Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, My name is Sarim and I am the founder of Dexpel. Dexpel is a custom print store with the ability to customize them as per your style and printing. From a wide variety of apparel to all the possible merchandise, we do it all.
Dexpel’s niche is in the online store that we have which houses one of the finest toolsets to help the customer place orders online. Our ops team then gets the orders and manufactures on demand.
We started back in 2009 and back then we only used to have 2-3 products, mainly the vinyl and their customization, today we are catering to over 200+ unique products and complete manufacturing is in house.
The idea came to my mind when I used to shop for myself and I would never get the product of my choice. Whether it was a t-shirt, hoodie, cushion, or even a mug we had to buy off the shelf products. That used to bother me and I went into research as to how these things are manufactured. To my surprise, I found out that most of these items can be manufactured in-house by small machinery and with a basic budget.
We started the company with a mere budget of $2,000 and bought ourselves a small A3 printer, a laminator, and a cutting system.
We started off with notebooks, decals, and cards. To our surprise, the orders went skyrocketing and it became difficult for us to manage, we then expanded the machinery and then started adding more products.
I then added mugs, cushions, a mousepad, and some more merchandise. We were doing social media marketing and were getting most of the orders from there. Our target was to siphon all the customers to our web site as back then we were the only web site that had a complete customizer online. Our customers loved that, and they would find it very easy to design the items they would want.
After 3 years, we moved to a proper facility where we installed our in-house stitching unit and started mass products of our products, we started to export some items and started getting bulk orders. Our flagship category of products is now in the apparel division. We sell a lot of customized tees, hoodies, sweatshirts, shorts, etc.
We started off by a mere $1,000-2,000 revenue per month. And last year yearly closing was around $165,000/year, but we really don’t monitor our success through the USD’s we bring in, I strongly believe that every year our company should grow in terms of the team and the product line. We are now in an 8000sqft facility with over 30 people working for us full-time.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
By core, I am a programmer and back in 2005, I was doing PHP and web-based projects as a hobby. Eventually, I formulated a company and started making web sites for different clients. I was making good money.
But I always wanted to start a company of my own with a B2C manufactured product. I was really impressed by what zazzle.com was doing and in 2008 I had the idea of creating a similar company here in Pakistan. Since I live in Lahore, which is the capital of our province Punjab, it was very easy for me to get hold of different printers, laminators, manufacturers and understand the process.
In 2008 I started off with cards, decals, door skins, and mobile skins by investing a mere $2,000 from my freelance earnings. We started off with 3-4 products and then by 2010 we had over 20+ unique products.
Since I was a programmer and a digital marketing expert, e-commerce was not new to me, and I made sure that our online store should be state of the art as far as the tech was concerned. I always wanted an online customizer and we became the first company in Pakistan to house an online customizer.
The idea of making products online and seeing the live preview of the printing was fascinating for our customers and we gained a lot of traction in the online space.
I then started digital marketing along with conventional marketing. We would conduct different workshops in universities and book stalls for our products. We would also post ads in magazines and on different websites. We also invested quite a lot in Google ads and were ranked #1 in Pakistan for customized products.
Our best moment was when we emailed the Zazzle co-founder Jeff Beaver about our company and that how we started this business, we got an email from him appreciating our efforts. That was a proud moment for our company.
In 2009 there were big companies already operating in physical stores for apparel and merchandise. But our USP (Unique selling point) was that we were online and were delivering nationwide. The competitors took quite some time to understand how big is the online space and they started copying our web sites idea in 2012
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
This was really difficult initially. Since we were using most of the machines that were only for offices, and not professional production of merchandise, we had to come up with a lot of makeshift solutions. For instance, the decals we were making we couldn’t afford to buy the big eco-solvent printer so we purchased a basic dye water printer, but then finding the vinyl for that was impossible so we came up with a makeshift solution to printing that and then lamination was done over it. Eventually, we started importing our own vinyl from China.
Every product that I came up with initially we would get around it by a very basic makeshift solution so that at least we achieve its manufacturing process, then we would make the product better by swapping the steps and materials to what the industry requires.
The complete photoshoot, designing, product display on the web site was done by me, in the initial years I got alot of help from my younger brother who was an expert in design & VFx. But when he left the company it would take me hours to understand the lighting, understanding how to photoshop the image into making it real on the web site. I learned designing and photography at that time and finally started making things better on the web site, As I knew that if people liked the presentation they would surely buy it.
From designing the initial product to its presentation was one step, and that was totally dependent on me. But then developing the manufacturing belt and teaching that to my team was another challenge. I would spend hours making the steps easier for my team and then would make images and pictorial tutorials for them to understand the processes.
I would make SOP’s as above and would paste their images printed on the tables of the workers so that they recall all the steps and a system should be intact.
We wanted to be honest and fair in the legal matters as well, but initially, there was no guidance as to how to register a company, and what are the tax laws. And the lawyers would charge you your fortune for basic accounting. So I started studying this and then in the early stages I was handling completely the legal and accounts system of my company. I then developed a full-fledged software for HRM and accounts that would then help us in the later stages when we actually hired a firm in the later years.
