Images talks to Ed Snelson and Hannah Benson of Signature Printing about the company’s rapid expansion from a back-bedroom business to one that’s well on its way to achieving multi-million pound sales

Six years ago, Ed Snelson was selling designer T-shirts in his spare time as a side project from a bedroom in his house in Chester. Now, with business partner Hannah Benson, he heads rapidly expanding company Signature Printing, operating from 8,000 square feet of warehouse space and thriving on demand for personalised gifts and garments through websites such as Ebay and Amazon. With plans for even more growth, he is well on his way to achieving his dream of being at the helm of a business with multimillion-pound sales: Ebay recently highlighted more than a thousand sellers that have achieved sales of more than £1m on the platform in the past year, and Ed was one of them. 

[L-R] Hannah Benson and Ed Snelson

“I have always been driven by a desire to grow a business and be self-employed and not necessarily be in the nine-to-five rut,” he says. Ed first got a taste for the garment industry while at school at the age of 16, when he was involved in setting up a company as part of the Young Enterprise scheme, with its own line of clothing. He later embarked on a four-year apprenticeship in logistics and supply chain management with aeronautics and space group Airbus but, as time went by, he continued to dream of being his own boss. 

From a spare bedroom, he started small, working evenings and weekends on top of his full-time job, selling pre-decorated T-shirts, drawing on the experience and supplier contacts he had developed through the Young Enterprise venture. With Hannah, who was working for an estate agent, he identified an opportunity to take it to the next level. “We looked at the customisation market which was massive,” Ed recalls, “and we wondered how could we enter this space, but without incurring enormous amounts of overheads.”

The Signature team: recruiting the company’s first member of staff was the “best investment we ever made”

With just a heat press and a vinyl cutter, the pair moved into personalisation, sourcing garments from wholesaler Ralawise, based only a few miles north-west of Chester – a relationship that continues today. “We found that personalisation was getting the majority of the sales which was a key indicator of how we could try to grow the business,” Ed says. “It was from there that we started to slowly expand the range.” Both he and Hannah decided it was “time to take a risk” and gave up their day jobs. “The day I left my job, I was still working from a bedroom but, within one month, it had already grown a fair bit.” 

After pitching to the University of Chester, they were given free space in its innovation centre for incubating start-ups, but within three months, their new business, Signature Printing, had outgrown the space. They relocated to slightly bigger premises up the road but, despite taking over a second unit next door, it was soon time to move again, not least because they now had five staff, which brought them to their current home at Evans Business Park in Chester.

One of the company’s 15 heat presses

Setting up the Ricoh Ri 100 printers

Direct-to-garment printing

B2C focus

This rapid growth has come about not from chasing bigger and bigger contracts and the B2B market, but by concentrating on smaller orders in the B2C channel – about 98% of the company’s customers are consumers. Through its various trading names, Signature Printing receives an average of 4,000 to 5,000 orders per week, rising to as much as 10,000 per week at peak times. The average order is one to 10 units, which requires a different set-up to more traditional garment decoration businesses that are supplying corporate customers. Decoration is split between DTG and vinyl, plus some heat transfer. What is especially interesting is that Signature meets its growing customer demand using multiple smaller format printers: the company has just invested in three new Ricoh Ri 100 DTG printers, supplied by TheMagicTouch, which operate alongside 18 vinyl cutters, three Oki white toner transfer printers and 15 heat presses.

“We have scaled up the amount of smaller equipment that we have rather than moving into single pieces of big equipment,” Ed explains. While they have one Roland vinyl cutter for larger jobs, the rest are smaller Graphtec Silhouette cutters. “They may not move very quickly but, if you set them up the right way, they are ideal for individual jobs. We have found in testing against more industrial cutters, they move quicker for what we do.” The company uses RalaFlex vinyls for standard colours and Dae Ha for metallics, such as gold and rose gold.

