How I Started A $3M/Month Custom Printed Apparel Company
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Rishi Narayan, co-founder of Underground Printing (UGP), a national custom printing apparel and promotional products provider, headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI. UGP offers screenprinting, digital printing, and embroidery on a wide variety of apparel and promotional products. We have stores throughout the nation in the heart of communities we serve. At UGP, it’s our goal to make your order process as convenient and hands-on as possible.
Since launching the company in 2001 while sophomores in college, UGP has 35+ locations across the country. All of our garment print production is done in our state-of-the-art 55,000 sq. ft. production facility and warehouse, located in southeast Michigan. Our technology and infrastructure allow us to provide the best quality, the lowest prices, and with the shortest turnarounds in the industry. It is these traits that have propelled our growth, allowing us to be ranked among Inc. Magazine’s 5000 fastest-growing companies for 3 years running.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My childhood friend, Ryan Gregg and I started the company in 2001 when we were sophomores at the University of Michigan. I learned about starting small businesses from my father, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University who was also an entrepreneur. When I decided to pursue a degree in chemical engineering at Michigan, I assumed that learning about entrepreneurship would be part of my ChE degree. So in Ann Arbor, I was looking for an outlet for this entrepreneurial spirit. It wasn’t long before Gregg and I started a dorm-loft building business. Gregg, a civil engineering student, designed the lofts and I would sell them. Unfortunately, I soon realized that this enterprise would keep me active only for one week in September. I knew I wanted a business that I could pursue the other 51 weeks of the year.
It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.
We considered some other products we could sell on campus to our fellow students. In our sophomore year, we decided to start a t-shirt business—after all, everyone wore t-shirts and we had a little experience making t-shirts in high school. We named the company that we ran from our dorm room, A-1 Screenprinting, so our company would be first in the phone book. In 2003, we purchased a screen-printing business in Chelsea so we could increase our production capabilities. We thought that the company’s name seemed like a better fit for our company’s style, so we officially changed our company’s name to Underground Printing.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Initially, our approach to customer service on a college campus really set us apart. We were able to cater to our core college customers and were willing to meet these customers anywhere and anytime. We were scrappy, gritty and hustled to get every piece of business we could. This customer-centric business model drove strong word-of-mouth promotion and ultimately defined our growth.
Several years later (and with a $5,000 loan from Ryan’s mom), A-1 Screenprinting purchased another local screen printer named Underground Printing to expand our production capabilities – and we changed our name to something more relevant! Even now, UGP prides itself on its investment in manufacturing and technology.
With a master’s degree in chemical engineering, I was introduced to Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing which were extremely valuable during the early days of A-1 and UGP. Both Ryan and I had little artistic or graphic design ability and were still fairly new to print production, so we relied heavily on what we learned as engineering majors. We also both fell in love with the business. We were growing rapidly and it was an extremely exciting time. Our core customers were our friends and classmates at U of M. We used to take orders and fax the details directly to the facility.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After finishing grad school, Ryan and I decided to stay with the business and make it our main focus. We also started developing the idea of opening a retail storefront in order to reach our customers in a more meaningful way. While our competitors were moving exclusively online, we opened our first store on South University in early 2008.
Our first store location, which was less than 200 square feet generated over $1M after its first year. We quickly opened a second Ann Arbor location and that grew quickly too. Eventually, we were able to take advantage of the downturn in the economy during the late 2000s to expand into vacant storefronts on several college campuses. We continued with this growth strategy and expanded throughout the Big Ten and began opening store locations with bigger footprints that not only provided custom printing but also began offering printed collegiate merchandise for a more traditional retail shopping experience.
The biggest lesson we have learned along the way is that it really never gets easier. Problems will change in scale and scope but they never go away. Learn from the past and that will fuel your growth.
Here is Rishi speaking at TEDxUofM about entrepreneurship:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The custom apparel market has been exploding. There is competition from local mom and pop stores as well as Silicon Valley startups. This increased competition has helped grow the market and educate our consumers. We have seen growth from several key categories recently including craft breweries, startup businesses, and local restaurants.
Custom apparel is definitely something that all businesses should think about as an incremental revenue stream and important word of mouth marketing channel.
We have been able to attract and retain customers because we pride ourselves on offering the highest level of customer service and ease of ordering in the industry. We are one of the highest-rated custom apparel companies in the industry!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now we are doing very well on both of our key fronts -- in-store sales and orders from our website. We are continuing to prioritize our online store while continuing to appeal to our key demographics through things that we offer like POGO and brick-and-mortar locations on college campuses as well. The future, for us, lays in continuing to grow and expand -- whether that's with new store locations or continuing to funnel more traffic into our website or expanding our reach on social media platforms.
We want to make sure that UGP is accessible and easy to work with for all customers. But most importantly we want to ensure we are supporting local communities for all of their custom apparel needs and offering the best customer service in the business!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I've definitely learned just how important it is to stay organized and on top of things. A lot of the tools I use are particularly good for that. Something that is helpful to learn is that things are not going to just get easier.
You need to keep working and keep pushing yourself in your work and you need to push your company to be of the highest standard possible. All of us involved with UGP keep applying that every day to continue and put out the highest quality possible apparel while maintaining a strong focus on customer service.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use a ton of tools in my everyday work. Very few days go by where I don't use at least two or three of these tools. These are great for keeping things organized on my desktop or phone, which is huge for me. Being organized is essential for me just to keep my own working life structured in a way that is cohesive. A lot of these tools serve as good ways to remind me of things I want to make sure to get back to or set things up ahead of time. In that way, it lets me have a good level of control over important events in my work.
OneTab - often times I use the open tabs in my browser as reminders, and I hop back and forth. I use One Tab to consolidate these tabs, and also as a management tool to open up links and reports, I review on a daily or weekly basis.
Google Keep - I use this to keep and organize articles and websites I read (or want to read). While there are lots of other options there (like Evernote), I like this one the most because I find it the quickest and easiest to use from my phone and from desktop alike.
LastPass - I use this to manage all my passwords. It's awesome on your phone because you can just activate it and add your passwords in with TouchID. This is the only one that isn't free.
Lightshot - This is really easy to use screenshot tool, which lets you take pics of stuff online which seems like it wouldn't be that useful but really is once you start using it.
Trello - This is a really versatile tool for management and organization that we use company-wide.
Auto Text Expander - This is the tool that lets you use a "shortcut" to expand out a larger text.
Calendly - Calendly is a booking/appointment tool. I like this one the most because while you can just give people a link to book appt times of their choosing, it also lets you pick and share some times via email that you are available.
Snooze function in Gmail - This one is HUGE for me. I think a lot about efficiency (when it comes to email) revolves around the philosophy of "Inbox Zero". The Snooze function in Gmail allows you to a) address important emails first while moving less important emails out without losing them and b) give a quick and easy way to follow up with emails without just "leaving them" in your inbox or having to set calendar reminders. This is a great video to overview it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- ShoeDog - Phil Knight
- Small Giants - Bo Burlingham
- Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service - Ari Weinzweig
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The best piece of advice I can give is that it may be nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. Positivity breeds positivity, and being a kind person is the easiest way to start building with that.
I would also say that something that has stuck with me is that you can't manage what you can't measure. In order to be successful in your own way, you need to have a metric to judge your own success. Especially starting out, tracking progress is important because it shows how far you are coming on your journey. A lot of people may try to rush or get concerned if there aren't absolute immediate results, but keeping track of your own progress gives you a way to see just how far along you are going.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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