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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Merch and MoreWhether it’s high-volume production capability or making connections with podcasts, this New York-based shop continues to thrive — even in the face of a pandemic.
Upstate Merch primarily is an apparel screen-printing business; embroidery is contracted to a shop located across the street.
When he was 17, Upstate Merch owner Dylan Gilligan was installing appliances for a New York Sears by day and practicing with his band at night. In addition to band practices, Gilligan operated a button company, Merch Buttons. His connections with other bands and businesses were made easier by a social-media platform you may remember, Myspace.
“Not only did Myspace make booking shows for my band a lot better, but the company started to take off,” Gilligan says. “A good friend of mine in the industry told me I should really try to outsource T-shirt printing and stickers. I outsourced to a company in Atlanta and began selling a ton of T-shirts.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The Atlanta apparel-decorating firm eventually wanted Gilligan to sell his button company and relocate for a sales position. Newly married, he and his wife moved south to begin a new chapter in Georgia.
“When we got there, I hit the ground running and began making more connections to sell apparel,” he says. “Now that I was in an established screen-printing shop, I started to learn the lingo and techniques.”
Gilligan and his wife ultimately decided to move back to New York, and Gilligan started Upstate Merch in 2009 after securing a rent-free deal to operate in an old sign shop. On one side, he set up a six-color/two-station manual screen-printing press, a four-color/single-station manual press and a M&R Economax dryer; the other side included a small, makeshift darkroom created with black contractor bags. Cramped in that same room was a desk with a laptop, a washout booth and a table for laying out shirts.
Gilligan outgrew the facility in less than two years and began researching available space in Whitney Point, New York. Upstate Merch’s new home came by way of an old Agway train station that had been converted into retail space. Having plenty of room to grow and expand, the shop was off to the races, with renovations and new-equipment additions occurring annually.
“We started with a few employees, manual presses and two dryers,” Gilligan says. “Around year four, we purchased our first M&R Sportsman automatic press. A year later, we added another [automatic press], and so on. Being a quality-driven shop, we focused on purchasing the best equipment and inks possible. Ten years later, our building, as well as our presses, are bought and paid for.”
Production and a Pandemic
Upstate Merch primarily is an apparel screen-printing business; embroidery is contracted to a shop located across the street. Gilligan says his company offers the usual printed items — T-shirts, hoodies, long-sleeve shirts, sweat pants and hats — along with finishing services, such as tagging and bagging.
The company’s production floor includes a 14/16 M&R Gauntlet III automatic press; a 8/10 M&R Sportsman EX automatic press; and a 6/4 M&R Sidewinder manual press, as well as a M&R Sprint 3000 split-belt dryer, fully digital screen room, RapidTag machine and automatic bagger.
Upstate Merch primarily cranks out 100- to 1,000-piece orders for niche markets that include bands, clothing lines, comic-book shops and motorcycle groups, as well as various trades.
“Our focus is customer service, great artwork and having the best quality prints we can,” Gilligan says. “I am constantly ‘nerding out’ on new print techniques, inks and equipment to make my shop more efficient. I want to stick to [having] the same size shop that I [have] now, but constantly work on quality and efficiency.”
Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t cause many sales or operational issues for the company. “Honestly, we have been totally fine,” Gilligan says. “I think the fact that I own my own building and equipment was a huge factor. I have no monthly loans to pay. So, if for some reason we had to shut down, it’s not the end of the world. When we are allowed back, I’ll just come back in and turn the lights on.
“We had a ton of new clients hit us up because their normal printer was closed,” he adds. “Once things settled down more, we got even busier. It’s going to be interesting to see how our normal winter slower months [progress], because it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon.”
Gilligan says his most memorable print was of the original “Star Wars” design for Charles Lippincott, the original marketer and promoter for the first Star Wars movie.
“A few years ago, [Lippincott] came to me to see if we could print the original concept art for Star Wars,” Gilligan says. “He wanted to make a limited run because it had only been printed during the first promotion. This print had a story and came from the original marketer himself.”
Connecting Via Podcasts
Gilligan always has been interested in social media as an actual social tool, and he says social-media platforms like Instagram are perfect for the decorated-apparel industry. He also uses other tools, such as podcasts, to engage and educate other decorators, and have authentic conversations with like-minded people.
“When I decided to start a print-themed podcast called ‘The Upstate Podcast,’ there were only a few [apparel-printing] podcasts out there, so I hoped it might gain some attention,” Gilligan says. “One thing I really wanted to make sure of was that the conversation was 100% real and unfiltered.”
He also co-hosts the “Shirt Show” podcast with this friend and fellow printer, Andy Rudman, owner of Shirt Kong.
“By bringing in a new guest each week, we get to hear their stories, as well as talk tips, tricks and shop hacks, and gain new perspectives on things we take for granted each day as shop owners,” he says. “These podcasts are 100% education and therapy for me. We don’t care if we make a dime on these shows.”
What Lies Ahead
Currently, the Upstate Merch offices are undergoing renovations, which will result in Gilligan finally having his own office and the entire staff enjoying a new break room.
“We will also have a new conference room, showroom and more space for activities,” he says. “The shop right now is kind of my dream shop. I think for the future, I am just going to focus on efficiencies, and upping our customer-service game as much as possible.”
Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at
Company Name: Upstate Merch
Address: Upstate Merch. 9 Railroad St. Whitney Point, NY 13862
No. of Employees: 10
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, embroidery (outsourced)
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