From university bedroom to mainstream garment decorator

The Custom Planet team
The Custom Planet team

A plan which started as a way to make money while at university has seen two young entrepreneurs grow their garment decoration business into one which now turns over more than a £1m a year. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey finds out more about this tale of growth.

John Armstrong and Andrew Dark are the founders and managing directors of Custom Planet. The Newcastle upon Tyne-based business specialises in printwear, embroidery and branding, operates out of a 2,500sq ft unit and employs 12 staff.

From the beginning

Rewind to 2008 and it was a very different story. John and Andrew met working in the same bar while at university. John was studying sports science at Durham University with the ultimate aim of becoming a PE teacher and Andrew was at Northumbria University studying business and IT. As with everything in life nothing is guaranteed and neither man enrolled at university with the plan of starting a garment decoration business. However, things change.

The equipment the company started out with was very basic as John explains: “We started with just an Adkins heat press and some vinyl. As we began printing T shirts and feeding money back in to get better equipment, we left university with a one-head embroidery machine and two heat presses in a back bedroom, and a manual screen printer in the garage.”

To begin with business was slow. Custom Planet’s main source of work came from fellow students who needed a few T shirts printed here and there for bar crawls and society events. To drum up business John says they entered the Yellow Pages and bought a phone line, he adds: “We had no experience whatsoever in sales so just waited for the phone to ring.”

Taking flight

This fledgling business soon took flight when John and Andrew left university and made the decision to work full-time building the Custom Planet business.

Over the years the business has invested both in its team and the equipment it uses. Now the business employs 12 members of staff and uses an Epson DTG printer, three Barudan embroidery machines, two M&R automatic screen printing machines (a Sportsman and a Diamondback), a manual MHM screen print carousel and a Mimaki CJV30-60 printer cutter, as well as a number of heat presses and smaller sublimation machines.

These pieces of equipment were chosen for the reliability they provide Custom Planet. “It’s an age old saying, but cheap equipment is expensive. If you buy the right machines in the first place and do your research, you will save far more money and hassle in the long run,” says John. This equipment means that Custom Planet has all angles of garment decoration covered, allowing the team to produce all sorts of items, for a wide variety of customers, ensuring they get the best possible outcome for their job.

Having the right equipment and staff in place is great, but a business cannot grow relying on this alone. John says that the company has been very lucky that a lot of its growth has come down to repeat customers and referrals. One of the main things that John says has helped over the years is their management information systems, which frees up a lot of time. This allows all members of staff to have information at their fingertips and means Custom Planet is able to target clients and prospective clients more effectively.

John says that Custom Planet doesn’t really have a typical customer. A lot of customers have a wide variety of jobs they require from Custom Planet, which is why John says they stand out as a business. “We can do everything under one roof,” he adds. Items decorated include promotional and event T shirts, workwear, schoolwear and fashion clothing.

One of Custom Planet’s biggest clients for the past five years started out as a stag do. The organiser of the stag do just so happened to be the marketing manager of one of the biggest companies in the North East. “One day he was let down by a current supplier, rang us for help, and the rest as they say is history,” explains John. He adds that it always pays to look after every client as you don’t know what one small job may turn into.

Growing a business doesn’t come without hurdles to jump over as the guys at Custom Planet have discovered over the years. A few years ago John and Andrew stumbled across a shortage of skills in the North East when one of their screen printers relocated to Australia. Luckily for Custom Planet, he returned three months later. But in the interim, having not found anybody suitable to replace him at short notice the guys decided to embark on some internal training so the company’s staff could be trained the way they wanted them to print. This in turn has led to John and Andrew to look at employing apprentices and training them in the specialised skills required to succeed in the printwear industry.

View of the factory floor
View of the factory floor

Looking ahead

Having quickly outgrown the back bedroom and garage, Custom Planet upgraded to a small factory unit. Two years later Custom Planet moved to its current location. In 2014 more space was needed and so Custom Planet knocked through into the unit next door. This increased the company’s floor space from 1,700sq ft to 2,500sq ft. John says there is a funny story behind this move, “We found a new ink supplier and I went to pick some things up and really liked their unit, so we got the one next door, and then added to the one next door again. We’re still there and so are they, so it’s ideal when we’re are running short on something.”

John loves his job, in particular dealing directly with customers. “It is the constant evolution we have of making the customer experience better and easier. Coming up with solutions that fit the customer whether it be for ordering, print methods, deliveries, you name it. It’s all about making life as easy as possible for the customer and for us.”

Needless to say, the future is looking very bright for Custom Planet. The company is still progressing, still investing in new machinery and new print methods, with an ultimate aim of providing customers with a one-stop-shop for all of their branding and printwear needs. In five years’ time John hopes that Custom Planet will have doubled in size both in terms of turnover and production output. He adds: “We never expected the business to become as big as it has, but now have plans to continue the growth. We believe this is a realistic goal as we have steadily grown year on year for the past eight years since we began.”

Custom Planet’s story demonstrates that even the smallest printshop or embroiderer can dream big and become a multi-million pound business.

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