It was in 2012-2013, after finishing school and nearing the end of a three-year apprenticeship at Airbus, when Snelson decided that his hankering to work for himself could wait no longer. So, still living with his parents, Snelson began what he called ‘The Bedroom Project’.
“My hours at Airbus were 7am to 4.30pm and then I’d work on the project as soon as I got in,” he explains. “It was immediately a passion. I skipped dinner and the gym – and I’m a big fitness fanatic – but at the time it all got pushed aside and I’d be straight onto the computer answering customer emails, making sure orders were processed, working on new designs, new product lists, trying to expand the business. I’d be doing it until 1am or 2am and getting up again at 5am to go back to work.”
In the early days of the project Snelson knew that his focus was going to be in e-commerce, with its low overheads and barriers to entry, so he began to research various routes to market with eBay being “the most simplistic route at the time”. He decided to capitalise on the success he’d had at school in his Young Enterprise project and soon began designing logos and texts for t-shirts, buying the garments from a custom clothing provider.
“It seemed to me there was more of a margin on the provider’s end than mine, so I thought there was something in the personalisation that adds value and that I should explore it,” he explains. “So, I bought a very small amount of printing equipment, a vinyl cutter and a few rolls of vinyl, which amazingly all fitted into my room in my parents’ house, and started printing and personalising them.”
The drive and energy to put in another eight or nine hours a day on top of his day job, says Snelson, came from knowing that one day he could be his own boss. So, with his apprenticeship complete and the Bedroom Project order book bursting at the seams, he made the leap.
Fully aware of his own shortcomings, Snelson had by this stage teamed up with school friend Hannah Benson who, he explains, had brought some much-needed structure to his approach.
“When I look back, things were so slow, I was trying to process 25-30 orders a night and where I had some terrible processes for trying to get orders out the door, she’d come up with a solution that more than halved the time it was taking me.
“So, we realised there was something in our partnership that worked and as we scaled up I focused on the growth of the business, introducing new products and customers and Hannah worked on keeping things efficient and serving customers well without bursting at the seams, and that’s the way it’s worked ever since.”
Leaving the safety of his parents’ house for a small office space a year after launching the Bedroom Project the pair focused on growing their product and service portfolio, testing new ideas and online markets apace.
Orders exploded on marketplace sites such as eBay and Amazon, as well as its now dedicated site signatureprintinguk.com, and Snelson decided that expanding from personalised vinyl printing into direct-to-garment printing was a must. He therefore invested in new kit to increase their offering and the business was soon giving customers the vast choice of products it offers today, including clothing, gifts and merchandise to which they can add their own text, logos or graphic designs for printing.
Of course, with new kit came the need for more space and more hands and as the order books continued to expand so the business outgrew not one, but four different bases to fill the 370m² industrial unit in Saltney, Chester, that houses its kit and 12 of its employees today.
“In the early days, everything we did was self-taught,” explains Sneslon. “We weren’t spending enough money on equipment to get the training that goes along with it, so we learned from supplier websites and videos online and we passed that on when we first hired staff. Then once we started buying more expensive equipment we started getting the supplier engineers to give us all the training and support we needed.”
Initial investment came from the first profits of the business but continued expansion has called for external investment which, for lack of backing from the traditional high-street banks, has come through PayPal and Amazon’s loan services, Working Capital and Amazon Lending.
Snelson says the services have been instrumental for Signature’s continued growth allowing it to remain agile, react quickly to the market and keep one step ahead.
“Adaptability has allowed us to grow,” he says. “We moved on from just t-shirt printing and we’ve tried lots of different products and markets and what works we scale on and what doesn’t we drop and that is our mantra. Our biggest online market has always been eBay and our biggest product is currently tote bags but those things may change and we are ready for that.”
The business is 100% UK based, Snelson says, sourcing the vast majority of its products from the conveniently situated supplier Ralawise, which has its warehouse just two miles from Signature Printing’s site.
“That’s been instrumental in helping us to grow quickly because they hold 25 million stock items in their warehouse with just a three-hour call-off time,” says Snelson. It also helps the business fulfil its aim to complete and ship all orders the day after receipt, he explains.
With the business nearly doubling revenues year-on-year for the past two years, turning around £900,000 last year and £1.4m this year and forecasting £2.1m in 2020, Snelson says further expansion is needed. This time he intends to move up instead of out, adding another floor to Signature’s premises and creating much needed space.
“We’re finding we simply can’t call off the stock fast enough even with a three hour call-off time, so we are starting to hold quite a bit of stock. Currently we have more than 30,000 items on any given day and when you couple that with more print equipment and more staff, quite frequently, we are running out of floor space,” he says.
Headcount, which includes three offsite data processors, is growing with 12 full-time employees and reaching 18 at peak times. This fluctuation and fast-paced growth makes keeping on top of quality and speed a key focus, says Snelson.
“It’s the biggest challenge we face in every growth phase, so Hannah ensures the same training is delivered to everyone and random spot checks are carried out to make sure the quality of our work is consistent and that our staff can keep up with the pace,” he adds.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far and importantly I really enjoy it,” he says. “I never really liked working for anyone else and I now love going to work and seeing my team.”
Looking ahead Snelson says there will be a planned slowdown in growth in the next couple of years to ensure the business stays stable, meets demand and imperatively, remains profitable. “There’s only so far you can push it without more external investment before it starts to impact your bottom line and that is something we are very wary of,” he stresses.
The focus for the time being will be on growing the management team, he explains. When asked if he’s laying the groundwork for early retirement, Snelson says: “Absolutely!”
Location Chester, UK
Inspection Host Ed Snelson, director
Size Turnover: £1.4m; Staff: 16
Products Personalised direct-to-garment and vinyl printing on a range of products, such as tote bags, make-up bags, t-shirts and other clothing items
Kit Three Ricoh DTG R100 printers, Amaya TexJet Plus Advanced DTG, 18 Cameo Vinyl Cutters, Roland Vinyl Cutter, Sawgrass sublimation printer, Oki white toner heat transfer printer
Inspection focus Building a business from your bedroom
The number one piece of advice is to have determination, says Snelson. It is not an easy task to start a business on the side. There will be multiple roadblocks and if you can’t or won’t find a way around them it won’t work. Keep realistic expectations, and don’t expect anything to come easily.
It’s vital in e-commerce to listen to your customers and their feedback. If you think something is a sensible suggestion or comment, then adapt to meet their needs. It’s helped Signature Printing grow such a successful product range, says Snelson.
If you are looking to get started in the online arena, approach a marketplace like eBay. It’s free and really easy to get going with them. Snelson says: “It’s been brilliant for us so it could be brilliant for lots of other people too.”
Snelson says he hires people on their attitude: “It’s hard to hire people in a small business so don’t over-think it. You can see in someone’s eyes if they are positive, full of life and questions and want to be part of the team. Prior knowledge and skills are almost irrelevant if it’s not a skilled job you are hiring for. If I know how to do it, then they can be trained on it too.”