From Scrubbing Floors To Running A $1M Screen Printing Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! My name is Adam Tanaka and I own a company called Life and Limb Printing. We are a screen printing and full-service merch company that specializes in merch production for breweries, outdoor clothing companies, and restaurants with a little bit of everything else sprinkled in.
In 2016, we became automated bringing on our first auto screen printing press which changed our output drastically. We went from printing about 120 pieces an hour on a manual press to hitting anywhere from 500 to 800 pieces an hour.
Since officially launching the business in 2010, we had our best month last year in October 2018 at $80,000 and now we are set to hit 1M by the end of 2019.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was all over the place with what I wanted to do with my life - anywhere from a radio DJ, to creating zines, then going to college for biology, dropping out, all the while playing music and touring in bands since I was 14.
From scrubbing those floors to working in their eCommerce department, I learned the inner workings of the production side of the business and knew I was ready to figure out how to launch my own company in merch.
The music I listened to in the 90’s played a major role in what I ended up doing as my career. I remember stuffing cash into an envelope and sending it to some of my favorite bands' addresses and within 2 to 4 weeks, I'd get a shirt in the mail. After opening the package, I would immediately feel the print and it was a mystery to me of how that print got on a shirt.
In the early 2000’s, I got a job here in Nashville with a merch company that did almost everything in house. I started out scrubbing the floors and cleaning the shop making $6.25/hr. It was a large enough company that they were busy year round and a small enough company that the owners were there most of the time. From scrubbing those floors to working in their eCommerce department, I learned the inner workings of the production side of the business and knew I was ready to figure out how to launch my own company in merch.
I was working part-time at an art store, trying to play music and in 2008 at the age of 26, started printing small one-off jobs here and there for myself and for friends. I put music on the back burner to try and work my way to manager of the art store so that I could make more money to save up and spend towards my new venture. Somehow still being over $300 overdrawn in my bank account with more bills coming in and not enough being made, I still started a business.
My first real customer was a Nashville brewery, who still prints with us today. I cold-called them making my company sound much bigger than it was. The name was a song from a favorite band of mine, Fugazi called Life and Limb. It was the first bit of text I saw when my customer asked me what my company name was and it just ended up sticking. I started printing on the floor of my apartment and curing shirts on a cookie sheet in the oven. Below is the first shirt I printed for Yazoo Brewery and a cassette tape insert of the Fugazi record The Argument that has the track Life and Limb.
Even multiple-color jobs, I had to wipe down each screen every single time to align with the print and used a heat gun so the inks wouldn’t stick to the screen. This was brutal and I don’t know what I was thinking. Eventually, I moved into a 600 square foot garage, then shared the back of a building with another company, and a few years later landed our current space. All I knew was that I wanted to give my customers the best product ever, and something they could wear around and be proud of.
About 6 years into the business, I hired my first employee and now have a solid team of 8 people.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Once the sale is made and the order is defined, we will take artwork either from the customer or create it for them and begin setting it up for screen printing. Any good graphic designer can take a concept and make it a reality, but not every graphic designer knows how to set the design up for screen printing.
If there was equipment or supplies I needed in order to function, I would work a part time or full-time job and save money. Once I had what I needed, I would pay cash for it.
Once this is ready to go, we start by printing each layer onto films, going to a dark room, and “burning” the design onto screens. Then we are ready for setup on press and production. Our “blanks” are ordered through our suppliers and once received in, we’ll cart them and place them in our production queue.
There are so many variables here and anything can go wrong, so being able to get ahead of the issues before the order gets on press is ideal. The biggest challenges happen when there is a lack of communication and attention to detail. When I was doing everything by myself and running each part of the business, things could easily become lost in translation. Now having a team in place, a whole new set of issues can happen if the details are lost.
Startup costs for this industry can vary greatly depending on your output or what you want to accomplish with your business plan. When starting out, if I didn’t have the equipment, I would go onto a shirt forum and figure out how to build a temporary version of what I eventually wanted.
I think one of the last things a business owner thinks about is getting your business set up legally with all of the proper forms in place with the state and federally because the focus is on growth and next steps. This was one of my biggest hurdles - keeping up with taxes, business license, and so on… But once you find a good accountant and a good lawyer, let them take care of this so you can focus on building your company. That was one of the few things I wish I had in place from the beginning, even when I wasn’t making any money.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I wasn’t even thinking about getting a website up and going or having any online presence at all when I started. I was calling, emailing, and going out every day and visiting businesses and asking if they need printing. After being asked several times about a site they could visit, I knew it was long overdue and quickly built a site through WordPress using a template with basic information and a contact. Also, that phone number is a non-working number now.
I didn’t have any source of financing or borrowing at all for the first 7 years of business. I’ve never had partners or investors and still don’t to this day. If there was equipment or supplies I needed in order to function, I would work a part time or full time job and save money. Once I had what I needed, I would pay cash for it. I got my first business credit card and financed my first bit of equipment the 7th year when I brought on my first auto press and larger dryer.
