Build Your Business:

Putting in the Work

The co-owners of Michigan-based Sandlot Sports grew their business by learning from mistakes, networking and grinding through it all.

By Jamar Laster, Executive Editor

May 7, 2018

Don’t quit your “real jobs.” That’s what everyone told Adam McCauley and Ryan Dost, co-owners of Michigan-based Sandlot Sports LLC, when they floated the idea of starting the business in 2008.

But that advice wasn’t given with the notion that the duo, longtime friends from Saginaw, Michigan, couldn’t cut it as business owners in the decorated-apparel industry. After all, McCauley — an elementary school teacher in Boston at the time — had an affinity for art, and had worked in a screen-printing shop since age 16 and through college. Dost, who had taken a sales job in Chicago, always envisioned owning a small business and had worked at various local hardware shops in high school and college.

To top it off, both knew they had the strong work ethic to be successful.

Rather, the advice against shedding their jobs to take the plunge as business owners was given because at the time, the country was mired in its worst economic recession since the Great Depression. So starting a business when established companies were closing their doors left and right wasn’t considered a wise move.

To say McCauley and Dost encountered challenges during the company’s initial years would be putting it mildly. “Some of the early struggles were just finding business,” McCauley recalls. “We had no marketing budget. Social media wasn’t as big as it was today. We had a MySpace page and had to rely on word of mouth to get people to know we existed.”

Correcting Mistakes
Upon Sandlot Sports’ grand opening, McCauley recalls the co-owners engaging in a few business faux pas, such as waiting for business to walk through the door instead of aggressively pursuing orders, and engaging in price wars with established local competitors.

“[These businesses] could sell shirts decorated at a price that we couldn’t buy them wholesale for,” he says. “It was really frustrating quoting apparel and losing by $2-$3 per shirt, and feeling like we were missing something.”

The duo decided to correct their laissez faire approach to attracting customers by simply attending events with printed shirts in tow to sell. The goal was to meet enough coaches, team moms and players to spark interest in ordering team apparel.

Fixing the company’s pricing approach proved equally easy, as it required adopting a new philosophy. “When jobs came down to price, we knew that it’s bad business to be the lowest in town,” McCauley says. “That’s the fastest way out of business, so we decided to provide a reason for the higher price. This is the service industry and we’d chalk up the higher cost to the amount of service [customers] were going to get from us.”

Translation: Premium prices were accompanied by premium service.

Investing in Learning
McCauley remembers Sandlot Sports’ first large “Field Day” order of more than 600 T-shirts that was fulfilled with a four-color press that couldn’t hold registration and a Little Buddy dryer.

“Our operation was borderline laughable looking back at it,” he says. “But we were determined to make it work.”

Instead of resting on their laurels after completing that order, McCauley and Dost kept their eyes on the big picture, attending an Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) event in Orlando, Florida, to learn as much as they could about the decorated-apparel industry and doing business therein.

“We took every catalog, listened to every salesman, and we split up and went to as many classes as we could,” McCauley recalls. “We were sponges just soaking up everything around us.”

Subsequently, they ordered new equipment and streamlined printing. They also kicked their efforts working in and on the business into overdrive.

“We were working nearly around the clock six — sometimes seven — days a week, doing whatever we could to get in front of people and let them know what we do,” Dost says. “If we weren’t printing or embroidering, we were doing artwork. If we weren’t doing artwork or prepping for new jobs, we were looking for events to sell at.”

McCauley estimates Sandlot Sports made almost $360,000 in sales in its first full year, nearly all of which was reinvested in the business. In fact, the two co-owners’ take-home pay for the year amounted to a paltry $2.14 per hour. “We’re lucky we didn’t have families to take care of when we began,” Dost says.

The co-owners continued to soak up knowledge from respected industry veterans, suppliers and successful shops as they entered year two in business. After expanding into a larger shop, they spent time visiting Vastex Intl.; did training sessions with Hirsch Intl. and Melco; attended workshops led by noted
experts Greg Kitson and Charlie Taublieb; hired embroidery expert Joyce Jagger to help improve the company’s embroidery operation, as well as screen-printing consultant Richard Greaves; discussed screens and chemicals with Alan Howe of Saati; hired Taublieb to improve artwork production and Kitson to refine shop layout and workflow; and did tours of Visual Impressions, Milwaukee, Mind’s Eye Graphics, Decatur, Indiana, and JakPrints, Cleveland.

The Payoff
Ten years after its grand opening, a lot has changed at Sandlot Sports. The company has expanded to three locations in the Great Lakes Bay region, with retail facilities and showrooms in Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan, and an 18,000-square-foot production facility located in Saginaw Township. Equipment now includes 11 Tajima embroidery heads, a Workhorse Products Sabre automatic screen-printing press, M&R Chameleon six-color/six-station manual press and Blue Max II four-color/four-station manual press. The company recently purchased a Douthitt computer-to-screen (CTS) system, and also has a collection of Hotronix heat presses.

Recognizing the importance of an online presence, Sandlot Sports uses two platforms — InkSoft and Order My Gear — for its online stores, the number of which can vary between 30 and 40 at one time, and many more during peak sports seasons. An online designer allows customers to create designs and place orders around the clock. It has proven to be a revenue generator, as Dost estimates about 20% of sales have been generated via the company’s online platforms.

Others in the region and state have noticed Sandlot Sports’ transformation and success. The company was nominated by the Michigan Small Business Development Center as the best small business in the Great Lakes Bay region. It also won the Main St. USA award for being the best small business in Michigan after being selected from a pool of nearly 5,000 other companies. Additionally, Dost won the 2016 Ruby Award for being an upward, bright and young professional in the Great Lakes Bay region. McCauley received the same award earlier this year.

McCauley and Dost plan to open a satellite retail store later this year, while also expanding the company’s online presence and reducing turnaround times by updating procedures and implementing new processes.

“We are both extremely interested in [direct-to-garment printing],” Dost says. “We see a lot of opportunity here for us and it’s something that we’re planning on adding to our offerings.”

Company Name: Sandlot Sports

Address: Multiple locations in Michigan

Founded: 2008

No. of Employees: 28 (20 full-time; 8 part-time)

Services Offered: Screen printing, embroidery, digital printing, banners, sublimation, promotional products, order fulfillment, finishing, sports equipment, trophies

Company Website: