February 14, 2019
When 31-year-old budding hip-hop star Chad-Eric Montgomery founded streetwear line Gold and Gems Clothing, he was interning in Silicon Valley, bunking with his parents and investing each check he received in his business. “Marketing was a big hurdle we needed to overcome,” he says.
In an inspired flash, Montgomery gathered a group of family members for an impromptu photo shoot near an apartment complex pool. “It helped that a lot of them are tall and athletic,” he says. “My best friend, who’s a photographer, got some great shots.”
The next year while studying in London, Montgomery presented his photos of the Gold and Gems’ men’s and women’s basics collection, embellished with sublimated and embroidered designs, at Dragon’s Den, his graduate program’s version of “Shark Tank.”
“Although I didn’t win, it brought attention to the line, and I made a lot of sales,” Montgomery says. “That was the start.”
Montgomery is emblematic of a recent trend toward mid-30s-and-younger entrepreneurs launching decorated-products businesses. The movement includes heart-centered Millennials — who, at an estimated 75 million, comprise America’s largest present generation — and up-and-coming “Gen Z-ers” who also want to give back to causes they care about and make a mark on their communities. In fact, 54% of millennials either founded or want to start a business, according to the Kauffmann Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that focuses on creating opportunities through education and entrepreneurship.
“The entire industry is really strong right now [and] it’s a great time for people to stake their claim and get in,” says Marshall Atkinson, a Phoenix-based decorated-apparel success coach who also offers hands-on training via his Shirt Lab events.
What’s different about the 35-and-under crowd is that they’re extremely tech savvy and are gaining market share. “It’s no longer business as usual,” Atkinson says. “[Younger shop owners in this industry] are building their businesses the way people are buying: online and from their smartphones. A more established shop relies on foot traffic, so if you’re not online and using mobile, social media and video, you’re left in the dust.”
Case in point: Jonathan Ornelas, the 26-year-old owner of San Angelo, Texas-based Success Print Shop — which is run from a green corrugated shipping container that he scored for $2,900 — constantly communicates with clients via text.
“They can reach us on the go,” he says. “Plus, we quickly handle art approvals and garment details like sizing or colors on our smartphones.”
Likewise, the artist Montgomery, who goes by the stage name Chad Rico, uses his Instagram and Facebook pages (@goldandgems) to connect thousands of potential buyers to his brand and merchandise.
Easier Barriers to Entry
Entering the apparel-decorating marketplace has definitely become more affordable. “The cost for entry for user-friendly dye sublimation, digital printing and heat-press printing is affordable, whether you [buy] new or used [equipment],” Atkinson says.
“Besides growing up in a family that’s been part of the decorating industry for decades and seeing the recent remarkable growth opportunities, the equipment played a big part in my decision,” says Brandon Levy, the 24-year-old owner of Lake Norman, North Carolina-based Digitize4u. “I’m still amazed with the quality of Tajima embroidery machines and their ability to embroider with such amazing speed and detail.”
Younger decorators like Levy, whose business offers embroidery, and screen and digital printing, make an impression on customers by taking on specialty projects. “We market ourselves as decorated-apparel specialists and not just a ‘T-shirt shop,’” he says. “We take on specialty projects, often doing what others say isn’t possible.”
Young entrepreneurs also think “technology first” and adeptly maximize software technologies to automate and drive peak efficiencies, according to JP Hunt, co-founder, InkSoft, Tempe, Arizona. “For example, marketing-automation software can empower radical sales results compared to conventional advertising and marketing methods,” he says. “These technologies generally lower costs, speed up results and drive revenue.”
Decorators even can forgo production by outsourcing to online store platforms, like Shopify. “You can be an entrepreneur, a designer and then really market hard online,” says Atkinson, who points to a savvy e-commerce website and a strong social-media presence as key to building a brand.
Montgomery, whose clothing house is based in the San Francisco Bay area, previously managed a friend’s clothing line, including an in-house print shop. “That made it cost-efficient when I started my line,” which features a lot of American Apparel gear, he says.
Younger decorators also are attracted to graphic design as an artistic and branding element. “Graphics are a powerful communication component,” Hunt says. “Look at emojis today — common graphical ideograms.”
