How Not to Fail: 5 Lessons From a Screen Printing Wildcard

Those who have had the opportunity to go to college know that the final few weeks, while sleep depriving, are incredibly exciting. You’ve been in school since kindergarten, and now for the first time you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. When graduation finally comes around, many people choose to celebrate with a road trip, time at the beach, even a European vacation. I took one day off to nurse a hangover and then went shopping for commercial space.

I felt like I had reached a pivotal point in my life. How many people graduate college? How many people start their own business? I had completed two lifelong goals in quick succession. However, what I would soon realize is that starting a business is the easy part. Running it and turning into a success is much more difficult. According to the Small Business Administration, about 50% of new companies will fail within their first year. I was able to make it to year 3 before I decided to sell mine (at the height of our success) and this post is about some of the lessons I learned during, but especially after, looking back on that journey.

Lesson #1 – Plan for the step after the next step. The old Spanish building was not that big, but it was in a great location for customers to find me on Google Maps or see me from a main street. I thought that since I was able to successfully run the business out of a two car garage, surely this space which was even bigger (barely) would work out. I was a one manual shop and when we ended up printing 5,000 shirts a month, I realized getting a second manual or an automatic would be damn near impossible in the space. Initially I had been caught up thinking too small, too immediate, worried whether the business would succeed and not wanting to get in over my head. I figured if we got to a point down the road where we were big enough to need more equipment we could always look for a larger space at that time. What I didn’t realize was that “down the road” would occur within the first 12 months. It’s important to be cautious, but also plan to succeed. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle by thinking further ahead.

Lesson #2 – Learn how to Say “No.” As a new company I was hungry to succeed and was terrified of failure. For these reasons I felt that I could never turn away any business that happened to present itself – I felt that I had to take advantage of every opportunity. Wrong. Even though I had been screen printing for seven years, I found that I was doing something for the first time almost everyday. Why? Because when I worked for others – I was working within their defined system. They had created procedures for me and all I had to do was execute. Now, I had customers calling me with all sorts of requests. “Can you print on this kind of paper?” “Can I bring my own garments?” “Do you do hats?” “ Mugs?” “Signs?” Etc. When you put yourself out there in business you have to set parameters for what you do and do not offer. Be clear, be concise. Know what it is you do best – and learn how to say no. In the end it saves you time, money and your sanity.

Lesson #3 – Done is better than perfect. For those of you who have started a screen printing company solo like this, you know just how difficult of a learning curve it can be. Very quickly being a great designer or printer become less important to your success than being a great manager of your time. Good screen printers are detail oriented. They have an eye for design, and so naturally we are or become somewhat of perfectionists. Being detailed is great. Being over-detailed is a nightmare. Learn how to let your quest for perfection slide. Don’t be inflexible. If it is 90% perfect to you – the customer will probably love it and see absolutely nothing wrong. Screen printers notice things most consumers don’t. If you have all the time in the world – go for it – grab that pen tool and surgically smooth out every anchor point to satisfy your OCD. But if you are under a deadline (which, let’s be real you always are) – get it to 90% perfect and burn the damn screens.

*Lesson #3A – (News flash) – There is no perfect; especially in business. One of the main things I would impart to new screen print shop owners is that you need to get ready to roll with the punches. Things will not be prefect, far from it. Things will go wrong every single day. Instead of freaking out every time there is a misprint or a package doesn’t arrive on time – learn how to control your reaction. After all, there is no use worrying about things that are out of your hands. Focus on what you can control and as Bruce Lee famously said, “Learn to be like water.”

Lesson #4 – No, you can’t just outwork everybody. I’m an optimistic person. I believe there is a window for anybody to succeed, and those who do are the ones who are able to find and maximize that window of opportunity. So when I started the business I thought that if I just worked harder than any other sane person was willing to work, then everything else would just fall into place. It’s true that growing a successful company takes an incredible amount of hard work, but what I didn’t understand at the time, was that hard work is not ALL it takes. It takes planning and processes. It takes being able to step back and rely on a team – you can’t do everything yourself. Set and know your boundaries, learn how to say no and be ok with less than perfect…a lot less.

Lesson #5 – Manage stress. You are not the President of the United States (although now maybe that seems like a realistic option) so don’t act like this is life and death. I used to lie in bed at night and be so stressed out about what deadlines I had to meet the next day that I would think I was having a heart attack. Developing the mental skills to calm your mind when things get hectic is important for everybody, and particularly for business owners. Whether its meditation, yoga, working out, jogging, going to the beach – whatever floats your boat; take time and develop the mental skills that will serve you well when the house inevitably catches on fire. Learn to be ok with fire, and know that as long as you are like water, you can put it out.

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