Next-Gen Talent? Look No Further
It’s easy to think of the printing industry as consisting of a certain demographic sticking to that population’s rules about how to get things done. It’s also incorrect. Although the change isn’t always evident, the industry is actually getting younger, nimbler, and feistier - in the front office, as well as on the shop floor.
Following are profiles of four up-and-coming owner/operators of three nonconventional firms: free-thinking entrepreneurs bringing the industry the energy it thrives on and the new sense of direction it needs.
James Wegner and Jonny Widder, VariDirect / Substrate
They share initials, a friendship, an alma mater and a reluctance to use corporate job titles. Together, they’ve built a thriving printing and display firm with traditional roots, but a distinctly maverick attitude toward the norms of print production and business strategy.
“We don’t necessarily consider ourselves printers,” says James Wegner, who with partner Jonny Widder co-owns and operates VariDirect in Long Island City, N.Y. “We’re more producers and artists.” Specializing in complex, large-format graphics and elaborate fabrications for retail spaces and other environments, the shop, in Widder’s words, puts up with “no b.s. or red tape” when it comes to getting jobs done for clients.
Neither partner has much patience with the way they say printing companies are typically run. At 95% of VariDirect’s competition, claims Widder, it takes longer to obtain estimates and approvals than it does to print the jobs. When the phone rings at VariDirect, he says, “we always have a calculator at our desks” to head off those kinds of logjams.
The partners work without commissioned salespeople so that nothing will prevent them from dealing directly with their customers or interfere with the relationships that keep jobs coming in. “Jonny and I have been on 10 sales calls in our careers,” says Wegner, noting that word-of-mouth referrals are responsible for most of the volume the shop produces.
It’s a contrarian formula, but it appears to be working. VariDirect generated revenue of $1.5 million in its first year of operation and is on track, the partners say, to be a $10 million company within 18 months.
But even here, their strategic thinking goes against the grain. “We concluded that we never wanted the business to be very large,” Wegner says, if that kind of growth would compromise its artisanal character in any way.
Wegner and Widder met on their first day of classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology and have been inseparable as colleagues ever since. “We sit in the same office,” Widder says. “We play to each other’s strengths.”
Widder had a background in the business as a member of the family that owned Dickard Widder Industries (Maspeth, N.Y.), a producer of swatch cards, tags and other samplers for fabrics, vinyl, wall coverings and many other kinds of materials. Wegner apprenticed at Rochester’s Cobher Press and was running a 40˝ press there by the time he was 18.
They began working together in Rochester upon their graduation in 2009 and set up shop in an 1,800-sq.-ft. space in Manhattan four years later. This was followed by a move to a 6,400-sq.-ft. location in Long Island City, a subway stop away from Manhattan in the borough of Queens. They and a staff of about 25 employees currently operate out of a 28,000-sq.-ft. L.I.C. warehouse that is also home to Substrate, a fabrication business they launched in January of this year.
VariDirect uses a battery of EFI VUTEk grand-format devices to produce projects that Widder calls “crazy” in terms of the attention to detail they require. Intricate combinations of inks and substrates push the devices to their limits on jobs that are “lower in volume, but way higher in markup” than typical grand-format work, Widder points out.
Substrate, the fabrication shop, designs and builds structurally complex and visually striking things for “experiential” applications such as retail window displays, events, and architectural interiors.
Techniques include milling, woodworking and metalworking, spray finishing, and installation, supported with printing from VariDirect. The partners say that although Substrate has been in operation for less than a year, it already accounts for about 40% of their total business.
When they’re asked what they think the future holds, under-30 owners like Wegner and Widder have to take a long look ahead. Growth by acquisition, they say, could be a possibility; so might being acquired. They’re also considering setting up a creative agency similar to the ones they do business with.
Wegner says the thing that inspires them most at the present moment is “the physicality of what we’ve built:” the going concern that their friendship and common business vision have enabled them to create. “When we walk in here when the lights are off and say, ‘This is ours; this is what we made,’ it makes us proud of being owner/operators,” Widder agrees.
Why, then, aren’t more talented people in their age group seeking the same kind of fulfillment in career paths similar to theirs?
Part of the problem, contends Widder, is that “nobody wants to make anything anymore - nobody wants to touch anything anymore.” This is why it makes more sense for the partners to hire people from the New York City metro area’s fabrication industry rather than from its printing sector - where employees sometimes acquire work habits that don’t fit well with the VariDirect / Substrate model.
If the printing industry wants to attract young talent, adds Wegner, “it needs to stop promoting itself as a printing industry.” Emphasizing the art and the creativity that still exist in printing will help to bring about the “great renaissance” the industry needs.
The industry should also take a hard look at the image it projects, according to Widder, who finds it “unbelievable” that so few of his professional peers are people his age.
“We’ve had enough of guys wearing suits in front of a wainscot wall,” he declares. Shorts and t-shirts are acceptable attire throughout the plant as long as the job gets done right.
Mariela Faith, Off the Wall Signs & Graphics
As everyone who has seen it knows, Las Vegas is the world capital of outsized visual statements. That makes it the perfect environment for the spectacular creations of Mariela Faith and her cityscape-transforming company, Off the Wall Signs & Graphics.
The name may say “Off,” but walls are Faith’s medium and métier. She and her team of 13 artists and installation specialists drape them in grand-format swatches that cover tens of thousands of square feet on buildings, sports stadiums and other structures where the messaging needs to be larger - much larger - than life.
Her work helps to promote conventions, performances, trade shows and other happenings organized by professional event planning firms and local businesses. In Las Vegas, these have included the National Finals Rodeo, the NBA Summer League tournament and the World Series of Poker Main Event, among many other showcases.
But, it’s necessary to take a trip to San Diego every July to see Off the Wall Signs & Graphics complete its most eye-popping assignments of all: building wraps for Comic-Con International, an event that the company has been decorating with grand-format hangings and signage since 2010.
This year and last, Faith and her team festooned the city’s PETCO Park stadium with exterior and interior banners advertising pop-culture productions to the 100,000-plus fans who flocked to the events.
This year, it took 12 days of 18-hour shifts to print and prepare the 35,000 sq. ft. of material that the project entailed. Using scaffolds, cherry pickers and rappelling harnesses, installers under the supervision of Faith’s husband, Rocky Faith, put the visuals in place in about five days.
The grand-format devices responsible for this output are an HP Scitex FB700 flatbed industrial printer; an HP Scitex FB6100 flatbed; and a rollfed HP Latex 3000. These are supported by equipment for welding, grommeting, cutting and laminating. Faith says that having a full spectrum of design, printing and installation capabilities under one roof sets Off the Wall Print & Graphics apart from competitors that have to outsource work that she can do in-house.
Rocky Faith started the company in 2009. Mariela Faith, who holds a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, became its owner in 2013. Today, she says, one goal is to evolve the business model from contractor status to the role of a creative agency, offering project concept and management services from beginning to end.
The company’s office and studio space certainly looks the part - it’s filled with brilliantly colored examples of the kinds of work that Off the Wall Print & Graphics executes on a much larger scale for buildings. As a setting for graphic production, it’s not conventional - and neither is Faith’s approach to running her business.
For one thing, she says, the company hires on the basis of personality, not experience. Employees must be willing to learn, able to multitask and be comfortable with taking direction from a young (she is 33), female boss. Being sociable is another prerequisite, since the team members enjoy hanging out and kicking back with each other when the high-altitude work of wrapping a building is done.
She says that her employees range in age from 22 to 27, so there’s no question of her company’s ability to attract young talent. She isn’t sure why other graphics businesses are having difficulty, but she suspects it’s because that when young people hear about printing employment, “they think it’s just a job.”
They want to know that they’ll have opportunities to learn and grow before they’ll make a career commitment, Faith says.
Tarang Gosalia, Optamark Graphics / Anything with Ink
If an industry is to be reinvented, it first has to be reimagined - and for that to happen, the industry must be prepared to stand aside for creative disrupters who can break it out of its old molds and inject it with new ideas.
Enter Tarang Gosalia, 30, founder and CEO of Optamark Graphics and the principal architect of the newly launched online print marketplace, Anything with Ink.
