Written By: Elisa with Don't Lose Hope Screen Printing & Embroidery
When you are busy slinging ink & spending what seems like every waking moment printing shirts, networking is probably the LAST thing on your mind - I get it. Especially if, like most shops, you stay busy enough with random incoming orders that you don't really feel the NEED to talk to more people. Or maybe it's the opposite - you're so new to the industry that you don't even know where to begin (in which case hi, hello, welcome to the most stressful yet rewarding industry there is, no going back - you’re one of us now)! Either way, dedicating some precious time to connecting with other printers and people in neighboring industries can be what helps take you from average to in demand.
First, there are the business professionals within our own industry. There are SO many advantages that come from networking & forming what I like to call ~alliances~ with fellow screen printers!
Our industry is unique, and it can feel like you are re-inventing the wheel when dealing with challenges and/or scaling your operation. According to Rodney, things used to be a lot tougher "back in the day" since experienced folks weren't as open or helpful with sharing knowledge, but luckily times have changed.
Thanks to leaders in the industry (like Ryonet!) and easy access to social media, it's a lot easier to find other screen printers who have faced the same challenges as you and likely have lots of advice they're willing to share.
At DLH Screen Print, we're an open book - we believe that helping others in our industry helps to improve the industry for everyone, and it's a our duty to pay it forward since it's only with help that we've come this far. From answering questions in online groups to hosting tours at our shop, we welcome any chance we get to share things we've learned. But whether you're BRAND new to the industry or simply new to networking with other printers, probably the easiest way to dip your toe in is by checking out fellow professionals on Instagram. There are tons of pages dedicated to sharing printing tips and advice along with countless print shop pages who would likely answer any question you need help with via direct message.
An easy way to partner with someone in a complimentary industry is simply to bring up cross referrals (this is where you refer people to them and they know to refer people to you). This can be as casual or as structured of an arrangement as you want - I've seen this range from a handshake deal to a contract with commission details spelled out to help sweeten the deal. I will share a caveat - I strongly recommend thinking about some sort of vetting process before you dive into a partnership, since anyone you endorse will reflect upon you. This means that if you refer a loyal client to someone you say you trust and they end up having a terrible experience - it will tarnish YOUR credibility as a result. So tread carefully with this option!
This industry is FULL of helpful people, and no matter how far they've come, it seems we all vividly remember what it was like to begin our screen printing journey and are therefore happy to share our wisdom with anyone willing to learn. However, remember that at the end of the day, you're running a business - and as awesome as they are, fellow screen printers aren't your customers. So if your focus right now is filling up your piggy bank, I suggest spending more time on the next networking strategy.
When it comes to scaling and increasing your sales surface area, what's worked stellar for us has been networking with industry ADJACENT professionals. By this, I mean people who work in industries that have a lot of similar and overlapping clientele, or at least the TYPE of clientele you would love to work with the most. Easy examples of this are graphic designers, website builders, local marketing agencies, etc. These professionals are essentially targeting the same type of people as you, but they aren't your direct competition - in fact, your services COMPLIMENT each other - which means there's potential for some incredible partnerships.
If you've read this far and are thinking "DUH, Elisa, I've been doing all this IN MY SLEEP. Tell me something I DON'T know" well, then I hope what I'm about to say next gets your gears turning - because it's a strategy we've been implementing that you can get UBER creative with. The next step is to niche down even further and to give some thought to your specific target (or "favorite") customer - if you don't yet have one, that's okay. An easy way to start is with an interest or a cause that YOU are most interested in. Whether it's music, animals, a certain profession, a sport, an art type - there's going to be groups, workplaces, government departments, local businesses, etc that ALSO work with those people.
This is another way to increase your exposure to the people who work with, at, or frequent this place/do this activity. The best part is that since this is something you're personally interested in, you then have a natural and pretty organic way to get your foot in the door to at least start a conversation with the people in charge (who probably need merch) or attendees/members/fans of these groups (even if THEY don't need merch, they can talk about you to people who do).
I understand this sounds a little vague, so I'll share a few examples…
Say you love to go mountain biking as a hobby, you love seeing live music, coffee keeps you alive and you have a strong passion for supporting the adoption of rescue dogs (yes I cheated and just described Rodney). This gives you plenty of starting points for professionals to network with & increase your sales surface area (aka the likelihood that one of your conversations will lead to a sale).
Odds are you already stop in to your local bike shop often to get your own bike serviced, and it won't be as "cold" of a pitch if you let the management/owner know that "hey by the way, I run a screen printing business so if you ever need merch, let me know!" Same with repeating this line to the management of the venues you frequent for the live music you love, the coffee shop that you're a regular at, and the animal rescue that you got your own pup from. I want to interject that although these introductions may not DIRECTLY lead to a sale, you NEVER know what opportunities could come from simply sharing what you do with other business owners and community leaders.
In my opinion, the more people that know what you do the better, and if you target people with whom you already have a common interest it's usually easier (and more enjoyable) to speak to them about how you make sick merch and how you could help make their lives easier by working with you.
That's not to say that peeps from every industry or interest you have is worth your time and effort to network with, but what's fun (or sometimes frustrating AF) is that the only way you'll find that out is through trial and error. Are there certain red or green flags you can look for that'll let you know early on which one they are? Sure there are...but that's for another post ;)