An interview with owner Ian Scherber by Kelly Kabotoff
Tell me a little about how Duluth Screen Printing
It always starts with the same thing: biting off more than you can chew.
During my freshman year of high school, in 2009, I was looking to make a little cash.... like all high school kids are. It started with a conversation with my high school librarian, Lowell Harnell. The Harnell family owns and operates Proctor Builders, a local hardware store and lumber yard. I asked him for a job and he kindly directed me to the store to talk to his brother, Lee. Halfway through that conversation (which I knew was going nowhere because I was 100 pounds and moving lumber wasn't really a good fit for me) a few of Lee's employees were unloading some equipment behind him. This sparked some curiosity and I asked him what the equipment was. He explained that it was screen printing equipment that he had bid on from a local auction site. I remember his words "custom T-shirts" and that pretty much got me hooked. I left Proctor Builders without a job that day but my mind was hooked on that printing equipment.
It was football season and practice was well underway. After one of our first practices, I heard the football coach chatting about ordering T-shirts. For some reason, I decided to pipe in... enter me biting off more than I could chew. I told our coach that I could print the tees. He chuckled and looked at me with confusion... (I'm sure most of which had to do with the fact that I was even talking to him). Either way, he heard me out. So, I raced to figure out how I could pull it off. Google, YouTube, and a few online free quote/invoice forms later... and I had a solution. I brought him a quote for a few hundred tees and he accepted it. With the PO in hand, I struck up another conversation with Lee and I spent the next three years of my life dedicated to printing, designing, and meeting with people. I loved it then, and I love it now.
After gaining some confidence in the business realm, I decided that college and business were an actual possibility. So I took off to St. John's University to study global business leadership and sold some shirts in my free time to help with college expenses.
While at St. John's, I linked up with the campus print shop called The T-Spot which was a screen printing organization ran by students. I found myself printing tees for campus organizations and the sporting teams. It was there that I met Mary and the idea of Duluth Screen Printing started, kind of...
Mary and I hit it off and soon became an item. I convinced her to join me on a new business called Neverest, making backpacks out of up-cycled material like billboards, deadstock canvas, and sails. We launched a Kickstarter campaign, raised $15,000, and bought a bunch of equipment to continue the venture. After a few months, our sales were strong and we couldn't keep up with the demand. I wanted to drop out of school and pursue Neverest full time. Mary on the other hand, gave me an ultimatum. If we had a future, completing school was a requirement. So, she settled with me halfway and came up with a plan to graduate early, signing us up for a summer term in Europe.
Our flights were booked and our plans were set. Then, the school notified us that all of our Neverest production equipment had to be relocated off campus. We had twenty days to move the equipment to a new facility and continue the production packs to meet the supply over the summer months while we were gone. We had bills to pay and packs was the only way to do it, or so we thought. A few weeks before we left, The T-Spot notified me that they would be selling their equipment. I knew a few people in the industry and quickly lined up a buyer. It fell through and The T-Spot was left in a hard spot to get rid of the equipment. With the little money we had saved for the trip... I made an offer on the equipment. They accepted and I now had to relocate our Neverest equipment, this new screen printing equipment, and tell Mary that I spent our savings on a print shop. Again, Mary gave me a ultimatum: I would be on that flight with her or it was over. This is when Duluth Screen Printing really was born.
I took an SEO class that spring and began purchasing domains. I just so happened to pick up the Duluth Screen Printing domain and putting it to use became the perfect way to get back on that plane with Mary. We moved everything into a facility in Duluth and we started printing and sewing packs. We scraped up enough cash within those few weeks to continue our education, pay our bills for the summer, and took off to Europe for two months. Upon our return, we found the print shop still intact and we continued to refine Duluth Screen Printing as a premier provider in apparel. Our goal was simple, T-shirts are meant to be T-shirts, not rags. Quality garments and top-notch service. That is what we strive for. At the end of the day, we are a bunch of individuals that genuinely care about the products we produce.
Over the next six months, we drove home to Duluth from St. Joseph in between classes, on the weekends, and anytime that was needed to print tees. When we graduated in December, we decided to pursue DSP full time. Things with Neverest slowed as DSP ramped up. We made the decision to sell Neverest and use the funds to purchase more equipment for printing. The rest, as they say, is history.
With a thriving screen printing business, what was the push to expand the business into a brick-and-mortar and online store like Flagship?
At the end of the day, it's about giving back to artists. We found that a lot of young, talented artists were not given the platform or job opportunities to showcase their work. In many cases, (especially in ones that we had direct work with through Duluth Screen Printing) we found that artists' works were overshadowed by the day-to-day hustle of business. This really hit home and was apparent when we had a group of talented interns from UMD join our staff. They expressed the need for more creative-driven jobs in Duluth and how difficult it was because of their age. As a result, many ended up leaving our city to find work elsewhere. Our goal with Flagship was to fashion a work environment where we could keep a healthy staff of talented creative minds on board and pay them a livable wage. Flagship is a moral boost to our entire Duluth Screen Printing staff, especially when the hours get long and the shirt stacks are high... It's a great reminder that we are producing product for people on a local scale and forging local jobs.
Your tagline is "A story with every tee." What's the story behind that?
I'm a firm believer in giving credit where it is due. Far too often, artists and designers aren't showcased for the work they produce, and sometimes... apparel is just boring. Flagship was a way to make a traditional tee into something great. We opened a retail store to create T-shirts that tell a story. Bringing together these artists and designers, and our passion for all of the things the Northland offers gave us the canvas to create some fun tees that are smart, witty, and represent our home in a unique way. For example, apparel from our Heritage Collection pays tribute to Duluth's history and iconography by breathing life into vintage Duluth companies and landmarks. The idea is to slow down the process of how consumers buy shirts. Flagship allows you to experience it all; from the printing process which takes place in store and by hand, to our hang tags that let you get to know the artist behind the design you are purchasing. It's an immersive experience that helps put pride behind the clothes in your closet.
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