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The goal of a business is to make money. More specifically: to make profit.
There are lots of great second order effects that come with that: people get paid and have nice lives, customers get nice products that meet their needs, ancillary industries pop up to service all of these successful people and businesses. This is sort of the story of capitalism and it’s a very nice one, all things considered.
Print shops have the luxury of setting their own prices, which gives them a lot of leeway to control exactly how much money they’re making on every job. It’s obvious that some jobs are more profitable than others. Some customers are far more profitable than others just because of the administrative overhead (read: hand-holding) that they might need. But the margins most print shops generate can be anemic.
Squeezed by the customer and by the people that supply the raw materials, print shops face a fairly bleak picture when it comes to generating astonishing profits. That’s not to be negative. There are simply price pressures from all directions. But just a few new profit-generating activities can be enough to make a substantial impact at the end of the year. Even improving your existing profit centers is enough to push your bottom line higher. Or take the brute force approach: change very little, add more revenue, take more profit.
There are a lot of ways to get there. The goal is to make your accountant so impressed they ask you what you’ve been doing differently.
Without further ado, here’s every tip we have for making more money screen printing in 2022:
Cash flow: profit first?
Cash flow and pricing have a direct relationship to profitability. The velocity of revenue (read: cash flow), where it comes from, and where it goes all form a foundation for profitability. Understanding your cash flow means understanding the inner workings of your business.
Some business owners claw their eyes at the prospect of carefully inspecting bank statements. They’re usually the ones who pawn it off on an unsuspecting accountant. This seems smart to us. Unless studying the books is something you like, in which case – who are we to stop you? But basing profitability on the whims of your personality seems like a dangerous game.
One of the big advantages to a system like Profit First is that it’s a system in the first place. Profit is generally conceived of as some incidental feature of a business. It’s literally what is left over after all is said and done, the “scraps” that the owner gets to collect. While it’s almost banal to point out, the truly revolutionary thing about Mike Michalowicz’s idea is that it forces you to disobey human nature. Profit becomes a structural element of the business. It’s literally a separate bank account. Cash flows through your accounts and lands wherever it should, no input required. Cruise control, but for profits? Sure, why not.
Set a minimum price
We wrote about this before, but it is worth repeating. Minimum prices dodge a lot of really boring conversations with customers that just want a few shirts. It usually works out in the shop’s favor, too. “Yes, sure, we will print 7 shirts for you. But it’s going to cost $300,” the shop says. And the customer has to either take it or leave it. It’s not exactly a complicated exchange at that point.
Raise your prices
Yes, this too is on the table. If corporate America is doing it, it seems logical that small businesses should cut themselves a slice of the pie. Identifying why prices are going up is a game of whack-a-mole. Raising prices doesn’t need to be a grueling affair. Just raise them. Maybe your invoices mention a discount on some other service that actually costs you nothing (i.e. a line item for “FREE screen fees” labeled as a $20 discount) and that sweetens the deal. Hey, who says no to free stuff?
Get paid up front
The speed with which you generate profit matters. Getting paid up front is a crucial lever any business can pull that cuts down on problems with cash flow. There is no real reason that a print shop should act like a bank and hold thousands of dollars in garments for customers that haven’t paid yet. Sure, there are notable exceptions (and ironically, the biggest customers request the longest terms) like schools and government agencies – but there are still other customers that can convert to immediate downpayment. We’re not sure why it isn’t the norm. Hopefully it will be.
“Shoot bullets, not cannonballs”: repeat your successes
Repeating whatever you know works isn’t always the most fulfilling experience. Since printing attracts so many artists, there’s some weird hesitancy to return to what already worked. Artists like to invent and create and paw around in the dark trying to find something new. Maybe it feels better to try to reinvent the wheel from scratch every time, but that’s not exactly a successful business approach. With that in mind, it’s good to have a concrete list of the most successful:
- Marketing techniques
- ..and so on
Do you have a calendar with every successful event lined up so you can nudge customers when the time comes? How about a “best of” art file with designs that you can throw up and always count on getting some traction?
Or if you want to take another angle: do you really know how efficient your processes are?
Don’t ignore the 80/20 rule
The Pareto principle is one of those mind-blowing things that is fundamentally unbelievable when you hear it: 80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers.
The implications are a bit astonishing: you could lop off 80% of your customers and probably still have a fairly healthy and functioning business tomorrow (provided you could stomach losing 20% of your revenue). The other implication is that you can use lookalike personas to build the best sales and marketing strategies for your niche. What’s that mean? Basically: ignore your lowest-value customers and aggressively pursue the customers that look like your best customers. You can do this pretty easily with Printavo data and a pivot table.
Hire an artist and make retail happen
One of my favorite questions to ask anyone who owns a print shop is: “What would you do with $5,000 right now?”
