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These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

We asked leading decision-makers how they made it to the industry’s mountaintop.

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FROM FAMILY BUSINESSES to parents’ basements, every screen printer has an origin story. But what’s fascinating is how they went from their garage to $5 million in sales. Was there one customer who took them over the edge? Did they grow so fast they couldn’t handle the output? Read the following shop profiles to learn how these screen printers rose against the challenges and made it to the top.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Gary Ficken
president
Bimm Ridder Sportswear
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

AP: How did you start?
GF: In 1988, we bought a very small screen printer. It was a two-man shop that I worked at part time. This gave us a little bit of equipment and a small customer list. And then we hit the pavement searching for customers. I had worked previously for a screen printing company in sales, so I started with my previous customers.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
GF: In 2018.

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
GF: The biggest challenge we have to growth is a lack of workforce.  Unemployment rates are very low in our area and that is quite a challenge to find a good employee base in the production area. And that issue has only gotten worse since COVID.

Our sales are seasonal in nature because we are so tied to the baseball industry, so that also can bring challenges to us.

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
GF: No, not really.

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow?
GF: Becoming a national apparel and headwear licensee for minor league baseball in 1993 is what really started our growth pattern.

AP: How many employees do you have?
GF: 28.

AP: What is your typical client type?
GF: Professional sports teams merchandise buyer.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Tom Rauen
CEO
1-800-TShirts
Dubuque, Iowa

AP: How did you start?
TR: In my parents’ basement in 2015 with a heat press. Within three months, I upgraded to a retail store front and purchased a single head embroidery machine and a manual screen printing press.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
TR: In 2021.

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
TR: Staffing and adapting to changing systems and processes.

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
TR: Yes and no. It’s been a gradual growth over 17 years, averaging 20 percent annually. So, it isn’t this extreme hockey stick growth you see in some startups – it has been manageable – but at times we could feel when we were hitting a growth threshold. Right now, we are in our fourth location. As we continued to hit thresholds in our growth, we would find a lot of inefficiencies due to space constraints. The other problem we encountered with some of our growth is adjusting to the volume and keeping the level of service personal for each customer. We didn’t always meet or exceed expectations and lost some customers along the way because of it.

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow exponentially?
TR: We’ve grown through a combination of organic growth and acquisition. The combination of those two and acquiring businesses with a strong customer base was a combination for continued steady growth.

AP: How many employees do you have?
TR: 35.

AP: What is your typical client type?
TR: B2B.

Peter Calcaterra started in his parents’ basement and is now in an 18,500-square-foot facility.

Peter Calcaterra started in his parents’ basement and is now in an 18,500-square-foot facility.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Peter Calcaterra
Owner
Detroit Printing Company
Detroit

AP: How did you start?
PC: I’ve always loved making things. I started in my parents’ basement when I was 16 years old with my first vinyl cutter, selling decals and stickers for the local car community. That shortly evolved into working with CAD-cut vinyl and a heat press. I didn’t even know what screen printing was. I rented a U-Haul van and bought a six-color manual down in Ohio. I had zero clue how it all worked. I dove in headfirst with YouTube as my teacher. I watched a lot of videos from Ryonet and The Print Life. I’ve since grown from my parents’ basement to my garage to my own warehouse space to three bigger spaces and now my 18,500-square-foot facility.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
PC: In 2021.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
PC: Where to start? My age. Being 23 is great, don’t get me wrong. It works in my favor, to be honest: selling a job and showing people what I have built. “Wait, you’re how young? That’s awesome.” People love that I’m young, but when it comes to leases, loans, and the more professional side of the business, it hurts. To banks, I am a risk because of the lack of years in business and my credit history. I have been
denied many times due to my age from banks and landlords.

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
PC: All the time. At random times I will stop myself, look around the shop, and say, “WHAT THE FU*K?”

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow exponentially?
PC: There was one client that let me grow at an amazing rate. I landed a contract I shouldn’t have ever gotten. The customer came up with an idea for a clothing company but had no idea how large it was going to get. We stuck together and grew together. There were many growing pains with the business size, with loans and rental spaces, being a new business, and not having old tax returns for proof of maxing money in the past. I went from $250,000 in sales to more than $5,000,000 within two years. It wasn’t normal, but once I got it all figured out – only like six months ago – I was able to work with two similar brands and all kinds of local jobs, too.

AP: How many employees do you have?
PC: I have 19 employees:

  • Six screen printing
  • Three embroidery
  • One pre-production
  • Six fulfillment
  • Two management
  • One shipping and receiving

AP: What is your typical client type?
PC: We are an open, custom shop to local people, but the bread and butter are our brand partners. We do large-scale ecommerce order fulfillment as well as web development, branding, printing, sourcing, forecasting, advertising, warehousing, shipping, and customer service. I have been building a one-stop shop for a customer to come and build their brand.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Kyle Reardon
VP of Operations
Atlantis Sportswear
Piqua, Ohio

AP: How did you start?
KR: We’ve been a family business since 1986 when my father left a screen shop and started his own.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
KR: Ten-ish years ago.

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
KR: Feeding the beast with enough work and staff. Day-to-day overhaul takes from growing in other ways. COVID has slowed us slightly and opened our eyes to new avenues of business including starting a resort apparel line where we have more control than contract printing.

