Staying Focused When Growing Your Print Shop - 30 Employees & Counting

Business Lessons

Take a listen to Dru Dalton from Real Thread stopped by to chat about:
- Growing to a $6m/yr business by focusing
- Creating a valuable culture for your team
- Clear communication 

Transcript

Bruce: Hello, everybody. This is Bruce from Printavo, simple shop management software, here today with our "Business Lessons and Learnings Podcast." We are joined by Dru Dalton from Real Thread. Dru, thanks for joining us today.

Dru: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Bruce.

Bruce: So tell us a little bit about your guys' facility, your shop, and where you guys are at right now.

Dru: Yes. So we're in a great shop that we kinda built out from scratch, really from the ground floor up. The walls we're existing, but there was...other than that it was just an open slab. And so we've been in that about three years now. It's 15,000 square feet in total, 10,000 of that is our production facility then 5,000 is kind of between the office, the kitchen, common game room area, that kind of stuff. So, great facility.

Bruce: Gotcha. So you guys get started in 2009 up to now. Now, how many people do you guys have, how many team members? And where were you guys at last year, revenue-wise?

Dru: Yeah. We have about 30 full time right now. There are at a few part-time in there, but for the most part 30 full-time. Last year we did about just under six million in revenue, and yeah, that was up nicely from what, just under four million the year before.

Bruce: That's awesome. Where do you think some of that growth came from, from the year over?

Dru: You know, a lot of it is just taking good care of our customers, you know, if you have a good product, good service; honestly, like growth should be pretty easy if you have that great a product and service. And so, honestly a lot of it is that. I don't...you know, I wouldn't say there was any one thing that did it, but if there is any one thing the biggest driver would just be, you know, a great product, great service, taking good care of your customers.

Bruce: Gotcha. Very cool. You guys have an interesting website too. Usually I like to go into the background of how you guys get started, but the way I actually stumbled upon Real Thread is I got a random email just checking out something you guys launched in your site, and I went to it and I was like, "Wow, this is impressive." You guys have really invested in this. Walk me through that a little bit, you know, you guys have iterated on your website over a long period of time and have really invested in that. Why'd you do that? And what do you get out of it?

Dru: Yeah. I mean, for us we see the website, a lot of times it's the first touch point that any customer or prospective customer is gonna experience us through. So, you know, the customer experience is really what we're all about, and so, we see the website as a huge, huge touch point to that experience. And that's why we've invested so heavily in that. And that's why we continue to build on that, and iterate at such a rapid pace.

Bruce: Now, are you guys seeing a lot of new customers still or utilize that for larger orders and smaller orders? Do you see any trends with that or do a lot of them still call, wanting to talk to someone first to understand who you guys are?

Dru: Yeah. It'll be a lot of call or live chat, like, that can be, you know, the first touch point maybe. Maybe it is just an email. Maybe they find us online, they love what they see, they're comfortable and confident in us at that point, but then they reach out, you know, via a contact form, a live chat or maybe they do call us. And so, the order may come through that, one of those channels not necessarily online, but online I think was very influential, hopefully in that decision.

Bruce: Sure. And that's interesting too that you have a live chat. Obviously, we do, we wanna speak to the customers who have questions right away, but you don't see too many shops have, you know, a tool like that. When did you guys decide to do that and do you think it's worth it to allow your customers to be able to reach out right away?

Dru: Yeah. And, you know, I think our first live chat widget was a long, long time ago. I mean, I remember using Olark very early on. I would say...

Bruce: Yeah. We use that.

Dru: Yeah. I would say, honestly, probably 2010, 2011 we had live chat. We haven't kept that consistently throughout that whole, you know, that whole six or seven-year period, but, you know, we took it away for a little while, we brought it back. And so, yeah, now for the most part it's here to stay. I think a lot of people don't use it, because honestly, it's taxing. It really is, to be that on call, if you will. That available, I think someone's more likely to chat than they are a phone call, and so, from a staffing side you have to be ready for that, just a higher volume in live chat than you would in phone calls. So, you know, and again I think that's why a lot of shops don't do it because it is taxing and maybe that's just not a core, like, a core piece of who they are, you know, maybe that really rapid response isn't part of how they're building their business. And so, you know, I'm not gonna say it's for everyone. For us it's really crucial in terms of that high touch customer engagement and, you know, and what we like to see as a rapid response. But I wouldn't necessarily say that it's for everyone.