A 2009 graduate of the entrepreneurial studies program at Babson College, Gosalia learned the basics of the printing business at the Sir Speedy franchise his parents operated for many years in North Attleboro, Mass. He envisioned a future in which the Internet and SaaS (software as a service) technology would decentralize production workflows and connect consumers of print everywhere with dependable sources of what they needed, regardless of product requirement or geography.
Gosalia also wanted to reengineer the print sales process, which he saw as too constrained by administrative procedures to let print salespeople reach their full potential.
He commenced the first phase of his plan by opening Optamark Graphics in Boston in 2011. Optamark Graphics is a printing company, but with a couple of key differences from the conventional print business model: it processes orders for whatever its customers want through branded Web-to-print storefronts created for them free of charge; and it brokers out most of the work it receives this way.
The storefonts - about 600 have been installed to date - let customers place and track orders for print and promotional products that Optamark Graphics may or may not produce internally.
With its array of Xerox and Ricoh digital presses and wide-format devices from HP, the Boston plant handles high-margin, on-demand work in runs of 2,500 or less. This work comprises about 30% of the company’s volume.
The rest has to be produced outside, and for that, Gosalia says, “we have an arsenal of trade printers all over the U.S.” These vendors - there are about two dozen of them - let Optamark Graphics fulfill orders for everything from thermographed business cards to packaging and POP, usually with one- or two-day shipping.
Software, including API (application programming interface) integration with some of the trade printers, makes it all run smoothly. The IT know-how, along with customer service and order management, comes from one of two support sites that Gosalia operates in India; the other one handles finance and administration.
“We’ve been very tactful with our ability to use a global workforce,” says Gosalia of the efficiency of his offshore operations. Half the workforce - about 40 people - is in India, and about the same number are U.S. based. Besides the Boston plant, the company has offices in New York City; Dallas; and Stamford, Conn.
Optamark Graphics also has the distinction of being a climber on Inc. magazine’s annual list of the nation’s 5,000 fastest growing small businesses, rising from No. 223 in 2015 to No. 198 last year.
That achievement underscores the validity of Gosalia’s plan for a decentralized print manufacturing network. Now he wants to do for the printing industry something similar to what Uber has done in the livery space: empower print salespeople to work independently by connecting them with people who want to buy from them and handling all of the administrative overhead associated with the transactions.
This is the concept behind Anything with Ink, a platform that promises (per its promotional website) to connect buyers with “an elite network of the top 1% of print and promotional experts in the world.” It was scheduled for official launch on September 1 with a number of participants who had signed up previously on a wait list.
Gosalia is looking for qualified partners who will use Anything with Ink to sell the more than 100,000 print and promotional offerings the platform makes available to them. The intended resellers are printers, print brokers, graphic designers, promotional product distributors and others wishing to take limits off the range of products they offer to their customers.
The platform lets partners scale up to all-in-one reselling by giving them all the administrative tools they need to streamline the ordering process and manage their customer relationships.
Quotes generated in real time, for example, come straight to the dashboard from the back end, meaning that sales reps “are no longer at the mercy of their CSRs” for the information, Gosalia says. Automated order processing, markup and profit calculation, and online payment and accounting, are other functions that the platform is designed to take care of for Anything with Ink’s reseller partners.
This is how the solution removes friction and headaches from running a print brokerage business, according to Gosalia. Print buyers, especially those new to the task, benefit as well because Anything with Ink connects them with a network of vetted providers who can supply anything they want, when they want it.
The objective immediately ahead of Gosalia is to “compel a lot of frustrated salespeople” to believe that Anything with Ink now offers them a better way to serve their customers and themselves. That will take passion — a quality that Gosalia declares he’s far from short of.
Some of it goes into his side role as an angel investor who funds entrepreneurial startups. There’s also passion in his conviction about what the printing industry must do to stay ahead of the changes that are roiling many parts of it.
Printing, he says, is an “old, dated industry” in need of a fresh approach. Just being a manufacturer doesn’t suffice any more; printers have to rebrand and market themselves in new and more engaging ways. That will mean bringing in “young blood” and increasing the industry’s ethnic and gender diversity.
Gosalia suggests that one way to attract young people who have been through the crash-and-burn cycle of failed startups is to remind them that, unlike those ventures, printing companies can be sources of something they all want: stable employment.