Sad day at my Alma Mater

About 25 years ago I traveled up to the North Country to become a ski racer (after i came to the sad realization i didn’t have the size (or hands) to compete in football at a high level).  I enjoyed 2 years at Northwood School in Lake Placid but was riddled by injuries.  I had knee surgery in October of my first year and didn’t make it ‘on snow’ until late January and wasn’t able to compete well that year.  Senior year I was fortunate to start getting some real results until i shattered my shoulder the day before Junior Olympics where i was supposed to represent NY State.  Too bad and I sometimes wish i had pursued ski racing for another year before going to college but that’s the way it happened.

However, a month or so later i got accepted to St. Lawrence University and my whole world changed.  I was able to race D1 for two years, although not very well (i needed more training to keep up and wasn’t getting it at SLU).  But, truth be told, I was more than a little distracted by college life.  I picked that up real quick and had the time of my life.  Beyond the short term fun and stories we continue to tell about our time in Canton, NY, I cherish the friendships i made at the “Larry”.  I married a SLU girl, still live within 3 miles of 3 good SLU friends and regularly get together with the same exact friends I did back at St. Lawrence University between 1989-1993.  

So, even though i haven’t been to campus in 20 years, i was saddened by a devastating fire at Gunnison Chapel this weekend. I’ve pasted the story below along with pictures and a video.  Gunnison Chapel has been a symbol of SLU for almost 90 years and like any object that recaptures great memories, it was sad to see it destroyed  


non tshirt pursuits

Kiteboarding Cape Cod Labor Day 2013

When i’m not at work, I try to get in the water as much as possible.  I grew up waterskiing and when i was 17 my dad asked me if i wanted a windsurfer.  What made me really think about the answer was they were very expensive and I thought to myself, “if I drop this sport in 2 weeks, I don’t think dad would appreciate it and most likely these offers would never come again.” Well,  I committed to windsurfing and also began teaching it at a school in nantucket named Force 5 Watersports and have been chasing the wind ever since.

When kiteboarding came along in the 2000’s, I had no interest.  I was pretty good at windsurfing, kiteboarding was extremely dangerous at the time and I was old enough to not think that was cool anymore.  But, when i learned it was safe and my sister-in-law was intrigued with windsurfing, I suggested we both learn to kiteboard.  I knew the learning curve was faster then windsurfing and it required less upper body strength……so we both started learning.  Now, i’m addicted all over again.  Kiting (as we refer to it) can be done in less breeze and with less effort…..but the main kicker is you can JUMP HIGH!  I mean like really high.  in the picture above I’m able to get 10-15 feet in the air but sometimes i’ve been aloft for 8 seconds!  Add in you can also go super fast across the water before and after you jump, its really a thrill seeker’s ultimate sport.  Plus, its now relatively safe.  you don’t have to jump out of an airplane, off some rocks or with a bungee attached to your legs……you just POP it!  its amazing and what i spend my time doing when I’m not trying to help folks with custom t-shirts or embroidered schwag.

Irony of business

I regularly cheer when we get an order from greensboro, NC as it was the most recent apparel belt and up until recently a very inexpensive place to do business.  Clearly our customer could find embroidered shirts or jackets in greensboro or someplace local for less money, right?  After all, we are located in a very expensive area in Concord, MA.

I guess the answer is no or they find it easier to order from us 700+ miles away.  In my cheesy competitive nature, I also love to see orders shipped to Wilmington, NC where our old friends at The Queensboro Shirt Company call home.  This recent order was placed with us exactly 785 miles away but only 2 miles from Fred Meyers and friends.  Now, I’m sure he has a few customers that order embroidered apparel and have used Zaptee in our local area so all is fair.Image


No lack of competition!

Just doing a little research and found the eastern US littered with embroidery shops (see screen shot below).

google maps on embroidery shops in the eastern US providing custom polo shirts
google maps on embroidery shops in the eastern US providing custom polo shirts

There’s obviously a lot of folks providing custom polo shirts and funny enough its the embroidery machine manufacturers that caused it.  They are also the ones who have lost the most by offering cheap 1-2 head machines.  Embroidery and screenprinting have always been cottage industries but a business owner could get ahead of the competition in the old days when a good 2-head machine cost $40K+ used and a new 12 head machine was $100K.  Great barrier to entry until they started building small 1 head machines for $15K.  Now any part-time stay-at-home mom could be in business competing with low fixed costs and variable time that meant they didn’t need a full time salary… was just a few extra dollars when the kids were at school.  I am in full support of this type of business as my mother did the same thing when starting our business in 1980……its just a hard group to compete against.  Ironically, the manufacturers also lost a lot of business in the end since each unit did not contribute as much to their fixed costs and there were only so many they could sell.  They also lost the ease of selling multiple machines to one shop and had to start advertising/marketing their product more.  So, Tajima, Barudan and many others are much smaller today then they were in 1997 as well.

