Marshall Atkinson draws on his years of experience in print shop management to compile his top list of apparel decorator blunders 

Below are the top ten things that I think are the biggest blunders people make in this industry. Are they business killers? Not necessarily. Most shops, and people for that matter, make mistakes. It’s usually okay. Time and money get spent fixing the error, but we learn from them and move on.

10 – Being a weak leader

Sometimes you need a strong captain to weather the storm, but when things are going okay we’re apt to just let things slide. Time passes and you wonder what happened to your control, and why the monkeys are running the zoo.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Give your staff clear expectations for how they are supposed to behave. Write out your company policies and incorporate them into a concise employee handbook.

When things come up that need your attention, you need to be strong and make good decisions.

9 – Business all the time 

Believe it or not there is such a thing as burnout. A good number of mistakes happen when people are over-worked or tired. After a week or two of fourteen-hour days you might want to consider getting some help in to handle some tasks.

You have to take care of yourself and your staff. Get breaks scheduled throughout the day, even if they are for five or ten minutes. Recharging will refocus your physical and mental state so you can accomplish more. You shouldn’t end the year with vacation days you didn’t take. Ever.

8 – Who are you?

What makes a top apparel decoration company great? All the top shops really only market to a few core demographics, and anything else is just gravy. It can be a huge mistake to just say I’ll appeal to everyone. Without focus you are just a spider sitting in the web waiting to pounce on anything that lands nearby. Unless you have a keen Spidey-sense built in, that isn’t a good way to do it.

A stronger strategy is to determine what one or two core customers your shop should be going after. Get more of the orders that make the most sense, and less of the orders that are junk. The only way to do that is to focus on what really matters. Define your shop. Then go hunting.

7 – Marketing Mess

Unless you have determined who your customers are, there’s no way to accurately determine how or where to reach them. A lot of shops only think about marketing when they are slow. Stop the feast or famine cycle by spending a good chunk of time learning how to market your business to the correct demographic that matters.

Your customers may behave differently in their buying habits than those of other businesses, so it’s critical that you do the research and develop the best methods of marketing to them. This is going to involve a lot of trial and error. Refining and tweaking your message, frequency and distribution channels is a full time job. However, once you have things dialled in it does get easier. But you still need to keep track, measure and change things to fit the market climate.

6 – Know and understand your competition

It’s your business to know what the hell are they doing over there! Are they hiring, upgrading equipment, redesigning their webpage, offering discounts, maybe even trash talking you?

So what’s the secret for keeping your clients regardless of what your competitors are doing? Know, like the back of your hand, the ‘Voice of the Customer’. What is critical to them? What is the one thing that absolutely has to happen? How can you take that idea and knock out home run after home run for them? If you do that, your competition won’t matter at all. If you don’t, your competition will eat away at your business. Picking at scraps isn’t a sustainable business model.

5 – Running the ball

Sometimes mistakes happen. What matters is what you are going to do about it. Do you try to weasel out of the responsibility? Blame anyone that sorta, kinda, maybe would make sense and stick?

Or do you make it right? Taking ownership of challenges and working towards a positive solution is the only choice. Weasels don’t get much lovin’.

4 – How hard could it be?

This one is aimed at all the rookies out there who think printing or embroidering a shirt is easy work.

There are a lot of kitchen table conversations about breaking into this industry. Some dive off the cliff without looking and just buy some equipment and start trying to print or embroider goods. That leap of faith is fantastic, but really reckless. It’s insanely difficult for inexperienced people to understand just how many steps there are in this industry to decorate a shirt.

So, if you are one of those people starting out, take some advice…do some research. Write a business plan. Go to a trade show. Take a lot of classes. Talk to people that would make up your supply chain. Ask for help. Refine your skill level. Would you hire you? Know what you are doing. “Faking it until you make it” only gets you so far.

3 – Financial irresponsibility

Once your shop gets going it’s easy to take your eyes off the ball financially. Most shops aren’t that large and quite often the owner is the chief accountant too. If you aren’t sure about how to do the books, hire or outsource the knowledge.

It doesn’t take much to get off track. A large order comes in, and they have problems paying for it and hit the receivable list. You still have to pay for the shirts and your employees’ labour. Maybe you had to order ink or other supplies. Those have to get paid too. The absolute worst thing you can do is to not pay the people or companies that support you. Once you get that reputation, it is hard to get that trust back.

This all leads to the next one which is…

2 – Cutting prices

When times are tough a lot of shops will drop their prices to bring in business. There is a huge problem with that in that for some reason, customers will expect that low, low price 100% of the time from then on.

It’s okay to say no to requests from people or demands if the order just doesn’t make financial sense. Years ago I did an analysis for a shop for a month’s worth of work and easily half of their jobs didn’t make any money for them, even before they set up the first screen on press. The owners were always wondering why they didn’t make any money despite being “so busy”. Busy isn’t profitable. Doing your homework and understanding what it costs your shop to operate in labour, consumables and overhead and setting a goal as to how much money you want or need to make based on those concrete numbers is how you build your price list.

1 – The inexcusable 

So what’s the biggest blunder that becomes the shop killer? It could be anything, but from the stories I hear it all comes down to the owners not understanding the business and getting in over their head. Most often they aren’t very present in the process. It’s hard to know what’s going on in your company if you sit in an office and just look at numbers on a balance sheet, or never even set foot in the building.

You must be present to win. If you want to succeed you need to understand the nuts and bolts of the business. You have to get dirty. You have to know what it’s like to set up and print a two-location, ten-colour per side order for 48 shirts or change a thread colour for every shirt for a 200-piece order. Being present means talking to the people that are doing the work, and understanding their effort, stress and pain points.

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.