After launching the business, I didn’t start seeing a big customer base for the first 3 years. I had no more than 10 customers at a time. With little to no overhead, I was able to get away with a small customer base, but I wasn’t satisfied with the progress I was making at all.
Once I moved into a small garage that was separate from an apartment, I had more confidence and didn’t feel as embarrassed having customers stop by for consultations on what type of merch they wanted for their business. It was in my 4th year that I started seeing substantial growth to where over the next 2 to 3 years, boxes of shirts were spilling out of my garage into the yard and driveway.
Again, having little overhead was huge but I knew it was time to crunch some numbers and see if it made sense to get an actual space that wasn’t part of my house, which was terrifying. I kept asking myself “what if the business failed because I moved too early, what if I move into the wrong space, what if I think I can afford it but really can’t” and tons of other anxiety inducing questions.
Nothing went as planned with launching the business. I didn’t have the systems set from beginning to end and it was all over the place. I was jumping back and forth between emails, to printing, to figuring out how to price an order, and there was no structure whatsoever. I was letting these failures get the best of me and had to step back to see why I was doing this in the first place.
Realizing that connecting with the customer, building that relationship, and being there for them every step of the way was the most important thing and that became my foundation.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
One of the biggest first moves I made was hiring a printer, stepping out from behind the press, and focusing on sales. It was really hard for me to hand over that control and hope that the quality and output was the best it could be. Every time I would go out to do face to face sales or meetings, I would constantly have to drive back to the garage or call my printer to make sure everything was ok. I was always worried and stressed about not being there overseeing the production side, especially with this being my first time having an employee. I learned so many things within that year, that it felt like 10 years had already gone by. It became apparent that when deciding to bring on an employee, there would have to be clear expectations and processes in place. This seems like a no-brainer, but I was in the dark on how to do this. Without having the proper expectations set, this in turn sets your employee up for potential disaster.
The second biggest move I made was bringing on an actual salesperson. That was a life-changer. I met my first sales guy and his family by chance at a photo shoot for a baby/kids clothing and supply company of mine. After a quick conversation, we both realized he worked for an existing customer of mine. I knew he was the right person when we had a phone call and he threw out several ideas for growth and next steps without knowing the entire process of what we did. I took about a week before jumping right in and talking with him a few more times, and finally offered him the position at a base rate plus commission salary.
We get together the first of the month to discuss that month’s goals and then another meeting mid-month to see where we are at and how to finish the month strong. As mentioned earlier, we make the connection and build that relationship. If we are a good fit for their brand or company, we will not only help build on their ideas but offer up merchandise consulting and product development if needed.
Two days a week, my sales team is in the office building lists for leads, emailing, and making calls. The remainder of the week, they are out getting face time with current customers and potential leads. I now have an account manager who is there to answer phones, take care of any walk-ins, and close the sale that our Sales Development Rep brought in. I have found that doing this allows for sales to keep selling while those potential leads turn into customer orders.
Being a service-based company, we don’t utilize Amazon, Facebook, or Shopify for sales. Instead of trying to go out and print for as many people as possible, we close in on what we are good at and what industries we want to work with and go for it.
We try and run a monthly promo/campaign or a monthly newsletter for discounts on their orders for specific events, holidays, special days, or just as a thank you for returning customers.
As part of our face to face sales efforts, we have a small booklet with photos of what we have worked on and a brief rundown of what we do along with a free shirt to give out as well. Inside the neck of the shirt where the size tag would be, this is where we print our company info and size of the shirt. They might throw away the booklet, but not many people throw away a shirt.
We try our best to keep our Instagram page up-to-date with various projects we are working on or highlighting a customer we have been working with. We also have a referral program set up where anyone can refer us and in turn, they will get paid a percentage of the job they referred over to us.
To help ensure a returning customer, give them incentive and treat them as part of the team. Check in on them every once in a while, or have a cookie cake delivered to their workplace and written with the icing it says “Thank you!” Something to show that their loyalty to you means more than anything because they can go anywhere else at any time.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The first year of being in an actual building, we lost a lot of money.
Although I planned as best I could with a small cushion to fall back on financially, it was still difficult to gauge all of the other bits and pieces such as almost tripling in cost of utilities, our new auto press going down, other equipment issues, and a few other random things. We turned it around quickly and by the end of 2016/early 2017, we were in the black! Each year since, we have grown more than 60% and doubled our square footage in May of this year.
Not having the systems in place from the beginning was a struggle especially when bringing on employees. There was a lot of trial and error and forming good habits, but we have clear processes and systems in place and smarter about where things go around the office and the shop, making everything much more efficient. Daily production meetings are a must and end of day reporting helps foresee any problems that could arise in the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Having had the business for 10 years and being in the printing and merch industry for over 15 years, I feel more than confident in what I do and I still love it. But I have made and still make some very poor decisions and some whopping mistakes.
Slow and steady wins the race. There is no race to be won in business, but there are goals, and rushing those goals could be detrimental to the well being of the business.