Bruce: Sure. Gotcha. Yeah, that's pretty interesting. I mean, we, you know, we definitely have valued trying to go extra and be overly available to people. And I definitely see how...like you talk about balancing that with obviously getting work done versus, you know, being overly open to customers, and where to find that middle ground. Are there other things that you guys do to try to be overly available to customers other than just the basics of email, and phone, and chat?

Dru: Yeah. You know, we've really...we really have played with our hours and the hours that we're available to our customers. And so, in general, you know, you could just say, "Hey we're like, we're 9:00 to 5:00, 8:00 to 5:00," whatever, but we're on the East Coast. And so, if we close down at 5:00 East Coast time, I mean, goodness that's 2:00 West Coast. And so we do a lot...

Bruce: Sure.

Dru: ...we do a lot of business on the West Coast and have a lot of customers out there. And so, if we were not available for them after 2:00 their time, then we feel like that's a big disservice to them. And so, we've extended hours to go all the way kinda 8:00 to 8:00 and just be more available. So that's one thing we've certainly done.

Bruce: Do you guys start later than 2:00 or just start same time early, but also stay open later?

Dru: Yeah, just stay open later. We still have an early crew, but then we'll have, you know, one or two stay late.

Bruce: Cool, very cool.

Dru: So yeah, that's easier to do obviously once you get...you know, once you have more employees doing the same task, you know? We call ours account executives that are working with our customers. So once you have more than one of those, then you can start to stagger their time. If you do only have one asking one of them to work 8:00 to 8:00 is obviously pretty challenging.

Bruce: Right, right. So a team of 30, I mean, that's a good size shop. Where if you think back to when you're getting started, what was your decision when you started to hire the first couple people? When did you say, "Okay, we need to take the dive into finding someone to help us full time?"

Dru: Well, I mean, I think it was just out of necessity in terms of, you know, just needing some help. I think the first was probably... Well, I know the first actually, she's still with us. She's on maternity leave right now, but, you know, she joined us, I think in...I wanna say I met her on a mission trip over the summer of '09 and then I think that's when I met her. And then she joined the team, you know, maybe six months later I think. I think those dates are all correct, but she may not have joined until 2010. But anyway, she's been here, you know, good seven years since the beginning, and again, now she works part time and she's on maternity leave, and whatnot. But, you know, her role was first on the customer side. So, I kind of ran the customer and the business end of things. My partner at the time, Patrick, he ran the shop. And so, yeah, thinking about it, our first hire was Sheryl. And so, she was on the customer facing side of it; helping customers place orders.

Bruce: Got it. And why did you... Where did Real Thread come out of? Why did you guys start the business originally?

Dru: Well, I originally started my first printing business when I was in college and it was just out of opportunity. You know, I was on campus, I was really well connected with a lot of organizations on campus. So, I knew I could sell them shirts. I was buying a lot of shirts through positions I held on campus, and so, again, I just knew I was networked well enough that I could sell a lot of them. And I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to screen print or really what screen printing even was. Thankfully, my younger brother was at Clemson at the time. He was a Graphic Communication Major and he did know what screen printing was. So, he kinda told me what it was. I then researched and found a company up in Seattle that I could buy equipment from, and if I bought it from them they would train me on it for two days. So, I flew up there, trained on the equipment, shipped it back to Orlando, and I think I'd taken...you know, I accepted a thousand-piece order before I'd even had any equipment in my hands. So, really just went at it.

Bruce: Really? So your first, that was...was you considered as your first big order?

Dru: Oh, yeah, definitely. And I remember specifically another buddy of mine was in college at the time, he wanted some shirts for an intramural team and he was up at Indiana University. I said, "Yeah, no problem. I'll do some..." You know, they were like sleeveless tanks. Said, "I'll do 'em for you." Well, he gets them and tells me the ink washed out of 'em. So my...

Bruce: Oh, when they washed all the shirts?

