How to Get the Most from a Trade Show

One of the things we talk about a lot on this blog and its sister blog,  Threaducate is the benefits of attending an industry trade show,  and what you can learn from your attendance.   For those who have never been to an industry show,   it’s a place where vendors gather to showcase their new equipment and products.  Some shows will allow actual sales of goods on the show floor,  others will not.   A show is a great place to learn, to find new products,  and to price and test new equipment.   If you are able to attend an industry trade show,  it’s well worth the price and the time.

EnMart has been exhibiting at trade shows,  and attending them as well,  for pretty much as long as the company has been existence.  Over that time,  we’ve figured out some things that we recommend attendees do to get the most from their attendance.   Here are our top tips for getting the maximum value from your trade show attendance.

Tip 1:  Have a plan – Most shows will have a website that lists exhibitors with a brief explanation of what that exhibitor sells and will be showcasing that the show.   It’s definitely worth the time to figure out who you want to see at the show and what you want to ask those people.   Make notes.  Plan your route through the show to be sure you see those people you absolutely want to see first.

Tip 2:  Dress in layers –  Some show floors will be warm.  Others will be over airconditioned.   Dressing in layers allows you to remove or add clothing as the temperature dictates.   Comfortable shoes are also a must.   Even if the show is a smaller one,  you’re still going to be walking and standing quite a bit.   Shows are much less fun if your feet start hurting in the first hour.

Tip 3:  Do your homework – A trade show may be one of the only opportunities to actually talk to sales reps or technical support people for the equipment you own or want to buy.   Do your research ahead of time and figure out what questions you want to ask.    The more you know,  the better the questions you’ll ask,  and the more useful information you’ll receive.

Tip 4:  Bring business cards –  Even if you don’t normally have business cards,   it’s worth it to try and print some up if you’re going to a show.  There are two reasons to have cards.   One is to give to reps you talk to in the booths you stop at.  Particularly if you’re asking for literature or more information,  having your contact info readily available is very helpful.   The second reason to have business cards is for networking purposes.  You’ll be meeting other people in the industry, some of whom may potential partners,  so it’s good to be able to exchange contact info.

The Wayback Machine: Let’s Revisit Some Posts

One of the things that’s both weird and fun about writing a blog for a number of years is the fact that, over time,  you forget some of what you’ve written.  The focus is more on the next post to be written,  not on the ones that are already done.   Since the SubliStuff blog has been around since 2010,  there are now eight years of posts,  and today I wanted to point out a few that I thought were worth reading again.

In 2010 I wrote a post entitled “5 Reasons Not To Buy a Sublimation System“.  The intent was to do a tongue in cheek post that would really highlight reasons why a sublimation system would make a good addition to a shop.   In 2017,   I updated the post from 2010.   If you’re on the fence about adding sublimation to your shop, for whatever reason,  either of these posts may be helpful.

One of the topics I write about often is finding your market for sublimated goods.   In May of 2017,  I offered 5 tips for finding your sublimation market.   I think my favorite tip from that post was about showcasing what you love.  Hobbies are a great place to find a new sublimation market.

Another tips post,  this one titled “Six Tips for Successfully Sublimating Several Substrates” (yes, I do like alliteration,  why do you ask) gave tips on how to get the most from your sublimation blanks.  As with many posts about sublimation,  this one dealt with the idea that you will screw up and that’s part of the process.  Make your peace with mistakes, everyone encounters them at some point.

In 2014,  the tips I gave had to do with customer service and how to provide the best to your customers.   One of the things I’ve learned over the years, and shared in that post,  was the fact that sometimes customers just need to vent.   It’s never fun to be yelled at,  but sometimes that’s what needs to happen to get the customer to a place where they can talk calmly about the situation.

At EnMart,  we’ve always been dedicated to education,  and try to share our knowledge on this blog and at the trade shows we attend.  We’re always willing to teach others about sublimation and how to be successful with sublimated goods,  but there are some things we can’t teach.   In 2016,  I wrote a post that touched on those things.

