Welcome to the Custom Apparel Startups podcast, your best source for information, news, tips and tricks to get you off the ground running, and earn success with your custom apparel decorating business. So, get ready to soak up some knowledge!
Now, here are your hosts, Mark and Marc!
Mark S: Hey, everyone! Welcome to episode 43 of the Custom Apparel Startups podcast. My name is Mark Stephenson, from ColDesi.
Marc V: And I’m Marc Vila, from Colman and Company. Welcome to our next episode, episode 43.
Mark S: Today we have a special guest!
Marc V: Do we? Where?
Mark S: Right there. Am I pointing in the right direction? I’m looking at a video camera. This is Tom Rumbaugh. Hey, Tom! How are you doing?
Tom: Good. Yourself?
Mark S: Very good. Thank you very much. We’ve got Tom here for a couple of reasons. We rarely can talk any of our customers that have actually run a business, into filling out a questionnaire, doing a Success Story. Coming on a video for us would be completely out of the question.
But we have you trapped here now, don’t we?
Tom: Yes, absolutely.
Mark S: Okay. So, Tom joined us. He’s now a ColDesi salesperson.
Tom: That’s right.
Marc V: And a business owner, former business owner in multiple different directions. Sold equipment in the past, sells equipment presently. How many years have you been in the industry?
Tom: It was since 1992, so what is that? That’s 23, 24 years? Something like that? Since 1992.
Marc V: I don’t have that much experience in the industry. It’s really awesome when you talk to folks who are still going in the path of this industry, because there is success to be had here.
Marc V: It’s a fun industry to work in. I’m really glad to have another perspective in the room.
Mark S: What we’re going to do is we’re going to do kind of a live Success Story. We want to learn about you and your business, before you came to ColDesi. Why don’t you kind of lay out what you did at your company?
Tom: I had gotten into the industry years ago, like I said, in 1992. I, at the time, was working not far from here, selling siding, believe it or not. We would go around knocking on doors.
Mark S: A tin man! I like that!
Tom: Yeah. We would try to convince people to purchase siding. It was kind of a sleazy industry, actually. I think at one point, I even traded in a gun, in order for somebody to get some siding. We traded a Corvette. Just anything and everything we could do to convince people to purchase siding for their houses, whether they needed it or not, kind of.
It just was not agreeing with my soul at all. It was really – I couldn’t stand it. So, I answered an ad in the paper for a trainer. One of the Colman and Companies at the time, back in 1992, needed a trainer, somebody that would fly all over the country, and would go and teach people how to use their embroidery machines.
So, that’s what I did. I got hired on with the company. The owner’s wife interviewed me at first, and I just totally flubbed the interview. I could tell it. I was noticing that she was not impressed at all. So, that night, I went home and got some really nice paper, and I wrote out a nice letter. “Hey, I feel like I blew it in the interview, but I wanted to say that I really had just the right experience for this job.”
Later on, she said that it was the letter. It was the letter and the urging, that I knew this was what I wanted to do, that made her want to -.
Mark S: So, you talked your way into the business, basically.
Tom: Pretty much.
Mark S: And that job was that you got taught how to train. You got taught the embroidery machines first, and then how to train.
Tom: Yeah. Then, I would fly all over the country. At the time, basically we did installs for people, and I was training people to use the software, which was at the time, DOS-based, which was really tricky.
Mark S: Terrible. It’s hard.
Tom: Trying to teach people how to use a mouse, even. We had people that literally didn’t know how to use a mouse. They would hold the mouse up to the screen. They thought that you point at the screen.
Mark S: Some things never change. We still have those people. No offense, everybody, but you’re out there!
Tom: I think I was in 34 different states at one point, four different countries, teaching and training people constantly. That’s how I got into sales. I became better and better at demonstrating the equipment, and they invited me to come on board and sell for the company. So, I started doing that.
Mark S: So, you sold embroidery machines, etc. Then, what made you think about going into a business?
Tom: Well, this was now about 2004, somewhere around there, 2005. I had worked for the company and in the industry for a long time, and put hundreds of people into the business. I talked to them about how to get into the business.
My wife was pregnant with our first son. She had to travel 40 miles, I think, back and forth to work every day. I’m like “Honey, if you’d like, you can just stay home. We’re doing okay. You can start your own business, if you want to.”
It resonated with her, so I wrote up a quote and sold my wife – it was the hardest sale I ever made – I sold my wife our first single-head embroidery machine. That’s how we started.
Mark S: Nice!
Marc V: That story is the same story as so many of our customers.
Mark S: I know! It sounds really familiar.
Marc V: It’s the same story that I’ve heard so many times, in different directions. Somebody is a car salesman, they’re a plumber, they’re a teacher, they work for the school board or the Board of Health. Whatever they do, this is not their favorite thing, that they’re doing. Or maybe they’re commuting too far for work, or they just have some kids, or something like that. They’re all the same story.
I think the dream is that you want to have your own business. It’s something that’s more interesting and fun to do than maybe sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers, or breaking your back on the ground.
Mark S: And embroidery is kind of perfect, right? You get a single-head machine, you can fit it in a back bedroom. There’s no particular power requirements. All you really need is maybe a computer and the machine itself.
When you started, embroidery machines were not cheap.
Tom: No, they were not. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I want to say that an entire system was somewhere around $35,000 or $40,000 for a single-head. I think it was even like a six-needle single-head. And the software was what was amazing. There was $30,000 softwares, at the time. Ours was not that expensive, but I think it was $15,000-$16,000, initially.
Nobody made the software. You had maybe three people in the whole country, or in the whole world actually, that had software for embroidery machines, at the time.
Mark S: You did it, though. You got the machine. Did you finance it, or did you write a check?
Tom: I think we put it on a credit card, part of it, and then probably paid the rest in cash. We did really well. As a matter of fact, in the first six months, she had grown tremendously. She had gotten $2,000 or $3,000 worth of orders.
She was about to have the baby. She was kind of freaking out that month, because we didn’t think that we would be able to get everything done. She was just kind of worried that we wouldn’t get enough production done.
So, her mom came in to help with production. At the same time, we purchased a second embroidery machine, to be able to do two things at once. The thinking being that “Okay, she’s going to be dealing with the baby now. So, when she embroiders, whatever time that is, she needs to be able to do it quicker.”
Mark S: Maximize it.
Tom: It wasn’t the fact that we couldn’t have run the machine all day long. It was the fact that we’ve only got limited time to sew, so we need to increase our production, so that time is useful.
Mark S: I want to warn everybody that’s listening and watching, if you’re watching the video, that we are planning on branding Tom “The King of ROI,” because he’s already got the experience in setting things up and costing jobs, and things like that. That’s really one of the most common questions that we get.
You went to two machines. First of all, let’s just say like what Marc was saying. You can get set up now with a single-head, for like $12,000, including great software.
Marc V: Yeah. You can get subscription software for $100 a year. So, you can get up and running so much more affordable. Then, when you need that second machine or better software, or whatever it is, it’s so much easier now than it was then. However, when you’re on the high dive board, no matter how high it is, the jump looks scary.
If it’s a $30,000 jump or $20,000 or $10,000, it still feels scary. But the people who succeed really well, I notice, they are the ones that say “I need to get another heat press. I need to get another embroidery machine now.” You see what’s coming ahead, and you make the decision, and you dive into it.
There’s risk in that, but that’s also -.
Mark S: That’s how you do it.
Marc V: That’s how you do it. It brings success.
Mark S: How long was it before you got your second machine?
Tom: It was within six months.
Mark S: It’s so funny, because we talk to people at ColDesi all the time, that buy an Avance, they get a single-head 15-needle. It’s like, you’re going to need more. Within a couple of years, you can upgrade to a multi-head, or you can kind of hook all of these up to a router, and you get multiple single-heads, and work it that way. We kind of position you to grow.
Tom: The one thing I have learned, I think even before I started into the business and knew this for an absolute fact – now I know it for an absolute fact – is that if you pretty much just maintain, do nothing but maintain, and you maintain long enough, work begins to push itself to you.
If you concentrate on doing the very best quality you can, if you concentrate on being efficient, if you concentrate on doing everything correctly, you almost can’t help but grow. There’s a point where the work begins to push itself, as long as you don’t quit, as long as you don’t take yourself out of the game before you get a chance to experience those gains.
It was probably within our second year that we began to get to the point where more sales were coming in from unexpected sources, than from us having to sell every job. That’s when it begins to get good. You just have to basically let yourself be in the game long enough to start receiving those additional benefits.
Marc V: If you build it, it will come, type of attitude. We’ve talked about that attitude before. We’ve also talked about not being complacent there. You’ve got to find that balance.
But if you are doing good work consistently, especially with embroidery, because there’s a lot of bad work, but if you are focusing on doing good work, and you’re not trying to save ten cents on a piece of backing, if you know that this other backing is going to provide better embroidery for you, that is going to come. It’s going to gravitate toward you.
You’re just waiting for the one day, for the owner of that business down the road. It was the last straw with that embroidery shop, that he’s been using them for a while. And then, you get to talk to him.
Mark S: So your first business, you went out and got.
Tom: Oh, yeah.
Mark S: You’re in sales.
Mark S: So, you used those skills.
Marc V: How did you get the business? What works?
Tom: I actually continued to work, while my wife ran the business. She initially had started with just her, so it was mostly through churches, through associations, networks that we had at church, people that we had met in business. I don’t know that she did necessarily so much outbound calling. I think it was a lot of just the people that we knew, the places that we went.
Mark S: Word of mouth.
Tom: Word of mouth stuff. I don’t recall that we really had any advertising that necessarily did a whole lot of good for us. Advertising is good, if you get to a certain point. Like much later on, when I had left the company to work the business full time, advertising helped to cement our name, once we were at a certain point.
But I think when you’re just beginning, I don’t know that advertising is necessarily the best way to go. Really working your internal networks.
Mark S: We talk about that all of the time.
Marc V: I want to plug a podcast.
Mark S: Please do!
Marc V: There is this awesome podcast, the CAS podcast. There was an episode on social, not social media, marketing. That’s an oldie but a goodie, I think. I don’t remember – it’s somewhere in the lower numbers, if you’re searching for it, toward the beginning. But that’s what we talked about.
You go to church, you go to business groups, you go to youth sports leagues, school leagues, whatever you do. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you go there and you tell people what you’re doing. You ask for referrals. “Do you know somebody who needs this? Do you ever?”
Especially if you know small business owners, you’ve got to talk to them. In the beginning especially, there’s a good attitude of maybe no job is too small. If you know this guy who is a plumber, and it’s him and his son, “Do you guys where shirts?” “No.”
Mark S: So, you’re bare-backing it?
Marc V: Yeah. “We just wear t-shirts.” “Let me make some shirts for you.” And really, when you break it down, if somebody is dressing nice, as a contract worker, they go to houses and they’re wearing something nice, because they want to look professional – just a shirt like this. Right?
If you go to Macy’s or JC Penney or any of these stores, and you buy just a collared shirt, it’s going to cost you $20, at least. And you’re already almost at the price that you could embroidery it for somebody. You can get a custom one done.
So, just tell them. “It’s almost going to cost the same amount of money as if you go to Macy’s and buy a brand shirt. I can get you one with your logo on it, and do four of them,” for the plumber. And then, “Just please tell somebody else.”
Tom: And instead of Macy’s making the profit on that shirt, because there’s a markup in the shirt, not just in the embroidery, you’ve made the markup in that shirt. You’ve essentially short-circuited Macy’s, when you do that, and people are happy to let you do that.
They’d much rather give an order to a small-time local business owner, than they would rather have some larger mail-order conglomerate do the work, and it’s not even the same. You just can’t lose if you just ask, and if you’re nice, and you do good quality work.
Marc V: A good social experiment is to have on the forefront of your mind, and maybe ask people, “Would you rather buy your produce from a little local shop that you know, or would you rather buy from a big store? If there was a small business that sold this one particular product, would you rather buy it from them?”
Almost everybody that you run into is like “I’d love to support a small business. If I can buy this, I’d much rather buy it.”
Mark S: Especially somebody that they know.
Marc V: Yeah. People love that, because it feels good. It makes the financial transaction personal and friendly. It has what I consider to be like a little bit of a charity feel to it, when you know this guy that you go to church with, or that’s on the same team. You don’t know him, maybe you’re not friends. But you wrote him a check for $100 for five shirts or whatever it was, and that feels a lot better than having gone to like Macy’s, and swiped your credit card.
Mark S: That’s true. So, you said you started getting in these big mystery orders. It wasn’t like you had a big website presence or were doing advertising. How would those happen?
Tom: Actually, I’m glad you asked that, because I was about to say that literally, people know that you’re in the industry, that you’re in the business. “Oh, you’ve done custom something or other. I know that’s what you do.” Literally, last night I went to my chiropractor, and she says “Hey, didn’t you own a shop or something, at one point?” I’m like “Yeah, I already sold that off. I’m back doing this.”
She’s like “That’s too bad, because I’ve got these 300 shirts that I have printed with my logo on it, and I wanted to get these water bottles,” and this, that and the other. And I’m like “I know just the people.” I haven’t decided yet who, or how I’m going to work this out, but this is an order that one of my clients is going to get the opportunity to bid on.
It just happens that easily. All people need to know is that you do it. And if you don’t stop, enough of it will happen.
Mark S: We had somebody, we’re going to be contracting with a professional video and photo guy to do some work for ColDesi. He came into the office, and I gave him the tour. It’s a local guy, here in Tampa, Florida. After he walked around, he says “Hey, by the way, I’m going to need two dozen polos with my company name on it. Do you guys do that, too?” I’m like “No, but let me you the name of a customer.”
Marc V: It’s something you remember, as well. This is a pitch for the industry, but you remember when somebody does something like this. It’s interesting. It’s not often that I talk, hanging out with a group of people, “What do you do for living?” And then, somebody says “I do commercial embroidery. I do t-shirt printing.” Immediately, it’s like “That’s cool!”
Mark S: Everybody wants to know.
Marc V: “I think I’ve seen one of those at the mall.” People talk about it. It’s interesting. You remember it, compared to “I sell insurance.” Snooze.
Mark S: Listen. If you’re selling insurance right now, it’s okay.
Marc V: It’s boring.
Mark S: It is boring, but still, it’s okay.
Tom: Embroidery shops need insurance.
Mark S: That’s very true.
Marc V: But this is fun, and it’s something people remember. It happens to me, still. I go to the Doctor, and he’s like “Don’t you do something with t-shirts? Because my son needs some.” I still get that, because people remember that. It’s interesting, and it’s a fun thing to be in. So, you have to talk about it.
If you are at a dinner party or an event or a birthday party, you have to tell people there, that that’s what you do. Somehow, work it into the conversation, because you’ll get referral business from it.
Tom: There’s no doubt about it. And it grows. Over the course of the next ten years, I had left the company to basically work our business full time. We had ups and downs. We started out with a retail location. Then, when the recession hit in 2008, we kind of had to back up and go back into our house for a couple of years.
Literally, people were picking up orders out the side of our garage. I think I even went back to work for six months or so, just to help ends meet.
Mark S: It’s a small business story.
Tom: Little by little, we kept sticking with it, and kept going, just not stopping. Then, it finally happened. It all clicked.
The second time that we went into a retail location, we just were very successful at it.
Mark S: That’s great.
Tom: It took four or five years, but now we were in a retail location. Things were booming. We added screen print the next year. We had added digital printers. At one point, we had a six-head, a four-head, two single-heads, two digital printers.
I think I had one of the very first DTG printers that were ever made. It was like serial number 3.
Mark S: Wow!
Tom: We’ve printed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of t-shirts. So, just little by little, it builds up. Just before everything sold, we were at a 3,800 square foot facility, with a bit automatic screen printer, and this all in the course of 12 years.
Mark S: That’s awesome.
Tom: People ask me a lot, “How do you do that?” Well, you just don’t stop. You don’t stop. You don’t kill yourself. There’s always a point where you get that fear, and you just kind of live with that fear for a little bit, and you keep going anyway. Eventually, that magic will happen for any business. I believe any business that has that attitude will succeed.
