Episode 47 – Winning Against Bigger Businesses

Feb 8, 2017

This Episode

Mark Stephenson & Marc Vila

You Will Learn

  • Learn how small business can be a real advantage.
  • How to consistently win more business.

Resources & Links

Episode 47 – Winning Against Bigger Businesses

Show Notes

There are some consistently successful ways you can win business when you’re up against bigger companies and online-only retailers. Listen to this Episode and learn how your smaller size can be a real advantage and how to use that to put money in your pocket.


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 yet another episode of the Custom Apparel Startups podcast. My name is Mark Stephenson, from ColDesi.

Marc V: And this is Marc Vila, from Colman and Company. Today we’re here to talk about you versus the competition, battling bigger businesses.

Mark S: Honestly, we actually are doing this podcast for two reasons. First of all, our original podcast, which was – what was the name of that?

Marc V: The Custom Apparel Startups podcast?

Mark S: No! Our original episode.

Marc V: We did you versus the competition.

Mark S: Right. What we talked about in the original episode was how to be unique, and how to use the personal touch, and kind of not to be afraid of that competition. What we’re going to talk about today is specifically battling the big guys.

Because you may be in a market, like let’s say you’re in the Tampa Bay area. There are a few solo practitioners or small businesses that do direct-to-garment printing. But there’s also this entry into the market from the really big printers, like Café Press and Zazzle and ooShirts. I’ve even heard radio commercials about some of these companies, just on my way in.

Marc V: Absolutely. They are companies that, they have a warehouse in Atlanta, that can do some of the fulfillment. Then, they’ve got their main warehouse, maybe in Tampa. Then, they’ve also got a place in Indiana, if you’re doing more than 10-color shirts. It’s these businesses that may have started small, just like you, but they’ve grown to a point where they can have a little bit more power to do things you can’t do, as a really small business.

Mark S: If we were doing “how to compete as a big business,” we would be encouraging you to gobble up all of the competition, by expanding into new markets.

Marc V: Expand into new markets, spend money on ads that you know you can afford to do and take a risk on.

Mark S: Maybe on the radio.

Marc V: Absolutely!

Mark S: The opposite of that, though, is that most of our customers are small shops. Most of our customers are not Café Press or Zazzle, or big screen print shops, or anything like that. They’re usually a one or two machine or one or two person shop that is trying to compete against these big behemoths.

Luckily, there are very effective things that you can do to beat these guys, even if they may offer a lower price.

Marc V: We can just start, maybe bullet point it out a little bit, tell a little story about some of the different things you can do. But why does somebody choose to do business with you, and maybe not with a big business? That’s the way I think about that.

Why is somebody going to want to buy an embroidery work from me, even though I may only have a single-head or a four-head, or a single-head and a four-head, versus being able to go down to a shop where maybe they can get that done cheaper, or not? Or go online and do it?

One thing that we talked about in the other one, and to reiterate, is the personal touch that you can actually offer. When you’re talking with somebody, “I’m the owner/proprietor of this business. You’re going to be dealing with me. My son prints shirts with me. He just graduated high school,” whatever it might be.

Mark S: Yeah. That personal relationship.

Marc V: You’ve got a relationship, and you can build with that. It makes people feel good to do business with you, if they like you, as well.

Mark S: There are a couple of different kind of approaches that you can take with that. What I used to do in my consulting practice was I would introduce myself, and we’d be talking about a job, and someone would do it cheaper, that’s a bigger company.

My line would always be “Do you want to be somebody’s smallest customer, or do you want to be somebody’s biggest customer? Because you’d be my biggest, or one of my bigger customers. What kind of customer service, and how important do you think you’re going to be to my business, versus if you order your shirts from Café Press? They don’t care about you. They’re making a bajillion dollars a year. If they lose you, because you’re not particularly happy, or they get an order wrong.”

I’m not saying that they would do these things, but it’s certainly the case that you can make. “Look. You’re going to be my biggest customer. You’re the most important thing I’m doing right now! Is there anybody else that can say that?” And that will mean something to some people.

