Rowboat Creative has made one of the world's most unique screen print shop brands. Straddling the line between creative agency, print shop, and something totally new, Lucas Guariglia and Joe Zangrilli have spent the last 13 years building a fascinating business in the heart of Chicago.
We're no strangers to Lucas and Joe, so when we saw them at Impressions Expo 2020 (and after our interview with them at the same trade show last year), we knew it was time for a chat.
They are open about their fears, problems, and challenges – but 2020 is shaping up to be a very exciting year for their company and their team. After being recognized as one of Fortune's Inner City 100 two years ago, Rowboat has continued their high-growth trajectory.
"We try to tell a bigger story than just 'screen printing.' Is it a good route? I don't know, but it's worked for us."
From an engagement in their shop, a dog that wandered in and became the shop dog, fascinating new hybrid printing equipment, to why they simply don't compete on price – there's a lot of distance for Rowboat to cover.
Why you'd want to hear from Lucas and Joe from Rowboat Creative about screen printing:
Lucas and Joe have crafted one of Chicago's most iconic screen printing brands – but they do much more than just print shirts for super-famous music acts. They do experiential branding, highly customized events, stage sets, secret projects they can't even disclose...and just about anything else. They are experts at making ideas into reality.
Editor's note: Lucas told the Rowboat story at 2019's PrintHustlers Conf. Watch it here.
Rowboat Creative has made a name for itself in the industry by doing high-profile live events like skucon and PrintHustlers Conf, working with major clients, and taking a diagonal and creative approach to what a “print shop” can do.
So sales happen naturally: people know “the Rowboat guys” as the team that can discover new ways to brand, merchandise, and promote. Lucas says, “It’s not a hard sell now. People have seen where we’re going in the industry.”
This means, practically, that they’re focused on the customers they already have – and those deep relationships have yielded even more ideal customers. Joe explains, “We made our way into nice relationships with the perfect people to align with...people we felt represented what we’re all about.”
One of Rowboat Creative’s strengths is differentiation - both for their own brand and their customers' projects.
They are outspoken about their different approach to screen printing, starting with the way they quote jobs: they begin by discovering what their customers want (but didn't know they wanted).
Lucas points out, “We get people that say, ‘We had this quoted somewhere else.’ What we often do is be within the same range, but actually pitch what they want back to them. We show them how we could do it our way.”
In the long-term, this means Rowboat isn’t part of the screen printing pricing “race to the bottom” mentality. “Customers actually appreciate the relationship more than the penny off the shirt,” Lucas says.
Joe points out that this means Rowboat is careful about who they partner with. “We want to figure out if it can be beneficial for both sides. Screen print shops lose their ass on the back-end because they cast too broad of a net for customers,” he says. The Rowboat Creative Instagram gives you a smattering of their work – though many of their projects are white-labeled, so Rowboat often doesn't reveal who they work for.
Editor’s note: Recall the Pareto principle – 20% of your customers likely make up around 80% of your revenue. Here’s what to know so you can make more money screen printing.
Joe and Lucas laughed at this question, but they had great answers.
Lucas urges you to focus on your business early in the process. “You are running head-first into a fire. You will overlook things that you deem less important. But a lot of those things are really crucial.” He explains that internal processes for employees and management are essential. “Even if you’re customer-focused, you have to be very internally focused. 13 years later, we are still picking up the pieces!”
Joe takes a slightly different angle and urges screen printers to consider the work involved. “I would have done a lot more work upfront, more forward-thinking work, instead of just putting out fires.” The bottom line? Do your best to lay a solid foundation in advance – that way, if you do scale up or grow rapidly, your screen printing business can thrive.
Joe immediately thought of an answer: “Our M&R i-Image direct-to-screen system. The game changer.” This is something we’ve heard before from screen print shops – investing in your screen burning and reclaiming process is the best investment you can make if you want to grow your capacity.
Joe gave a simple, anecdotal example of why the i-Image is so powerful. “If someone says, ‘You know those 9 screens you just made? They’re all wrong,’ the reaction isn’t to panic. It’s just like, okay – I’ll be back in 15 minutes with the right screens.”
Lucas’ answer was a little lower down the technology totem pole: they bought a really nice Bluetooth speaker for the shop. “It’s so good I got another one for my house.” Sorry, no paid affiliate links here!
Like many that we interviewed, the biggest challenge for a screen printing business isn’t necessarily printing technology or growing the business – it’s mental health, sustainable business practices, and crafting a team that can do this for the long haul.