Printing personalised products

“Lots of people tend to naturally expand into B2B offerings, and they will focus their equipment around industrial-size equipment,” Ed adds. “That’s great if that’s your model, but we don’t do that sort of order so we don’t focus on that kind of growth. We wouldn’t say no to B2B, but our model is strictly B2C.” The workforce is now up to 15 full-time, rising to 20 at peak times, managing orders across a range of 177,000 different SKUs, from totally customised designs to personalisation of off-the-shelf items.

 T-shirts now comprise only a small part of the business, which supplies all kinds of customised garments and merchandise – from sports shirts, fleeces and aprons to tote bags and schoolwear – with new products regularly being added to expand the range further.

Routes to market

The routes to market have all been online from the start. Signature Printing’s earliest sales came via Ebay, where the company trades as The Print House. Of all the ecommerce sites, this remains the best way for start-ups to reach potential customers online, Ed says, as it provides support and advice to sellers and offers a huge audience of consumers waiting to buy. “If you are looking to put products online, Ebay is the most straightforward, headache-free route to market.” This has evolved into a strategic partnership for Signature Printing, with Ed spending time at Ebay’s head office in Richmond in south London and being part of a focus group for businesses to communicate with each other and Ebay’s management. Signature Printing also has a partnership with Amazon, which is another important route to market, although Ed says this requires more work than Ebay. “You have to wait until your product gains ranking with Amazon, whereas with Ebay you can succeed with a brand new product. Amazon can outsell Ebay but it is a very seasonal marketplace.”

Weeding an intricate design

While Ebay still accounts for more than half of the company’s sales, it is increasingly gaining customers through ecommerce sites set up through the WooCommerce and Shopify platforms. “We are developing more small websites so that we can target customers more effectively,” Ed adds. Updates to its websites will allow the company to improve its promotional activity, including social media marketing.

“We are not as active with social media as we could be, but we are improving that as it’s the way the market is going.” To keep on top of orders coming from the different ecommerce sites, Signature Printing has adopted a single custom-built solution, which is now being integrated with all its systems.

The company’s sales have doubled each year for the past three years, with growth forecast to be 70% for 2019. However, Ed – who is still only 28 – says this is just the beginning. “We have a very long way to go. We are focused on growth and doing it in a way that allows us to remain competitive.” Despite doubling the warehouse space in August to 8,000 square feet through the addition of a mezzanine floor, he predicts they will need more space soon, especially as more online outlets and SKUs are planned by the end of this year. Ed and Hannah are also launching a new venture, Pace, to provide storage and order fulfilment solutions for smaller ecommerce businesses without the warehouse space or infrastructure. Using another warehouse, this is expected to start working with clients by the end of this year. “It is capitalising on what we can do efficiently,” Ed adds.

Ed sees Signature’s drive to constantly develop new products as one of his company’s key strengths

Learning curves

Unsurprisingly, the rapid expansion from a business in a bedroom over the past six years has presented many challenges. “We are always looking for growth but the challenge is to deal with it. You don’t want it all to come at once. We have learned as we go. There have been a lot of steep learning curves, from people management to general business growth – all sorts of things that I have had to learn.” At the start, Hannah and Ed were wary of the cost and complication of recruiting staff. “We preferred to work longer hours than delegate to staff,” Ed says.

“Having staff and managing people are the most difficult elements of running a business. We held off from hiring people for two or three years. Nobody teaches you how to hire people. It’s the scariest thing for a business: it’s quite expensive and you don’t know what you are getting. But we took that leap and hired our first member of staff and that was the best investment we ever made. Now we have time to run the business and to capture as many customers as we can.”

Standing out

While the industry is “competitive”, the pair are excited at the business opportunities that lie ahead. Smaller companies may be able to offer lower prices due to lower overheads, but Ed says that Signature Printing is able to “stand out” because of its drive to constantly develop new products, improve quality and maintain service to customers. As well as hiring more staff, Ed and Hannah have introduced staggered shifts from 7am, 9am and 10am, which means the warehouse is operating from early until late as well as on Saturdays and Sundays. However, Ed still believes that working nine-to-five is not the way for him to make a living. “My aim was never just to replicate the nine-to-five I had before,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was to create a business and grow it to the multimillion- pound level. It’s still early days for us.”