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Marshall Atkinson

20 Ways to Be Successful During Disruption

Did your 2020 goals still hold true in a pandemic?




Remember my article in the December 2019/January 2020 issue? In it, I challenged you to go through a list of 20 ideas that could have a tremendous impact on the success of your business.

Let’s take a look.

Illustration of magnified person in a crowd

Identify Your Best Customers

This is still relevant.

In the 2020 article, I suggested identifying your best customers to give you direction in building a better sales effort by targeting the right customers for your business.

This is still true today. I was speaking with a new coaching client, and they were lamenting about their lack of profitability. This was a concept the owner wanted to focus on intensely. After asking some tough questions, it was obvious they had the wrong customer mix.

They were working hard on keeping their presses running by doing contract work to keep revenue coming in. Upon closer examination, this lower profit work was taking up all of their available production scheduling time, and higher value work was being pushed out. To make matters worse, the contract clients were often behind in their payment to the shop.

Tip 1: Examine the work you’re doing and align it with your profit goals. Your focus in marketing and new customer recruitment has to be on bringing in better clients to replace poorer performing ones. You can dictate who you do business with and “fire” bad customers.


Staff Improvements

Oh boy. After the pandemic hit, many businesses trimmed their staff to the bare minimum to keep going. Even with PPP money, shops didn’t bring everyone back.

The result? Leaner staff and a lower employee count, which led to companies operating at a higher level of profitability than before the pandemic.

Last year, I suggested doing performance reviews to help sort out your staff members and elevate performance. This is still a good idea, especially now that cross training and keeping employees accountable is needed more than ever.

Also, busineses were able to hire furloughed or laid-off employees from other shops in their area. This skill augmentation has assisted in flattening the learning curve with some higher-level technical challenges and added expertise that shops didn’t possess previously.

Tip 2: Critical assessments of your team are still a worthwhile exercise. If you haven’t already, develop the tools to critique your staff members’ skill levels with core tasks that are crucial to your business success. Who knows what? Can they teach someone else? Chart this and see what you’re lacking.

Illustration of two men with money

100 Percent Payment Upfront

One of the biggest challenges shops faced when the pandemic struck was their financial position for accounts receivables. Plenty of small business all across the globe filed for bankruptcy or shut down due to their inability to cover debt.

Stronger companies that had a war chest of cash or held a different viewpoint on extending credit to customers did a better job navigating their way through this crisis.

With every business owner I spoke with, the ones who had a policy to only take 100 percent upfront payments for orders were in a much better financial position.

Why? Simple. They weren’t chasing money. If there is only going to be one lesson learned from living through this pandemic it should be the importance of a strong cash position for your business.

Tip 3: Remember, you’re not a bank. Your customers can absolutely pay you with a credit card, upfront and for 100 percent of the total. If you need an excuse to change, blame it on the pandemic.

Know Your Numbers

Yep. Still true today.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” should be the operational mantra for any business. Even after the pandemic, gut feelings about what’s going on in your company still don’t paint an accurate picture.

You need the data.

The only way to get it is to build the process standard of how to obtain and record it. Then, take some time and analyze what’s happening. Plant a flag in the ground and stake out what “good” or “bad” numbers mean for the things you’re tracking.

In 2020, I suggested tracking these items:

  • The total number of leads or quotes in the pipeline. Total cash amount, too.
  • Average order. Dollar amount per sale. Quantity. The number of colors. The number of decoration locations.
  • Sales per week, month, quarter — compare those to established goals.
  • The total number of screens imaged per day. Bonus if you’re segregating by mesh count.
  • Average setup time per screen, in minutes.
  • Average speed for each press, calculated by impressions per hour. (Final shirts printed, not what the press gauge reads.) What’s on the table is the only thing that counts.
  • Error rate percent per press.
  • Downtime percent per press.

I’d still track those, but I might add:

  • Profit margin per order. Above or below your percentage goal?
  • Profit average in total for a time period. Week, month, quarter, year. Compared to established goals.

Tip 4: Get your team to help in establishing these goals and working toward achieving them. Create a dashboard and constantly monitor this information. Change what isn’t working.


Improve Your Bench Strength

This has never been needed more in this industry than right now. At least three or four times a week, a shop owner somewhere emails or calls me looking for a new screen printing press operator, embroidery machine operator, or production manager. They have people, but they don’t know how to run the equipment.

With the pandemic, these skilled positions are in high demand. The people who might want to come work for you know this, and have the leverage in the salary negotiations.

Cross training your crew to understand these positions diminishes the need to start the staffing scavenger hunt. Here’s the kicker: you have to spend the time training them.

From my own experience, in normal times any company loses about 10 to 15 percent of their staff every year due to attrition. Plan on it. You don’t have control. But if you construct a working cross training program to build your bench strength in key areas of your business, the challenge will not be as great when something dramatic happens.

