Michael Nemeroff | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Michael Nemeroff

Background:  

Michael Nemeroff started his Philadelphia-based custom apparel company, Printfly, with his brother and sister in 2002, while he was still in high school. A self-described tech geek, Nemeroff launched the company’s first website at 17 years old. More than 15 years later, Printfly employs more than 250 people, with brands including RushOrderTees and CollegeInk.

The Mistake:

My company tried to change the industry using tools and methodologies that wouldn’t allow it.

Using paper and a spreadsheet and trying familiar industry systems didn’t allow us to support our customers the way we wanted to. We needed tools for shipping, payment collection and approvals, but the off-the-shelf software for small businesses didn’t talk to each other in real time.

We knew from our customers that they wanted their order faster, and they needed it with a guarantee. They wouldn’t compromise on [either] speed or quality; they wanted both. The industry normally worked on a two- to three-week turnaround time.

If you needed custom apparel at the time, you went to the back of the line, and you didn’t have a guarantee of exactly when you’d get it.  We knew that because more than 50 percent of the calls we got when we started were from customers who said another T-shirt company didn’t deliver to them on time.

We decided we were going to be a deadline-driven business. We were going to make a guarantee to our customers, and we were going to come through on whatever we promised them, on both quality and delivery.

If you’re going to innovate in a space, you can’t go halfway.

The Lesson:

If you’re going to innovate in a space, you can’t go halfway. You have to own, rebuild and be willing to look at every part of the process.

We say we’re not just a T-shirt company; we’re a tech company that sells tees. Tech drives everything we do. It allows us to get to the size and scale we’re at. If you go online, you can design, check out and choose the actual date the order arrives. Most T-shirt companies in the industry — 70 to 80 percent — [employ] between one and 10 people. Because of tech, our company has 250 people.

Our size and scale allow us to accommodate any order on almost any timeline, and it’s because we built the business that way. Other companies didn’t build it based on deadline. We came at it another way and said, “When do you need it?” and “We’re not going to pop you into the back of the line.”

Once we made a promise to our customers, we did whatever it took. It wasn’t just shut down at 5 p.m. and go home and deal with the fallout the next morning. That [promise] led to all the re-orders, all the loyalty and the trust; [our] customers don’t want to go anywhere else.

You can completely change the way your customers and your team look at the industry or the business. You can be a pioneer if you work hard enough and care about the people you’re doing business with. You can never rest if you want to grow.

Printfly is on Twitter at @printfly.

Photo courtesy of Printfly 

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