Signworx: Dreaming of DTG
How one sign shop owner transformed his business with determination, a thorough plan, and creative commerce.
Michael Wright has never been afraid to dream up an idea and act on it. He got hooked on the sign business right out of high school working at a shop in northern Virginia. A few years in, he followed his love for graphic design to the School of Communication Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina. And after graduating, he wanted independence, so he founded MEWStar Designs in 2003, supporting himself with design work from logos to websites for the next 10 years.
“But my dream was always to have my own shop,” he says. Never afraid to ask for help, he talked friends who owned local sign businesses into letting him use their machines for years. Finally, opportunity arose in 2013 when the owner of a local sign shop decided to sell his business. “He had all the equipment that I had ever dreamed of,” Wright says. He convinced his parents to join him and his wife, Janine, as business partners, and they dove in.
Doing Some Digging
Signworx was a traditional sign shop, providing everything from vehicle magnets to apartment signage for local clients. Just a few months after getting into business, Wright visited a tradeshow in Charlotte, looking for new ideas. Digital technology was everywhere, he says, and when he stumbled across the direct-to-garment hotspot, “I just fell in love with the technology.”
His business partners weren’t so convinced (“basically, everyone was against me,” he remembers), but the resistance he met from his family may have been the best thing that could have happened for the shop’s future in DTG. To move forward, Wright had to come up with a thorough and convincing business plan that would prove the value of the technology.
A watertight business plan is everything when bringing in a direct-to-garment printer. The machines are notoriously high maintenance – especially older ones from four or more years ago – and if they aren’t kept busy, they can do more harm than good to a shop’s bottom line. You’ve got to know that the product will sell.
Wright decided his first step in researching the opportunity would be talking to his current clients. Many of them were small companies of two to five employees – not necessarily large enough to need the dozens of shirts that would warrant a screen printed order. Wright hopped on the phone: “‘If we started doing T-shirts, would you be willing? If you wanted shirts, how many would you order? Would you be willing to do it at this price point?’ And everyone I spoke to said yes.”
Wright then called local screen and direct-to-garment printers, asking questions like a potential customer. He sought to understand their markets and pricing models. “Screen printers just don’t want to touch [DTG],” he says, so he looked for a market niche that the local garment decorators weren’t meeting. “The main focus was these small businesses that couldn’t afford these huge runs.”
Then it was all about the math. He assumed a bare minimum: “If I only sell this many shirts in a month, I can make the payment just for the machine, and that’s all I’m concerned about at the moment.”
After five months of research, the family was on board, and Signworx bought an AnaJet MP5i direct-to-garment printer. The goal was to see a return on the investment in a year. They did it in six months, and today, they earn enough money for the monthly lease in just a week.
Marketing and Maintenance
No new venture is without its challenges. Wright says the biggest obstacle was simply solving the mystery of how to make DTG understandable for local customers who were stuck on the tradition of screen printing.
“When you tell them you just print directly onto the shirt, a lot of people are kind of hesitant, going, ‘Uh, it doesn’t sound like it’s gonna be that good,’” he says. “Most of that was overcome by saying, ‘Just come down to my shop and I’ll print one for you.’ About 75 percent of the time, people would buy shirts after that.”
Convincing the rest just took some thorough salesmanship: “We came across a few people who went to screen printers, and then I’d put out a flyer to them and they’d contact us. They’d bring us what the screen printer did, and they were disappointed in the fact that they weren’t able to get the same colors.” With DTG, the limitations are very few, Wright adds. “‘What does your logo look like? I can print it exactly like that.’
“My selling point is to try and help people understand that I can do as many colors as they want on just 10 shirts,” Wright says. Signworx’s average run size is about 20 shirts today, and orders of less than 10 are common. The day he spoke with Screen Printing, Wright was working on one run of six and another of 22 for the same client, a tractor-puller who was looking for a proof of concept that he could sell his own line of T-shirts. Another job in the works was an order of five women’s shirts and three onesies. Disney vacations and family get-togethers are huge drivers for orders of that size, Wright says.
Michael Wright, co-owner of Signworx and MEWStar Designs, exemplifies that blend of determination and imagination that only entrepreneurs have. He once took apart the shop’s AnaJet MP5i DTG printer to install a platen for printing Converse shoes.
Of course, big T-shirt orders will always exist, business no shop wants to simply turn down. Wright learned that it pays to have good business relationships. He refers large orders to a local screen printer that, in turn, farms out pesky short runs back to Signworx.
One trick to managing a direct-to-garment business is thinking about inventory in a different way. Signworx doesn’t keep many shirts stocked onsite – just a selection of random sizes and colors, Wright says. It’s a thought that might terrify many a traditionalist, or raise alarm about turnaround times, but Signworx ships most orders out in just three days. The request comes in; they order the blanks, which are delivered the next day. Day Two is for pretreatment; Day Three, the order is printed and shipped.
