Lantern Ink, founded by Heather Searcy, started when a teacher began to research business ideas.
After diligent research, Heather realized screen printing was the right opportunity. So she took a leap of fath: “I found some equipment, called my husband, took $5,000 and drove to Austin.”
Heather spent 3 years in her garage printing by hand. “It’s the classic screen printer story,” she says, “But I was looking for a way to spend more time with my kids.”
But Lantern Ink has grown quickly from a hobby into a 10-person operation they call a family t-shirt company.
Now the kids work in the shop – and Lantern Ink is well on its way to becoming a multigenerational business.
Read on to see what Heather has to say. Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity.
Steven Farag: How many other industries did you look into before screen printing?
Heather Searcy: I looked at different options. I looked into buying a Subway, or buying into another business. I didn’t really want the overhead. I didn’t want employees at first. I wanted something I could do at home.
I wanted something that people needed all the time and wasn’t quite disposable. You know, people always want t-shirts. They always want something new on it. It checked all those boxes for me when I was looking for a business that would be sustainable.
So you mentioned spending more time with the kids. Did it turn into a business the kids helped you with?
Absolutely. Many nights where the kids came out and helped me printing in the garage in between doing homework. My parents came and helped, it was really all-hands-on-deck for those 3 years in the garage.
I tell people all the time. The final job we had was 750 shirts. My dryer was a heat press so we would take them off of the press put them on the heat press. My parents helped me do those 750 shirts over days.
I went to my husband and said, “I’m done!” He probably said “Great job, let’s do it again.” I said, “Um, no I need an automatic [screen printing press]. This needs to be a real business or I’m all done.”
Luckily he started quite a few businesses. So he helped me with a business plan, getting incorporated, getting my first loan, but my first automatic, get our first space in an industrial park. It was my first foray into being one of the big dogs.
So 750 pieces for your final job in the garage. Was it two sides?
It was. A two color front, one color back. Which was a task at the time. It was a white shirt with black and red on the first and black on the back. Low-level, but at the time it felt like a heavy-duty print for me.
I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone. When did you discover that you could send that to a contract printer?
Had I done all the research I did to actually get into business I probably would have figured out I could have contracted it out, and stayed in the garage a little longer. I’m thankful for every one of the steps.
So you bought another shop after that happened. Tell us about that.
I was in my space from 2015 to 2017. Over time I became friends with the manager another print shop in that building. I found out that business owner lived out of state and wanted to sell the shop.
My husband swept in and helped me negotiate purchasing that business. I love that story because I loved that I could jump ahead with 10 years of experience and knowledge. I didn’t have to spend 10 years printing.
We got 2 automatics, so with mine we have 3. I had 7 employees at that point, but I have 10 now. So in 2017, it was an amazing jump we got to make.
What was the advantage to buying another shop?
Part of it was the experience of the shop. I was maxed out with what we had. It doubled our business because the person we bought the business from subcontracts out all of his work back to us. To this day we do all of his printing for him. So it’s a win-win.
You had a fast growth cycle then. You went from a garage to managing people and teams and equipment. What was that like?
Intimidating. It was hard to go from 1 employee that’s a high school kid to 7 people. Our print shop manager, Ginger, is a godsend.
Ginger is definitely the leader of this shop. She keeps it running like a well-oiled machine.
Any experience I didn’t have, I could lean on hers.
Every shop has that one all-star. What does she do that’s so critical? What makes her irreplaceable?
Honestly, the list should be things she doesn’t do! Because she does everything. If I step out and leave for a week or a month, this place would keep running. She continues to innovate, making little changes, and she’s on board with that process.
We have all women that run the office. My stepdaughter Brooke is the office manager. There’s a camaraderie. We’re interchangeable, everyone knows what to do, but each one of them really keeps this place going.
Is there anything you’d do differently to level up Lantern Ink?
I still don’t have any kind of training systems in place.
We were so small. Every member that did their job trained the next person. We didn’t have that in writing. I wish I’d had that.
You know how things are in screen printing. It’s just bananas in this business. So we’re finally making that a priority.
That first week with a new employee, you’re babysitting them. You really want that first experience to be amazing. At Campus Ink, we use Trainual. We have to do modual-based learning because we’re onboarding students almost every day.
We have a new employee in the office now. She’s an old friend from the schools. She’s great at processes. I have her, as she’s learning, writing down every detail. She’s preparing instructions for each part.
She’s not a printer or printing screens, but she’s watching the process so that when she’s in the office putting things into Printavo, she understands the “why.”
Over time you figure out you miss entire lessons, there are holes here and there. You don’t see them until big problems come up. It’s like starting from scratch here, we don’t see what’s missing because it’s all old hat, we’re so used to it.
The more we invest up front with new employees, the less we’re tangled up in the details later right?
Yes! Work on your business, not in it. That’s a challenge every day!
Has COVID changed your business and its processes?
Yeah. I was just going through the motions. I wasn’t seeing the need for that kind of re-evaluation. I will say I’m so blessed. We’ve been open the entire time and we’ve had work that kept us going. But we did have to let people go when no one but me and my husband could be in here for a couple weeks.