Finally,  in 2012,  I wrote a post on decoration intimidation.  It’s something we’ve seen again and again over the years,  a customer either buys a sublimation system and is too scared to use it,  or finds the whole process so intimidating,  they can’t even buy a system at all.   The post was an effort to soothe some fears and perhaps help people to see that trying a new decoration technique isn’t as intimidating as it may seem.  Getting past the fear can open up a whole new world of possibilities.

5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press

Buying a heat press is a big investment,  and the decision about which type of press to buy should be made carefully to ensure that you get the type of press you need and one that will provide the most utility for your shop. Since a heat press is one of the more costly items that people who create sublimated goods will need, it pays to do the research and the math before purchasing a press. When making your buying decision, here are five things you should consider.

#1 Is Cheaper Better – A heat press is a big investment and, especially if a business is just starting out with sublimation,  the impulse might be to go with a no-name Chinese press from eBay or to start with a smaller press that is less costly.   There are,  however,  a couple of problems with this approach.   One is that no-name presses often don’t have service or technical support which leaves you with few to no options if your press breaks.   Buying a smaller, less expensive press can also be problematic as the size of the press will place limits on what can be sublimated.   The rule of thumb is to assess your needs and take into account technical support and repair options and then buy the biggest press you can afford.

#2 Consider your physical abilities – No, running a heat press isn’t as physically taxing as mining coal or being a mover,  but it does take a toll on the body.   Smaller people may have more issue with opening a manual press.  Standing all day can have an impact on the knees and feet.   There are options like auto release pop-up which can make a press easier to operate.   Don’t assume that everyone will be able to operate a press with the same level of ease.   Take into account the physicality of running a press for hours at a time and do what’s necessary to make that physical toll a little less.

#3 What type of goods will you be sublimating? – One of the biggest questions that needs to be answered before any heat press purchase is the type of goods your shop will be selling.   If the goal is to just do garments,  a flat press,  most likely a swing-away press,  would be a useful option.   If you want to do hats or mugs or something that won’t work well in a flat press,   your best bet would either be a specialty press or a combo press.  For those shops doing a variety of items,  a combo press may be best,  as it combines a flat press with the specialty press options.

#4 Where’s the best place to buy a heat press? –  The temptation to buy a heat press on eBay or Amazon,  where the prices seem cheaper may be overwhelming,  but that’s not always the best place to buy a press.   In our opinion,  the best option for purchasing a heat press is from a company that knows and uses heat presses.   If you can purchase directly from the manufacturer that’s great.   When that’s not possible,  the next best option is purchasing from a supplier who uses the presses they sell and knows them well.   Keep in mind the place that sells you the press may also be the place that provides technical and repair support.   The better they know the press,  the more able they will be to assist you when you have an issue.

#5 Can you add other disciplines to maximize the utility of your press? –  Yes,  sublimation is one decoration discipline that requires a heat press,  but it is not the only one.   If you’re buying a press,  you might also want to consider what you already do,  or could add to your shop which could make a heat press that much more useful.   Rhinestones,  screen print transfers,  adding patches to hats or bags,  there are a variety of options for how a heat press can be used.   Spreading the utility out over a variety of disciplines may help your press pay for itself faster,  and help you justify the expense of a bigger and better press.

A Memory You Can Touch

A week or two back I participated in PromoChat, a great discussion from PromoKitchen that happens every Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST on Twitter.    One of the questions in that particular week’s chat was how you could sell your products as keepsakes that would stand the test of time and still keep your customers coming back again and again.    My answer to that question was as follows:

Focus on the fact that you’re creating a memory or preserving a special moment with something people can hold in their hands and cherish forever. There are always more special moments that deserve recording.

One of the things that people selling sublimation forget is that it’s not just a way to put a name on a mug or a picture on a mousepad.   It’s also a method by which memories can be captured and keepsakes created.    Yes,  some of these items might be one of a kind keepsakes,  only special to the particular person that commissions the work,  but one of a kind generally comes with a premium price.

Humans are,  I think,  in some respect hardwired to be collectors.   Maybe it’s shot glasses or spoons.    Could be dolls or dice.   People have collections of postcards,  playing cards and scorecards.   The one thing that holds a collection together is that the particular items are linked to a particular memory.   It could be a memory of place that was visited.   It could be a memory of a much loved person who is no longer around.  Often it’s a memory of a time,  a wedding,  a baby’s first Christmas,   a graduation or a retirement.   The items we collect and keep and cherish may have no significance or value to anyone other than us,  but it’s our relationship to the items and the memories they symbolize that makes them valuable.

People who sell sublimation can often spend a lot of time debating what to make and how to sell what they make.   One of the things they can fail to take into account when figuring out what they’ll offer is what it is they’re actually selling.   Yes,  they’re selling cutting boards,  or water bottles or necklaces,  but they’re also selling memories  that can be touched and held forever.

Photos fade.  Paper degrades.  Letters and pictures and postcards eventually will become nothing but dust.  The mind forgets,  or gets filled with new memories.   You think you’ll never forget that adorable, perky, ears up alertness when your childhood dog wanted a treat,  or the beautiful sunrises at the cottage where your family summered when you were a kid,  but those memories will get less clear over time.    A sublimated keepsake freezes that memory, and gives it a physical form.  It’s something your customers can hold and hug and keep forever.

So when you’re selling sublimation,  remember that you’re selling more than a belt buckle,  or a puzzle or a keepsake box.   What you’re really selling is a aide-memoire,   a help in remembering a place or time or person that is special to the customer purchasing the item.   Memories can be fleeting or fade,  but a sublimated version of that memory will last forever.  And the best thing of all is that there are always new memories to be captured.

 

How to Create a Sublimated Patch

Sublimated patches can be a great option for many decorators.   This type of patch is able to support full color designs,  even those with gradients and fades.   Sublimated patches are a perfect option when wishing to add a photo to an item.   Tiny details that may not be easily duplicated in other decoration disciplines will often easily be handled by a sublimated patch.   Sublimating a patch also ensures that the color will last as long as the patch does,  since sublimation ink actually dyes the fabric to which it is transferred.  Clearly,  there are a lot of advantages that a sublimated patch can offer,  and one big decision that needs to occur,  how will your sublimated patches be made.

There are two options for creating sublimated patches,  buy them already made from a supplier,  like EnMart,  or buy or make blank patches of your own and then sublimate those.  Both options have pluses and minuses.

Buying  Sublimated Patches

When you buy an already sublimated patch,  it comes to you completely done.   All you have to do is put it on whatever item has been chosen for decoration.   So there’s not a lot of time involved,  other than the time to create the art,  place the order and then add the patches to the item in question when they’re received.   Artwork,  at least when ordering sublimated patches from EnMart can be fairly simple too.  While we prefer and request vector artwork,  we can work with something as simple as a .jpg.   One potential drawback of ordering premade patches may be minimum requirements.   At EnMart the minimum is 25 pieces per design, size and color combination.    If you’re doing a small job,  that may be more than you need or want to order.   Price can also be an issue when purchasing sublimated patches.   If you have sublimation capabilities,  you may have to crunch the numbers to see if making your own patches is more cost effective than purchasing them already made and sublimated.

Making Your Own Patch

The other option for creating a sublimated patch is making your own,  and there are two ways of doing this.   One is to buy blank patches already made,  and add a sublimated design to them.    The other is to make your own patches from scratch either with a sublimated fabric or choosing to sublimate the patches after they’ve been constructed.   There are costs and benefits for both methods.

If you choose to buy a blank patch,  you will have less of a minimum than you would if you were purchasing a sublimated patch,  assuming you made your purchase from EnMart.   Our blank patch minimum is 10 pieces per size and color combination.  The time invested in production would also be shorter,  as you would only have to print your design and then press it on the patch.    One issue with this method is the fact that designs that go all the way to the edge of the patch would probably not work too well.   Another is the need to purchase extra patches in case you make a mistake.

On the other side of the coin is making your own sublimated patches from scratch.   Here you would need to cut the patch,  create some sort of border,  and also create the sublimated design and add it to the fabric.     This would most likely consume the most production time.  It is also a method that may result in something that looks the least like a professionally merrowed patch,  although that may not matter.    The plus side of this method is that you can make as few or as many patches as you need.

Keep in mind, for either of these options,  you would also need to have a sublimation printer and inks and paper in order to create a sublimation transfer.     That is a cost that needs to be included when calculating what method is the most fiscally sensible for your business.  Creating your own patches may seem to cost less,  but has hidden costs in supplies and labor.

Ultimately the best method for creating sublimated patches is the one that makes the most sense for you.    If you’re working with large volumes and often repeat designs,  than having someone else produce the patches may make the most sense.   If you’re working with short runs of a few pieces,  and only need sublimated patches on an irregular basis,  then making your own could be the best option.    Remember,  the best option is the one that makes the most sense for you and your business.

How to Choose a Sublimation Paper

Way back in 2010 we did a 2 part series detailing everything you needed to know about choosing a sublimation paper.   Eight years later (doesn’t time just fly) it seemed like a good idea to summarize some of what was in that series in an effort to help a new group of sublimation printers make their paper choices.   The original posts are still very relevant and worth reading in full, so if you’re inclined,  please take a moment to read Part 1 and Part 2.    If you’re short on time,  this summary will give you the basics.

To begin,  let’s talk about the three categories into which we at EnMart divide sublimation paper.  Our categories may be different than those other suppliers use,  but our experience has shown these category designations to be accurate, so they’re the ones we use.   In our experience, sublimation paper is either

  • High release
  • Low or Standard Release
  • Hybrid (combines properties of both)

High Release paper typically requires less time to press to release the majority of the ink onto the substrate.  This type of paper tends to work well for soft goods and may provide slightly superior color transfer.   One of the main issues with this paper may be smearing,  as high release paper tends not to dry quickly.   You may also experience “blow out” on hard goods like ceramic tiles of FRP key chains,  as the dye may be released so quickly that the harder materials can’t absorb it fast enough.    High release paper may also be more prone to curling, printer jams,  humidity and other environmental issues.

Low or standard release paper is pretty much the opposite of high release paper.   It dries quickly,  so smearing issues are minimal.   This type of paper works very well with hard goods and has little instance of “blow out”.   A potential drawback of low release paper is that it takes far more time in a press to draw the dye out.   Extensive time in a heat press can cause damage to or yellowing of coatings or fabrics,  but shortening the press time could result in colors that are less vibrant than desired.   On the positive side,  low release paper does tend to be resistant to jams and other environmental factors.

Hybrid paper,  as the name implies,  combines the qualities of both high and low release papers.   Some hybrid papers are more on the high release send of the spectrum while other are similar to low release paper.   The goal with this type of paper is to capitalize on the good points of both the other types of paper while minimizing the down side.   Based on our experience,  hybrid papers tend to be the best for all around use on all substrates.

If you’re wondering what type of paper Mpres Paper,  the sublimation paper that EnMart sells is,  it’s a hybrid paper.  The time required in a heat press is closer to the high release end of the spectrum,   but it mimics the low release papers in it’s capacity for quick drying to eliminate smearing, and the excellent release of color.   This is the paper that our parent company,  Ensign Emblem uses to create sublimated patches every day.     It’s been battle tested and proven worthy and we highly recommend it.

 

The Right Way

For some things,  there is a right way and a wrong way.   When you’re loading ink cartridges into your printer,  there’s the right way,  the way that causes the cartridges to fit snugly into the printer and dispense ink in the proper manner, and the wrong way,  any way that doesn’t cause that to happen.   For most things,  however,  there may be a variety of ways that are the right way,  or which lead to completion of a desired goal.   Sometimes it’s not how you get there that matters,  but the fact that you made it to the end and accomplished a successful result.

So,  why,  given that we’ve just said there may be many right ways to accomplish a particular goal do we often say there are things we don’t recommend?  Aren’t we contradicting our own thesis?

Not really.   When we say that we don’t recommend proceeding in a certain way or using a certain product we’re giving our opinion based on our years of experience.    EnMart and our parent company,  Ensign Emblem,  have been involved with inkjet sublimation pretty much since inkjet sublimation existed.   We’ve seen it evolve and change over the years,  and we’ve been introduced to new products and new printers and new ways of doing things.   Some have worked and been beneficial.   Others have not.