Mark S: I want to do a quick ColDesi commercial here, because that’s kind of why we do more than just one thing, because there aren’t – they’re still out there, but not a lot of new businesses are just going to do embroidery, or just going to do direct-to-garment printing, or rhinestones or vinyl. They’re going to do all of those things, or they’re going to add all of those things.
How long did you do embroidery, before you added something else?
Tom: We had the digital printer within a year and a half, two years.
Mark S: Why did you do that?
Tom: We did that because we were selling embroidery to people, and then they would also need screen printing. We didn’t do screen printing, so sometimes we would bid it out with a sub-contractor, and sometimes, we wouldn’t win. Then the next year, they’re ready to get embroidery again, and we find out they pretty much gave us the embroidery because they already had the $5,000 screen print order.
I couldn’t compete on screen printing, so I felt like I needed to have that as a piece of my arsenal, to prevent my customers from leaking away.
Marc V: We talk about that with so many things. We talk about it with custom patches, something like that. Because when you’re really small, if you’re starting with a single-head or just two heads, you’re going to get all these unique things. And the ability to be very nimble and to say “Okay, you need 12 patches in addition to all of this other stuff? I can do that small patch order for you. I’ve learned how to do it. I know how to do it. It’s pretty simple.” And you prevent that leak away.
It’s also why we encourage folks to get into, even if it’s just heat transfer vinyl in the beginning, if you can’t do the screen printing.
Mark S: Be able to do t-shirts.
Marc V: Yeah. Be able to do t-shirts. Screen printing, yeah, you can make that shirt, and you can put pennies worth of ink on it. Transfers in general, period, vinyl or whatever they are, are going to cost more. It’s not going to be as profitable, but for the size of the investment you make, and completing preventing or almost preventing all of that leaking from happening from them going to another shop.
Mark S: It’s the opportunity to say yes. It’s a self-defense move, as much as it is a bid for more profit. Right?
Marc V: Yep.
Tom: Exactly. Literally, about every other year, we would add something new, add something new, add something new. Until we got to a point where $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 was coming in every month. And we felt at that point, now we could start paring away some of the ones that were not the most profitable.
If we initially used them to capture, until our company got to a certain size, and then at that point, we decided to trim them where we needed to trim them.
Mark S: Because you could afford to.
Tom: We could afford to at that point. Whereas we did a lot of signs and a lot of banners and things in the beginning, for the first two to three years, we kind of backed out that business, once we had an automatic screen print press that could do 1,000 shirts a day. So, printing up 20 yard signs just wasn’t as much on our radar.
Mark S: It didn’t make sense.
Tom: As it did in the beginning, to get that $500 shirt order. You do 20 yard signs to get a $500 shirt order made sense, so it kind of reverses itself.
Marc V: It goes along with that same example. In the beginning, you might add the patch option as something you’ll say yes to. “I’ll do these little patch orders, I’ll do from one to 50,” or whatever the number is you decide to do. And maybe that’s really good for you.
We have customers that they take off with that. It becomes a staple of their business. Other folks, they might stop choosing to do that. Same story. You have to find what you’re making money, what your customers want. But in the beginning, you’ve got to be able to go out there and just get a taste of everything, so you can find your niches, and what your customers want.
Mark S: Yeah. It’s why so many Avance 1501Cs, the single-head embroidery machines, go out with a Cut-n-Press system from Colman and Company. It’s so somebody can say yes to – you don’t want to embroider 14-inch letters on the back of somebody’s jersey, or football numbers, or things like that. You don’t want to do that.
There are some logos, if you’ve got a one-color logo that it takes you three seconds to heat press on, it’s a lot faster than embroidering 5,000 stitches.
Tom: Our favorite time of the year was baseball season, because literally, teams would come in by the dozens. You know, a dozen of this, a dozen of those, a dozen of this. Every team would come into our shop and they would order. In that case, they would pay cash. There were whole weekends where they had to get all of their team jerseys named and numbered up, and we would walk out with $3,000 or $4,000 cash by the end of the weekend, having served 20 or 30 teams at a time.
So, cut and press is a great tack-on during those right seasons.
Marc V: And a great way to enter into it, in the beginning. As you’re growing your business, or you’re at a point where you have a decent size business and you’re trying to step up into another game, to be able to do, the same going back to what we said before, to be able to go to your cousin’s kid’s game. You go every couple of games just to watch, and you meet the parents and you meet coaches. Maybe you get one team to convert over, or you just get parent t-shirts. Maybe you’re just doing custom parent t-shirts in the beginning.
You’re building up, because you’re asking for that business. The parent t-shirts, if you’re doing a better job than the people who are doing the kids’ t-shirts, they’re noticing that the parents’ fan shirts look nicer than the kids’ uniform shirts, and you might get hit with the work.
It’s all little stories like that. This is stuff that we consistently hear from our customers every day. These are the little things. They’re like “Oh, my gosh! I don’t even know what I’ going to do now! I was so worried about making money. All of a sudden, now my business is going to double!”
Mark S: “I got into a softball league, and now they want to order regionally.” All of the jerseys for this softball league that no one else was paying attention to.
Tom: There were times when it was an all-night affair, with multiple people, friends and family coming in to help out, just to get the work out. Jerseys spread out all across the shop. It gets that way.
Mark S: That’s good stuff, though.