What happens when someone needs shirts, today? That’s where being willing to go the extra mile is an essential part of the Signworx business model. It’s rare, but Wright cites a recent example: “I had an email at 7 o’clock in the morning saying ‘We need shirts now’” from a group running a 5K. The team was able to run down to the local A.C. Moore, pick up 15 shirts, and print and deliver them by 6 p.m. “Now,” Wright says, “we have a client that’s definitely happy and is going to be coming back to us.”
The on-demand mentality also helps keep the machine busy – which in the world of DTG decoration, also means clog-free. Signworx has become something of a beacon for new DTG users, hosting YouTube videos on AnaJet’s website and representing the supplier at tradeshows. But they built their expertise on trial and error. One weeklong vacation and a clogged white printhead was enough to teach the essential lesson of direct-to-garment: Maintenance is a must. Wright says they run the machine every other day at a minimum.
‘What else can we print on?’
The Signworx family is anything but complacent. Not long after purchasing their DTG printer, local business was taking off, but that didn’t prompt them to kick back and relax. They started looking for the next opportunity, and the question soon became, “What else can we print on?” Someone had the idea to try pillows; they bought a few pre-sewn shams at Michael’s, and they were a hit. But then, they thought, “We could do this ourselves…just get a bolt of fabric and sew a square. It’s not that hard,” says Wright. So they bought a sewing machine and starting churning out custom printed pillows.
These were a natural fit for the e-commerce space, but as anyone who’s tried to market through a website since the advent of search engines will know, standing out online is a challenge. Wright says learning and maintaining SEO for their own e-commerce site quickly became more trouble than it was worth.
A friend of the Wrights was using Etsy, the self-described creative commerce platform, to sell jewelry. This got them thinking about whether the platform might be a fit, and their research started anew: How does it work? What do you do? They decided to go for it, using Wright’s old MEWStar name.
The first three months were slow, and they considered trying something else. “Then, Christmastime hit,” says Wright. “We sold 40 pillows in a few days.” In the age of judge-a-retailer-by-their-reviews, these initial sales were just the catalyst the shop needed. Wright says his most important piece of advice for Etsy rookies is that “you just have to give it time.”
Other keys to Etsy success include good photos and good “tags.” Wright says customers want to see pictures of actual products, not a blank pillow with a photoshopped design. This can be a challenge at first if you’re unwilling to use up a little bit of product, he adds, but a custom printed pillow or shirt makes a pretty good family gift in addition to fodder for marketing.
Smart keyword tagging is essential, too, to capture the attention of potential customers. There are more than 5000 search results on Etsy for “custom printed pillow.” One listing on the MEWStar site features a gamut of tags: custom canvas pillow, custom photo pillow, custom pillow cover, personalized pillows, design your own pillow, throw pillow, and custom gift. They sell for $30 to $50.
The shop lists about 150 items on its Etsy platform, where custom is the name of the game and, therefore, digital printing is a perfect fit. T-shirts, bibs, totes, and drawstring bags make up the bulk of their direct-to-garment products. Wright has also converted an old Epson RX595 printer to do dye sublimation – starting with mugs, for now, he says. They put their sign shop background to work, as well, using their engraving capabilities to decorate pint glasses, keychains, cake toppers, and more.
Shirts and Signs
Another component of Signworx’s success is the creative application of their unique blend of skills. Always ready to think out of the box, the team combined its signage background with its newfound DTG expertise when a family friend asked for a favor. She wanted a unique piece of wooden art for her wedding, and Wright’s creative side flickered on. He knew other DTG users who had printed on wood, and thought, “Why not?”
First, they tried a special emulsion to make the wood ink receptive, but they soon found that their usual pretreat solution – Firebird Ink FBX-100 – worked better. What started out as a favor became a bestseller on their Etsy site: MEWStar’s engraved and printed décor featuring the state of North Carolina sells for $75. Quite a haul for a 7 x 20-inch piece of pallet wood.
Some of Signworx’s most profitable applications on its direct-to-garment printer aren’t even garments. Pallet wood signs and customized pillows haul in a premium on the shop’s Etsy site.
The shirts and signage parts of the business have been a great pairing for the shop’s bottom line. The two halves of the company complement one another perfectly: When building projects are slow in the winter, DTG sales go up for the holidays. And the two technologies are excellent marketing tools for one another: Signage customers realize they need shirts; apparel customers need signage. Wright says the number of sign shops in the area has doubled in the four years they’ve been in business, so it certainly pays to have a major differentiator on the shop floor. When Signworx started printing garments, the product made up about 2 percent of their profit. Today, it’s closer to 40, and he wonders if it’ll take over the majority of their business within a few years. Funny what can happen when someone dares to dream.