Whenever we dispense advice on this blog,  we’re giving that advice based on the knowledge we have available.   We have sublimation experts on staff who give us the benefit of their years of creating sublimated goods.   Some posts offer you the benefit of our trial and error,  so you don’t have to try the same things yourselves.   Our goal is always to provide the best information we can,  based on what we know and have experienced.

We’re aware that our experience won’t be everyone’s experience.   If you try something and it works for you,  then you should certainly keep on the path you’re on.   The only thing we’re attempting to do is to give you the benefit of our years of experience and the wisdom we’ve gained over those years.   The one thing we’ve never done is claim our way is the only way.   The best way for you is the way that works for you,  full stop.

Still,  if you’re interested in our thoughts about some of the methods and products used in sublimation,  here are some posts it might be helpful to read.

Think Ink

Cobra Ink.   No name ink from China.  Sawgrass Ink.   When it comes to sublimation,  it seems like there are a lot of choices for the ink that can be used,  but that’s a bit misleading.  Yes,  there are a number of inks that advertise themselves as sublimation ink,  but not all of them work the same way in your printer.   An ink that isn’t high quality can cause nozzles to clog,  print heads to break and designs to print with reds that aren’t red and blacks that look gray.   The quality of the ink you use matters,  for a couple of reasons.

The first is the fact that calling sublimation ink by the name ink is a bit of a misnomer.   Sublimation ink is made up of a carrier fluid that carries dye solids.     Because of this,  sublimation ink has a high viscosity and, at times,  more trouble going through standard inkjet print heads.   Keep in mind,  this is not in all cases.   We have countless examples of customers who have printed successfully for years with their Ricoh 3110 or 7700 printers.  Still,  sublimation ink does have an increased potential to cause problems when used in a standard inkjet printer.  One of the reasons that the Virtuoso Printers were created was so they could be designed specifically to meet the special needs of sublimation ink.

Another issue that can create problems for sublimation printers is refillable cartridges.   When it comes to printer systems,  there are generally two types,  a closed system and an open system.   A closed system is one in which the cartridges are prefilled and installed directly into the printer.   In this type of system,  there is no opportunity for dust or other contaminants to mix with the ink.    By contrast,  an open system,  one where ink from bottles or bags is poured into refillable cartridges offers the opportunity for air bubbles or contaminants to mix in with the ink.   The result can, at worst,  be damage to the print head.

Those of you reading this,  after even a cursory glance at the sublimation section of our website,   will probably notice that we carry Sublijet Ink and Virtuoso Printers and may,  as a result,  conclude everything we’ve said up to now is biased,  but you’d be wrong.    EnMart,  or EnMart’s parent company, Ensign Emblem,  has been working with inkjet sublimation practically since the process existed.    We were instrumental in bringing inkjet sublimation to the industrial laundry and rental uniform community.   After years,  even decades,  of sublimating emblems,  and occasionally making mugs and mousepads and shirts,  we understand how sublimation works,  and we know that the products we sell will provide the best finished goods,  because we use them too.

Finding the Value

When asked what the hardest thing is about sublimation,  I often smile,  because the hardest part of running a business selling sublimated goods,  or running a business selling any decorated goods isn’t what most people would think.   It’s not figuring out what equipment to buy.   It’s not finding good suppliers.   It isn’t even learning to use the new equipment and supplies and becoming skilled enough to turn out exceptional product.  The hardest part of running a decoration business,  in my opinion anyway,  is finding the value in what you make.

Finding the value of a decorated product sounds pretty easy,  at first.  Common sense says you take the cost of the materials,  multiply it by the cost of your time,  and add a certain percentage for overhead.   You should probably also do some market research to figure out what others in your market are charging and what customers are accustomed to paying.  With all those data points covered,  it should be easy to set a price.

Sadly,  setting a price is often more complicated than that.