It helped me to go through these processes again. It had been so long! I felt bad watching the shops that had to close down. Some of them got to do really deep dives into their shops…that’s not what we got to do. Which I lament a little bit…but I’m super thankful for the business. I can’t worry about what could have been.
I’m trying to think of some lessons: start small and make some changes right now when you can.
I heard from a lot of people that hopped back on press: “Whoa, we’ve done it this way the whole time?” I learned I’m not a press operator. I got kicked off the press. Now that you’ve been able to relaunch, do you think there’s a newfound respect for the business?
Absolutely. We had a great relationship, we act like a family.
But we’re all super thankful to be here. I feel like we’re refocused. I’m sure that will ebb and flow. But everybody is so thankful to get to come to work and see other people and see something besides the 4 walls in our house.
I think our employees want us to be able to disconnect because they know we’re on all the time. You talk a lot about family. How do you manage family?
Owning my own business is the most wonderful thing for me. But it’s not always the most wonderful thing for my family.
I love it, but I know sometimes they don’t.
My kids call me “Shop Mommy” when I get really focused and I may be a little irritated if you’re not just going to get onboard with what I need.
It’s a hard road, but I like the aspect that I can stop and start when I need to. If there’s something and you need me to take a day off, I can do that. I get to make those choices. That’s the give-and-take with your family being part of the business.
When family comes and works, we pay them. They made minimum wage and got paid. Our stepdaughter is our office manager and she’s amazing, definitely using that degree from Alabama that we paid for.
We just try to get them to enjoy it and love it. Because someday it’s going to be theirs. I want them to feel like a part of it is theirs.
Do you think they’ll want to take it over?
Obviously, my daughter Brooke is in the business already. I think she would love that. Maybe not right now…but she’s very artistic. She may create a different spot for herself in it if she’s in charge.
Some of them want in, some of them don’t. I do see it continuing with the next generation.
How do you balance it with your family? How do you work together well, despite any issues that might come up?
My husband isn’t in the business now. He’ll step in and help, but he owns his own business. He’s got his own plate full! He’ll definitely step back to help with the things I’m dealing with, though.
He’s my rock and my go-to for all of these issues.
As far as our kids go, we hired Brooke and she’s got a specific job, but everyone kind of does everything.
She can do everything except print…I wouldn’t let them teach her how to print.
I needed one person who could always stay in the office.
Many times they’ve tried to teach her how to print, but I’ve always pulled her away! That’s not on Brooke’s plate! That’s good for her and me.
In Texas, it’s no secret. There’s a lot of print shops. How do you differentiate there – and grow in a market where it’s so competitive?
I had a great mentor. He told me to keep my toes in both industries. I do contract printing and boutique retail printing. So depending on how the economy is doing, we can flow with it. There is a print shop on every corner here.
They key is being the best at customer service that you can possibly be. The t-shirt or hat is secondary. This person that gave me this advice said – if you’re on time, that’s 90% of it.
I’m amazed how many people have come to me and said their last printer couldn’t get them their products on time. That floors me. That’s the biggest thing.
Does that help you negotiate the issue where customers want to haggle over prices?
It does. We have good pricing. I did a lot of research, I saw Printavo’s advice for pricing, and we’re about to redo our pricing. We’re not the cheapest or the most expensive. But I don’t feel the need to negotiate.
If you want 50 shirts and want to haggle, why would I gum up my shop when there’s another job that’s more profitable?
What’s been key for helping you serve your customers?
One of the real keys here is educating your customer and getting them to understand the “why.” I had a customer question my setup fees recently.
I had to get them to understand: you’re sending me the shirts as a contract printer. I don’t get to charge any margin on them. So I had to explain: I’m paying people to do this process. I paid this person, that person.
There’s some clients you can’t discuss this with. Others, you don’t even need to worry. But you have to know how to educate each type of customer. Then they understand the value.
The other thing: we don’t do spoilage. If you ordered 20 shirts, you get 20 shirts. We do everything to fix it. If one gets messed up, you get your shirt fixed.
Speed adds so much value.
There are shops around us that have 2 or 3 week turnaround times. People just aren’t thinking like that about shirts. They just aren’t!
My average customer wants it next week. If we’re lucky, the week after that. We’re driving through the process of doing art, getting approval, and going through real quick.
I don’t want to be a commercial, but Printavo was a game changer. My husband found Printavo, and we’ve used it ever since. It makes all the difference. I know our process was done correctly by the time the job is on press.
What’s your favorite feature in Printavo?
Probably just the statuses. In a glance I can tell what our day looks like. I know if things have been managed well. We have a ton of things that alert us to problems: art isn’t done, shirts aren’t here.
Being able to look at that quickly and not dig through paperwork is enormous.
What keeps you up at night?
The next step. COVID has made us so introspective…what’s the new why? I’m thinking about a new spot. But is that the right move?
How am I going to go after new customers?
These are exciting questions, but they’re stressful. It isn’t the stress of not being able to pay your bills, but it’s the stress of worrying about how we’re going to get people to a higher and better place.
We’re so excited to come down for the next Impressions show in Texas. The first one back will be a massive celebration.
I know, I can’t wait. It’s going to be a record, there will be so many people there.
Thanks so much Heather. Be sure to follow Lantern Ink on Instagram!