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How a single customer-service experience launched a quality T-shirt business

You may be dreaming about starting your own business – but what kind? If the idea is the stumbling block, the inspiration might be hiding in your own interactions with other businesses: the moment when you think to yourself, “I could do this better.” That’s how Dan Corcoran got the idea for Forward Printing, his screen-printing business in Oakland, California.

In his case, the idea came to him while he was working as a bakery manager and responsible for keeping employees outfitted in company T-shirts. “My first couple of times trying to order shirts, it was like pulling teeth just to get anybody to call me back or return an email,” Corcoran says. “I realized that customer service was pretty lacking in the industry. We were also bored by the quality that was available from the local printers.”

He’d found a problem to solve: creating T-shirts that weren’t dull or poor quality while providing great customer service. After that flash of inspiration, the next step was to figure out how he could do it better. Corcoran had an eye for good artwork, and knew it was key to standing out in a sea of dull T-shirt designs. He decided to combine that keen eye with quality T-shirt fabrics and a commitment to responsive customer service – and Forward Printing was born in 2004.

Find the right niche for the business

Once you figure out what kind of business to launch and how you can do it better than the competition, you must decide on your mission. How do you stay true to your vision? For Corcoran, the plan was to find the sweet spot between remaining a small shop and morphing into a factory.

“We never had designs to be some huge garment facility turning out hundreds of thousands of pieces,” he says. “We put a lot of emphasis on quality of life and quality of work. Doing that and becoming just incrementally more profitable is more important to us than growing 100% per year.”

The beauty of Corcoran’s goal is that it also became a way to win customers. For people shopping by price, printed T-shirts are seen as a commodity. That’s why Corcoran thinks it’s important to maintain his focus on quality as a way to stand out among competitors. He sums it up in Forward Printing’s slogan: “Stop buying crappy shirts.”

The approach wins fans. As one happy Forward Printing customer said on Yelp, “These guys are not ‘printers’ – they are ARTISTS!”

Get out of the comfort zone

In the early days of starting a business, you play every role: accountant, salesperson, inventory manager, and probably the janitor. And Corcoran found himself doing it all, even in areas where he thought his skills fell short.

“I never felt like I was an outgoing kind of person, but being the only employee, I had to make sales,” Corcoran recalls. “It forced me into a lot of areas outside my comfort zone. I was really comfortable with digital art, but the business and sales aspects kind of blindsided me.”

To build confidence in business functions that aren’t your specialty, Corcoran recommends that you brush up on business skills: “See if you can find a way to fill those gaps, like the basics of the permits that you need, how you’re going to set up your accounting and taxes, and how you’re going to keep up cash flow,” he says. “As far as running your business is concerned, these things are just as important as making a good product.”

It also helps to find tools that remove business tasks from your desk, so you have more time for the work you want to do. Early on, Corcoran chose PayPal to simplify some business processes, giving him time to spend on sales and perfecting T-shirt designs. He uses PayPal Payments Pro to process all customer payments online. And his employees send out invoices with PayPal Invoicing, which saves time spent calling customers and taking payments by phone.

Find a financial safety net

Every new business owner worries about money – specifically, not having enough of it to weather the normal ups and downs of a business. To reduce the worry, look for funding, especially if you’re trying to expand.

Like many businesses, Forward Printing reached a point where it needed to increase capacity by moving to a bigger space and buying printing technology. To give the company a safety net when he invested in the business, Corcoran used loans from PayPal Working Capital.*

“Moving a screen-printing shop is definitely not a trivial matter,” he says. “You’re having to invest in new equipment and build out a new location. It was costly, and any project like that is going to run over budget.”

Add high-tech customer service

Technology can be a business owner’s best friend, helping to improve processes and save time and money. As Corcoran watched digital technology revolutionize design and production in screen printing, he also learned how to use digital tools to modernize customer service.

“This has always been a paper-and-pencil industry,” he says – one in which it was challenging to keep customers informed on fulfillment without picking up the phone or running back and forth on the shop floor to check on orders. To solve that problem, the company built its own internal database for tracking jobs as they move through the shop.

Corcoran is making plans to integrate the database with an ordering system for customers. “We want to have a whole web application that gives our clients more transparency,” he says. “They can tell the status of their orders and when they’re going to be shipped – all the inner workings.”

In 2018, Forward Printing entered its fifteenth year in business. “I feel proud on a day-to-day basis keeping the doors open for everybody who works here, and that we have very little turnover,” he says. “We got over the 3-year hump, the 5-year hump, and the 10-year hump, and we're still going strong.”

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