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
KR: Growth was steady, not too fast.

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow exponentially?
KR: Reebok, Hanes, and Fanatics all helped us grow. We started as a license vendor, but when the big boys bought all of the licenses, we had to pivot more into contract printing, which helped us grow.

AP: How many employees do you have?
KR: 55 to 65 employees.

AP: What is your typical client type?
KR: Sporting and resort clients.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Val and Eric Solomon
CO-Owners
Night Owls
Houston

AP: How did you start?
V&E: We started as many others did, with a Speedball craft screen from Hobby Lobby, trying to make local band merchandise. It launched a lifelong passion to create, build, and learn the science of printing.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
V&E: We hit $5 million in 2021. We came close in 2020, but 2021 is what put us over the top!

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
V&E: Often, our biggest challenge is knowing where we want to go, but not having a roadmap that’s super clear to get there. We have always been a nimble and agile company, but as you start approaching and eventually grow over $5 million, it becomes harder to navigate. You go from your DIY roots and planning, to actually needing to be strategic about how you’re approaching things. Things change a lot more when you start to have staff, departments, and different types of business ventures. Also, being prepared for growth that you’re planning is very tricky to navigate. At $5 million, you’re too big to not have plans in place, but too small to fully fund some of those plans.

These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
V&E: No, I think we were able to grow accordingly, but as mentioned earlier, trying to plan for growth and being able to afford that growth can be tricky.

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow exponentially?
V&E: Not one client pushed us over that marker, but several clients together did. I think we got really lucky and had several clients and projects that organically grew with us. So, as they scaled, we were able to scale and grow with them. Diversifying our client types and services we offer really helped us grow faster, as well.

AP: How many employees do you have?
V&E: Currently we have 34 employees over three different departments.

AP: What is your typical client type?
V&E: Every year this changes, but currently I’d say our typical or ideal client is usually an artist or musician that has a full vision of what they want to accomplish, but need help in not only the printing, but also in the fulfillment of those items to their customers.

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These 6 Screen Shops Reached $5 Million in Sales – Here’s How They Did It

Ben Spurlock
Production Manger
Southeast Impressions
Lebanon, Tennessee

AP: How did you start?
BS: This has been a family business since 1996. After I graduated college in 2012, I joined the company and started running screen printing production. At the time, we had two manual presses and four heads of embroidery. My goal coming in was to streamline the process and see if we could get things in and out the door faster. Fast forward to 2014, we had grown to two autos and were moving into a 10,000-square-foot building. After another four years, we were adding another 5000 square feet and putting in more machines. Our goal from the get-go has always been to grow without any outside sales team. My belief is if you create a quality product in a timely manner, then word of mouth is the best sales team you can have.

AP: When did you hit $5 million in sales?
BS: This is our first year of surpassing $5 million in sales. We ended 2021 at $4.6 million in sales and this year we are going to be around $6.4 million. It’s pretty incredible because there are a lot of hurdles that come with that $5 million revenue mark. My team crushed that milestone and we went on to $6 million. I think growing pains come at $1 million, $5 million, and then probably $10 million, and at that point shop owners really have to define who they want to be and what direction they want to go with their company. Then they have to make the decision to work harder to get over the hurdle or to stay where they are.

AP: What has been the biggest challenge to growth?
BS: Some of the biggest challenges we saw were basically outgrowing processes before we even had a chance to see if they were working. I have always said, when you come to a growth speed bump in this industry or any industry, you have to figure out if you want to take it on and continue to grow or stay where you are. Luckily, we have been blessed to have great employees and a great team that has made growth easy. But the biggest challenge in our growth has just been time. There have been moments when I wish time would stand still for a week or two to figure everything out that is going on. We get to a point where everything is smooth and I can work normal hours and then boom, we hit a growth spurt and I’m back to working 4 a.m. to 7 p.m.

AP: Did you ever feel like you were growing too fast?
BS: Honestly, I’ve never felt like we’ve grown too fast. Since 2012, we have grown 20 to 35 percent every year. It has been at a sustainable pace, in my opinion. We are unique though because without outside salespeople we aren’t really in a position to control our growth.

AP: Was there one client or project that allowed you to grow exponentially?
BS: We’re unique. We don’t have one customer that is more than three percent of our revenue. So, it was never a big project or a new giant customer that helped our growth. It has been about finding the right customers and the right contract accounts that we want to work with. One thing we look for when taking on contract accounts is customers that approach working together as a team. We look for people who are wanting to grow and work together. One of the great things about growth is being able to take on customers you want and getting rid of the ones that seem to be problems! That sounds hateful – we have only really fired two accounts – but there comes a point when some accounts are more of a burden and it’s just not needed.

AP: How many employees do you have?
BS: 41.

AP: What is your typical client type?
BS: We really have a unique client base. We are around 25 to 30 percent contract, but what makes us special, in my opinion, is that our clientele is so diverse. If one market starts to slow down, our other ones pick up. We do runs of 20,000-plus, but really our sweet spot is 75 to 250 pieces.

PHOTO GALLERY (16 IMAGES)

Adrienne Palmer is the editor-in-chief of Screen Printing and Big Picture.

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