Marc V: Another thing that I think about this industry is so cool, from a nice little warm and fuzzy corny feeling, when you do a business like this, it is something that it can bring friends and family together, which is a very warm thing. Little kids can come in and weed vinyl or pick up trash on the ground, or put t-shirts in boxes. Anyone can do it.
Mark S: I just want to say here that ColDesi does not support the violation of any child labor laws in any state in North America.
Marc V: We do. We do.
Mark S: But yeah, that’s what I would do.
Marc V: If you have kids that want to hang out with you, they want to do anything that you want to do. We talked about that the other day. I’m doing some home renovations on and off lately, and anything that I want to do, if I tell my five-year-old daughter I’m doing it, she wants to do it with me.
So if you do this business, and you do have young kids, the kids can put shirts in boxes. They love it.
Mark S: To be part of it.
Marc V: To be part of it. It’s so cool, because there’s a lot of industries – repairing computers is not something you want your five-year-old kid anywhere near.
Mark S: I can tell you that’s true, from experience!
Marc V: With apparel, though, it’s fun, so I think it is cool in that it can be an adventure with that. It’s a good warm and fuzzy thing of encouragement, I think.
Tom: I agree. My kids grew up with embroidery machines, hearing them all day long. My son, one of the first things he helped out with was hooping shirts. We showed him how to hoop shirts. He had fun doing that. He enjoyed it.
Mark S: That’s awesome!
Marc V: It is fun to go through and watch.
Tom: Then, he went on and did his thing.
Mark S: He went to play video games. Tell me about the transition from having those two heads, and getting your first big multi-head machine. What motivated you to make that decision?
Tom: What happened there was we got to the point where we had put together a proposal for the SBA, the Small Business Administration. We went down and talked with one of their representatives, locally. We had family that was willing to help invest. So ultimately, it was a mix of other funding along with family funding, along with money that I had saved up.
We decided “Okay, this is it.” I put in my resignation with Colman and Company. We had a nice send-off, as they’re just great people to work for. I loved working for them. And away we went. That’s how we launched. We immediately bought the six-head, knowing that we were going to target larger work, because we had more overhead, so we figured we were going to need more production.
And that’s when we bought the digital printer, with those loans.
Marc V: I have a question about that. What do you say to folks that maybe they’ve hit the end of their investment cap, and they would like to ask friends or family for that? How did you feel comfortable doing that? What approach did you take? What advice might you give?
Tom: That was done just automatically. That was my wife’s family. They basically saw what she was doing and wanted to help out, and it was available.
Mark S: So, they were ready.
Tom: I don’t know that it’s anything I would tell people necessarily to pursue, because there’s good and bad to that. We had some pretty rough years there, that made things tough. If it can be done without family money, that’s probably a better way to go, quite honestly. I’m just going to be straight up about that.
Marc V: I guess it’s situational.
Mark S: So, you were ready to go, and you saw that there was enough business out there, and thought that with your help, it could get to another level. You got the multi-head equipment and the digital printer.
Mark S: As the next step in your business, just as that regular growth kind of path.
Tom: Then, I went out and did what I’ve been telling other people to do, which is get out and sell. You can enjoy the art of embroidery and the art of decorating apparel all day long, but what gets you to be able to continue to do your art is the ability to bring in some money from it. You do have to be promoting. You do have to be out there, and keep getting your name out there day after day after day. It’s that longevity that will ultimately make your work multiply.
I think after the third or fourth year, we got to the point where we didn’t really need to go sell every job. Almost, we did nothing more than just answer the phones. That’s what happens. That’s when it really gets juicy, is when you’re just answering the phones, because the work is pushing to you. People are hearing about your work, telling other people.
That alone is enough just to keep you busy.
Mark S: You developed a reputation, and had the referrals coming in. We hardly ever say the “S” word on the podcast, the word “sell,” because it scares people to death.
Mark S: So, we did a podcast called “Active Word of Mouth,” which is basically you going out and selling what you do, letting people know what you do.
Tom: I’ll give you an interesting success story. The very first month that we started, very easily, my wife and I embroidered up some nice shirts. We had developed this real easy approach. We had a shop now, we had a location, we had the six-head machine we needed to keep busy. My wife wasn’t so much into selling. Obviously, I’d done siding sales, so I was at least comfortable.
We just grabbed some shirts, and we just walked around the businesses. If it said “No Soliciting,” we didn’t bother them. If it didn’t say “No Soliciting,” we walked in and said “Hey, we just opened up a shop just not even a few blocks down the road. If you guys ever need anything, shirts or promotional items, let us know. We’d be happy to put a bid in for you.”
That’s it. That’s all we would say. That little comfortable conversation. No hard pressure. I’m not trying to convince them to buy. We literally, I think we saw 12 or 15 people that day. By the end of the week, we had three orders from 12 people.
Mark S: That’s perfect.
Marc V: That’s what we talked about.
Tom: I swear to you, that is exactly how it goes.
Mark S: That’s what you need to do.
Tom: If you’re willing to go talk to 12 or 15 people near where you’re at, that have businesses that could potentially buy shirts, and walk in the door with shirts, and just simply say “If you ever need any of this, please give us a call. Here’s our card. We’d love to help you.” Done.
Mark S: Literally, we did a set of three on how to make more money next month, and that was exactly, exactly it.
Marc V: That’s it.
Tom: That one day, we ended up with $4,000 worth of orders. Of course, in our case, we were like “Wow! This is really going to work!” I’m not so sure that we did it too many more months after that. At some point, it became – we didn’t have to do that.