Marc V: Also, when they know that they’re directly affecting you as a person, and as a business. So, you can say – and I think these pitches are a little bit of the “I don’t have anything else to say, because they can do it faster and cheaper.”

Mark S: Right. We’re going to get to that.

Marc V: Yeah, we’ll get to that. This is what I consider kind of your hardest effort. Then, maybe as we start telling the easier things, but this is the hard one, because they might be able to do it faster, and a little bit cheaper, and maybe offer more options that you can’t do, because they have a laser puff cutting machine.

Mark S: A laser puff cutting machine!

Marc V: I don’t know if that’s a thing.

Mark S: I don’t know. It could be!

Marc V: But what we really mean by it is literally, what you’re saying to them is, “I’m a small business owner. So are you,” or “I’m a small business owner, and if you do business with me, I’m really, really going to appreciate it. I’m going to do whatever I can to help you, down to my last breath on this. I’m really going to take care of you,” and it’s really going to help.

Mark S: That’s almost two things. You’re asking somebody else, especially if they’re a small business or a local business as well, you’re asking somebody to contribute to what you’re doing. “Look. I’m a small business. I’m a family-owned business. I don’t know if you are yet. We’ll talk about that. But this is it.” Like Marc said, “My kid works for me. He goes to this school. I don’t know where your kids go to school, but we’re kind of in the same place.”

Marc V: Yeah. “We’re in this together.” I’ll tell you how I can prove to you right now that it works.

Mark S: Okay. Go ahead.

Marc V: Have you ever had a kid, usually between 12 to 18 years old, try to sell you magazines before, at your door or on the street or on the baseball field?

Mark S: Oh, yeah.

Marc V: What do they say? Do you know what they say?

Mark S: No. I always shut the door in their face!

Marc V: I’m sure you do! But I know you’re going to know what they say, when I say it. Some people are yelling it right now, as they hear this. “I only need to sell like five more magazines,” and then what are they going to get? They’re going to get a trip or a vacation. “If I sell three more.”

The reason why they’re coached to make that pitch, even though it’s impossible for it to be true of all of them, is because somebody is going to say “I don’t really need this magazine. I would enjoy Popular Mechanics, but whatever. I don’t really want to spend $20 on it, but I’m going to help this kid go to Disney. He seems like a nice boy.” So, “Yeah, of course!”

People will do that all the time. You buy popcorn from the Boy Scouts at $20 a bag, ridiculous! However, you’re like “Hey, this kid’s a Boy Scout.”

Mark S: Another good example that’s very close to home. I don’t buy Girl Scout cookies.

Marc V: Really? I’m surprised. I thought you’d have closets full.

Mark S: But when our sales manager brings his two adorable little girls through the office, selling Girl Scout cookies, then I buy Girl Scout cookies.

Marc V: Really? I threw candy at them and ran away.

Mark S: It’s the same thing, because I know that we’re in this little community here, and you do things to help each other out. You do things that just help.

What you’re kind of doing is you’re kind of saying “Hey, we’re all in the same place. We’re all in the same town. We all do the same things. Let’s help each other in business.” And you can definitely look for opportunities to reciprocate.

If you are looking at a contract to do shirts for a local University or a local college, you can say that you’ll be there at events. “I go watch you guys play football.” If it’s a plumber or if it’s some other kind of a service business, then you can definitely say “You know what? You are my plumber, and if anybody asks me, I’m going to point them toward you, because you’re wearing one of my shirts.”

Marc V: I think these are the times where you sit down and let creativity kind of flow in your head, on how you can reciprocate differently. You can say “Because I’m a small business owner, and I try to work with people who are part of my community and network and such, what I do is I have a little Ziploc baggie, and anybody who orders more than 30 shirts, I put this little thing in there.”

“It’s got like six business cards in it. It’s got a plumber, it’s got a roofer, it’s got an electrician. It doesn’t have an A/C guy, but you’ll be the one!”

Mark S: That’s a great idea.

