South El Monte, California
T-Shirts, Apparel & Promotional Products
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: T-Shirts, Apparel & Promotional Products
Long wanting to be an entrepreneur, Johansen decided the time was right when she was pregnant. "I didn't want to put my daughter permanently in daycare," Johansen remembers. Contemplating her options, she was excited at the thought of making custom t-shirts. "I thought t-shirts were super cool and easy. So I bought a press out of the paper and started printing t-shirts."
Johansen's educational background was in art, which helped when it came to design but not necessarily to expanding and growing a business. "I didn't have experience in marketing. I didn't have a business background. But I did come from a family of entrepreneurs, and I was willing to give this new business a try," she says. "I was willing to figure things out as I went along."
To introduce herself to potential customers, Johansen would make 100 calls a day and those she couldn't reach on the phone, she would go out and meet personally. "I was going to fake it until I made it," Johansen says. "I was not going to give up. A lot of people give up when things get tough, and things did really get tough. When the economy crashed, our clients buckled. We revamped. We didn't give up."
A major tool for Johansen was trade shows which provided more information to Johansen than any traditional classroom. "That's where everyone is!" Johansen says. "Everyone you need to talk to is in one location! I asked questions at the trade shows and the supply houses. I was helped and educated on textures and fabrics. It really helped because in our garage we were printing and manufacturing through trial and error. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and these manufacturers really helped me. I found out what inks work on what fabrics. I got samples. I literally got a feel for it."
Johansen's original thought was accurate: t-shirts are super cool. "Everyone needs one, and people are excited to get them. Businesses will have budgets for apparel and uniforms, and it's a lot more interesting business expense than insurance or repairs," she says.
Today, Advanced Apparel primarily serves the small business market. "A lot of construction companies, landscapers, and small corporations," Johansen says. But the company also serves some not-so-small businesses such as Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, American Express, McDonalds, and Roland.
"I get to meet so many people from so many walks of life all over the nation," Johansen says. "A lot of our business is through referrals and word-of-mouth. Being certified as a woman-owned business also opened a lot of doors and networking groups."
Even mistakes, Johansen has found, opened doors. "I don't regret anything I did or tried," Johansen says, "except not having the confidence, right from the beginning, to establish boundaries with our price points and printing capabilities. When you just start out, you accept jobs for nothing and then spend a ton of hours on it! I’d used to let people tell me what they were willing to pay and end up losing money. I think this is really common with new businesses. I had to learn what I was worth."
Challenges: Online competition. Johansen believes that customers are fooled by cheaper substitutes they find online. "They think they can get something bigger and better online, and then they end up with crap. If we do lose a customer, we know they'll come back. People find out that if they pay $2.50, they get what they paid for. T-shirts are part of their brand, and once they understand that they understand it's worth every penny for quality products."
Opportunities: Expanding online. Though online competition is Advanced Apparel's greatest challenge, Johansen believes it can also be their greatest opportunity. "The internet has changed how we do business," she says. "We are changing to offer easier ordering so that business owners can build and design their own products. The internet is changing everything for our industry, and we are staying on top of the process. We are stepping up our game so that our customers can find us, design their products, see what its going to look like. Get real time pricing and order what they need anytime, night or day. I get orders from people I never even speak to!"
Needs: Manpower. "The world is changing so fast and so are design and print techniques. We have to stay on top of all of it and then have the manpower to market what we're learning," Johansen says.