Marc V: You don’t need much. A business card or a simple flyer or a postcard, whatever you want to make that’s simple. A little bit of information. We talked about wearing what you do, or bringing some out. If you don’t want to sell, you don’t have to go in and ask for an order. Because what you were doing wasn’t a heavy sell.
You can just go down the shops, and if it makes sense that they’d order – I wouldn’t go into McDonald’s. That might not be the way to do it. But if it’s a CPA office, you could just walk in, “Hey, by the way, just popping in real quick. We do custom shirts. We’re right down the road. If you need help, here’s our info. We appreciate you guys.”
Mark S: “Here’s my card. Here’s my work.”
Tom: “And any teams or organizations, let me know. We’d love to put a bid in.” That’s it.
Marc V: And use the local business. “We’re a local small business, and we’re looking to do things for our community.” Like we said, there’s going to be – we talked about it in the podcast, that there’s going to be ones that right then and there, “Oh, let me get Tom.” The lady is running to the back, because Tom was just talking about this.
Other times, you might get phone calls. It literally can happen, in as little as 12. But if you’re doing 12 a day for 12 days, I would be blown away if you got none.
Mark S: Yeah. I don’t know that that’s possible.
Marc V: It would be anomalous.
Tom: It’s quite easy. There was a point where we had nine sales reps that were working for us.
Mark S: No kidding.
Tom: Sometimes, I would see somebody that had a terrific attitude, and I felt they’d be great at this, and I would have to kind of coach them past that fear. But invariably, they would start up with us, and I would just say “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go hit just 15 businesses today. That’s it. You can call it a day, if you want. You can go do something else. Hit 15 businesses a day.”
Invariably, within the first month, they were $4,000 or $5,000 worth of sales, even more, and just off and away we go.
Mark S: Times five or six salespeople.
Tom: Yeah, exactly. Just having that little bit of impetus. And at some point, again, for them, it would be they didn’t really have to go out and do that too much.
Marc V: They were getting the referrals.
Mark S: That makes sense.
Tom: Business networking groups are terrific for that. If you meet once a week with a business networking group, they’re just automatically going to send you anything they hear.
Mark S: And if you don’t know those, you can find them online, in little local newspapers and things like that.
Tom: We were involved in a BNI group, which is a business networking international group. It’s the biggest and best, probably. There’s other ones that are more like leads groups. But when you meet with people week after week after week, it’s like having 20 other sales reps that are concentrating on trying to get you business.
Givers gain. You’re concentrating on their business. They’re concentrating on yours. People that I know that can help them, it’s just automatic. You’re going to send them their way.
Marc V: And there are less embroiderers in the world than there are insurance salespeople.
Mark S: Yeah.
Marc V: There’s less of them than realtors.
Mark S: It’s going to be like “Oh, my god! I don’t have to talk to another copier guy! That’s great!”
Tom: You can go to a business networking group, or go to five, if you want, each month. Go to as many as you want to of them, and they will call you months later, because they haven’t had another embroidery person come in their group for months. I still occasionally get calls from people that are in my network groups.
Marc V: We talk to some people where they say “Well, I don’t have kids. I don’t have a big family. I’m not involved in anything. So, you give all these examples, and I’m a part of none of them.” My thought is, well then, now you have a complete new, different level of freedom, because you can go onto like Meetup.com and all these BNIs.
If you’re taking this over full time, you have plenty of time to do it. But if you have a day job, then you can plan “I’m just going to go to Meetup.com for whatever, whatever my interest is.” Whether it’s books or religion or kayaking, you’re going to go. If it’s a kayaking thing, you’re going to go, and there’s going to be a dozen people there. You’re going to meet them.
They might not be selling for you like the BNI people are, but there’s 12 people you’re going to meet. You’re going to do something you like to do. Then, make sure that all of them know that you’re an embroiderer.
Mark S: There’s the LinkedIn like after work cocktail hours, and things like that that are going on all the time. All of those places are great.
Marc V: If you don’t have the kids in dance and little league and high school, then you have the opportunity to go get different ones. You’re single, or a young couple without a big family, so you have the opportunity to just go to all other events. There are people out there to meet.
Just get in front of them. You’re not selling to any of them.
Tom: When I talk to people that are starting their business, that’s some of the number one questions that I ask them. I think that we concentrate on it differently than I think other companies do, in the fact that I’m interested in “Where do you get your work from? What kind of work is it?”
Rather than just selling someone a machine, there’s this whole other aspect that I’m concentrating on, because I don’t want to just sell them a machine, and them feel like they’re floundering for months. I want them to know how they’re going to attack the market, what their plan is.
In some cases, people are just saying “I just want to do my art with the machine.” In that case, then as long as they just make their payment and they to create their art, that’s what they want.
Mark S: That’s great, yeah.
Tom: No worries about that. No harm, no foul.
Marc V: What were we saying the other day about it? As far as financing your own hobby, which is perfectly acceptable, to do that.
Tom: But there are other people that want to make a business of it. And if they want to make a business of it, and they’re willing to just do a couple small potentially uncomfortable things, for their nature, it can really pay off big. It really can.
You can build something that is not only good for yourself and for your kids and for your family. You just have to keep pushing. Keep pushing. What is that – the rock?
Mark S: I do want to ask one question that we ask everybody in our Success Stories, and things like that. What was your biggest hurdle, when you started out?
Tom: The biggest hurdle, when we started out? I would say along the same lines, the biggest hurdle starting up for us was working together as a couple. I think it was interpersonal. It really does take a long time to get good at working with somebody that you’re so close to.