Dru: Oh yeah. I had under-cured them and I had to print all these tanks again. And luckily he was a buddy of mine, and so he was cool. But, oh yeah, I remember, you know, I didn't know what I was doing and under-cured those things.

Bruce: Wow. Yeah. Now, I remember, I actually did the same. We were running a print shop at our university as well, and yeah, either burn the shirts over or under and they cracked. And yeah, it was definitely a learning experience as well.

Dru: Oh yeah. Yup.

Bru: That's pretty funny. So where did it kinda transition? So you're in school, how did it go... Did you continue this after school as well when you graduated or...

Dru: Well, so I started printing about a year and a half before I graduated, and then by the time I graduated I'd accepted a full time job as a financial analyst at a small tech company in Florida. I went did that for two weeks and then I decided, "Hey, this is not for me. I can't sit behind the desk and, you know, crunch Excel all day." And so, two weeks in, I put in my two-week notice. And at that point I was helping this other business in Orlando. Went and helped them for, you know, nine months and then left that and jumped into t-shirts full time. And so, you know, when I did that, I said, "Hey, I wanna do this full time. But, you know, there's tons of screen prints out there. I need to do something to differentiate us." And so that's when I made the decision to go with all water-based and dischargings, and, you know, we made the switch overnight, threw out all the plastisol loaded up on a water-based and discharge, and that's what we've done since. So, that was the summer of '09.

Bruce: Interesting. So talk about that differentiation. I think other shops could definitely wanna pull that and figure out, "Okay. How can I be different from the guy, you know, across town?" How was that... How did you, you know, use that to be able to sell more, or get more clients, or grow the business?

Dru: Yeah. You know, I mean, you can't be all things to all people and that's hard to, you know, come to realize and accept, I think, for a lot of business owners. Because, you know, you see people come and, you know, they have dollar signs on their forehead, you know? But they want something that maybe you're not all that great at. So, you know, that's just one of the things that we've done from the beginning is try to stay really focused. From day one, you know, we set those water-based and discharge t-shirts, and that includes, you know, tanks and hoodies, but that does not include, you know, shorts and pants, any kind of embroidery or hats. And so, from very early on, again, from the founding, that summer that's when we made that decision. You know, we haven't swayed from that. We've stayed on course, and that's what we continue to do. And so, again, I mean, do we lose opportunity when it comes to, you know, upselling customers, you know, hats and polos, and, you know, again embroideries, buttons and pens, and koozies; yeah, totally. Do we risk them going somewhere else and getting all that stuff somewhere else, and then losing our t-shirt business? Absolutely, we do. But that's a risk we take to try to be the best at t-shirts. And so, every dollar and cent, and resource, and time, and focus, and energy that we have, we can devote to creating an amazing customer experience around just t-shirts not t-shirts and hats, and buttons, and koozies, and pants, and polos. You know, that's a lot to focus on, and again, you can't be all things to all people. So, focus.

Bruce: Yeah, that's interesting. A lot of shops that we talked to especially love to...or they want to expand horizontally, and be able to handle those different products, while you guys have stayed and have incredible growth over, you know, the eight-year period or so, just focusing on that, the printing.

Dru: You know, and I'm sure you feel it. You know, you feel it building software, right? You know, you wanna build an application that many people can use, you know, from t-shirts to hats to embroidery and all this. And so, it does complicate your system, right? It does make your development time longer or more complicated when you add all these elements and these variables. And so, you know, you may feel like, "Hey, you have to do that," right? To serve the audience that you wanna serve, but, you know, as the business owner we can choose what we wanna do. Realistically, you don't have to do that, you may choose to do that and build the product to offer, you know, all these different, you know, pricing, calculations, and models, and, you know, shipping solutions and whatnot. And again, screen printing and embroidery are two very different things from, you know, what it takes to...you know, just how you'll build the system to accept them and the products that you source, and, you know, having inventory for thread colors versus ink colors and flashes. Anyway, they're just different, right? And so, you have to make decisions regarding how you build your platform. As a business owner we have to make decisions. Are we gonna support all of these things or are we not? And so, again, I'm not saying one is right or wrong, there are true decisions that have to be made, and there's always a cost benefit to those decisions.