Marc V: It’s like “I’m not asking you for much more. All I’m asking you is two things. Do business with me, and please refer me as well, any time you can.”

Mark S: I love that. And you know what? That’s a conversation that somebody at XYZ Screen Printing Factory is not going to have.

Marc V: Because more than likely they have a salesperson, and they’re going to be dealing with a salesperson that maybe even cold calls upon them. They didn’t outreach or find them. And that salesperson is literally just making the sale for a paycheck. It’s not necessarily their business.

Mark S: And even if you do get to talk to an owner or management of one of the bigger companies, their outlook on business is going to be completely different, because it may not make any financial sense for them to spend 30 minutes on the phone with you, helping you figure stuff out. He’s losing money if he’s doing that and he’s running a big operation, where you’re making money that way.

So, you can make this personal touch by describing how important that job is to you, and that they’re going to be your biggest customer, and if they buy from somebody else, “You’re going to be their smallest customer.”

You can also do it with that neighborhood kind of a feel. That reciprocal kind of “We’re all in the same place. I’ll recommend you, you recommend me.” That’s a real way. Let’s say somebody is going to save $3 on a shirt, and they’re ordering 100 shirts. They’re going to save $300.

Well, if they’re a service person; a plumber or a lawn guy or something like that, one referral will make them $300. So, there’s a real ROI for them to do it, as well.

Marc V: And oftentimes, when you really break it down, it’s not even there. If it’s a lawn service, he maybe has him and three guys that work for him. There’s four guys. They want a shirt for each day that they work, and they work six days a week. They’re busy.

So, whatever that math works out to, it’s less than 50 shirts, I think. I don’t know. I didn’t actually do the math. Four shirts times six is like – that’s it.

Mark S: 24 shirts.

Marc V: And maybe they’ll get some extras. They get one for the person who answers the phone, if they have an office manager, whatever it might be. So, this order is 50 shirts, times a couple dollars a shirt. The price might not be ridiculously different. Also, it might literally be nine shirts. That’s, I think, where we go into the next one. You get to be nimble, as a business owner that’s a smaller, more compact business owner, that you can actually do a nine shirt order comfortably.

Mark S: And not only can you do a small order comfortably, but you can change it comfortably. Picture yourself, if you’ve ever placed a big order of anything in your business. If you order 50 anything or two anything from a big company, imagine changing that order, and what that process is like.

You’ve got to call, you’ve got to get a change order. That person may have to talk to their boss. They have to re-quote it. They’ve got to work out new shipping prices, and they’ve got to do all of these things. It may take a day or more for all of that stuff to happen.

Marc V: And we have big customers, where they’ve got the art department, even if it’s only one person. They’ve got the art department, they have a shipping department. Their business might be small, where these are all single person departments, but when a customer wants to change something, it’s got to go from salesperson to art, to -.

Mark S: You’ve got to talk to five people.

Marc V: Yeah, and the salesperson doesn’t want to do that. He’s going to want to talk them out of it. There’s a mess involved, now. So, you do have that nimble movement.

Mark S: Yeah. That ability to change stuff on the spot.

Marc V: The analogy often used is the cruise ship versus a compact sport boat. You can turn right away, whenever you want. As a small business owner, you’re a small boat. You can move whenever you want. A cruise ship, I know nothing about this.

Mark S: It takes a lot of planning.

Marc V: I know nothing about it, but I assume it’s not like any cartoons that I’ve seen, where they spin the wheel fast, and they turn around.

Mark S: They can spin the wheel fast, but it takes about 25 minutes for them to turn around.

Marc V: And that’s how it is with a big business. You’ve got the ability to turn that wheel whenever you want. You can tell customers “I’m on the process all the way. I’m going to make sure you’re completely satisfied. What I’m going to do is we’re going to pick out these shirts, and we’re going to order them. If you don’t like them, you can change them.”

And you can have policies on what you do. You could say “If you change your shirts, I’m going to have to pay another shipping fee, so you might have to endure that. But it’s no problem. All I want you to do is cover that, and we can change your shirts four times, if you want.”

Mark S: Yeah. It doesn’t matter.