We used to butt heads a lot. At one point, we kind of separated duties, like “You concentrate on embroidery. I’ll concentrate on promotional products.” When the recession happened, we had to just kind of join forces and come back together again. That forced us to really kind of work with each other, I guess you could say.
I’m a more big picture person. She’s kind of details. So, we began to liken it where she’s like the magnifier, looking at a picture, and I see the big picture. So, when she would allow me to move her to different spots, she’d say “I don’t see an elephant, Tom. There’s no elephant here. What I see is a bunch of gray streaks, and it looks wrinkly.”
She can’t see what I’m seeing, and I can’t see what she’s seeing. “No. There’s an elephant here. It’s not a bunch of gray streaks. It’s an elephant.” So, when she allowed me to position her in certain places to say “Okay, check this out,” and when I listened to those details, accepted those details as true, even though I couldn’t always see them, we became a really good mix.
Mark S: That’s very familiar. My wife and I have had a couple of businesses like that, too.
Tom: Work with your strengths, and accept, accept, accept the flaws of each other. That’s just part of it. You have to accept 100%.
Marc V: It’s like in interpersonal, which I studied – I know something about interpersonal communications.
Mark S: Did you really?
Marc V: Yeah. It’s what I studied. A great exercise to do in any – because it’s not just couples – you can be starting with a friend. You could be starting it with almost an associate, someone you kind of know, who you end up getting together. You don’t know who it is.
But whatever it is, a great exercise to do is to write down things you’re good at. And then, on the other side of the paper, be honest with yourself, and name a few things you’re not good at.
Mark S: The stuff you suck at.
Marc V: Just say “Getting down to the nitty gritty details, I’m not good at, or I just don’t like.” Sometimes it’s easier to ask yourself what you don’t like, because you also don’t like the things you’re not good at.
Mark S: Normally.
Marc V: Often. So, you can write those things down. Then, you take that list together and you compare it, and you can immediately just say “Okay, All of these duties I put on the things I’m good at and I kind of like, and they’re on your don’t like.” Immediately, you can create that environment. Writing things down, I think, is huge for everything that we said.
Mark S: It’s like the book, the E-Myth, talks about all of that kind of “This is everything I’m good at. This is everything I’m not.” This is how to work with a partner, no matter where they are or who they are.
Marc V: And write down a little mini sales plan, to say “What am I going to do?” Actually write it down. Just say, or put it in your notes in your phone, “What am I going to do? I’m going to go to 12 businesses. I’m going to say what I do. I’m going to hand them a business card, and I’m going to say ‘If you ever need anything in the future, I’m a local small business. I’d love to earn it.’”
Write down, “That’s my little mini sales plan.” It fits on one screen on my phone, in the notes tab. That’s it. Then, you can do it, and then you can have another one that’s just about business strengths and weaknesses, about when is there going to be a point where you decide to have the conversation about investing in that second machine or the bigger machine. Write all of these little things down.
Tom: People think that a partnership, especially if you’re working with your spouse, is 50-50. That is not the case. It’s 100%, you accept that person. End of story. That’s the total end of your responsibility.
Mark S: That’s great.
Tom: You can’t control whether they are also going to accept you 100%. But if you do get two people that are accepting each other 100%, then you really have a good partnership. We definitely had that.
Mark S: Do you have another kind of final piece of advice that you would give somebody that’s just looking at “I want to start a custom t-shirt business or an embroidery business.”?
Tom: I do, as a matter of fact. I mention this a lot, when I talk to people selling-wise, but I’m glad you brought it up. One of the things that people don’t do, I think, sometimes too well, is they don’t track where their sales are coming from. What I mean by that is, even recently, I saw somebody that had a whole listing of sales, and I think they’ve got a pretty good business. It’s $300,000 or $400,000 a year that they’re selling, but they don’t have it in channels. They don’t know how much of that is screen printing, how much is promotional items.
So, I would say that along with every invoice, you want to use QuickBooks’ ability, or whichever accounting software that you have, use their ability to track the type of sale that it is. I think that’s ultimately critical, because how do you make the right machine decisions? How do you determine what are the best purchases?
Mark S: That’s good.
Tom: It’s just a really helpful thing to truly understand, not just guess, about your market. We kind of talked about this even before the podcast, that I could be the most insightful person that I think I am, but it doesn’t mean I’m right. I may get the facts and figures, and find out that “Whoa! I thought this was -.”
I had a couple of stink-bombs in there, things that I thought were going to be wonderful for the market and for us, and for our business. Come to find out, they just failed miserably.
Mark S: That know your numbers thing is a big deal.
Marc V: Yeah. You can’t go by what you feel is your most successful part to, or how much work you put into things. Keep tracking as much as you can, without stumbling over the tracking, is great. How many hours are the machines running? How much time are you standing in front of them? Where is the business coming from? Where is the money coming from?
Mark S: That’s good, because we run into that here at ColDesi, too. I will actually ask the salespeople, “So, how is leasing going?” “Oh, you know, we’re having a lot of people get turned down this month, as opposed to prior months.”
“Really?” You go back and check the numbers, and that’s just not true. It’s actually the same number or more are getting approved, but it’s your ability to – you may remember a customer that bought a bunch of screen printed t-shirts from you, but you won’t remember the one that was three times as profitable, that bought embroidery from you.