Bruce: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. That's very interesting. So what was one of the first pain points that you can remember when you were kind of scaling from that initial couple people size to maybe say, the 10 person? Hey?

Dru: Hey, buddy. You wanna say hi now? So the pain points you said from like, 1 or 2 to 10, right?

Bruce: Right.

Dru: Oh, my gosh. I mean, honestly, I was a first time entrepreneur. I was a first time like, leader manager. I'd never managed, you know, any number of people, honestly. So, I screwed up a lot. And trust me like, I wasn't the best leader manager, anything.

Yeah, buddy? No, he's at a different office. Okay. I'll be a few minutes then we can play, okay? So anyway, I have three boys so they're running around somewhere.

So, you know, in terms of the pain, I mean, I think a lot of it is communication and enabling them to do their jobs well. Honestly, I go down to the system that they're operating in. It's huge and it's so, so crucial. So, man, I mean, not meaning to plug something like you, but if you can give your team the resources that they need from an information standpoint and really make it clear to them the job that they have to do and make that easy, automate as much as possible to take the brain power out of a lot of what they do, let the machine do what a machine can do and let a human do what only a human can do. And so, you know, a human can certainly talk to a potential customer in a much more authentic and loving way than what a machine can. Okay. I'm not saying that a machine can't do it, but that's just something that we're choosing not to automate, right? But in terms of how something is priced, okay, there's no sense in making your team, your salespeople crunch these numbers, do these manual calculations when a machine can do that so much more efficiently and really effectively than what a human can. So, you know, our early systems, I mean, trust me, it was white boards and it was Google Docs, Google Sheets, you know, for POs and it was, you know, it was not elegant, but it got the job done, right? And it let us move into the next phase, which was certainly bringing in a system. And that really helps from an employee standpoint and started to reduce some of the pain.

Bruce: So, if you would go back to that period, what would you do over again to be like, "Man, I messed this up. I could have done a way better job doing x."

Dru: Well, I mean, realistically I probably wouldn't change much just because of what it taught us and in terms of what we went through. I wouldn't change that experience, you know? But looking back, I mean, I would build a system earlier. You know, we built a proprietary system, right? But we didn't start that way. We went from, you know, Google Sheets to a file maker app to our own proprietary system. That proprietary system did wonders for us in terms of the things that we wouldn't allow it...we could build it to do, you know, and so I would probably do that earlier. But just any system, right? I mean, any system is more... is generally better than Google Sheets. Google Sheets is a step up from a legal pad, but aside from a legal pad, you know, anything's better than probably working in Google Sheets.

Bruce: Yeah. We have a lot of shops that we definitely work with that are kind of starting to get into that phase even some as big as 20 people that are still kinda like, job boards and, you know, that's just what they've been doing. So helping to make that transition is... It can be difficult, but they want to, it's just, you know, maybe they're feeling a little bit scared since we've been doing this for five years type of emotions, but... So, do you guys have developers on staff too?

Dru: We do. Yeah. Yeah. We have one full time developer, then one part time.

Bruce: Very cool. Yeah, that's interesting. We do talk to shops that have wanted to try to build it, and their own tool, and they're not totally, have an idea of where to start, but they're like, "We're trying to do everything." You know, and that is kinda one of the things I do tell them is it's not just the initial bill, that it's the maintenance, it's the long term, it's the changing, and all that that has to be managed, but...

Dru: Oh, yeah.

Bruce: So that's neat. So, from the website front-end side does that connect to the back-end side too?

Dru: Yeah, it does. Yup.

Bruce: Very cool. Now, your son popped in there. He was a pretty cute guy. I'm curious, a lot of other shop owners too have families, or girlfriends, wives, things like that. How do you balance that from early on to now, work versus home and family responsibilities?

Dru: Yeah. You know, it changes. And it just depends. For me, it just depends on what kind of what's required of me at home. And, you know, I started...when I started the business I didn't have any kids. And so, I worked a lot more or just for longer periods of time probably straight, you know? I mean, honestly, I lived at my shop for a short period of time. There wasn't a shower there, but there was a gym across the street. And so, every morning I went to the gym, and a lot of mornings I didn't even work out, but I would still be in there showering, you know, because literally right across the street was a gym. And so, you know, when you live at the shop, I mean, I didn't have a TV there, what else was I gonna do, you know, other than work in some form of fashion. And honestly, like there is a season for that, you know, and I'm not even gonna call that unhealthy.

