When it comes to branding your business or organisation, being able to customise your marketing materials, promotional products, and workwear to reinforce your brand identity is key. This was known all too well by Andrew Dark when he set up Custom Planet with his friend John Armstrong while at university in 2008.
In this interview, Andrew explains his business journey, providing insights for would-be entrepreneurs and sharing his view on his industry as a whole.
Andrew, could you give us an insight into your industry background?
When we started the business I literally had zero knowledge or background in the industry. We made a lot of mistakes in the early days, but you learn quickly. Like anything, you will learn about business and the industry itself along the way, and if you’re not an expert in a particular field, it’s important to surround yourself with people who are. Now I have almost 13 years of industry experience and am still learning all the time as the technology and industry are so fluid.
What was the main influence for starting your custom printing brand?
Really it came down to the fact that university students wear an enormous amount of ‘stash’: university hoodies, society t-shirts and so on, and we thought if we could tap into this we could simply make some extra money whilst at university ourselves.
What are the most important characteristics to look for in a business partner?
Trust and friendship. If you can’t 100% trust your business partner, you will always be second-guessing decisions and trying to overrule each other. Of course, you will have conflict, but being able to trust them means that whatever the outcome is, it’s usually the correct one. Similarly, you are going to be spending a huge amount of time together, so you must be able to get on. Dividing up responsibilities within the business is a great way for you to all have control and ownership over your own work, without stepping on each other’s toes.
What was the most challenging aspect of starting up your business while still at university?
Actually putting the work in. When you’re a student most people tend to work hard, play hard. Or maybe just play hard! So adding another aspect of work to your life when everyone is enjoying themselves (especially if you might not even be getting a financial reward for it at this point) is tricky, so make sure it’s something you’re interested in and something you believe can succeed.
How did you find balancing your business workload with your university workload? What advice can you offer for people who might be in a similar situation?
The university work always came first. That is what you are paying for and what you’re looking to achieve so you must prioritise it. However, putting set times aside each week to focus on your business is a great way to ensure you’re continuing to develop and get the work out you need to without affecting your studies.
What measures did you initially take to ensure your brand stood out against competitors?
We chose the name ‘Custom Planet’ as it seemed most companies in our industry were ‘t-shirt printers’ or ‘workwear’ or ‘sportswear’. We didn’t want to limit ourselves, so in all of our advertising — and even with our logo and name — we wanted to show that we could do anything related to garment decoration and not pigeonhole ourselves into one sector.
Could you give any examples of risks you’ve had to take or decisions you’ve had to make early on that really helped you to grow your business?
The biggest bit of advice I could give anyone starting out would be to provide what the customer wants. I know this sounds so simple, but we have evolved and evolved and continue to do so based on what our customers’ requirements are. 10 years ago, we could only print t-shirts in one very specific way. Now we have multiple branding methods across all types of clothing and apparel, as well as a huge range of promotional products and other goods.
This is all born out of what our customers wanted. Too often I think people stick to what they think their customers want, rather than really listening. So you need to always be prepared to change — throw the whole business plan out the window if you need to! — in order to adapt and focus on what will make you money.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give young people looking to start a business?
Go for it! It’s as simple as that. We started our business whilst at university and then went into it full time as soon as we graduated. There is no better time to do this than now. Chances are you don’t have a mortgage, a family to support and so on. So if you fail then so what? You will have learned a heck of a lot on the way and you will never be in a better position to try.
Are there any challenges in the custom branding industry that new start-ups should be aware of?
There are many challenges every day. The main one for any new start-up is that very quickly you will realise you need to be an expert in the field of branding. Most customers will not understand the branding process at all, they simply think they can provide you with an image or logo and it’ll go onto anything exactly as they expect, without thinking about the quality of the logo, what is achievable on certain products, how colour variations will occur on different products and so on. If you can’t head off these things and manage the client’s expectations from the start, you will very quickly be in dangerous water.
Are there any key trends you expect to see from the industry in upcoming years?
We are seeing more and more of a shift towards eco and sustainable or recycled products. There have been promises of shifts to this in the past, but the large increases in cost seemed to stunt this almost completely. However, it seems to be coming back in a big way now as more individuals and companies are coming to grips with their responsibilities to the environment.
What is your hope for the future of Custom Planet?
Over the past 10 years, we have grown each year and we very much want this trend to continue. We hope to continue to innovate within the industry, providing branding solutions in house for more products than anyone across the UK, enhancing our reputation as the one-stop solution for all your branding needs.
Image credits: Unsplash