For Ornelas — who got his start screen printing fandom T-shirts for popular TV shows and selling them on Etsy as a side gig — his passion for making art via screen printing prompted him to launch his business full time in 2016. “I just installed my first-ever automatic press, an M&R eight-color, 10-station Sportsman,” he says. “It’s literally a dream come true.”
Building Businesses on Altruism
“Young entrepreneurs generally are socially aware and understand the value of community engagement,” Hunt says.
Nearly two-thirds of Millennials and the Gen-Z population prefer brands and businesses that have a specific point of view and stand for a cause, according to a Kantar Study report. Plus, 76% of younger people said they’ve bought (53%) or would consider buying (23%) products to show support for the issues the brand supported, according to the 2018 Survey of Young People and Social Change.
Hunt has watched young entrepreneurs leverage his company’s fundraising technology to drive sales of printed products to support special advocacy groups and events. “Aligning with these groups produces even more selling opportunities, as advocacy members are typically affiliated with other groups and have an active and large social-media presence,” he says.
Montgomery, who has visited more than 35 countries, often travels to Belize — where his family is from — and distributes apparel at no charge. “Ultimately, I want to be an international brand — with stores in different countries — that highlights people of color,” he says.
In 2011, Stella Spanakos, Nicole Sugrue and Patrick Bardsley co-founded Long Island, New York-based Spectrum Designs out of necessity and tragedy. After Spanakos’ husband, Paul, died, she was left to care for her autistic son, Nicholas.
“My two co-founders have children with autism, a population that faces a 70%-90% unemployment rate,” says Bardsley, the company’s 31-year-old CEO. “Our mission is creating training and employment opportunities for people with autism and developmental disabilities. We have a high commitment to a quality product, customer service and competitive pricing. If you adhere strongly to these good business practices and you have an important social mission, people will support you.”
As a nonprofit, 100% of Spectrum’s proceeds fold back into its mission of employing and training people with disabilities. “Apparel decoration lends itself to [repetition], has a clear beginning and end, and allows room for creativity,” says Bardsley, who now oversees 39 employees, 23 of whom live with disabilities.
“When you sell with a higher purpose and value, you attract like-minded buyers — whether you siphon off a percentage of your funds, work with sustainable vendors or employ disabled people or veterans,” Atkinson says.
Making the Leap
Younger entrepreneurs considering making the leap into their own decorated-apparel business should start with a business plan.
“Use it as a living, breathing document and outline your direction for success,” Atkinson says. “Who’s your customer? How do they buy? Are they on social media? What events do they attend? What’s the language and vernacular that they use? You can’t market to everyone, so pick a lane and write your plan.”
Hunt recommends seeking business mentorship, since getting objective feedback from successful entrepreneurs can help with decision-making and professional development.
“There’s so much to learn from people with first-hand experience in membership-based and peer-to-peer network groups,” he says.
For Ornelas, an imminent goal is working smarter, not harder, so he can achieve more of a work-life balance. “That’s going to happen as I leverage technology such as Zapier, ShipStation, Slack, Loom, QuickBooks and JotForm,” he says.
The bottom line? “Younger decorators are dedicated and work their butts off for their business,” Atkinson says. “They have open minds, and will ask for help and look for better tools. They’re willing to jump off a cliff and grow wings on the way down. Basically, they’re fearless.”
Nicole Rollender is chief storyteller at New Jersey-based Strand Writing Services. For more information or to comment on this article, connect with her at strandwritingservices.com.
Younger entrepreneurs focus on building a great company culture and work environment, says JP Hunt, co-founder, InkSoft.
“They understand the value of a happy workforce and the implications for productivity and long-term profitability,” he says. “These entrepreneurs fulfill their passions of building a meaningful company by investing time and money in developing their brand and team.”
That’s exactly what Patrick Bardsley, CEO, Spectrum Designs, and his team have planned.
“We want to replicate our model in other communities to impact more people,” he says. “We also hope to inspire other similar businesses or apparel decorators to see the large pool of people with disabilities as valuable additions to their workforce.”
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