You know, if you have a family and three kids at home and you're doing that, that's unhealthy. If you're single and don't have serious obligations outside of, you know, taking care of yourself honestly, then do it. You know, again I think there's a season for everything, so. But again, you know, as I got married, had kids right away, the demands at home become greater, and so, then you have to shift some time. And ultimately like, you know, I think it just...it forces you to be a better leader really. You know, there's Parkinson's law which basically says, you know, "Work expands to fill the time allotted." And so, if I give myself, you know, again, early days, right? If I give myself 18 hours a day to work, well, then I'm gonna take 18 hours to kind of do what really needs done, what's most important. If I only have 10 hours to do that, well, I'm gonna figure out how to do the most important things in 10 and offload the others, right? And so, anyway, I think ultimately just constraining your time actually does make you a better leader and manager as you become more focused and have to only do what you are most valuable doing and realize, "Hey, you can offload and delegate some things that someone else can do just as well as you are or in a lot of times even better."

Bruce: Yeah. Gotcha. Now, as far as delegating and hiring, how do you find some of your staff and varying skill levels too? Is it posting online, is it just referrals internally?

Dru: Yeah. I mean, we've been really blessed in terms of just friends. I mean, friends of friends really goes a long way, and for the most part, I don't know that we've totally exhausted that network. Maybe at 30, maybe we're starting to get there. I don't know, but honestly a lot of it's been friends of friends. I mean, if you take care of your employees just like you take care of your customers, your customers are gonna tell other customers, right? That, "Hey, you're a great place to do business." If you take care of your employees, your employees are gonna tell other potential employees, "Hey, this is a great place to work." And so the recruiting, you know, for most roles shouldn't necessarily be all that challenging.

Bruce: Gotcha. What are some specific examples of things you guys do to make sure that people are taken care of other than compensation?

Dru: Yeah. I mean, compensation is honestly a pretty small part of it, you know, we're really intentional in terms of when we built our current building. When we're building that out obviously, we've always had this office versus production like, kind of battle, right? And I think most shops can probably feel that. So, we did everything that we could to kinda bridge that gap and be intentional with bridging that gap. So obviously, there's a huge concrete wall that separates our production facility from our office. Well, we put $10,000 for the windows in that wall, and trust me, when the contractor told me those were $10,000 windows because of the headers and stuff that were needed; honestly, like this thing was already over budget and I was very close to cutting those out. I really thought about it. And then the architect says, "Hey." He goes, "Remember why you put those in there. Okay?" And then that was all I needed to say, "Okay. It's a well spent 10 grand." So that's just one thing that we've done to try to intentionally bridge that gap between office and production.

Then, you know, the office or the kitchen area, you know, we got a, you know, a Nintendo and ping pong, and that kind of stuff. And so, the kitchen, we stock our kitchen, and so that was intentional in terms of... That's the one kind of community place where both like office and production teams will gather. They'll be there for lunch, break bread together. And so, and that just helps build those relationships, and that ultimately is gonna make a more efficient and effective organization if we can get those relationships built. But, you know, it's tough and honestly we had to be very intentional with it and we're fortunate that we're able to do that through a build out that the building supports that.

Bruce: Yeah. That's very cool especially being very focused on trying to make sure you have a one cohesive organization. Were there any other things that like, the windows and the kitchen layout? Were there any other things that you guys purposely did to try to keep that glue and keep everyone together?

Dru: Yeah. Like I said, stocking the kitchen so that people gather there. We do a Friday catered lunch every week. So, you know, that's a time for everyone to kind of gather, you know, have a nice meal together, and then we do some kind of company updates and whatnot, announce things that are, you know, crucial conversations or just critical communication at that point too when we have everyone together. So that's a big like, open collaborative feedback time between everyone in the company. So that's really helpful. We just... To kick off the new year we went on a cruise together, and went to the Bahamas for a couple days.

Bruce: Really?

Dru: Yeah. So that's pretty awesome.

Bruce: The whole team?

