Niche or be Niched

Below is an excerpt from my book, “Made to Make It: A Guide To Screen Printing Success.”  Learn helpful tips and tricks on how to run a screen printing business.

There’s a saying that goes “niche or be niched.” Screen printing is a very competitive business. If you think you just can go buy a bunch of equipment, hang a sign on your door that says “open for screen printing” (or build a website), and have a line of customers out the door needing shirts printed, you’re dead wrong. Anyone, anywhere can find a printer. There are plenty of options. So, before you start or expand in screen printing, you need to understand how you are different than the other competitors in your market. Why would someone purchase their next shirt from you? Feel discouraged? Don’t; there’s hope! While screen printing IS competitive, it ISN’T saturated! The difference can be found in being unique. Colin Shane from Lone Mountain Printing in Bozeman, Montana is a ROQstar example of this. Colin built his business up from a one-man show to owning his own ROQ automatic screen printing machine and pumping out hundreds of incredible prints a day. His secret?

“My business provides superior softhand prints on high-quality apparel, in a competitive market dominated by plastic prints that could stop a bullet. My motto is, ‘If I won’t wear it, I won’t print it!” – Colin Shane owner of Lone Mountain Printing

Forward Printing

Guess where Colin got his niche and motto from? Forward Printing, which has a very similar mantra in a much bigger market, the Bay Area. The reason Colin’s niche so closely reflects Forward Printing’s is because part of Forward’s differentiation strategy is to teach others how to produce prints as soft as their own. They’ve written articles, taught classes and, in Colin’s case, let him come into their shop and hang out for an entire week!

“The decision to share the tricks of our trade with other printers helped us establish ourselves as thought leaders in the space, which added credibility to our services. That layer of credibility, paired with providing consistently superior products that delivered on our brand promises, helped us get our foot in the door with new clients and create a sense of stickiness one we had them.”

-Dan Corcoran, Co-founder of Forward Printing, on finding your niche.

Forward Printing’s niche is quality, and they excel at it. They’ve established credibility as leading providers of soft prints by educating others on the topic. Some screen printers find their niche in printing only water-based ink, some focus on halftone printing and photorealism, while some have found their connection in printing on only athletic apparel and polyester garments. Whatever you choose, the key is commitment. Once you commit to a niche, make sure that you are indeed excelling in it and that you can offer the best service for that kind of printing.

Seeking Out Your Own Niche

THERE ARE A FEW THINGS YOU SHOULD THINK ABOUT WHEN SEEKING OUT YOUR OWN NICHE: WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU CAN BE THE BEST AT DOING? WHAT UNFULFILLED NEEDS CAN YOU MEET FOR YOUR TARGET CUSTOMER SEGMENT? If you’re dabbling already, or perhaps even in business—what is it that you enjoy most about producing prints? What do you think will keep you passionate about coming to work every morning at your own screen printing business? If you’re already printing, what are you doing well? And, what are you not doing well? What feedback have you gotten, both good and bad, from people who you’ve shared your prints with that you could apply to discovering your sweet spot? What do your prospects like and dislike about their current provider? What do they want the most? And, if they could get it from you, would they? This discovery exercise should reveal some patterns, and give you an opportunity to build trust with those that may soon become your customers.

The Hedgehog Concept

In asking those questions, you should pretty quickly start to see the intersection between what you’re great at (and excited about) and what your customers need (and aren’t getting). Before you decide to fill the gap, the last question you should ask yourself, according to Jim Collins’ “Hedgehog Concept” from his best-selling book “ Good to Great ,” is can you make money doing it ? The Hedgehog Model is based on an ancient Greek parable that states: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In the parable, the fox employs tactic after tactic to try to catch the hedgehog, succeeding at none. Whereas the hedgehog sticks to the one thing it knows how to do best, defending itself with its spines. In 1953, philosopher Isaiah Berlin took this parable and applied it in a new context, placing people in two groups in his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” His thesis was that foxes are sleek and shrewd animals, which chase after many goals at once— rendering their thinking scattered, and limiting what they can achieve in the long run. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are quiet and unassuming, but retain a sharp focus on a singular goal—allowing them to succeed against all the odds, by focusing on what they do best. Collins’ retelling of the story, looks at businesses through the same lens.

Going From Good to Great

According to Collins, companies go from “Good to Great” in part by focusing on one thing, and doing it well. Collins definition of the sweet spot (AKA your niche) is the area of overlap in between what you’re passionate about, what you can do better than anyone else, and where you think you can make money. In the competitive business of screen printing, I would add—what your prospects and customers aren’t getting anywhere else. So, what do you want to be, a fox or a hedgehog? A hedgehog, right? Keep in mind that, while you want to give any strategy you employ time to prove itself out (including figuring out what makes you different), that doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually look at other areas where you can innovate and carve out space for yourself. As you get your name out there and start to build credibility, you’ll get asked to do work for all different markets and niches. Always be open to the opportunity of exploring something new, but remember that if you’re not different in some way or another you’ll likely be forgotten.

Niche Examples

“We like to think of ourselves as the new take on the ‘mom and pop’ shop, which specializes in posters. What we do, and what we’re good at is highly visual, and we want people to experience it that way in our boutique. When customers come to our store, they know we’re doing this because we love producing original work. An Illustrator whose works we print can look at the wall of our collective and think ‘WOW! I printed that on paper with a screen!’ The customer that purchases that poster will have a similarly visceral experience when they look at that print on the wall of their home for years. And then it will get passed on, and give someone else pleasure each time they see it.” -Jarrod Hennis, founder of Pirate Ninja Print Shop and Rockford Art Deli

“We were one of the early pioneers in selling screen printed product on the Internet, way back in 2000, and it propelled us to the forefront at that time. But just having a site isn’t enough to differentiate you anymore. Where we win customers now is in the level of service and support we provide. From the ease of navigating our site, to the selection and the standard of online customization they can access, to the production process and delivery times we offer, through them receiving the final product—our customers choose us for the superior experience. We are passionate about, and the best at customer service.”

-Marc Katz, Founder of Custom Ink

Over the course of writing this book, I talked to three different printers of all sizes, who had been in the industry varied levels of times, with distinct backgrounds and strategies. From a husband and wife shop to a $200M company. And what I found was the one thing they ALL had in common, was that they had discovered their niche, and became the best at it. And that, my friends, is one of the most important lessons you’ll learn about how to succeed in the competitive world of screen printing. Be different, and be great.

Like what you read? Get more great business tips on running a screen printing business from my book, “Made to Make It: A Guide To Screen Printing Success.”

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