Build Your Business:

Keeping It Local

April 4, 2016

In 2005, Tom Rauen was working as a bartender in the small college town of Dubuque, Iowa, and — like most new college grads — wondering where life might take him next.

“I was pretty passionate about the bartending and restaurant life,” he says. “And at the same time, while I was growing up I was passionate about sports.”  
Rauen always had been the go-to guy for ordering apparel for any team or club in which he was involved throughout high school and college.

“I had an idea of what these markets were looking for, and I found there was a need for [a screen printing business] in our area with new technology and updated artwork.”

An Entrepreneur At Heart

Rauen took his knowledge of the bar and restaurant industry, as well as local sports organizations, and developed a business plan for Envision Sports Designs, a screen-printing, embroidery and promotional products company that would service the local Dubuque community.

Rauen says the business side came easy, especially with his long list of contacts in the area. It was learning the craft of screen printing that took a lot of work, he says. With no prior experience, Rauen decided to dive right in and travel the country attending industry events. He ventured to Atlanta for his first Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) event, taking a few introductory seminars and networking with industry members. In January 2006, he ordered his first piece of equipment at ISS Long Beach.

The Learning Curve
That March, having just returned from a three-day screen-printing program in Arizona taught by industry veteran Scott Fresener, Rauen started working on his first order: 500 shirts for a restaurant called A Little Taste of Philly. The design featured a one-color front and three-color back design.

“I worked on that one order for a week straight [at] all hours of the day and night,” he says. “I think I screwed up the first 100 shirts because I wasn’t even aware [of] how to get the platen straight or how to print-flash-print to get the white ink dark enough.”

Throwing his first round of shirts into the rag bin, he knew he still had a lot to learn. But he picked things up quickly and business took off as he tapped into his network of friends and family, as well as people he met while bartending.

“I continue to attend any community event to find business, especially anything the local chamber of commerce puts on,” he says.

Rauen also kept investing in the company, adding an automatic press and more embroidery heads, expanding his staff and eyeing more acquisitions.

A Bright Future
Rauen has since acquired four additional shops (three have been rebranded as Envision shops and the fourth — and most recent — is called Something Unique) and expanded his production equipment to include four automatic and four manual presses, and 50 embroidery heads. He also opened another shop in Denison, Iowa, in January of this year.

Business continues to be primarily driven by the school and sports markets. With eight in-house designers, his team creates custom artwork for big local sporting events.  

Still, Envision’s orders run the gamut. Among Rauen’s most memorable was the 45,000 shirts for Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh. “I got a bunch of local college guys together,” he recalls. “We worked Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon and the press was going non-stop the entire time.” He says his team applies a “never-say-no” attitude, accepting custom orders big and small.

With business steadily growing at about 30% annually and further expansion on the horizon, Rauen says that people who are interested in starting their own business should get as much experience as possible beforehand.

“I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning,” he says. “They helped me grow and learn, but it also was costly.”

Beyond constantly looking for opportunities to learn more and improve processes, Rauen says his 49-employee team is the key to Envision’s success.

“I’ve been fortunate to have really good printers and graphic designers,” he says. “Having a good team is key, and everything else follows.”