September 20, 2018
Drue Nickerson was only 11 years old when he began his T-shirt journey, drawing cartoon characters on garments with fabric markers and selling them.
As a testament that a childhood hobby can become a future career, he now owns Gorham, Maine-based 320Ink. He started the company from his basement in 2007, while juggling a full-time job at a water-bottling plant, a wife, two kids and pursuit of a business degree via night school.
Nickerson managed to save enough money to purchase a modest screen-printing press and curing unit, and taught himself how to use them using various resources.
“I taught myself to screen print with a combination of [Ryonet’s] Ryan Moor’s early videos, Google, and trial and error,” Nickerson says. “We have come a long way since then, and now have a staff with roughly 80 years of combined screen-printing experience.”
In a short time, the business outgrew his small basement, so he moved it to a small warehouse space and hired his ﬁrst employees, who were trained to print to the same speciﬁcations and quality his customers had grown to expect. Eventually, 320Ink moved to its current industrial facility, where it will continue to innovate and grow.
The Total Package
Finding a screen-printing shop owner who is a good artist with a tremendous business acumen can be rare. Nickerson says he always has been creative and artistic, which came in handy in the early days when he solely created art. But he also enjoys the strategic branding and business aspects of owning his company.
“I think as a company grows, the natural progression for an owner is that you have to move primarily to the business side of things, and let your team do what you hired them to do, which is hard sometimes,” he says. “I know I drive my art director crazy sometimes looking over his shoulder and making suggestions, but I just miss it sometimes.”
Nickerson says his company’s goal is consistently producing high-quality results for clients. “We work with customers who are retailing the clothing we print, and it has to be a high-quality product,” he says. “I think it is something that takes years. We have been working toward that reputation of high quality from the beginning, always trying to do it better, smoother and more consistently.”
From special press attachments to custom ink formulas, 320Ink always is pushing the envelope to meet its goal.
Getting the Job Done
The company currently employs 11 people and operates with two eight-color M&R automatic screen-printing presses, an M&R Sprint 2000 gas dryer, two Hopkins Intl. six-color manual presses, an M&R six-color manual press, and a smaller Workhorse dryer for the manual presses. For embroidery, a Barudan six-head and four-head machine get the job done.
Nickerson says the shop will add a third automatic press this winter after moving into a new, 10,500-square-foot space. He also says using specialty inks has helped set his shop apart from the competition and increased the products offered and sales.
“We are screen-printing geeks, so we like to play with new processes and experiment by using and offering these inks,” he says. “I think it makes us more experienced and knowledgeable printers.”
Nickerson says the company’s strategy for success is to continue being an expert at what it does, instead of trying to be everything to everyone.
“I think a lot of companies fall into this trap where they don’t want to let anybody walk away, and so they find themselves making signs, wrapping cars, and selling pens and Frisbees,” he says. “For us, specializing in high-quality, screen-printed and embroidered apparel has consistently worked out well for us.”
The Art of Evolving
Growth presents a natural challenge for any business, and such has been the case for 320Ink. Nickerson describes a “perpetual state of growing pains” as he prepares to move to the company’s fourth location in 10 years.
“We have purchased three businesses along the way and added equipment and people,” he says. “One of the most difficult things about growth is managing the new volume efficiently, so the customer experience doesn’t suffer during our transitional times.”
The shop implements systems and procedures to keep everything organized and on track. Nickerson says 320Ink’s hiring strategy — “3Dubs” — also is key when expanding. He says it identifies the “where,” “when” and “who” during the talent-acquisition process.
Where: Nickerson says having a real understanding of the position being filled is important, though not always obvious. “Sometimes you might think you need a position in production to solve a problem, when really that problem is due to an inefficiency in the front office, or maybe even the process itself,” he says. “Before we hire, we always try and see if the issue can be solved by improving efficiencies and processes.”
When: Nickerson says this can be trickier. “I do not believe in hiring and then laying off in the slower season as some shops will do,” he says. “I try [to have] balance to make sure when I hire a new full-time employee, we truly need that position. I also hire enough in advance not to over-strain the current team.”
Who: Hiring people that will fit 320Ink’s culture is important. Above experience, Nickerson values a potential employee who is hard-working, willing to learn from others, kind, respectful and a team player.
Nickerson says the buildout for 320Ink’s new space will be well planned and customized. In fact, it recently purchased an embroidery company, bringing multiple decoration services under one roof.
“We are in the process of matriculating customers and getting that process fully dialed in from a front-end-process standpoint,” he says. “Bringing embroidery in-house has been a long time coming and will allow us to provide a much better customer-service experience for our embroidery customers. In the new location, we will be able to add much-needed presses and processes that will help with turn times, as well as customer service.”
He explains the meaning behind the name: “Since 320 degrees is the temperature required to properly cure most screen-printing inks, the name is a play on quality, something that has always been a core value.”
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 email@example.com.
320Ink at a Glance
Company Name: 320Ink
Address: 59 Sanford Drive, Gorham, ME 04038
No. of Employees: 11
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, embroidery, finishing, and specialty and water-based inks
Company Website: 320ink.com
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