Keeping us clothed is a $1.5 trillion industry that consumes a lot of resources and casts a large environmental footprint.FULL STORY
Build Your Business: Management
In the heart of the Ozarks and nestled against the fringe of the Boston Mountains lies Fayetteville, Arkansas. The northwestern portion of the state is known for being the birthplace of retail mammoth Wal-Mart, but Fayetteville is home to The University of Arkansas and bustling Dickson Street, the center of downtown’s entertainment and restaurant district.
Two blocks from Dickson Street and a stone’s throw from the university’s campus is B-Unlimited Inc. Founded in 1994 after branching off from Little Rock-based Ink Enterprises, the graphic design and print studio prides itself on “having highly creative custom art and a personalized online purchasing experience,” according to the company.
The location being just minutes away from a large student body has allowed for B-Unlimited to target a substantial niche: fraternities and sororities. Jonathan Holder, the firm’s general manager and designer, says this customer demographic takes pride in expressing their creativity through unique apparel.
“[Our biggest niche is] 18- to 22-year-old sorority girls and fraternity guys that are excited about a social group they’re in and they like to see their ideas come to life,” he says. “When they get their shirts or see the proofs online, their minds are kind of blown.”
While its largest contingency of Greek organizations come from the University of Arkansas, B-Unlimited serves more than two dozen universities. The schools go as far west as the University of Oregon, north to the University of Iowa and east to the University of South Carolina.
The Water-Based Learning Curve
B-Unlimited houses a production floor that features various M&R screen-printing presses, including two Sportsman presses, as well as a Sprint 2000 dryer and a 33-foot dryer. The equipment is housed within a 5,000-square-foot facility, about 3,000 of which is dedicated to screen printing.
A point of differentiation for the company is that it specializes in water-based printing. When management decided to offer this printing method exclusively, Nathan Foster, the shop’s production manager, was working for a different company to which B-Unlimited contracted out its printing jobs.
“The challenge was [for me] to come over and learn how to perfect water-based [printing],” Foster says. “Whenever I came over, it was an opportunity for us to work close together and learn, constantly focusing and trying new brands and techniques, getting to where we’re pretty good with it.”
One of the most significant early challenges was the amount of shirts and jobs that could get done in a single day.
“Not many shops I know of that are doing custom jobs use water-based [ink] because it is a hurdle,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and you have to be set up for that. When we first started, we were getting two to three jobs done per day and had to figure out our quality of prints and how to make production [increase]. We’ve gone from two to three jobs per day to 20-25 per day in house.”
To help customers understand the difference between water-based and plastisol inks, B-Unlimited has a page comparing them on its website. It touts water-based printing as being soft, long-lasting and breathable, and also more ideal for fashionable, ribbed or bamboo garments. Plastisol, it says, results in heavy, sticky prints that are susceptible to cracking after multiple washes.
One of B-Unlimited’s staples is custom artwork. Customers can choose from a gallery, but Holder says it’s meant to inspire customers to conceive their own ideas. As most of the shop’s jobs center on colleges, Greek organizations or regional music festivals, the customer base is relatively young and aided by the social-media boom.
Holder also says much of the business hinges on the talent of the artists, a sentiment echoed by Foster, who touts water-based ink as a complement to their skills.
“It’s a pretty fashion-forward crowd,” Foster says. “Our artists are incredible and what they’re able to do with water-based [prints] is great. We knew [mastering the water-based printing process] would be difficult at first. But we can offer something [our customers] are not used to. It’s the fashion prints that are getting much more popular.”
With a handful of other decorated apparel shops located in the Fayetteville area also catering to a younger niche, much of B-Unlimited’s marketing efforts are focused on social media — notably Pinterest — or word-of-mouth referrals. While Holder says positive online customer reviews help, the uniqueness of the apparel could, ironically, end up preventing it from further exposure.
“People love starting up conversations about the sweet T-shirts on campus, but some of the organizations like to keep it a secret so that they have the best shirts on campus,” he says.
Holder says the company, with its “fun” atmosphere and culture, is growing at a 30%-40% rate annually. As such, future plans include moving into a 23,000-square-foot facility in December. The new building not only will include space for more equipment, but also will allow the shop to eschew discharge printing in favor of specialty printing.
Holder also says the company plans to add embroidery — albeit slowly — as well as at least one more decorating process.
“There’s a lot of opportunity coming in; our clients help drive what we purchase next so we’re buying some more embroidery equipment and heat presses,” he says. “We want to have the best prints that we can. If a client comes in and asks for something, we find a way to make it work.”
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