The Entrepreneur: Dapper Ink, a business that’s more than T-shirts

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February 7, 2014

The Entrepreneur: Dapper Ink, a business that’s more than T-shirts

Over the last three years, Dapper Ink has grown from “a crew of one” to a successful business staffed by five BJU graduates. Photo: Molly Waits

Facebook. Google. Microsoft. Time magazine. All were created in college by innovative students like yourself. Students like Matt Moreau, a 2007 BJU graduate who founded Dapper Ink Custom Printer & Outfitter, a T-shirt and print design shop located on Wade Hampton Boulevard.

Apple. Amazon. Google. Disney. Dapper Ink. All were started in a garage. Well, Dapper Ink was started in an art classroom, but close enough.

At the time, Matt was a graduate student working on his art exhibit. He began to print T-shirts on the side for dating outings, societies, French club, etc., but a T-shirt business was not in his original career plan. “I never thought I’d own my own business,” Matt said. “I wanted to go into publishing. I wanted to go into illustration.”

But the side jobs kept coming, and Matt and his wife, Jen, set up a small T-shirt printing shop in their house. The loft was the print shop. The bedroom was the office. And the bathroom was the darkroom. At times the business seemed like it was “eating them alive,” according to Jen. When times were hard, they would set small goals to work toward. In six months they would be on a better schedule. In another six months they would get an accountant. In another six months they would move to a better location.

In the fall of 2011 their perseverance paid off when they were able to purchase their current store front three minutes down the road from BJU.

Now Matt and Jen have a comfortable business, but they aren’t retiring early. By next year they hope to relocate to the downtown area to gain foot traffic from tourists and locals. This new location would help their designs to become a recognized commodity of Greenville. When you go to New York City, you have to stop at a street vendor to pick up an “I love NY” T-shirt. When you go to Greenville, you have to stop at Dapper Ink to get a Greenville-themed T-shirt.

Despite his ambitious goals, Matt keeps things simple. “Most of business is common sense,” he said. “Do the math right so you know that what you are doing is profitable.”

Okay, let’s break that down a little bit more.

1. Have a solid idea. Jen said they have seen a lot of passionate entrepreneurs try and fail to start a business over the past five years. Having a solid idea is what separates the Joes from the Pros. “You have to really be aware of what people need and what kind of market is out there,” Jen said. Be passionate and smart. Find a niche market and gear your products or service toward that market.

2. Make a business plan. How much money do you need to earn a profit? If it doesn’t work out, how will you exit the market? If it does work out, how much do you want to grow? Where do you want to be in five years? “Try to answer those questions in the beginning, or else you’re going to be struggling with your identity a couple years down the road, wondering where you’re going,” Matt said.

3. Be the best at what you do, and people will beat a path to your door. Matt compares this strategy to grocery shopping. You can shop for groceries at Bi-Lo or Publix, but you could also shop at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market — places with cool products, unique branding and a knowledgeable staff.

Dapper Ink is obviously the Whole Foods Market in this analogy, with its cool, vintage appeal. All five employees are tech-savvy young adults. And the owners themselves see every order through from the first meeting to the final delivery. “It has our personal name on it just as much as it does Dapper Ink,” Matt said.

But being the “Whole Foods Market” of your industry is beneficial, not just for the customers, but for yourself. “The quality of life and work is better,” Jen said. The environment is creative and personal. “Sure, we might not be making as much profit as if we were a sweat shop here, but the payoff is so much better,” Matt said.

4. Plug into your local community. Jen says that they have gotten to know a lot of designers in town who have provided connections. She says the artistic community tends to be very supportive and generous with their knowledge and connections.

“Greenville is a good place to incubate a business,” Matt said. It loves small businesses. But you must give as much as you take by being a client to other people.

For Dapper Ink, this meant printing T-shirts on the spot during the Humane Society fundraising day and letting them keep the profits. “A lot of times doing a gift is minimal cost, but the return on the gift is huge,” Matt said.

5. Keep good books. “The question of ‘How can I afford an accountant?’ really becomes ‘How can I not afford an accountant?’” Matt said.

6. Keep your overhead low, and don’t get attached to the savings. While working out of their home, Matt and Jen did everything themselves from designing to printing to packaging. This allowed them to save up for new equipment, a storefront and other designers. A business needs constant care, so fuel the growth of your business with that green paper.

7. Partner with talented people who have the same vision you do. “It was a crew of one for three years,” Jen joked. But, since then, Matt has found Jen and three more BJU graduates.

8. Foster the relationships that you built in school. Friends can be part of your network, too. “Word-of-mouth is the best advertisement you can get. People trust their friends more than they trust anything else,” Matt said. But, at the same time, Jen warns against being pushy (we’re looking at you, Bing) or fake (we’re looking at you, Flo the Progressive girl). “It’s the genuineness. It’s the humility,” Jen said. “People are not dollar signs.”

9. Social media is free advertisement. “Use it to its fullest potential because you don’t have to pay a dime for it,” Matt said.

10. Roll with the punches. Miscommunication happens. Whether it’s your fault or not, “Be the best person coming out of it,” Jen said. If you’re wrong, be honest about your mistake and fix it as much as you can. “They won’t remember that you messed up. They’ll remember that you were honest, and you made it right,” Matt said. And, if the client or partner is wrong, always be gracious and fix the problem as much as you can.

11. You are not alone. “You’re not alone and you should never feel it,” Matt said. Reach out to people for help and advice, or you will soon be discouraged.

12. Your faith should influence everything you do. The Moreaus don’t leave their faith at the door when they go to work; it’s part of their daily business, from doing what they promise to going the extra mile.

And Dapper Ink has found unique blessings through printing shirts for Christian camps. “These are relationships that may have never been made had we not shared a common goal to influence people for good in the name of Christ,” Matt said.

If those 12 tips seem overwhelming, just use Matt’s bare minimum business plan: “When you love your clients, you treat them really well, and that becomes word-of-mouth marketing,” he said. “The rest works itself out.”

Is Matt glad now that he skipped out on the publishing industry? “Absolutely. I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “It’s been great to see relationships built and friendships made over something as simple as a printed T-shirt.”