Big Printing’s Pathway to Success
By being able to “walk the talk,” Dawaud Muhammad has established a national reputation, which has resulted in printing for more than 100 clothing lines per month in his multiprocess decorated apparel business.
By speaking the same language and understanding its needs, Dawaud Muhammad carved out a profitable niche and established a reputation as the go-to decorator for urban streetwear.
One way you know you have “arrived” is when potential clients fly clear across the country to discuss how your company can help them create and produce their designer clothing line instead of searching for a local printer. Because Dawaud Muhammad got his start in the decorated apparel business by creating his own urban streetwear line, he knew what his customers needed better than they did themselves.
In addition to his insider knowledge and passion for creativity and pushing boundaries, he became proficient in special effects, multimedia and even goes so far as to invent new techniques that allow him to make any brand’s graphics stand apart from the crowd.
Learn More: Mixed Media Printing
From his grandmother’s garage, Dawaud and wife Kesney grew Big Printing, San Leandro, Calif., to 12,000 square feet, four automatics, one manual press and 32 heads of embroidery.
“Every three years, as soon as our lease was up, we found ourselves moving to double the size of our previous location,” notes Kesney.
Like many growing businesses, the path to success was not a straight road. Dawaud, who had been involved in creating art since junior high, got his start designing his own preprint line called “Big Pimpin’ Turf Clothes.” “That’s the brand that got me introduced to T-shirts, and I have been in love ever since,” he says.
“I purchased my own manual press and started printing my own goods. When I picked up that first machine, the seller warned me that I would soon be printing for other people. And I said, ‘Man, that's not going to be me, and I made a vow not to do things for other people,’” he smiles.
But destiny had other plans for Dawaud. A friend in a fraternity approached him about decorating 900 donated shirts from The Gap. First, his friend asked if he could print them and then he asked, “How much?”
Without a clue as to pricing, the entrepreneur suggested $1 a shirt. When the job was done, he discovered there were some advantages to printing for other people. “When you have your own brand, you’ve got to design, print, market, and then sell,” he notes. “After doing those 900 shirts, I realized I didn't have to do anything but print them, and I was paid in full.”
Then he met Kesney and her mother was an activities director for a local school and they needed shirts, so things just took off from there, says the printer. Schools, small businesses, motorcycle clubs, and clothing designer orders soon started coming in.
Also among their earliest customers were promotional products distributors, but the pair realized this niche did not speak to their strengths.
Learn More: Finding A Niche Market: Street Style
“Although the promotional products industry is awesome, we were coming from printing our own clothing lines,” says Kesney. “We had invested time and resources in increasing our design capabilities and developing new techniques as well as doing R&D with specialty inks. And we did not always get the money we needed out of the advertising specialty market.”
“The areas we were really strong at—design and special effects—ASI didn't necessarily need, especially in the early 2000s. So we shifted gears and started printing more for other clothing lines. They were interested in fashion design and trends, which is where our strengths were versus fast, cheap one-color shirts,” she concludes.
Another way Big Printing set itself apart and made it easy for customers to do business with them was the creation of package deals. As a clothing designer himself, Dawaud knew how confusing it could be for newcomers to understand all the factors and decisions that needed to be made when producing a line. Shirt styles, sizes, shirt colors, ink colors, the size and placement of the graphics, special effects and more just overwhelmed the average client.
"I wanted everyone to be able to do what I did,” says Dawaud. “So I put together a package for urban clothing lines that was all inclusive.”
What Big Printing ended up offering was one price of $499 that included a three-color print with the designer’s label in the neck, individually folded and poly bagged for 50 shirts.
“This took some of the pressure off pricing and made it easier for designers to understand. With traditional screen printers, they say, ‘You're getting this number of colors, and it’s this much for the screen setup, and there may be a charge for the flash, etc.’ All these variables made everything complicated, so we just simplified it,” says the printer.
“It worked pretty well,” he adds. “We got connected with a lot of small up-and-coming brands from all over the country.”
The time and effort to network also has paid off for Dawaud and Kesney. In fact, thanks to a connection they made at ThreadX, a national industry educational event, Big Printing was able to accept the biggest order they had ever received from a Fortune 500 company.
The ThreadX event came about when Dawaud saw that one of their vendors on social media had two free tickets, worth approximately $1,500. He quickly direct messaged the person offering them and scored.
At ThreadX, which was held at Saguarro Scottsdale Hotel in Ariziona in February of this year, Kesney met Ted Pidcock, president, Chillybears, a screen printing and embroidery operation in Needham, Mass. (Pidcock is also on the board of directors of the Printing Alliance (formerly the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association). The pair formed a rapport that resulted in a phone call from Pidcock in June 2020.
He said, “I’m aware of something coming down the pipeline, and it could be big for you. I'm going to introduce you to my colleague Adam Cohen, he owns Atlas Embroidery & Screenprinting down in Florida”. He made the introduction, and Adam called us up and connected us to the reps for the Fortune 500 company,” recalls Dawaud.
The Fortune 500 company and it’s merchandising agency, which required Big Printing to sign a nondisclosure when they accepted the order, needed 300,000 shirts that were to be given to employees to show support of Black Lives Matter. They wanted black-owned businesses to do the work.
As exciting as the opportunity was, Big Printing was not positioned at the time to print 300,000 shirts with a 4 color front, 5 color back, and 3 color arm sleeve in the requested time frame of two weeks. The other challenge was where they would find the capital to buy blank shirts, as the tight time frame forced the business owners to source the shirts locally.
It was here that the Muhammads’ ongoing networking they had done at trade shows and industry events for years paid off in the form of a T-shirt manufacturer they met at the Impressions Long Beach show just 6 months prior. Since COVID, Big Printing had been buying only masks from this supplier, but the owner was trying to persuade them to start purchasing T-shirts.
Kesney and Dawaud had negotiated with the Fortune 500 company to supply 100,000 of the total order, with that amount already pushing the printers to their limits. When Kesney called up the T-shirt supplier and said she needed 100,000 shirts, the response was “ ‘Don't worry about it. I got you. All you have to do is send a truck.’ So, we sent the truck, and he sent the shirts, he didn't ask for a dime,” says Dawaud.
With the anticipated capital coming in, Big Printing was able to double the size of its facility to 12,000 square feet, increase staff by 25% and buy a new label machine, 2 Barudan embroidery machines, pay off their 12 color ROQ, buy a new Epilog laser, and pay the t-shirt manufacturer in full.
“So, that is the way our situation worked out,” says Dawaud. “It was God's plan how it all came to fruition. It was seamless because we got a line of credit with a T-shirt manufacturer.”
As far as marketing and advertising, Dawaud depends on social media, which has worked well for Big Printing. “What social marketing does is it breaks down a lot of borders,” he says. “We just had some clients fly in from Minnesota to place an order. And two days before that, we had another customer fly in from Washington, D.C., and a couple days before that, another guy came from Denver. That doesn't happen without social media.”
For newcomers thinking about getting into the decorated apparel business, Dawaud offers the following advice:
“Make sure you're coming at it from a standpoint of passion, because this industry will try you. If you're not ready for the test, then find something else to do.”
“I also suggest exercising the power of networking” he continues. “Get on social media and establish yourself early on.”
“If they ever have any more trade shows, go to as many as you can and read all the industry trade publications. There are a lot of little trade secrets and things you need to know you may not find out by using a search engine. The best way is to talk to people who have already done it,” he concludes.
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