The answers tend to reveal an immediate problem (such as needing a new press or piece of software) or harken back to something that has already worked. The best answer I’ve heard to this question came from Barrel Maker’s Justin Moore: “If you gave me $5,000, I’d probably hire an artist to make a bunch of good designs and just sell those.”
Screen printing is really just transferring art onto garments, right? Why does this relatively simple idea seem so clever? I suspect it’s because most print shops actually undervalue the designs they’re printing – even though they’re ultimately what makes a retail consumer pull the trigger.
Just put great art in front of customers that want it. Why overcomplicate this?
Okay, so maybe you just have a lot of bad orders. They’re small, they’re low margin, they’re bad customers, the jobs aren’t really what your shop is good at, whatever the case may be. This is not an enviable situation for a print business to be in: it’s “busy” but not “profitable,” and it’s probably (even worse) just annoying for everyone working in the business.
So send them to another shop that does those kinds of orders. There are two ways to do this, of course: you could subcontract them out to a shop you’re friendly with, cutting them into the action and delegating the tasks required to serve the customers. Or you could simply send those customers straight to that shop.
I would never advise anyone to do something cruel, but if a competitor in your area seems to be a thorn in your side – why not help them discover your least favorite customers?
Stop doing stuff that doesn’t make money
The odds are good that most print shops start because someone wanted to make money by printing shirts (or stickers or skateboards or hats or really almost anything else). Maybe it was in a garage or a school’s print shop.
The story is almost always the same: someone finds people looking for printed merchandise and discovers there’s a good arbitrage play to be made. You can sell t-shirts and make a profit! Invariably, this person is actually pretty good at selling t-shirts for a profit. Heck, they’re good at printing and sending emails and answering phones and making invoices and…wait. This list is getting very long. Where was the money made, anyway? Was it the printing? The emails? The invoices?
The point here is that print shops should do what they’re good at that makes them money. Okay, sure, that’s simplistic. But it’s something I’ve observed over and over: print shop owners get sucked into doing a bunch of crap that they really don’t want to, aren’t very good at doing, and contributes almost nothing to the bottom line.
Are you bad at making great marketing copy and ads? Hire a marketing agency to help you. Are you terrible at sales and just want to print and send invoices? Find a sales person and cling to them for dear life (and pay them well).
Stop being bad at things
In the vein of stopping what you’re bad at and doubling down on what you’re good at, one way to make more money is to very carefully inspect your overall processes. Audit them for weaknesses and (ideally) eliminate extraneous elements.
You’re looking for two key areas:
- Where does the process break down (i.e. when do customers or employees have to ask a lot of questions)
- Where is the process slow (i.e. it could simply work better or require less labor)
For example, we’ve found that shops tend to have a couple Printavo statuses they don’t actually use. Maybe there’s a status for garment prep that simply gets absorbed into the day-to-day tasks, for instance. These are actually good indicators of where waste could be located: if a status is almost never used or seems to crop up again and again as a problem point, that’s a giant red flag that the process needs some inspection and care.
Part 2: more ways to make more money
Our last newsletter covered a hot-button topic that every print shop cares about. Making money.
Or more specifically, how to make more money. This is a highly ambiguous problem with infinite possible solutions. But you probably only have time and energy to pursue a handful of these ideas. The point is that you must pursue something.
So there’s value in defining what “making more money” looks like.
One shop’s version of making more money is probably something like: order another press and increase the throughput in our shop by 40%. But for another shop it might actually be: sell that extra press and cut way back on how much printing we do in-house. For a third shop, making more money could be: let’s triple-down on this one client that’s about to grow a bunch next year.
Making more money is all about circumstances – who you work with, what your staff looks like, what your horizon for sales is, and so on.
But there is one thing that making more money absolutely shouldn’t be: generating more revenue while making less profit.
Hire sales and marketing
Even if you’re one of those rare natural-born salespeople, sales is a really difficult process. It’s literally a hedonic treadmill with lots of ups, downs, and in-betweens. You will invariably reach a point where one of two things will happen:
- You will simply reach the ceiling of your sales skills. Salespeople that are true professionals can approach companies, people, and organizations that you probably can’t – because it’s a skill they’ve worked hard to learn. Even if you’re a master, the perspective and attitude a different salesperson brings will open different doors.
- You will run out of time and energy. Yes, you can be a superhuman salesperson. You can do the job of three people. But what happens when your business really needs six sales professionals? You’ll eventually have to hire.
Marketing, on the other hand, is something that you’ll almost invariably need help with. That’s because marketing is a very broad category of skills. Are you good at:
- Data collection
- Data analysis
- Web tech
- Social media
- Community management
- …and more?
Hopefully my point isn’t lost: hiring help with marketing can boost your profile significantly in ways you probably didn’t expect. One of the simpler examples I can think of is when a shop (that will remain nameless) hired a marketing expert to help them…and the biggest impact was basically cleaning up and maintaining the information in their Google listing.
Sure, you could know that you need to clean up your Google listing. But do you know exactly how to do it? Would you have figured out that a bad Google listing was losing you customers?