“2020 is still focused internally, on specific sales that will be intelligent for the health of the company and the mentality of the employees,” Lucas explained. “We have to focus on mental health internally and externally.” Joe chimes in that Rowboat’s team is incredibly hard-working, but that he wants to foster a sense of work-life balance for his employees. “We built our own prison, you know. But they don’t have to be chained to this place.”
After 13 years of grinding it out as hardcore screen printers, Lucas and Joe have a lot of empathy for people in the industry. “I think everyone who’s a long-time screen printer knows exactly where I am right now. So we are trying to make it better for the upcoming crew,” Joe said.
The team at Rowboat Creative is thrilled to get their hands on M&R’s new Digital Squeegee. But they had their reservations about this new hybrid screen printing system: “When it came out we were torn – are you losing something about the tradition, the mastery of screen printing?”
But if you’ve seen Digital Squeegee prints in person, you know that there is something truly special about them – particularly since it allows totally unique customization, even on large print runs. They could, for instance, print shirts for a concert...but every single shirt would have a unique custom element, making the shirt totally unique. “It opens up a whole new world,” Lucas said, “I’m trying to understand how the industry is going to digest all that.”
“M&R is in our backyard,” Joe said. “They work with us, talk to us about the next steps for the industry,” even share ideas about how to use their new Digital Squeegee. “There aren’t a lot of significant changes that come into the industry to really shake things up like this!”
The biggest concern Joe and Lucas share revolves around screen printing pricing. “If you’re driving the industry into the ground with pricing, then it’s going to hurt everyone consistently over the long term,” Lucas said. “They’re dropping their pants...in price.”
Joe responded, “I was wondering where you were going with that one...”
But Rowboat is not going to drive themselves into the ground by chasing a nose-diving industry. “We are not going to play that game, because we know what we do really well. That can’t be stolen or taken away,” Lucas explained.
If pricing is how you differentiate yourself, Lucas has some advice: “When you create the right atmosphere, the right ecosystem...there is nothing to steal. You don’t compete on price anymore.”
“We’re not tripping out about the wages,” Joe said. “Be legal! It’s our responsibility.” Lucas added that their urban location in the trendy Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago has really helped them retain and hire the right kind of employee.
When they relocated to their large warehouse several years ago, their shop’s culture was top-of-mind. “You see these big businesses in warehouses way out in the suburbs around the city, but you’re killing that employee ecosystem. Tax incentives and cheaper rent are great. That’s not the wrong way to do things. But for us, Chicago is a choice we made.”
Would Lucas and Joe love to pay the wages that shops in rural America can pay? Of course! “People tell me their minimum wage and my eyes pop out of my head,” Joe said. “That’s great. But it’s over there. We are over here.”
“Taking care of your body and mind is the hardest part of owning a screen printing business," according to Joe. “Screen printers know how bad the hours are. If you’re in hell, I’m in hell too. But we love screen printing so much. We wake up at 6 AM and start texting each other ideas about today’s prints.”
Lucas explained that balancing the competing needs of a growing business is the hardest part. “We want to create an atmosphere that satisfies us on all levels. Personally, financially, business-wise. Those are huge things to attack in your spare time.” Rowboat, of course, has managed to shoehorn a much larger message into their work. “We try to attach a bigger message. Is that a good route? I don’t know, but it’s worked for us.”
Perhaps worst of all, separating business health and emotional health is an ongoing struggle. “How do you take care of people? You have to understand that people will come and go. Certain things will not work out. But you are still going to be impacted by it. We are people, and it hurts to lose good employees. But it is the natural tendency for certain things in business.”
Rowboat’s team celebrated some major wins in 2019:
Join Printavo’s amazing community (and Rowboat Creative) at PrintHustlers Conf 2020, an elite conference for the best and brightest in the custom apparel industry. Now in its fourth year, PrintHustlers Conf has brought shops from across the world (even Nigeria!) for two days of incredible presentations, seminars, and relationship building.
If you want to meet the industry’s biggest players, learn from the best, and have a blast at an incredible venue with truly inspiring people, then Printavo’s 2020 PrintHustlers Conf is where you want to be.
Where: Ace Hotel in Chicago
When: July 24-25, just after the ASI Chicago show.
What: A gathering of the industry’s finest for candid discussions and solution building (and some fun, too)
Curious to see what PrintHustlers Conf is like? Check out PrintHustlers Conf 2019 on YouTube with last year’s presentations and breakout sessions or read our in-depth recap of PrintHustlers 2019. Also, we owe a huge thanks to Ryonet, Allmade, M&R, Next Level Apparel, Supacolor, and Clubhouse Athletic for sponsoring PrintHustlers Conf 2019.
Note: Tickets are selling faster this year than they were last year. We sold out nearly 45 days before the conference last year!
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