Dru: Yeah, yeah, the whole team. Everyone was invited, not everyone went because some had, you know, other obligations or they were pregnant, had babies due, whatever, and they couldn't travel. But for the most part everyone went. We took a videographer, so you can check that out. There's a video of it on our blog, and kind of a blog post that I wrote in terms of why we went on a company cruise and then a few things that we learned too. So, you can check that out, and there are some good pointers for other companies that would like to send their companies on a cruise because a cruise is an awesome thing to do as a company for a number of reasons. So I kinda outlined those in the post.

Bruce: Really? So do you blog a lot?

Dru: I don't, no. I'm not a writer, man. I read a lot, I don't write a lot.

Bruce: Okay. I'm just curious. So, does your team or that was just like, kind of an occasional thing with the cruise...

Dru: Yeah, yeah, our team does. So, you know, we'll try to blog just for content and just share thoughts, feelings, news, whatever it may be. But I personally don't blog a whole lot.

Bruce: Okay, okay. Gotcha. Was there any other... Actually, you know what? I wanna hop into where your, like, your company is now and where you feel like things are gonna be going this year and next year, maybe things you're planning for or looking out for things that worry you, anything like that.

Dru: Yeah. Goodness, man. I mean, a lot of it is, you know, this, what we've done to have success at this point is just kind of building on that and more of that, right? There's kind of a line out there that says, "What got you here won't get you there," which I wanna be like, you know, cognizant of and realize that, "Hey, we can't just lean on our previous successes." But at the same time there are some really like core fundamentals to those successes in terms of a great customer experience and taking care of our team. And so, we're gonna be doing more of that. Now, the tactics that we use in terms of how to execute that, you know, those are maybe to be determined or those will change over time. But in terms of like, what we as a company will be doing, I use the saying like, "More of the same." And by that I mean, you know, just taking great care of our customers and our team.

Bruce: Very cool, very cool. And maybe what's one piece of advice that you would give another shop that's maybe seeing you and be like, "Man, okay, we're gonna shoot for what these guys are doing in a couple years." Like, "This is our goal here."

Dru: Yeah. I mean, I'd say that the big thing is like decide what you wanna be known for, and then again, like, wholeheartedly commit to that. So that will force you to make really hard decisions in terms of if we're gonna be this, if we're gonna be, you know, A, that means we're not, you know, B. And making those choices is really, really difficult. There's a book that I love, "Blue Ocean Strategy," and if you go through and kind of match or, you know, or map out your strategy canvas, and what you wanna be known for versus maybe your competitors, that's just a really helpful exercise to say, "Hey, they're known for this, we're not gonna be. They're not known for this, we're going to be." And so, again just making those really intentional decisions that will really help empower the entire team to make decisions around that core focus of who you are gonna be and just as importantly who you're not gonna be as a company.

Bruce: Got it. Perfect. Are you reading any good books now or following anyone interesting?

Dru: Oh, man. I mean, I read a lot in terms of...man, in terms of right now like I just read one that I really enjoyed called, "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck." That was a really, really enjoyable read actually.

Bruce: Okay. [crosstalk 00:31:30].

Dru: Yeah. There's a lot of good points in that, you know, and he touches on some of that too like choosing... You know, this is a book very like personal-based. It's not necessarily a business book, but he mentions in there choosing who you're gonna be and who you're not gonna be as an individual. So, I think the same applies to companies and businesses. Businesses have to choose who they are, and again, just as important, like who they're not.

Bruce: Sure. Awesome. Well, Dru, I really appreciate. Given these tips here, I definitely think someone could find this useful out there. So again, I appreciate the time. You guys are going through some nice weather. It was snowing here yesterday in the middle of March, which was crazy, but, anyway, that's another topic.

Dru: That was crazy. Cool.

Bruce: But again, thank you again.

Dru: Yeah. It was great being here. Great. Thanks for having me. And yeah, thanks, man.

Bruce: All right, bye.

Dru: Okay. See you.


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Printavo ​​is simple shop management software. Whether your shop works with screen printing, embroidery, signage, digital printing, or awards & engraving–we make your complex workflow simpler to manage and understand. Printavo keeps your shop organized by handling scheduling, estimates, quote approvals, workflow, payments, accounting and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.

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