The marketer doesn’t necessarily have the biggest hammer – but they know exactly where to swing it.
So if you want to make more money, you should really consider bringing in professional help. Whether you’re casting a broad net to bring in more customers – or better yet, carefully targeting a handful of customers you really excel at – bringing in the pros will get you closer to your goals faster.
Customer education: make it easier to order from your shop
One of the BIGGEST breakdowns in print shops comes down to a fairly simple problem: customers can’t really figure out how the ordering process works. The joke is that no Millennial will answer the phone (there’s a ton of reasons for this), so you’ve got to get creative on the front end to educate customers before they email you in confusion.
Customer education looks like this, for instance, from Shout Out Loud Prints. It’s a flowchart to help you figure out what print technique would work. This kind of educational content has knock-on benefits. Need to train a new employee in a pinch? Now you have a flowchart that lets them know what technique will work best.
You could go a lot further with this, too. We’ve seen infographics that cover:
- Types of garments
- Print placements
- Pricing and discounts
- Ordering process
- Timelines for orders
- What kind of art is best
- What customers need to place an order
- …and basically anything customers ask about a lot.
Pre-empting questions before they happen is one powerful way to remove friction in the ordering process. The more clarity you can bring to the table from the get-go, the easier your process becomes.
Have you pinged customers that haven’t ordered in the past year yet?
One of the struggles with the custom print game is the transactional nature of the relationship. Customers come to you to get a service, then forget you exist until the next time they need it. But the odds are good that your best customers have needs for products the entire time – but they need to be reminded that you can help them.
A simple campaign to re-engage customers that have fallen off your radar can yield huge benefits. Look for companies that have done well during the pandemic or have grown significantly – whether that’s construction companies or tech firms.
Cut just one step, cost, or item from your process
At Printavo we are big fans of the “just remove one piece” strategy. We’ll build a system to help us (for instance, releasing YouTube videos) then we’ll see how many pieces we can slowly remove from the process. It’s a little scary to just rip something out and see if things still work, but what we’ve learned over time is that we tend to be way too cautious about our process. It doesn’t actually need that many steps.
For example, a lot of shops tape their screens.
But there’s a fairly passionate debate against doing it – it’s just an extra step. It’s wasteful. It doesn’t actually have much benefit since most prints don’t need it. And you’re basically paying for tape that doesn’t generate any revenue.
What if the tape just goes? Seems like it’s worth a shot. You can always put it back.
Consolidate your orders
Stuck ordering from a bunch of suppliers?
Well…don’t. Consolidating your ordering process has a bunch of awesome downstream effects. You don’t have to spend time searching through a dozen different catalogs. You don’t have to track multiple shipments. You can probably save a lot of money on shipping since most wholesalers offer bulk shipping discounts. And you wind up with a much better relationship with sales reps because you become a bigger account.
There’s some risk here, too. If your supplier doesn’t have it, and you’ve put all your eggs into their basket, well…you’ll just have to sit on your hands (or call the shop down the road).
Not-so-fun-fact: print shops in Puerto Rico can’t get aerosol spray tack right now. Like at all. No one will ship them there. Maybe it’s time to switch to glue?
Keep employees happy
It’s way, way more expensive to replace an employee than it is to give an employee a bonus or a raise. Period. We’re talking orders of magnitude more expensive. Lost productivity is bad enough, but an extended period of it is really unhealthy for any business. Training and hiring are costly activities.
And if you’ve been paying attention to demographic trends, you know that the labor “shortage” isn’t going away for years. The structure of the labor market is unlike any before it.
We won’t get into cliches about happy employees making more money. Because it’s obviously true. Motivated, healthy, well-compensated people do better work than depressed, unhealthy, poorly-paid people. If your life isn’t good, your work probably won’t be very good either.
Don’t overthink it: do what works and experiment
It can be paralyzing to see how many options any entrepreneur has. It’s simultaneously the best thing about owning a business and the worst: you can do anything. Want to play PS4 all day and daydream about your next design? That might be an option. But it probably isn’t the best use of your time.
So what is the best use of your time? Well, think back to your initial successes. Some of them were surely from luck – being in the right place or knowing the right people. But you had to make yourself available to those opportunities. Go to the people and places you want to work with. Make yourself known. Look for the customers who have problems you have already solved, or who have problems that look a lot like the problems other customers have.
Experiment with new techniques for sales and marketing. Whether it’s a new platform, a new way to talk to customers, or simply a different tier of pricing. If you want to avoid any criticism and take no risks, don’t try anything new.
In 2022, it’s all about managing risk. The industry is surrounded with risk. The actual business model of supplier > wholesaler > shop > customer is under pressure from every angle.
From international disputes to climate change to a pandemic, we’ve seen the risk that this industry can handle. Now the question is: who takes the right risks and wins big? Plenty to think about for every print shop.
We’ll continue with more ways to make more money in 2022 next week.