Build Your Business:

The Idea Generator: Part 1

In the first of this three-part series, we’ll explore the power of collaboration.

By Marshall Atkinson, Contributing Writer

You can build a new sales segment by working with a partner — a company, person or organization.

April 17, 2021

It’s no secret that in a few markets, sales have dried up to the point that many shops have closed down. The reason? Traditional, tried-and-true customers just aren’t buying.

In this three-part series of articles, we’ll help you focus on new ideas to find and land new customers. Let’s start with the power of collaboration and how it can help you build new marketing segments and expand on existing relationships to create new sales.
First, let’s discuss the meaning of “collaboration.” Traditionally in this industry, sales are handled solely through the company via a website, sales staff, email or walk-in traffic. Everything is built and maintained by the shop for the shop.

Consider building a new sales segment by working with a partner. This unique program could be with a company, person or
organization. You are going to power up sales by combining forces, efforts and opportunity.

Consider the examples in this article and use them to brainstorm for your area, skill and decoration method.

Strengths Help Weaknesses
Start with merely understanding the notion of what you do well. Do you have a fantastic design team and can leverage your creativity? What apparel-decoration methods do you offer? Maybe you have the technical expertise to build websites, online stores or fulfillment centers.

Take stock and write down your strengths. If you were a superhero, these would be your superpowers that everyone envies. Somewhere out there in your network, community or neighborhood are people, groups, companies or organizations that are the complete opposite of your superpower. Where you are strong, they are weak.

However, they have something you don’t have: access to customers that are buying right now. That’s their superpower — the connection to hundreds of customers with cash to spend on something they need. By combining forces, you can help them build a new sales channel to maximize relationships with their customers.

Example No. 1
Let’s say your shop offers screen printing, embroidery and digital-printing services and you have a very creative art team. Your shop also can handle some tech aspects such as online stores, fulfillment and essential marketing.

Dig into companies that help other companies with their customer experience. Actual physical retail stores are losing traffic daily and the shift will result in an emphasis on a better online customer experience. How are your relationships with the tech companies that are handling this in your area, or the following:

  • Marketing or advertising agencies
  • Shipment and fulfillment centers
  • Social-media companies
  • Retail and brand consultants

Companies that offer services to brands where their mission assists in making the end user happy are precisely who you want to target. Their strength is these relationships. What they lack is your expertise in creating the apparel and merchandise that can wow their customers. Sure, anyone can decorate a shirt with a logo. What you can offer them is a dozen levels above that, as your superpower rests in your creativity in this area.

As you can bring a steady stream of fresh ideas to the table, this is where the collaboration gets solidified.

Example No. 2
Think about companies that currently don’t offer apparel but could. Here’s where your creative superpower and ability to build online stores come into play.

Reach out to the local veterinarian, hardware store, outdoor-park system, city council or other entity that’s not selling apparel and have a discussion about what you can build for them.

1. For the vet, could you offer digitally printed, personalized shirts featuring their furry “patients?” This idea could be a one-off shirt, printed via the direct-to-garment (DTG) method, and all handled online with art templates that you set up.
2. What about a line of apparel that combines something local with funny construction-type ideas for the hardware store? They could sell them in the store and online.
3. For an outdoor-park system, create an online store that shows the trails, has fun graphic logos and is a fundraiser for them — all simultaneously.
4. For the city council, what about an online store that promotes local pride in the area? Is there a fun phrase that everyone uses?
5. Pull up your LinkedIn account or other social media and glance at your connections. Who would be interested in collaborating with you on building an online apparel store?
Now is the time to get these types of collaborations going. Don’t assume they’ll say no or not be interested. Remember, they are busy doing other things, not necessarily thinking about the benefits of selling apparel to their customer base or fans. Your job is to introduce the idea to them and get the partnership started.

Example No. 3
According to a recent Small Business Administration report, businesses offering virtual services will continue to be in high demand. These are cyber security, at-home fitness, food-delivery, gaming, home-improvement and telemedicine companies, among others.

Think about your area. If these types of businesses and others are growing, how can you leverage your apparel-decorating superpower to help them? Are there local firms starting up or growing? Maybe a few of the more prominent companies are establishing franchises or branches in your area. Can you help with staffing shirts or apparel for their customers?

As a consultant, I usually hear shop owners complain that there isn’t any work available. The truth is that plenty of people are buying decorated apparel right now — ask yourself why they aren’t buying from you.

When shop owners only focus on the obvious customers like schools or events, they often overlook local sectors that have tremendous growth. The trick is to keep your head up and always try to find new opportunities. Often, they’re not reaching out on their own.

Let’s say that you’ve identified some potential collaboration partners. What’s the next step and how do you build a good relationship? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Work Together: Work with another business on a promotion that will feature both companies. Marketing can be expensive but by pulling together, you can minimize the cost and increase exposure — especially if you’re promoting a collaborative effort with some apparel sales.

Think about how a magazine or newspaper ad, or maybe even a fun image on a billboard space with the right location, could trigger customers to get interested in your product idea. Plus, you could continuously promote each other’s businesses on your social-media feeds and share updates and fun things about the promotion.

Pop-Up Shop: What if you collaborated with your new partner and built a limited-time pop-up store? Make it fun and exciting by continually having social-media updates; customer interviews and reactions; and daily surprises.

Both you and your partner can invite customers to a “secret” grand opening or reveal party. Who else in your area could contribute to the flavor of the pop-up? Maybe a local coffee shop or brewery? What about a civic organization or university?

Locally Themed Gift Guide: Put together a locally themed gift guide featuring your customers selling the merchandise that you’re helping them build. This guide idea could work great if you have a few collaborations going.

Fill the space with other merchandise and have items at all price points. Distribute it for free. Activate links or QR codes that match the gift guide so customers can get to your online store. You can theme these for different times of year, such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July or Christmas.

Make it a shareable PDF or an online flipbook. Have all participating entities share it on their drip marketing feeds, newsletters and social media.

Getting the Collaboration Started
First, identify a few prospective collaboration partners. If you don’t know them personally, send them direct messages via LinkedIn or other social media.

Be prepared. Figure out your angle but see if they are open to collaboration and discussion. Have examples ready but be prepared to modify or adapt to their ideas, too.

Draft a simple agreement. How does it work? Who pays for what? How is the money split? When will everyone be paid? What happens if there are problems?

Set dates and accountability. Seek clarity with the project. It’s a partnership but people can get sidetracked. Let’s face it: This isn’t their primary function. Make it as easy as possible on your partner.

Take advantage of social media. Leverage both fan bases and explore the opportunity to serve more customers.

Start small. Sometimes it’s best not to get carried away with the first project. Run a test case with some set goals and see how you do. Call it a “soft launch.” Learn from that before you build a more robust program. 

Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at