Build Your Business:

Your Shop’s Sweet Spot

Learn lessons from these two decorated-apparel businesses on how to carve out a niche for your business.

By Jeanene Edwards, Contributing Writer

Skyhawk Press, which creates submarine-inspired merchandise, did creative work for Amine Air Freshener, an underwater perfume. Photo courtesy of Skyhawk Press.

March 10, 2020

With new decorated-apparel shops popping up every year and plenty of online competition, you must find ways to differentiate your business from other decorators to remain relevant and successful.

How do you grow your business and increase market share? Only 50% of small businesses will survive five years or more, according to the United States Small Business Administration. Also, one in 12 businesses close every year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How do you beat such daunting odds?

Let’s take a look at two industry professionals who have found their sweet spots and are successfully navigating uncharted territory and any speed bumps that may arise.

Run With It
Alisha Weiss of Poulsbo, Washington-based Skyhawk Press decided to launch her own business when she had trouble finding her favorite things in decorated apparel. After giving up a long commute to Seattle, she started the business out her home’s spare room.

Everything began with soccer and her favorite team, the Liverpool Football Club, which is a focus of the company’s Anfield Shop brand. “The Anfield Shop is a store for Liverpool fans, run by Liverpool fans,” Weiss says. “We have the largest selection in North America of licensed product, and we also work with Liverpool Football Club on exclusive merch and limited-release products.”

In fact, searching for “Liverpool Football Club Seattle” on Google will yield two results in the Top 10 for The Anfield Shop.

The Seattle area also is home to Naval Base Kitsap, the third-largest Navy base in the country. With Liverpool Football Club’s success, Weiss had people asking, “Can you do what you’re doing for soccer for submarines?” The answer was “Yes.”

“These guys have a story to tell,” Weiss says. “It’s called the silent service because nobody talks about it. We could create products to improve morale, and you’ve got kids who are missing their parents. We’re in our third year now and we do everything from products for the people who are supporting the sub from ashore, to products the crew can take underway, and from funny products to heartwarming products, to celebratory products.”

While being asked about creating submarine-inspired products, Weiss also noticed a lot of underemployed military spouses who, because of the area’s geography, were limited when it came to job opportunities. That’s where the 16Submarines brand became reality.

“I began to see a need,” she says. “Submarining is a very hard life; unlike some other naval forces that can Skype, you might be able to email, but that’s your only form of communication for six months. Many of the spouses feel alone and are under a great deal of emotional stress. Hiring some of them is a great way [for them] to stay busy and be a part of something that means so much to them and their families.”

The brand is proudly powered by submarine veterans and their families.

Projects That Matter
Working in a specialized space can come with a unique set of obstacles.

“It’s a challenge to train a workforce on the fly,” Weiss says. “You have people [who] want to work but don’t have background or experience in screen printing or graphic arts. Also, people tend to move every three years in the military community. Can you design jobs that are portable? No matter the challenge, it’s fun and rewarding, and the ability to give someone a job is the greatest thing on the planet.”

Weiss loves working on projects that mean something to people and make them proud — even if it elicits a simple smile. One of the company’s first successful projects was developing creative assets for Amine, a chemical used on submarines’ ventilation systems.

“It has the most disgusting smell,” Weiss says. “You know your spouse is back from deployment from this smell. We did creative for Amine Air Freshener, the underwater perfume. It just made people giggle.”

Another fun project was creating merchandise for a new submarine, the U.S.S. Oregon. “I’m a kid of the ’90s; if you say Oregon, I’m designing around the Oregon Trail,” Weiss says. “So we came out with this [design of an] ox towing a submarine. I appreciate the opportunity to have fun with the creative elements and design something so special for these men and women and their families.”

Small But Mighty
Sloan Coleman, “monster marketer” for St. Louis-based Tiny Little Monster, wanted to create a fun, casual workplace while being involved in the local community. It didn’t take long to carve out a niche market.

“We like to call ourselves the ‘print shop for the people,’” she says. “We are really involved in our community and we specialize in fundraisers, non-profits and local business. We do live-printing events, including an annual food drive called ‘Cranksgiving,’ where the proceeds we raise are donated to the local food bank.”

Part of what sets Tiny Little Monster apart from other print shops is its willingness to produce small orders — even just one T-shirt.

“When we started, we had a 12-piece minimum for screen printing, and we hated saying no when someone wanted just one T-shirt,” Coleman says. “We found that we like to say yes to people and be able to help them. Critics may say that wastes your time, but we’ve found when we help people out, we get really awesome reviews and the reviews help us get bigger and better clients, and that’s how we grow.”

Your Space
If you are looking to carve out your own niche, consider your interests and whether something is missing in that segment of the market. Perhaps there’s a space in which you know you can excel. Maybe it’s more about being the best in category vs. being the only game in town.

Networking also can be an excellent way to generate ideas and get your foot in the door. Consider joining your local Chamber of Commerce, merchants’ association or small-business networking organizations.

Jeanene Edwards is vice president of marketing and merchandising for Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES Activewear.

Preparing for Success

When you carve out your own space, you may need to prepare for quick growth. This is one of the obstacles Coleman and her partner, Jenny Rearick, encountered when they got started in the business.

“Our main hurdle was growing really fast without a team behind us,” Coleman says. “We mapped out an organizational chart and went from doing everything ourselves to hiring seven positions all at once. Although having a really big idea can be invaluable when starting your business, you’ll be far more successful pairing it with an initial business plan.”