One thing that complicates pricing is education,  or the lack of education among the customer base.  People who buy decorated personalized goods like the fact that they’re one of a kind,  or can be customized,  but they don’t often understand what goes in to making the goods they love so much.   When people say “500 for that family tree quilt, that’s outrageous!” or “I can get a printed mug at the dollar store for less than this!”,  they’re not being cheap or mean,  they’re just being uneducated.   As decorators,  part of our job is to help customers understand what goes into making the products they buy.   Once they understand,  the majority of customers will also come to understand why you charge the prices you do.

Another obstacle to proper pricing is often the attitude of the person creating the product.  Many creators dismiss their work as a hobby,  or think they’re not really in business because their shop is in the basement.   Often,  people who do this sort of work get told that it’s just something they do for fun or something anyone could do,  if they had the time.   The result is a craft that is made to seem less valuable and,  if the creator of the goods believes this sort of thing,  a craft that is sold for less than it’s worth.    Remember,  if you don’t stand up for the value of your work,  no one else will.

Competitors can also throw a wrench into a pricing scheme.   The old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats”  is a saying for a reason.   If all the competitors in a market work to keep prices reasonable for both the customers and the business,  then everyone gets a fair deal and the businesses make what they need to make to stay open.   All it takes,  however,  is one company in the marketplace making their selling proposition low prices and the playing field changes.  Customers,  especially those who have not been educated about the value of decorated goods,  will often be attracted to the lowest priced option,  and other businesses may lower their prices to compete.   Before you know it,  customers are getting lower quality goods from businesses that aren’t making enough money to do better.   Don’t fall into the lowest price as a unique selling proposition trap.   Make good products and charge what they’re worth,  regardless of what the rest of the industry is doing.   In the end,  quality products and service will win the day.

How to Sell on Social Media

Almost every business wants social media to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,  the place that helps generate leads and turn leads into sales with almost no effort at all.   There are classes and books and webinars and seminars about how to make big bucks with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram,  and most of them won’t say the one thing that you really need to know.   The best way to sell on social media is not to sell at all. 

While that sounds like some kind of zen saying,  in reality it’s anything but. It’s a truth that most people want to ignore,  because selling,  putting up a whole line of posts advertising your goods,  or entreating everyone to come look at the latest product in your store or simply blasting people over and over again with a plea that they shop with you seems easier and faster and certainly less work than what actually helps you make sales.

The truth is that finding true customers,  those customers who will buy from you again and again and who will help promote your business,  takes time and effort.   The first step in the process is creating a social media profile that does a lot more than just sell.   A good profile gives some backstage access to how your business runs.   It spotlights your skills and expertise.   It offers education on how the decoration processes you use work,  and ideas for how your customers can benefit from those processes.   It sells,  but subtly,  never screaming but softly whispering how your products and services can benefit your customers.

The next link in the chain is building your company’s reputation and building trust with the other members of your social media community.   This means helping simply for the sake of helping,  and making connections because you have things in common,  or because you can learn from each other,  not because you see everyone else on social media as a mark,  someone to whom you can sell.  Studies have shown that people tend to buy from people and companies that they trust.   Building trust among the members of your community will lead to sales and most likely long lasting relationships.

Another handy social media function that a lot of decoration companies neglect is the ability to present your customers with ideas for what they could purchase from you.   Pinterest is great for this.   Create idea boards for specific customer categories to which you’d like to sell.   Want to sell to local schools?   Create innovative spiritwear designs and showcase them on a spiritwear board.    Have a certain hobby or activity that you really enjoy?  Create themed garments centered on that hobby and put them up on a board.   Pinterest is aspirational,   and along with the people looking for 10 ways to decorate their kitchen,  or six fun summer activities for kids,  there are people looking for shirts for their family reunions or hats for their over 50 baseball team.    Be the place where the find what they’re looking for.

Finally,  successfully selling on social media requires thinking about who your target customers are,  and where they can be found.   It means not simply asking all your friends and family to like your page,  but going out and finding the people who want to buy what you have to sell.   It means building your follower count slowly and strategically,  with a clear goal always in mind.   Selling on social media is most successful when you’re talking to a group of followers who need what you have to offer.   Being strategic and smart about how you build your page’s follower network will take more time and effort,  but will result in connections with a group of people who want to buy what you have to sell.