Daniel Fox of Skreened: Your Questions Answered

Though just about every man, woman, and child on Earth owns a T-shirt, not everyone owns a custom T-shirt. But a trip −virtual or offline− to Skreened can change all that.

The Clintonville-based company specifically manufactures one-off T-shirts and apparel using a printing process that makes it possible to print even single-item orders in a manner that is cost-effective.

Herewith, Skreened President Daniel Fox shares the questions he is asked most frequently about the four-year-old business− and his answers, of course.

1. What interested you in starting a T-shirt business?

I wouldn’t say I was particularly interested in T-shirts when I started Skreened. What excited me was the T-shirt as an important piece of the business model− something I could build a community around.

It’s just a few pieces of fabric, really. Kind of a common, relatively inexpensive canvas for self-expression. But what it becomes through customization is a different story. The shirt becomes, in its best moments, a medium for expression, meaning, and identity.

When we started, technology had been developing to turn these canvases into customized products in a matter of minutes and the economics of it worked in a completely different way than they had before with large-run screen printing. It enabled anyone to get just one item with an idea, logo, inside joke, photo, or quote on it− all very economically.

2. If you weren’t interested in T-shirts, what interested you?

Well, yes, I thought the business model was really good. We wanted to be a place where people from around the world could design things for their own communities and subcultures, and reach people with similar interests anywhere around the world. The fact that they would be continually creating content for our site and promoting their creations in their own circles had a marketing virility to it that was very attractive.

3. What else have you done to market Skreened?

People say we’re good at using social media. Sometimes that’s true. I get the sense that the playing field is pretty level right now. There doesn’t seem to be a lot in terms of the basics of social media that are radically shifting. Given that, it’s allowed everyone time to get a more solid footing and begin getting better at communicating with customers using the available tools.

The game is really changing around location-based social networks, though. I wish I wanted to be more a part of that, but it just doesn’t make the most sense for our business right now.

4. Do you do more business through Skreened.com or in your Clintonville store?

Absolutely through the website. We just would not exist without an online sales channel. I think less than 5 percent of our business comes from Central Ohio, which is amazing because it means we can draw money from the rest of the country and continue to pump it into our local economy. Nothing is better than seeing our peer businesses flourish and become successful.

I know, for example, online sales are a key component for other businesses on our physical block in Clintonville, too. Seagull Bags does a lot of business globally, as does Midwest Photo. A person just driving by might never see all the wonderful complexity happening in these unassuming storefronts.

5. What’s it like having both a storefront and an online business?

A retail setting is, in a lot of ways, about controlling the environment to produce a desired result, a purchase. The lights, wall colors, product arrangement, interior space, music, and employee scripts are all designed to create an environment where making a purchase calls to the consumer as the best outcome in that moment.

Now, we do an awful job with that and that’s fine with me. Our “retail” space is where we produce our product and we’ve shoehorned in a small allowance for visitors. So God love the people who suffer our retail experience.

The web on the other hand, I think, is fantastic. Mike Limes, my business partner, is a brilliant application developer and I have some talent as a user experience designer, and we work enviably well together.

I’ve spent the last few months studying the mechanics of how people enjoy games. It’s got some eerie similarity to the way people manipulate retail spaces. I would say there’s definitely more potential to influence consumer behavior online through psychology than in traditional retail environments and that’s kinda scary.

Online retailers have been exploring this idea more aggressively lately and, along with its potential to make applications more engaging and fun, there’s big potential for online retailers to take advantage of unassuming consumers. That’s already being exploited by some companies producing games for Facebook, like Zynga. It’s not intrinsically bad, but we do have a different set of ethics with regard to that.

6. What’s the financial story behind Skreened?

Well, I bought our first T-shirt printer on my credit card. The printer was about $14,000. Then I traded a percentage of the company to a freelance web developer who ended up being a great business partner. Those were the two big pieces we had to have in place. The rest was me doing all I could to promote and grow as cheaply as possible.

Everything after that has been steady, organic growth. We built up our inventory, purchased more printers, and added more staff as demand dictated. With that growth came a need for more complex and nuanced support structures. I began creating systems for marketing, accounting, staffing, projecting demand, etc., considering every possibly outcome I could imagine, and creating policy and procedure for those things.

I’m deeply indebted to Artie Issac for his recommendation of the book The E Myth by Michael Gerber. That book teaches the importance of putting good systems in place for growth and I recommend it to anyone who wants to grow their business beyond just themselves.

7. You developed the structures as you went?

For the most part, yes. We had the core functionality of the business at the outset, but, to be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing when we started. For example, I didn’t know how people shipped their stuff efficiently, nor did I have a great way to keep records.

There’s a mini debate, at least in my head, about how you should start a business. One way being to think through every possible thing and plan for it. The other is just going for it and figuring it out as you go.

I’ve come to see that different personalities, and business models, will be supported by different approaches. Some will need to see everything clearly in order to move, while some just need to get going and not get bogged down in the details at the outset.

8. What have you been working on lately?

We very recently added these amazing art elements for all of our customers to use from a company in Cleveland called Go Media. It’s phenomenal. You don’t have to be a graphic designer anymore to make an amazing looking T-shirt. It’s all available right on Skreened.com for people to use in their web browser.

In addition to that, you can actually use that art in designs you create and resell it in your Skreened shop. It’s brilliantly easy and I can’t wait to see what people do with the elements available now.

9. What’s next for you?

Oh man, who knows. For a long time, I would listen to successful entrepreneurs and hear them say things like, “Don’t do it for the money. It can’t be about the money.” Which, when you’ve got bills to pay, is easier said than done. If you put it all on the line, you gotta make some money.

But it’s over four years later and I’m just starting to really understand what that lesson means. You’ve got to have a vision for how the world will be after you bring what you plan on bringing. That vision becomes your food, your caffeine. It’s your drive.

10. Do you know what that vision is yet?

Not completely. I’m deeply committed to other entrepreneurs in our community and being able to make a contribution to their success is what really gets me excited.

I love meeting people for coffee and hearing their visions and their successes and even where they’re hitting roadblocks. It’s not really a matter of having all the answers, but to be with someone as they figure out the keys to what will make them successful is a very exciting thing.

Photo by Patti Simmons.