Business Spotlight SEries
Life has a way of introducing the right opportunities if you’re willing to take a leap. Neither Molly Korman or Nick Volk, co-owners of Old Eastern Ink Shop, ever dreamt about printing t-shirts, but when the opportunity presented itself, they both leapt without hesitation. Opening in December of 2019, the ink shop has provided this duo with a with a lot of sleepless nights but a ton of fresh air.
Nick Volk is the lead singer of the band Old Eastern and was a high school English teacher in Baltimore County for 9 1/2 years. A few years ago, when his band needed t-shirts, he opted to invest the entirety of the band bank account, a tidy sum of $150, on a DIY screen printing kit. So in his basement, at 3am on most school nights, Nick began printing his own merch as well as merch for a few local bands. Then, in 2017, Molly relocated from teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in Philadelphia City to Baltimore County. When the daily teaching grind was toughest, the two developed lofty goals and several business plans together. One day in October 2018, Nick received a text during 3rd period saying “Hey! We’re an official LLC now. I was bored during 2nd period.” They left teaching the next month.
Molly and Nick both still have a passion for teaching, and Old Eastern Ink Shop allows them to educate in a way that helps their clients. For instance, they described how a lot of the smaller bands they work with will go to them and say they want a shirt with this particular color or design. Nick and Molly will then guide them and talk about other color options and T-shirts styles available. “We still do a lot of the teaching aspects but it's cooler in some ways because you get to see immediate learning and the immediate results.For example, if there's a band, who wants a white T-shirt and black lettering, we work with them to change their designs,and they later find out they sold out of their shirts in one night. So, those kinds of immediate rewards... you don't get with teaching.”
Simply being part of the local music scene has helped expand Nick and Molly’s exposure, since Nick has played in bands with many of the individuals that are now clients of Old Eastern Ink.
In fact, more recently, as they are working with more new bands, Nick and Molly enjoy supporting them and find that as the band grows, they grow along with them. “It’s really a beautiful symbiosis. It’s a lot of fun,” comments Nick. Molly explains that “the great thing about the bands is they sell their shirts and then they need more. They come back and word of mouth is huge. Because of the amount of show venues and the bars that we're at, we know a lot of bartenders, and bartenders are people who you want knowing about your business. They do a lot of the work, so we have many friends and professional connections who have sent people our way.”
Molly remarks about the reward their business brings with other small business owners as well. “There was a woman who found us via facebook who just bought a nail salon…..we we worked out a thing for her....something she could afford. We got to deliver her shirts and she got to see her own design and logo on something real for the first time. For a small business, that's huge, to see it coming to life.That is one of the really really cool moments that we get.”
What was the toughest thing you went through when opening?
Nick: “I guess it was two-fold.The hardest step was overcoming quitting teaching in the middle of the school year. At the very beginning that was right when we were like, ‘this can't possibly work,’ and then we both had to make that first step to make it real.“
“I’d been teaching for 9 1/2 years and I'm trying to say to my family ‘Oh, I just got to leave this career that I got and we're gonna print T-shirts in my basement. They’re like ‘You're a lunatic’. The next thing was finding money. We had an initial number in our head. If we have x, then we'd be safe in this amount of time and it will give us the chance to get rolling, and the x got smaller and smaller as time went on. We just needed to get out. We needed breathing room.”
Molly: “That breathing room allowed us to go out and find out more customers. Which was really big for us. There would be days where I would sit on my computer from 8 in the morning till midnight just sending cold emails to thousands of people. So I think that was like our first three months, sending all of those out saying ‘give us a shot’. Now we're really at this spot where we don't have to do that. It's a combination of returning clients and new clients.
I think our big advantages is that “now” part of our service. Because we don't have the overhead, because we are relatively small, we can still do rush orders that other people can't.”
What do you like most about having this new business?
Molly:” All of it. We have a lifestyle now, not a job.”
Nick: “ It's very refreshing now that everything's on our schedule and on our time.I get to let my dog outside more which is also great.”
Molly: ”We are constantly functioning unit together. It's fun too because we split a lot of the business - he essentially prints all the shirts and I do the other things. That's our division of labor… We’ve got a super good division of labor.”
If a customer was to choose between your business and 3 others just like it why would you suggest they give you a try first?
Molly: “We do sample Tees which a lot of people will do and those cost more than your normal order of T-shirts, but we will print one and that's a big thing because most people have minimum quantities. It’s really rare to find places locally that will print like two T-shirts. So we can do that. The other thing is that we price match. Our motto is always been "we would rather make ten bucks on an order than zero dollars on an order" so even if it means that we're not operating at the margins that we want to be, I would rather bend over backwards to make the sale and make the clients happy, come back to us and tell people about us. And we deliver (for free)...That's not a thought that you would think from ordering online where it says "oh, the T-shirts were only this much per shirt" then you have to pay 40 USD to ship them. So as long as it’s in Maryland or Pennsylvania, we deliver. The fun part is we like hanging out with people and meet faces and be humans instead of just communicating over email.”
What are their short term 6 month to 1 year goals and where do you see themselves?
Nick: “I want double what we're doing right now.”
Molly: “We want more constant supply of clients coming in. We also would like to get an embroidery machine to be able to embroider as well as print. We would love to get an adapter to our printing setups to be able to print hats. Those are the little things we hope will help us.”
If you had to start over from day 1 what would you have done differently?
Nick: “Start sooner. I would have done this 10 years ago and saved myself a masters degree and almost a Phd’s worth of money.”
What's your motivation to grow?
Nick: “I think we have separate thoughts on it but kind of like similar goals. I am terrible at money (that's why she handles all of the money) and my debt is awful- I mean student loan debt is one of those things that's always in the back of my head so it's like if we can get to x threshold then none of that really becomes a concern anymore. The beautiful thing is it’s about what we were making about what we were when we were teaching... I mean even if it's a little less when you combine our salaries as teachers, it's not like we need 6 million dollars a year but it’s like we need a tiny bit less than we made when we were teaching full time. So it's just getting to that threshold where literally we're on our own, we're running, we're maybe a month or two ahead on things financially and maybe in five years maybe we can expand. I think the eventual long range thing is to open a very legit storefront down somewhere where there is traffic and things are busy... live upstairs and print down in the basement and just have that setup. I think that's reasonable.”
Molly: “The funny thing how we view that now is I don't feel compelled for planning my vacation 6 months from now, because I don't...it's all a vacation. With everything that we do there's nothing that I need to escape from at all.”
Old Eastern Ink Shop thrives on providing high quality merchandise at affordable prices to the local music, business, restaurant, bar, and artist community.
To reach out to Old Eastern Ink Shop go to https://www.oldeasterninkshop.com/