Tom: Along the same lines, I remember something else that I told every sales rep that I trained. You have got to forget that one customer that drives you nuts. There will always be one deal, one situation where you didn’t make the sale, that you felt like you were taken advantage of or whatever it is. I’ve had sales reps that will talk about that client to everybody that they could remember, for the next two or three months.
You just have to let go of those hurts. You can’t let those hurts define you, because the quicker you get rid of the hurts, the quicker you stop talking about the one customer that bought from somebody else, the easier it is for you to accept that there’s plenty more good out there.
Marc V: It’s so true. If you go out to the shops or go out to companies and hand out your business card, at some point in time, this probably will happen. You’re going to walk in and you’re going to say “Hey, I just wanted to let you know.”
“No soliciting! No soliciting!” Somebody will be this weird obnoxious, almost not human reaction. However, that can stop somebody. It gets sucked into your brain. We have the voted stickers on. You could say the same thing within politics, where somebody could say “XYZ Supporter.” It’s like “Ugh! They’re such jerks! They’re so ignorant!”
I’ll say “Who? When?” They’re like “Well, my cousin said.” “Who else?” Most of the people you know are reasonable. They just disagree with you on things. But that one person makes it define a group. When you’re selling, that one bad sales situation can feel like “Oh, my gosh! Customers are so rude!”
Mark S: That’s why knowing your numbers is high. The good news is that I was in outside sales for 20 years, and I had one person be rude to me, the entire time.
Tom: And you remember it.
Mark S: I do! I remember it! I could tell you a small University in southern Georgia. I can remember that guy vividly!
Tom: Right. I have found that sales reps will end up talking and talking and talking about it. Everybody they meet, they bring up that one person. It is a psychological chain that holds them back from the success. That’s my other piece of advice, is let that go, that rope.
An elephant, for instance. An elephant is tied to a rope that is very small, in a small stake in the ground. If an elephant wanted to, he could pull that stake up. He could break the rope, if he wanted to. But what keeps him there? What keeps him chained to that little stake is that they’re got that little elephant.
When they were little, when they were just learning, when they first went out and they first tried something new, they ran into that rope that they couldn’t break, at that time. But now, as they have grown, they don’t realize that they can break that rope.
We do that with ourselves, with our bad customers that we constantly remember. We drive ourselves nuts. We won’t even go out in certain areas that could be wildly successful for us, because we have a psychological chain from that bad memory, from that one client who screwed us over or whatever they did.
Marc V: That’s really insightful.
Mark S: How about reinforcing those good ones, instead? Like those first 15 businesses that you went to see, and at the end of the week, there was $4,000 worth of sales.
Marc V: If you have that one bad experience, and you’re replaying it in your head, a good thing you can do is, right after that, just force yourself to do it – say “Let me think of a really nice person.”
Mark S: “Remember that person that just walked in with a bag full of cash?”
Marc V: Yeah! Just think of “Yeah, that guy’s a jerk, but this other guy is so great. In fact, we also became friends, and I’ve read like three books that he’s recommended now.”
Mark S: “I’m going to go sell him something right now.”
Marc V: I was just having that conversation about that psychological thing, with my dog. I wasn’t having a conversation with my dog. I was having a conversation about my dog.
Tom: I think I’m having a bad experience here.
Marc V: I have gate that I would lean up against things, when the dog was a really, really little puppy. “I don’t want you to come in this room.” She’d get in the bathroom trash, so I’d just lean the gate up there, and she couldn’t get around it or over it. Now that she’s 70-80 pounds, I still can lean that up against where the cat eats her food, and the dog could just literally bump into it and knock it over, if she wanted to.
But she sees it’s there, and doesn’t attempt to get the cat food, at all. Literally, she could put her nose around it, but won’t.
Mark S: That’s cool.
Marc V: We build those walls. Funny, I was just saying that. Since she was a puppy, she thought she couldn’t get through. She’s 80 pounds, and she still thinks she can’t get through.
Tom: These are all hard lessons I’ve learned through business, through being in business, and having a lot of hard stuff happen.
Mark S: On the other side, you went from part time; your wife and one embroidery machine that you spent a freaking lot of money on, to two, to having your own business, to buying multiple machines, to having six or eight salespeople working for you, to managing all of them. And you did that just like with your own two hands.
Tom: 12 years, or whatever it was.
Mark S: You give birth to these things, just by making that first decision, saying “You know what? I can do this, and I’m going to do this.” As long as you keep track of your customers, and like you said, don’t stop.
Tom: Don’t stop.
Mark S: Then, there’s success out there for just about everybody.
Tom: Don’t stop. In our case, we were building our retirement. That’s what our goal was, and we helped make a big piece of it.
Mark S: Cool. Well, I think that’s a good place to stop.
Marc V: Just like I hope with every podcast, I hope that people listen to this, and they get encouraged. Don’t give up. You can do it. It’s not always easy. It’s not always a straight arrow up in your business, but if you’re passionate about it and you want it, just keep going. You’ll find the right directions to go, if you’re focused on it and you keep trying, you keep pounding it. You’ll get the right direction soon.
Tom: At one point, it will begin to push itself to you, and you will be just trying to keep up, because it builds its own life. You put so much work into something, and then it begins to build, to where it nurtures you as much as the other way around.
Mark S: That’s when you call Tom Rumbaugh, from ColDesi, to get that next machine.
Tom: I’m ready to keep up!
Mark S: Great! In that case, this has been Mark Stephenson, from ColDesi.
Marc V: And Marc Vila, from Colman and Company.
Mark S: And Tom Rumbaugh, also from ColDesi. You guys have a good business!