Our first office, a 220sqft commercial space in a building
Making our first fully printed tee
Purchased over 500 phone shells to test out phone skins
Describe the process of launching the business.
Dexpel never took any loan from anybody, the complete funding was done by me as a freelancer, and along with it, I started my software house which was also funding. But very soon Dexpel was standing on its own two feet and was sustainable.
However along the road due to a poor operations manager, Dexpel went into deep losses in 2014 and kept on dipping down until 2016. During that time I was more focused on my other businesses. But Dexpel had now become a household name in Pakistan and it was very important that I come back and systemize everything once again. So we decided to change our technology, make a new internal system, hire new people who would then steer the company well.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I think if you have a great product, with a little bit of marketing your quite there. It will sell itself. Back then when digital media buying was cheaper, we used to spend very little on FB ads, and Google AdWords. But I would admit that we have always had a budget for these platforms. I was very focused on university events and exhibitions. From there we would get our bulk customers. At the same time, I would pitch to big companies for their merchandise.
Today our marketing is divided as follows
- FB marketing
- Google Adwords
- WhatsApp customer retentions
- Email marketing
- On ground events and marketing
- PR with influencers
We normally spend the most on FB ads, and email campaigns these days. Google AdWords we spend very little.
We keep in touch with our customer on email and WhatsApp, we send them offers of new products and try to siphon them back to a new sale. We use Facebook retargeting to get back the customers who visited our shop and then left their carts.
We are not getting quite active on Instagram, and there we gain almost all organic followers by sending our products to PR influencers who then review our products and we get traction from their fan base, this is a very nice idea to project your products into new markets. Like for example, we would send a backpack to a sports influencer, or we would send a zippy pouch to a makeup artist. And so on.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today dexpel is very much profitable and going in the right direction, we are very happy with our online sales, and at the same time have developed a strong channel for bulk and wholesale clients.
As of 2020 on average we are sending out 50-80 orders a day, and a pretty decent bulk order every week. This is very fine in our market where e-commerce acceptability is still novel.
Today dexpel has a solid team in the operations, accounts, sale & marketing who manage the entire company in a very coherent way. Our technology is our biggest tool where we have developed in-house tools to manage the order conveyor.
Dexpel uses the best courier companies in Pakistan for Cash On delivery across Pakistan.
Dexpel plans to expand our product base with the same machinery as the sky is the limit with a design team, a state of the art printing method and a stitching unit, we have all this under one roof.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The journey for the last 11yrs is filled with mistakes, failures, rejections, disappointment, and missed opportunities. But as I progressed I became more fierce and understood how the world worked.
Today I have already handed the company over to a third party and now a new management and CEO is running the company. But as I look back, one of the biggest mistakes was not committing to quality resources on the top. And relying on relatives to be there as the head of operations. I have learned this the hard way that community service is good, but never at the cost of your own self. I was rewarding my relatives with positions that were most crucial and I was always scared to explore the great talent outside. But eventually, when we got rid of the management team and started to build a new one with great talent and merit, we ended up with a brilliantly functioning company. So never compromise on competence. That’s my take from the last decade of Dexpel.
One of the finest decision that I made along the road was the technology since I was a programmer and was running a software house alongside, I knew the right technology tools. So coming onto Shopify along with all the apps in the ecosystem made our website stand out. A lot of other competitors did copy us, but they could never replicate the in-house developed technology for order fulfillment that we cracked at a very early stage.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are using Shopify as our e-commerce store, and its apps that make our stores an amazing shopping experience.
At the same time, we have internal cloud-based apps developed that compliment Shopify and make sure that our orders are on time.
We use Zakeke as the product designer, we have abandoned carts to send users FB messages, WhatsApp, and SMS to complete their carts. We use FB retargeting to retarget the lost customers. We also use the variants extender for some products.
For bulk customers we are using InvoiceRoot, this helps us in maintaining their ledger and keep track of their orders with us and due payments.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I mostly read autobiographies of successful people and these books really inspire me as a whole. Their struggle in life and how they evolved as humans into giving back to society is the most common you get out of these books.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Always have a niche when starting a business, there is one thing that you are amazing at, find that. Be passionate about it and then work day in and day out into perfecting your skills and learning the hard rules of business. Because it won’t be easy out there. You will face disappointment, rejection, failure. But with every negative emotion, you will have to pick yourself up and push forward. Because every adversity will only make you stronger if you truly believe in your dream and your business.
Sarim Nadeem - Dexpel, Pakistan
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Dexpel is surely looking to expand into more countries now, but ideally, my suggestion to the management that if they plan do to so they should enter any country with a local entrepreneur/partner whose passionate about what we do, who can own this idea in his country and then we can help in developing the technology and understanding the infrastructure.
An ideal case is that people who can invest as well should be part of dexpel, as it would be mostly their business. We will be their guiding path and would give them a huge head start.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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