Tip 5: Your goal is still to use the “Rule of Three” for your business: Have at least three competent people training in every key task. Don’t rely on only one person to know a job. Give more people the knowledge and opportunity to help your business strengthen by cross training them in multiple areas.

Get Out of Your Office

Hmmm. This one is going to be a little harder. Let’s amend it to “Show Up and Be Supportive.”

The reason I was advocating to make a field trip to see your customers is for the fact-finding mission. That still holds true.

You absolutely need to understand and comprehend what they’re struggling with right now. Sure, it’s been months since the pandemic started, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that their world could still be upside down and they need your support.

How can your experience, connections, skill, talents, or empathy help them right now? Your job is to find out. Take notes. Don’t try to sell them something. Help solve their problem.

Tip 6: Your job is to learn what’s happening with the people you’re connected to for your business, your customers, suppliers, associates, and even your employees. Discover new things by asking questions. Act on what you learn.

Illustration of a man setting a goal

Set Sales Goals

At the beginning of 2020 we all had sales goals we wanted to achieve by the end of the year. For most, about mid-April, that came to a screeching halt and folks were simply worried about survival.

However, creating sales goals and working toward them is still a good idea… even in times like these. You shouldn’t not do it. But now you might have to alter how you achieve them.

Plenty of things have changed since then. In-person retail sales are down. Online stores and webpage sales are up. Adjusting to the new way customers are buying is the trick. What are you doing that’s different?

Tip 7: Right now is the perfect time to set SMART goals you can work on achieving throughout the next year. Remember, a SMART goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Bound.

Conduct a Brand Audit

Still relevant. Your brand is more than your logo. But I want to add something, which is “Purpose.”
This past year, my friend Roger Burnett co-authored a book with Stan Phelps entitled, “Red Goldfish Promo Edition: How Promotional Products Leverage Purpose to Increase Impact.”

Roger and Stan create a convincing case that your company brand should stand for more than just sales. Are you making the world a better place? Do you have a mission that has a higher calling than just the simple transaction of a sale?

In the book, you’ll discover that what you do can be connected to supporting non-profits and sustainable initiatives, and giving people a stronger emotional connection to your brand.

Tip 8: Read “Red Goldfish Promo Edition” t0 see if you can connect your brand to your customers by elevating your purpose. The book contains more than 250-plus examples for inspiration.

Illustration of marketing

Create A Marketing Plan

Of course this is still relevant. Did you do that last year? Are you still using it?

I’m sorry to say that if you’re like most people, you’re a better planner than doer. In 2020, you started the race hot and ready to go, but with the obstacles of the pandemic, everything slowed down to a crawl.

Are you even marketing anymore? Get back in the saddle and start back up again, cowboy! Take some time right now to create a marketing plan you can stick to, and then implement it.

Remember, “Marketing is the act of creating a customer. Branding is the act of creating an emotional link to the customer and your business.” Don’t confuse the two.

Tip 9: Try creating the content and posts at least one month ahead of time for the entire year. These can be built and then scheduled with apps like Buffer, Hootsuite, or Zoho. Post your marketing on the social channels your customers utilize. Measure and track success or failure, so you know how to tweak your messaging.

Challenge Your Norms

Has there been anything more norm challenging than dealing with this pandemic? What was up is now down. What is forward thinking is now sideways. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Nope.

Instead, now is the perfect time to double down on changes and make them stick. Because, you know: COVID.

It’s the perfect villain to point to as to why:

  • You now only take 100 percent upfront payment.
  • You’ve revamped your hiring process.
  • You’ve raised your prices and order minimums.
  • You need more trained people.

Whatever has been nagging you for years, COVID-19 has offered the perfect cover story for why “now is the perfect time” to make that change.

Tip 10: Just do it already.

Use Video in Marketing

Video is huge right now. Who could have predicted the onslaught of Zoom calls and that video chats would become the norm? Have you mastered the art of digital video communication yet?

My go-to favorite is the Soapbox app to create a message that will embed in an email instead of typing. I create these types of videos daily.

People want a more human-to-human experience. With video they can see and hear you. Be yourself. It’s like leaving a voicemail, but a little more elevated.

Tip 11: You need to bring some happiness and emotion to the table when you’re creating your videos. Have you ever bumped into one of your best friends from high school unexpectedly somewhere? You haven’t seen each other in years, but you jump for joy when you meet up. Bring that level of enthusiasm to the video so your message comes across clearly to the other person.

Clean and Declutter Your Shop

Hopefully some time in April or May, when you ran out of work, you did the deep clean and decluttered your shop. And you’ve kept it this way.

No? Well, that’s ok. There’s still time! In fact, it’s always a good time to handle this task. Weird things pile up and nobody knows why.

The problem is your team walks around this stuff constantly. It slows them down. Not to mention, it just looks bad.

Tip 12: If you’re unsure about something, use a piece of masking tape and label it with today’s date. Three to six months from now when you realize you haven’t touched or used it, it will be a much easier decision to part ways. Sometimes “we’ll use it one day,” never happens.