Marc V: You can say these things to your customers, to make them happy. As you create artwork, you are working with them this whole way, compared to a bigger business. They may be dealing first with a salesperson. Then, they might be dealing with somebody who handles art and production. Then, they’re trying to get a hold of the person who’s shipping, because they don’t want them shipped anymore. They want to pick them up.

You, as a small business owner, they get to call you and say “Hey, can we just meet at McDonald’s instead, in the parking lot, and just swap them that way? I’m running errands today.”

Mark S: You could be on the phone with someone, and “Oh, yeah. You want to change those shirts? No problem. It will be an extra $15 in shipping. I’ll take care of it. Okay? Good. ‘Bye!” That’s the conversation.

Marc V: Yeah, you’ve got this nimble movement, being the small business owner, where the big business might not have that. So for one, you’re just going to run into it, where it’s actually going to happen, and you’re going to get business because somebody calls and asks, “Hey, can you do nine shirts for me? And I actually want four this way and five this way.”

You’re just going to be able to say “Sure! Not a problem.” Or you say “Normally, I only do 24,” and then go back to part one of this podcast. “Normally, I only do 24, but that park that you’re doing this Little League for is right down the road from my house. I [inaudible 16:48] there. I’m happy to do this for you.”

Mark S: Yeah.

Marc V: Then, you get to build part one and part two together.

Mark S: And that kind of leads into part three, which is taking advantage of the features of you and your equipment. Most of the big shops, when you think about big competition, especially in the embroidery field, a shop that has got five or ten, 12-head or four-head or six-head embroidery machines has had those machines for a while.

They’ve made a big investment. They have a lot of overhead, and they’re kind of stuck with the limitations of those machines, when they bought them. For example, the sewing field on an Avance embroidery machine, on a 1501C, is the biggest in the business, and it is naturally larger than the sewing field on any multi-head.

What that means is that if you want to sell against a big business, then all you have to do is convince them to make a bigger design.

Marc V: Do something that you know is going to be harder for that other business to do.

Mark S: That’s a much better way to say it. Do something based on your capabilities, that another business can’t or won’t want to do.

Marc V: Yeah. And we talk about that and other things in regards to mixed media, as well, just to kind of reiterate back on that. If you do spangles and you do vinyl cutting and you do embroidery, you offer a mixed media that’s got all three, and you just narrowed down your competition to maybe zero, in your area. Compared to if it was just the vinyl, there might have been eight people that could have done it.

Mark S: And I’ll talk about the ColDesi stuff. If you’ve got an Avance, you’ve got the ability to do a bigger jacket back than 90% of the other people that are going to be interested in that business. If you’ve got a DTG M2, you can do a 16” by 24” image, now. Where anybody that’s doing screen printing will never do that. They just won’t. You’d have to order 1,000.

Marc V: They’d have a very specific machine for doing that, that’s very, very specific, that a lot of screen printers don’t own.

Mark S: If you want to offer somebody three small shirts with a design on it, and five medium shirts with a bigger design on it, and some extra-large shirts with the biggest design on it, then you can do that, based on the equipment that you own. Most of the people that you’re up against, most of the big companies especially, just can’t do it, physically.

Then, you’re kind of using not only your local presence, the fact that they’re going to be a big customer for you, but you’re also using the fact that “Hey, on top of all of that stuff, I can do things that nobody else can!”

Marc V: That is one of the funnest things for me, when we talk about being able to out-sell your competition like that. If it’s you, with a direct-to-garment printer, for example, versus they’re looking at somebody else who is a screen printer, the first thing that I’d say to do is immediately rack up the amount of colors in the design, however you can.

Mark S: Full color! “I think we should put a photograph of everyone you’ve ever met, on the front of that shirt!”

Marc V: They say “We’re going to do black letters here, and we want to do blue letters here, and we wanted the logo here.” Say, “I like that idea. What would be really cool is let’s do like a gradient from black to blue, or do stripes, or something to that effect. Let’s do a pattern. Why don’t we do like blue camo in the letters? That would look really sharp. Then, for the women, we’ll do pink, the same exact design, the camo.”

