Going Against The Grain
Craig Stephens knows an opportunity when he sees it. In 1998, when the internet was still in its infancy, Stephens decided to explore potential opportunities in online sales. Domain names were wide open at the time, and imprintlogo.com was available, so he bought it.
Thanks to his family’s background in the printing and promotional products industries, Stephens had the knowledge and experience to take the plunge. His grandfather ran a large commercial printing business in the family’s hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, from 1943 to 1969. And when Stephens wasn’t playing along the banks of Lake Erie, he helped his parents with their business: Stephens Publishing, a promotional products company that focuses on fire prevention education.
After the successful launch of Imprint Logo, Stephens took note of the increasing demand for custom sport spirit products. Seeing his parents’ success in serving a niche market, he purchased minithrowballs. com. And, at the end of last year, he made the seemingly old-school decision to open a traditional storefront.
What were some of the obstacles you encountered when starting out?
Most suppliers back then would not offer EQP unless you guaranteed them a certain sales quantity. With little to no sales as a new business, it was really challenging.
What drove you to open a storefront after so many years of successful online sales?
I knew at some point the cost per conversion for online sales was going to get more expensive and the competition was going to become increasingly fierce.
Building a local client base is a slow process, but our local clients are often more dependable for year-round sales, and they tend to be less aggressive on pricing. Having a large, professional-looking establishment in the market has really helped us to gain the trust of the community. Our local customers can be confident that they are going to get the service they deserve when they walk in the door. The physical face-to-face contact is what they like, and they are tired of getting shuffled around when they call some of the online companies.
How do you differentiate your business in the marketplace?
We are over-the-top when it comes to communicating. We are easy to get in touch with, and we invite people to call us or use our online chat, based on their preferences. We pride ourselves on responding to emails right away.
We only work with suppliers who are easy to connect with. We hand pick suppliers that have the very best customer service; there are several suppliers that we do not do business with because their communications are lacking.
We also offer complimentary graphic design with every order. We want to provide an easy customer experience.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Every day, I research and brainstorm about how to improve our websites and service. I think about this business 24/7, and I often lie in bed with my laptop at 3 am working on the next plan.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love to see my customers’ logos on products. I never get tired of receiving an overrun so that I can admire the finished pieces.
What are your plans for the company going forward?
We want to create more niche websites; in many ways, they seem to work better than large, general websites. We are also continuing to focus on growing our local accounts, and we are considering opening additional brick-and- mortar stores in other areas. We are currently working on a launch of a new webstore this summer which will be exclusively apparel.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
My wife, Kellye, and I have two daughters, ages 12 and 13. We enjoy spending time with them and watching them compete in sports. I own three vintage VW buses, and my hobby is working on them when I can. And, of course, we boat on Lake Erie all summer long.
Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.