Illustration of business planning

Write a Business Plan

Did you do this? Let’s say you did. Good for you!

But with everything going on, is it still valid? The ideal customers you identified on your business plan back in 2019 may no longer be around, or their needs have changed.

That’s ok! A business plan is a living, breathing document that needs to be updated on a regular basis.

Do some relevant market research. With everything you now know about your customer base, what do you need to update or change?

Tip 13: Your business plan is still about identifying the “Unfair Advantage” you have over your competitors. What makes you special? This is what needs to be shouted from the mountain.

Rethink Your Website

This question from last year is still valid: Is your website supposed to make you money, or is it a fancy version of your business card?

Did you update anything? Are you selling in an online store?  What’s going on here anyway?

For many in this industry, the website is the last place they invest any money. Do yourself a favor, if you don’t have the skills to do it right, hire someone who does.

Tip 14: A great website can make or break a business. Get yours fine-tuned and working properly.

Raise Your Prices and minimums

Quick check, did you do this? Are you ready to do it again? Our costs are only going up. Your pricing should reflect that. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to make a profit.

Last year, I suggested doing an 80/20 deep dive on your business. This means finding out that your top 20 percent of your customers actually give you about 80 percent of your revenue. With all of the weirdness of COVID-19, is that still true? Do the math.

You may have taken a few orders that normally would have been avoided in the past few months, but now, as we are emerging from the pandemic, let’s get our “next normal” queued up and working.

Tip 15: You don’t have to say yes to everything. Do you know what types of customers and orders you should avoid? Write out what success looks like in terms of customers and their orders. Stick to that.


The call of nature is simple. Adapt or die. The same is true in business. Did your shop suffer in sales due to the pandemic? How did you adjust? Did you start selling masks, gaiters, or hand sanitizer? Maybe you built your first online store for a customer? You could have participated in the popular “Here for Good” campaigns that sprang up all-around the country?

The point is you shouldn’t sit there and wait for the phone to ring. Innovation is taking a proactive stance on your future.

Tip 16: Play around with ideas or collaborate with others. Spend a lot of time with the “What if?” question. Try things on for size.


Build Supplier Relationships

Do you still need your suppliers? Of course. Don’t be silly.

But there’s something you need to understand. They’re struggling through this pandemic, too. They have staff out with COVID. Their states may have been shut down. Some of the key ingredients to what they make may be hard to source. It’s a crazy mess.

The only way we pull through this together is to have empathy for one another and great communication. Not all suppliers are created equal, but the ones who are on the top of their game right now are doing their level best to keep things going and to help you.

This is where human-to-human connections matter. Phone calls are good. Video calls are better. If they can swing an in-person visit and follow your safety protocols, that’s the best.

Tip 17: Personally introduce yourself and get to know your sales representatives for all of your suppliers. Their focus is to help you. Be honest with them about your struggles. How can they help you right now?

Illustration of a man reading a book


Can you still read a relevant article or interesting book during these troubled times? You bet. Your ability to pull in different ideas, opinions, methods, and other viewpoints is how you can create new ideas you didn’t have yesterday.

People often tell me they don’t have time to read. Nonsense. Do you have time to watch television or YouTube videos? There always seems to be time to add your comment to a Facebook post.

What if you reprioritized your time? That’s all it takes.

Tip 18: Build your list of sources of recommendations for great articles, books, or magazines to read. Subscribe. My favorite trick is to find out what books people are reading, and if they would recommend them. Then, I go to Amazon and buy a used version for only a few dollars.


Yep. I’ll bet you’re still making them. But are you keeping track of what happened, how much it cost you, and how you can engineer a solution so they don’t happen again? That’s the question.

If you didn’t start a simple spreadsheet last year, start one now. Remember, what gets measured gets improved.

Tip 19: Same as last year. Keep a running tab on mistakes, what caused them, the financial burden, and other relevant bits of information for each one. Learn from them and see if you can develop methods to avoid that mistake. Documentation and training will play a big role here.

20 Goals for 2021

Let’s not add another goal to the list just because we’re now into 2021. Instead, let’s reset the board. Dig deep and focus on making these 20 goals a reality. You can do it!



Let’s Talk About It

Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Screen Printing Industry

LET’S TALK About It: Part 3 discusses how four screen printers have employed people with disabilities, why you should consider doing the same, the resources that are available, and more. Watch the live webinar, held August 16, moderated by Adrienne Palmer, editor-in-chief, Screen Printing magazine, with panelists Ali Banholzer, Amber Massey, Ryan Moor, and Jed Seifert. The multi-part series is hosted exclusively by ROQ.US and U.N.I.T.E Together. Let’s Talk About It: Part 1 focused on Black, female screen printers and can be watched here; Part 2 focused on the LGBTQ+ community and can be watched here.

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