You just jacked up all the colors in the design, and it’s going to cost a lot more than screen printing. So, they’re going to go get the screen printer, and the screen printer is going to have to un-sell the colors. They’re going to say “Well, I could do that, but it will take me three weeks to burn the screens, and it will be a $600 setup fee,” or whatever it’s going to be.

Marc V: Exactly. So, sell things your equipment can do, and educate yourself on what that is, if you don’t know it already. And that doesn’t necessarily mean reading all of the documents that come with your equipment. But it means figuring out what your competition can do.

You’ve got to call them up and ask, or have somebody do it for you, and say “I want to do some really big jackets. I want to kind of oversize the design. What’s the biggest size that you’ll reasonably do, without making these completely unaffordable for me?” They’ll tell you, like “For a jacket back, about a 10 by 10.” Then, you’re like “I could easily do a 14 by 12, no problem.” Boom! Write that down.

Call up the screen print shops. Ask them “How many colors can I do on a shirt, before it gets unreasonably expensive?” They’ll tell you, based on the press they have; a four-color, a six-color.

Mark S: I love that idea.

Marc V: So, find all that out. The same thing with if it’s rhinestones. Find something to ask about that, if there are size limitations. And customization limitations are the other one. If we’re talking about t-shirts for like the lawn company, you might want to put the name on every shirt. Find out what it would cost for your competition to do that.

You have a direct-to-garment printer. What you’re doing is flipping the shirt over, and sending a different name over, when you click Print the next time.

Mark S: Yes.

Marc V: If it’s a screen shop, they’re having to do something much different for that.

Mark S: It’s another process.

Marc V: Or they’re cutting vinyl with that, or maybe you just own multiple pieces of equipment, that you can do that, then. “I’m doing vinyl on the front, and [inaudible 22:49].”

Mark S: I’m going to brag a little bit, because some of the products that we have at ColDesi are very different from the competition, that we do a particularly good job of showing that. So, if you’ve got an M2 direct-to-garment printer, then you can print standard, in a much bigger area. And we show that by having a 16 by 20 piece of wood that we put on top of our DTG printer, in our videos, that shows what all of the other DTG printers can do. And it makes it look small. It makes that print look small.

So, if you know that the average screen printer, they’re going to do a 10 by 10 or a 10 by 12 image, then do a bigger one, and have a display of those things right next to each other, or talk about that difference.

If you look at our Avance comparison article on comparing the top five commercial embroidery machines, you’ll see a graphic illustration of the difference in the embroidery field size, and how much a reasonably-sized design looks like a postage stamp next to the big one that you can do with the Avance.

Those are just a couple of examples of ways that you can. Even today, we’re videotaping a Tech Talk on combining direct-to-garment printing and vinyl. That’s that mixed media approach, where no one else is going to offer that, or show that ability. That is a killer, against a big company.

Marc V: Yeah. You always have to find out what you’re up against, no matter who you’re up against, no matter how big they are, no matter what processes they offer. There’s always something you have to give up, in order to be able to do something else. Things operate in economies.

That really large business might have all of that equipment, but what is it that they can’t do? You’ve got to find those things out. You’ve got to do your homework on figuring it out. Know who they are, know what they can’t do.

When I sold embroidery equipment, the biggest thing that I did, that helped with my success, is I knew everything about all of the other machines. I wanted to know everything about them. I knew what all these brands of machines did. Then, when somebody would call me and they would talk to me. Based on different things that they would say, I would already know who they spoke to, if they spoke to one of my competition. Because I know the words they use. I know how they sell.

So, if somebody calls up to you and they say “I’ve a four-color design.” You start, “Okay, why do they care how many colors it is? It sounds to me like they’ve talked to a screen printer.” I know that I do digital garment printing, so I’m going to immediately say “Okay. You know what? You have a four-color design. I want to let you know that we can play with that. Don’t worry about those colors.”

Mark S: Yeah. “I don’t care about the colors.”