We have luckily prospered on increasing our turnaround speed and running smaller orders more efficiently by using technology and our large capacity……but we’re always looking over our shoulder for those mom’s and now screenprinters providing custom polo shirts locally.

Promotional Products Distributors should go with all-in-one suppliers

After 2 years of trying, i/we have been unsuccessful in convincing the behemoths (sanmar and Broder) on our ‘one-invoice’ system. Thus, I would encourage PPDs to go with the all-in-one suppliers like Ash City, Charles River Apparel and Gemline.  I feel sanmar/broder will keep giving it ‘lip service’ to keep you around but in the end, they will not likely provide a simple solution.  Its partly the PPDs fault, you don’t want to change your legacy systems and no one can consume your data in a meaningful way.  And, large PPD consortiums probably can’t change their systems to transmit logo information effectively so the best solution is having someone else be responsible for entering it.  Contract embroiderers (like us) in the end won’t take all the responsibility and you’ll forever be stuck communicating back and forth between a contract embroidery company and the blank apparel distributors.  You can free up your time and the all-in-one supplier will not only re-type your fax type PO but they’ll gladly take responsibility if the order is done incorrectly.  You don’t really have a choice long term.  Right now you’re scrounging around looking for a small decorator to do your work for little compensation and huge risk so you can save a few bucks by ordering a K500, D100 or 5180.  Eventually, you’ll run out of these suppliers as you dump them with the first mistake and convince the next poor chump you’ll give them a lot of business if you do this ‘favor order’ of 6 pieces which bills out at a whopping $20.  Then you’ll get the $20 invoice and wait until they call you 4 times to pay it.  why?  Why are you wasting your time?  call up ash city or better yet, just fax them your archaic PO and they’ll handle it.  Now you’re done to do more selling.

Obviously, my jaded experience showed through above and that’s only because we’ve spent a couple years trying to solve this problem but customers (PPDs) and suppliers (blank apparel distributors) don’t want to change.  There are good reasons for both not wanting to change and I get it.  I’m stubborn and don’t want to admit it but I understand and am giving up the fight for an integrated way to purchase embroidered and screenprinted apparel.  If BDA and Vernon aren’t using Ash City exclusively in the next year or so, they are plain crazy…….OR they should start decorating.  Otherwise the decorators will start distributing;)


Mass Customized logo’d catalog coming

Luckily our brands like Nike, Port Authority, Devon and Jones and Adidas have helped us out by taking photos in the same angle for every color per style. This makes it easy for us to “Hot Spot” each garment so when you browse our catalog you will automatically view each garment with your last embroidered logo at its correct size, color and look. Some manufacturers plop jpg proofs in a general area and although one may look good, we use the actual embroidery file to show you your logo. No one else is doing that. We do have to spend the time hotspotting each garment but once we do, we’ll launch a personalized way to shop for each customer. Please expect this in a couple months!

Persistence cuts both ways

I think my most valued and yet most flawed attribute is being persistent.  When i was a kid I played backyard sports long after anyone wanted to if i was losing.  I would often compete well past dark just so i could try to win and if not, at least the other person or team would quit.  I carried that attribute into work and did well persisting to win/beat the competition or fight until others would quit.  That worked well in our contract embroidery business in the 90’s, it worked well when i was selling online stores and it worked well starting and building our online direct business.

Unfortunately, my persistence has also crippled my ability to grow beyond a certain level because of past business success. As i have told our blank apparel distributors in the past few weeks, I still wanted to provide contract embroidery as it was my original business.  After years of trying to sell to promotional product distributors outside our area (we even ran tours for new owners at a well known franchise), i did finally give up at least selling and moved on to a technology solution for online stores.  I went after large non-profits and had a few large programs running orders just-in-time.  Problem was we still provided contract embroidery and protected these customers by not selling to their customers (except one because of family). This limited our ability to grow and have a staff big enough to sell and support big online store programs.  Next, we started selling direct online primarily focused on small business customers……but when we ran into any customer that may be a target of our contract customers, we backed off and didn’t sell to them.  I even referred a friend’s company to a contract customer as a more appropriate fit so we could eliminate any conflict of interest.  Then when contract orders became too complicated to manage manually and financially, we proposed and built a sophisticated online ordering system for Promotional Product Distributors and blank apparel distributors but we couldn’t get the PPDs to change and the suppliers were either technically challenged, were crippled by fear that change would hurt their business or too inept to even get that far.

So, this ‘not letting go’ attitude has clouded my judgment for years.  I don’t want to lose and figured I’d just keep playing the game long enough for someone to quit or give in.  I have learned my lesson and am finally (at age 43) ready to move on.  I was always a ‘late bloomer’ and hopefully this is finally my awakening.  We are giving up on our Embroidery Contract Manager application that was too smart for most people to understand.  We’ll leave it on the shelf for now….. cause you never know? (old habits die hard!) and focus on attacking a business where there’s no need for a partner…..