And even still, I feel like I’m faking my way through it most of the time. Early on, I kept hearing people say that failure is not an option and to keep pressing through it. I say right on, but also failure is an option and failing over and over again is what has allowed me to have just as many, if not more, successes.
Early on in the business, I printed a very large quantity of shirts with a specific ink color that had to be matched with a Pantone. I eye-balled it and ran the job, the whole time saying out loud that I hope the customer is ok with it. It was a rush order and I felt like I didn’t have the time to re-mix the ink (it would have taken a whole 10 more minutes to do so). They didn’t like what I chose of course, and I had to redo the entire order, on my dime, loads of money out the door.
Finding the right employees has been the most challenging. It is difficult to find someone with a solid work ethic ready to hit the ground running and is there to support your vision as the owner. That’s just rare. If you don’t have a system in place for setting up interviews, onboarding/training, and how their first day will go, it will more than likely fail. I have had this happen more times than I can count.
I have learned a bit in the last 10 years and am still learning. Not giving up has been key for me. The simple words just keep going don’t seem so simple when problems arise. It sounds easier to just get a day job, come home, and not have to worry about work anymore once you’re off the clock. Learning to take each thing, whether good or bad, and handling it with a level head will make a big impact on your business and your staff. At the end of the day, employees will look to you to either fix it or make it better, but as an owner, being able to delegate tasks in order to focus on large scale growth is essential.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Printavo is by far my favorite tool we use. It’s a cloud based solution that manages every part of the shop. All of my employees have a login and can see workflow from quote form all the way to order completion.
Everyone knows what’s going on at all times and each department of the business manages certain parts of Printavo. Even my production team can see all of the numbers so they know how the business is doing. If there are setbacks with production, the printers know what they need to do to hit their goals.
Everything that is done within the system is documented and is somewhat of an accountability tool as well. They also have countless blog posts covering ways to better your shop, the departments, and overall business in this specific industry which is very helpful.
I forget about this sometimes as it seems it isn’t as important, but I am all about Google. We use Gsuite for our email platform, and everything else Google has to offer. Simply writing an email where I mention having an attachment but forget, I get an auto-response asking me if I meant to attach something. This has saved me more times than not. Like most businesses, we utilize Google drive every day.
For any fulfillment services we do, Shipstation is the way to go for us. Their customer service is next to none and always responsive. Integration is easy and they make inventory management a breeze. We love it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Built To Sell was a good one for me. It tells a good story about steps you can take to prepare your business to run where you can step away and bring more value to the company and eventually sell it and be profitable.
Smarter Faster Better was motivating and gave me a whole new outlook on productivity. There are so many different industries mentioned throughout the book and how the person in charge handled specific situations. No matter the business, we all go through the same stuff and knowing what decisions to make that will allow us to work smart.
I love the podcast How I Built This. My favorite episode was the interview with Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia. This one was very inspiring for me and after the episode ended, I felt even more passionate about what I do and how I do it.
He mentioned how the company was growing too fast, so he decided to scale back…..the opposite of what you would assume a business owner would do. I agree to work like everyone is out to get you, because they are for the most part. But I also agree with the phrase, slow and steady wins the race.
There is no race to be won in business, but there are goals, and rushing those goals could be detrimental to the well being of the business. Check it out here.
Another shout out to the How I Built This podcast is the episode with Andrew Casalena who is the founder of Squarespace, which is the web platform we use for our site. This hit home for me because he briefly discusses his bout with anxiety during the beginning phases of his company. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and social anxiety has been one of the biggest hurdles for me even before starting the business. I felt like I was alone, dealing with the intense symptoms almost every day, but then you hear other people such as Andrew talk about the exact same thing and feel somewhat comforted and know it’s going to be ok. Having constant interactions with my staff, customers, and trying to sell to strangers is part of the job and it is sometimes the hardest thing to do in hopes I don’t have a panic attack out of nowhere.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Focus on the solutions and not the problems.
Wait as long as you can before bringing on your first employee and when you get to that point, interview as many as you can until you find the best for what you are needing and pay them well.
Make sure you have clearly defined systems and processes in place early on. Don’t obsess over your pricing structure.
Obsess over bringing value to your customer and everything else will fall into place. And whether you are good at math or not, go ahead and find a good accountant that cares about what you are doing and lock them in.
Set the business up from the beginning to where it could eventually run like a machine, on its own, so that you can get to where you want to be faster. You will be able to clearly define your goals and your 2 year/5 year/10 year plans can already be set in motion.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not currently looking to fill any positions at the moment, but welcome resumes from anyone who has experience in the industry to hold onto for the future.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: lifeandlimbprinting.com
- Facebook: lifeandlimbprinting
- Instagram: lifeandlimbprinting
- Email: [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Life and Limb Printing has provided an update on their business!
Over 2 years ago, we followed up with Life and Limb Printing to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
4 months ago, we followed up with Life and Limb Printing to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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