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by Tom Pickles | Printwear Magazine | January 18, 2018

Welcome to 2018.

Here at Shirt Pickle, 2018 means that we are entering our third year in business and boy have we learned a lot in the previous two years. There have been plenty of times, especially in the first year, that we have said, “I wish someone would have told me this” or “It would have been good to have known that six months ago.” With that, here are some insights that you can apply as you are getting started as a D2 (direct-to-garment) printer.

The background of the person or persons dipping their toes into the D2 waters is all over the map. Some people are stay-at-home moms who use D2 printing to supplement their household income, some are seasoned apparel decorators that want to augment their existing offerings, and others, like us, wanted to be our own bosses.  I am going to address each of these markets.

Seasoned Decorator

This is normally the screen printer that likes 800-piece jobs so that they can spread the labor that goes into pre-production over lots of prints to lessen the per piece expense of the actual printing. These guys want their press constantly spinning and producing 8 hours of efficient printing. This shop gets into D2 for many reasons:

After shipping 1,000 prints, the customer finds three damages. The shop doesn’t want to set up the press to make three shirts so they think, “Hey if we just buy the direct-to-garment printer we can fire it up when we to reprint damages. Plus when customers want me to print 12 shirts I can use the D2 machine and not take four hours to set up a press.” The problem here is the D2 machine sits for weeks at a time until the screen printer needs it and inevitably it either doesn’t work or makes an awful print. This is because the ink delivery system in most machines needs to keep moving through the tubes or they will clog everything from the ink cartridge to the print head. Then the owner has to spend money on repairs, new learn procedures, and change mindsets. All the while the employees take time away from their main revenue stream which just increases frustration with D2.

Here is what I recommend, make the D2 printing its own/separate part of your company. Treat it like a sister company. Sure you can share some resources (accounting, HR, art) but the scheduling, supply chains, manpower, sales and shop throughput need to be separate because they are different than screen print. This way you can develop strategies specifically for this machine, track its progress, and keep the machine busy.

Stay-at-Home Mom

These are the heroes of our industry. Typically this person has left the workforce to raise children and have found that they have enough time to generate some extra household income. A couple hours after the kids are at school or evenings and weekends. Time management is super important to these people as they must divide it between family and customer needs and expectations. To this person, I would recommend one main thing when starting out: take it slow.

This decorator doesn’t need to buy a D2 printer for $250,000 and print on every blank under the sun to be successful early on. There are plenty of smaller/desktop printers available that will allow them to control costs and still generate some revenue. It is also important to identify “who” your customer is. You probably won’t start out printing for the huge international companies but I bet the local Boy Scouts, little league teams, and bowling leagues could all use some custom shirts!

Be My Own Boss! 

This is why my partner (and wife) got into this business. We both had been “carrying the water” for other owners for a long time. She had extensive experience in sales, albeit in the hospitality industry, and I had run companies that specialized in everything from facilities management to embroidery and screen printing. I knew that there was a need for smaller quantity print jobs because I would turn them away all the time as a screen printer and that is where we started. I had a good relationship with my previous boss, who had little interest in investing in D2, so I could use the screen printing contacts as our first customers.

Tip No. 1: Identify the need and fill it.

As we got better and better at D2 printing, we would often be asked, “Can you guys give me a quote for 500 pieces?” or “Do you guys print on hats?” This was very tempting and we considered diversifying our offering to attract and satisfy more customers, but we were a small company and we hadn’t “mastered” D2 yet, which leads me to my next tip.

Tip No. 2: Stay the course, concentrate on your core business, and do it better than anyone else.

All we do at Shirt Pickle is D2. All of our efforts, marketing, operations, and sales come from this channel. Initially, this was great because we were able to keep the lights on in the short term but contract printing has small margins. If you really want to do well, you have to attract retail customers, which is my last tip.

Tip No. 3: Retail customers are lucrative but hard and expensive to attract.

We would all like to produce a shirt for $8.00 and sell it for $30.00, but that takes time, money, and expertise which not everyone has in the beginning. So we found other ways to generate reoccurring revenue with higher margins than your standard contract printing. For instance, we have a fair amount of customers that sell their shirts on Etsy. These customers want to design shirts, find their niche market(s), and market to them. They don’t have much interest in financing, running, and maintaining a shop, but we do! They can sell their shirts for $30, and we will buy, print, and ship the shirt for them for $15–20.

These are just a few things we wish we knew and hopefully some tidbits that will give you some insight as you ponder starting your own D2 business or speed up your learning curve.

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