discovery.

Inventory your resources

Once you have your top two or three ideas to develop, the next logical step is to examine your available resources. What is needed to build the mastery that you need? Do you have the right tools and equipment? This could be machinery, computers, or other tangible things that you’ll use daily. Do you have access to the correct ink, thread or fabrics? What about the skill-set required to achieve the advances you envisage? Do you need to hire someone; will you or your staff need some extra training? If you don’t have everything in your shop, can you get what you need easily? If there is a cost or timetable involved that might become a barrier later, how are you going to mitigate that challenge? Keep asking the questions.

Start the research

Research is ‘an exploration of facts, and a blossoming of knowledge’. To develop your ideas, you will need to obtain new methods of understanding. For example, maybe you want to produce intensely realistic embroidered animals on fleece apparel. What animals would appeal to your market segment? What fleece colours would sell the best? How would you digitise each animal so they would sew to give incredibly photo-realistic results? Could there be a better way of decorating the embroidery, such as using sublimation over the thread, to add more realism to the design? What types of thread could you use to push the creative envelope and make the details of the animal really stand out – adding a metallic thread to the design, perhaps? Could you screen print a background or part of the animal onto the shirt to add more dimension to the design? What are other companies doing technically with animals on garments? How will that influence your creative decision making?

Push the envelope

Take any idea and push it beyond what you think you can possibly handle in your shop. It is on the outer edges of what’s possible that you are going to make a difference. This is what is going to set you apart from your competition. Using the internet you can quickly discover a tremendous amount of information. But that’s only going to take you so far: there’s no substitute for practical application and experience.

Research can also mean including your supply chain on the practicality of your idea as well. Ask plenty of questions, and find the help you need by using your relationships with your key suppliers to fuel your knowledge.

Bear in mind that proper research takes time. Approach the issues from many different angles and build a wealth of information.

The next step is failure

That’s right, so get used to it. You aren’t going to solve the problem the first time you try to run with it, so don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t look quite right. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If that mentality was acceptable for the guy who invented the light bulb, then you can take comfort in knowing that your big idea might look fairly ugly the first time you try it as well.

The trick is to not worry about it, and to make sure your team doesn’t worry either. Instead, use the opportunity of each failure to discover what needs to be tweaked, what needs to be changed. Control your future by learning from your mistakes.

This is precisely how you learn to print complex four-colour process or simulated process designs, how to sew appliqué, how to foil over a digital print, or how to expertly place rhinestones on spandex so they stick. It is rare to achieve success at the first attempt and that’s okay. You are 100% better than all of the shops that are not interested in learning or attempting anything new.

For each attempt, be sure to record the parameters of whatever it is you are doing, so you can refer to them later. If something needs to be changed to improve your creative idea, be sure to examine what’s been tried before so you don’t replicate the same errors with the next attempt. This could be the mesh counts for the screens you are using, the emulsion thickness, the Pantone colours for the ink, how much glue to use, or the direction of the thread stitch so you have less breakage during the run. As the old maxim says, ‘the devil is in the details’.

Anxiety is natural

Remember when you were younger and were learning to ride a bike or drive a car? You weren’t born with that skill, you had to learn it. It’s the same with anything you try. At the outset, there’s some fear and anxiety that will hold you back. That is a protective measure your mind uses to make sure you don’t do anything stupid that might cause you harm. It’s completely natural.

You’ll find yourself playing the ‘what if’ game. “What if we steer into a tree?” or “What if we don’t do it right, others might laugh?” The ‘what if’ part of your brain takes over and can cause you to freeze up or simply avoid something altogether. That’s alright, as your mind is trying to decipher what’s needed to keep you from steering into the tree. Use that to your advantage by thinking logically about your idea, and thinking about all the ways it might not work. Then, like steering, think of ways to keep your idea from crashing into the tree. Accept that when you are developing your idea, you are going to have some anxiety about it, and then seek to eliminate the excuses.

Develop the idea, but keep your distance

This is the fun part: throw the idea on the table with your team and pick it apart. What works? What doesn’t? Does it push the envelope enough? What do we need to do this better? Will it be something your company can bring to market and base a sales strategy upon? Will it scale in a business environment?

Warning: people will have the tendency to get married to an idea or function of a project and won’t let go. Don’t get defensive if someone suggests an alternative method, or suggests discarding the idea. Debating the merits of something can be rewarding. Arguing about it to the point of becoming personally defensive can be a ‘time-suck’ and lead to hurt feelings and uncooperative team members. Make sure your team leader keeps all discussions on a positive note and in control. Keep your eye on the prize.

Final thoughts

Everyone has to start somewhere. Don’t get discouraged if you see a company or person that seems to have things worked out better than you. Use that as inspiration. At one point they were starting at the bottom and didn’t know anything either. Time spent perfecting their craft and carving out a niche by doing things right has led them to excel and become the leader in the industry that you admire. What you don’t see is the giant pile of failures that their company went through to get there. They misprinted or sewed massive quantities of shirts incorrectly, and ruined dozens of boxes of garments along the way. All of those were learning experiences too. They are probably still throwing stuff on the scrap heap while they learn something or train new people. Don’t let the fear of what you can’t do now paralyse you into not trying.

So what are you waiting for? Get brainstorming and try something new today. It might be the best thing you ever did for your business.

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.