Marc V: Yeah. You can play with that. If you have some thoughts, “Don’t worry about that now. When we go to talk about artwork, I’ll give you some of my creative insights, too. But we can do whatever you want with colors. Don’t worry about that.” Immediately, they’re just saying “Okay. It’s one less thing to worry about.”

Mark S: “That’s different.”

Marc V: Yeah. “That’s different.” These are all some things you can do. Is there anything we want to add?

Mark S: The only thing that I kind of want to end with is Marc and I just kind of brainstormed on these ways to beat a bigger competitor. It’s the personal touch. It’s being in the area. It’s making that connection. It’s demonstrating your flexibility. It’s using the advantages of your equipment versus somebody else. It’s knowing what those competitors are going to say.

We kind of did all of that right now. There are a lot of ways that you can compete. What I want you to take away from this podcast is that you don’t have to be afraid of any of these competitors. If you are running up against somebody that’s on the radio, or a big company that’s taking out a newspaper ad or a billboard, or something like that, you should be excited.

Because they’re going to generate interest in getting stuff done. All you have to do is be on the other end of the phone, and be in touch with those potential customers. Somebody that calls you and says “I really need this number of shirts, and I’ve got this price,” or “I’m thinking about talking to these guys,” that’s great, because they want to buy something, and they want to buy something soon.

And you have a lot of ammunition in your quiver, to be able to grab that business.

Marc V: Yeah. Also, with everything, there are going to be times where you’re not going to get the business, and you let it go. That’s okay.

Mark S: I never let that go!

Marc V: You’ve got to let it go. You can’t spend your time focusing on that one client that you lost, and let it make you angry. All it’s going to do, it’s going to affect the rest of your day in a negative way, and it’s going to affect your business in a negative way.

It stinks to get the phone call, “I’m sorry. I told you I was going to do business with you, but I’m going to save $200 if I go here. I know you told me that you could match that price. I’m sorry, but I literally have a $500 budget for this, and with that extra $200 I’m going to save, I’m going to get to order some caps. I’m sorry.”

They might be nice like that. They might also just not return your phone call, and ignore you completely, even though they told you yes, and they just ghost out on you. Whatever it is, just let that go. There is somebody else that’s going to wish they did business with you. Sooner than later, there’s going to be somebody else that’s going to shake your hand and be like “Thank you for being here. I don’t like going to that big shop. I don’t like ordering online. When I get them in the mail, it never seems to be what I really wanted.”

Mark S: Here’s what I would say. Stop listening to this podcast, as soon as we’re done. Then, go find a new biggest customer. Find the guys that are ordering from these big shops, and tell them why they should do business with you instead. I think that would be a good way to make more money.

Marc V: Yeah. I still think the first thing that we named – you’re going to be surprised. When you’re trying to sell something, if they know that you’re making money off of it, at a certain store, when you go into a store and you know that the salesperson is making commission, and they tell you “I would love for you to buy this, because this is how I make my living.”

The same thing; “This is how I make my living. I try to be as fair as I can on prices, and I would love your business.”

Mark S: Cool. That’s a good way to end.

Marc V: Yeah. It feels good.

Mark S: Alright! Everyone, thanks very much for listening to another episode of the Custom Apparel Startups podcast. Find us on CASPodcasts.com. Join us on the Custom Apparel Startups Facebook group. And above all, go out there and have a good business!

Marc V: Thank you! Marc Vila here, and as far as our pitch, I’d love for people to go to our website, ColmanandCompany.com, and check out a bunch of the stuff that we have. Because I’ll tell you what; we’re not a massive site business. There’s not 300 of us. We’re a nice small team, and this is what we do for a living.

We’ve given you this podcast for free, because we’d love for you to come and buy stuff from us, whether it’s thread or rhinestones or backing. And sometimes, my backing can’t be as cheap as a wholesaler. It just can’t be. I don’t sell a 5,000-meter. So, we’d love that business from you. Give us a call any time. We’ll be happy to help you!

Marc V: Great! Thanks, guys. Have a good night!

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