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Screen Printer Turns Her Dream Side Hustle Into a Full Time Passion

A Q+A with the owner of Dee’s Sweet Tees, who made her passion her career.

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Screen Printer Turns Her Dream Side Hustle Into a Full Time Passion

DEONJALA “DEE” WILLIAMS is the founder of Dee’s Sweet Tees, a custom screen printing and decorated apparel shop, and Heart and a Heat Press, an online business educational platform for the screen printing industry. Dee’s expertise lies in how to launch your own profitable T-shirt printing business in 60 days or less.

Adrienne Palmer: Can you talk about the process of leaving your day job and starting your own business? What was the main driver?

Deonjala “Dee” Williams: My business was actually my side hustle first. I worked 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. managing a donation thrift store. It’d take a lot longer conversation to really go into detail about how that position came about in the first place, but it was fun at first: rearranging the store, leading a team, and watching real change take place. However, after about two years of working there I got fizzled out on building someone else’s dream, only to see my ideas rejected and then later reintroduced as the ultimate strategy for remarkable change. I soon became numb every time I crossed the threshold of the building and it was in that moment I knew I wouldn’t continue to work there.

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My side hustle was kicking up, but I was struggling to keep up with the responsibilities of managing the thrift store business while trying to fulfill orders for my own business. As early as 6:30 a.m. some mornings, I’d print T-shirts from the shed in my parents’ backyard, jam up until 9 a.m., and then go back after work and print more. I knew I wanted to print T-shirts for myself full time, but I didn’t know what that would even look like. The day I handed in my resignation letter to my ex-supervisor was one of extreme nervousness and faith. I think the main driver that pushed me to step out on faith with my business was when I asked the organization about receiving maternity leave and then returning to work. You see, at the time in 2016, a few months prior to me handing in my resignation letter, I was pregnant. I went in and spoke to the executive director about my options for taking leave as a mother. I was told I could take my saved vacation pay and lose that time when I returned, but there was no maternity leave pay past that option. Shortly thereafter, I overheard a conversation of the higher ups giving my direct supervisor a hard time for being away in the death of his parent. At that moment I realized the organization’s mission and my theme of family no longer aligned, and it was time for me to be my own boss. A month after having my baby girl, I walked into my ex-boss’ office and told him that I would not be returning to work. It was scary and liberating at the same time. I haven’t been back to a 9 to 5 since.

AP: On your site you mention you made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Can you share one mistake you made that could be helpful to screen printers entering the business?

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DW: One major mistake I made in the beginning was choosing “cheap” over “low-cost” solutions. In the end, I ended up losing more money than I should have. My very first heat press is a prime example. I paid $200 (non-refundable) for it because I went for the bargain, cheap price without doing enough research. I messed up about 10 shirts before I realized my press had several cold spots, and as a result, I would not be able to use it to print high-quality T-shirts. It was a dud. That was $200 that I couldn’t get back plus gas money spent to drive 45 minutes to lug a 100-pound machine home to fail. My first heat press lived out its last days in my storage unit. I learned so many things in that first year I started getting my equipment, but the most important advice I can give anyone entering the business is to get a mentor. You should find a local screen printer and see if you can volunteer. If you really want to be in this business, you’ll want to learn firsthand from someone who has already been where you’re going. I did. My mentor was actually the one who told me to get an infrared gun and check the plate of my first heat press.

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Dee’s Sweet Tees HQ

AP: Have you had more subscribers to your online courses during quarantine? How has COVID-19 affected your business?

DW: While Dee’s Sweet Tees has adjusted well by supplying customized masks and gaiters to the industries that have been going strong the entire time, COVID-19 has indeed stifled growth for the Heart and a Heat Press platform. I had just started getting students into the course when the virus hit. Two weeks after signing up my first student, she informed me she had been temporarily laid off.

AP: Can you talk about the importance of having an online presence (website and social media)?

DW: Although word of mouth marketing is the most effective (and it’s free), having a strong website and social media presence is just as important. The magic comes from mixing high-quality work (product and/or service) with a strong online presence. For example, create a high-quality T-shirt, take a crisp picture of it, and post in on your social media while tagging your customer. Creating that type of presence leads to more opportunities to marry high-quality work with your online network. I am constantly trying to come up with new ways to grow my online presence organically.

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