Photos: Kris Kathmann
Drawing Outside The Lines
Brian Stark connects creativity with career.
In many ways, starting a business is like creating a piece of art: building a company often involves bringing together different “materials,” then honing and crafting them to meet the vision of what the entrepreneur wants the business to be.
An artist will first sketch a thumbnail of their project, much like an entrepreneur creating a business plan. An artist will then compose the basic elements needed to get the project going, much like a start up securing financing, a location, employees. Then the artist will start creating, one step at a time, adding detail and sometimes going in a different direction than the original sketch, much like a business owner finding the perfect niche for them.
That’s how it went with Brian Stark, artist and owner of B.Stark & Co.
“I’m an artistic business person,” Stark smiles. “Because I don’t really think of myself as a business person. I’m almost afraid to say that because, in a business magazine, readers might think, ‘well, he’s not even a businessman!’ But I think that artistic part of me gives me a little of a sensibility of the people aspect. I want to say I just sort of fell into it [owning a business] but it was more than that – I really made a commitment to it. To start a business, you make sacrifices. You don’t just fall off a tree and you are there. We do have a business plan, of course, but I feel like coming at it from the heart angle and hanging on to that for myself, it enables me to think about the human aspect more than just plans and spreadsheets. I think it’s good for anybody to try to have a balance and I feel like my art helps me to do that.”
While he fell into the role of business man later in life, Stark was an artist from a young age.
“One thing that comes to mind is when I was a kid, I liked “Peanuts” and the “Calvin and Hobbes” series. Cartooning has always been a really big part of my art love. I used to get MAD magazines all the time and just really wanted to emulate the people in that. So I knew from a very young age what I wanted to do. My mom has things from third grade where I’d say I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t put I wanted to be a businessman,” he grins.
But that is what he is. And a good one at that. Promotional products make up a nearly $17 billion dollar industry and B.Stark & Co. is certainly exacto-knifing out its piece of the market here in Southern Minnesota.
“There’s more competition now than ever,” he says. “I think that’s probably true of just about every business. There’s more of everything in this world. At the time I started there were a number of other people already doing this, but I jumped in anyway. I would say part of it was I was young enough where I was a little bit naïve about it. That combined with the fact that I felt like I would still have time to recover if it didn’t work out. It’s always been a competitive industry. It’s always been an industry where there are a lot of mom and pops. With all the competition, you have to learn how to price your things properly to stay in business.”
In this interview, Stark talks about how he has stayed in business for 30 plus years, how it’s changed and what is in the future for the biggest creative project he’s ever undertaken: running a successful business.
First of all, tell me about Brian Stark.
Well, I’m from Owatonna and attended Owatonna High School. My reason for coming to Mankato was to attend what was known at that time as the vocational technical school, now it is South Central College. At the time, the program was called Commercial Arts, now it is called Graphic Communications. My entrée into the work world was that I wanted to do something connected with art. That was my initial thought of a career. So, I went there for two years and then I got a job at a print shop in town called Ads & Ink which did offset printing and all different types of printed materials for local businesses.
I was an artist there for five years. Then at one point, I met a person who did printed t-shirts in their basement but they could not draw. He asked me one day, ‘I like to print but I’m not really interested in drawing, would you maybe want to do this with me and you could be the artist?’ It sounded like a nice sideline thing to do. So I came up with some designs and we actually hooked up with a salesman who sold to resorts up north. I had my own little line of t-shirts and everything. That was my introduction to screen printing and the printed apparel world. Then after doing that for a short time, the printer just was not pulling his end of the bargain and missing deadlines and things like that. It was not in my control and I didn’t like it.
I was commiserating with some friends one day on just how frustrating it was to put a lot of work into it and feel let down on the other end. One of my friends said, ‘Well, why don’t you just do it yourself?’ Really up until that point, I had never considered that as even an option because usually – and it was the case for me – when you’re an artist, the furthest thing from your mind is being a businessperson. [laughs] That didn’t even enter my realm of consideration but then I thought about it and I was like, ‘Why I don’t I?’
When was this?
That was in 1987. I borrowed some money from my dad and my grandpa and bought a press. I had actually never even printed before so I was really just doing it all on faith. I still had my job at Ads & Ink during the day and I was just doing this at night. I was working really long hours, which turned out to be a trend in my life from then on! [laughs] I did that for a year and then decided the next step was to just quit my day job.
Yes, it was. It’s just such a huge leap but it’s really what you have to do. You have to buy in to what you’re doing and you can’t hedge it forever. So I left Ads & Ink and that was the beginning of B.Stark Graphics.
Let’s talk about the evolution of B.Stark Graphics, now B.Stark & Co.
I did the tourist, resort wear thing for a while and started doing jobs for people around town that I knew and people that knew people that I knew because at that point you’re really just trying to survive and do what you have to do to keep it all going. Remember by now I didn’t have a ‘real’ job and income.
It was really just me in the beginning, which I actually think was a good way to start. When you are by yourself you really learn about all aspects of what you’re doing and how they all fit together. So I am glad I did it that way instead of starting out with staff right away. When you build from the ground up you do get a grounding that later on you can use to understand all roles in your company. You can understand some of the thoughts of your employees and what their challenges are and things like that because you’ve kind of been there.
I always am grateful that it turned out that way because I think it lets me have a little bit more empathy with different facets of what other people are doing.
So in the beginning it was just me and then I was joined later by my girlfriend who later became my wife who still works with me.
She’s an artist as well or?
She is not. She’s the money end. So it was a good match in that way as well. After a few years with the tourist, resort-wear thing, I was just not having very much fulfillment from it. It wasn’t very fun. Everybody was remote, I wasn’t dealing with the customers one-on-one. The custom work resonated with me on more levels and I just liked doing that more. The resort wear didn’t allow for much variety and was just the same thing over and over. We ended up just dropping that and made a commitment to say ‘This is what we’re about. We’re going to do custom work, one-on-one, so people that come in here can talk to us and we can really try to understand them and do what they want.’
It was about more than the graphics at that point so a name change was in order. We had hired an employee by then so we became “B.Stark & Co.”.
I was happy when the business got to that point. Because in the beginning, it was kind of like scattershot where we were just trying to throw things out there to see what would stick. That was all part of a process that I’m sure many businesses go through. It helps give a more clear idea of what you have, what you are and what you are not. Then you can take your business in the direction you want.
Your locations have changed as well. Please talk about where you started and how you ended up here in your own building.
When I bought that first press, we started in an older building in Old Town. It is now Cactus Tattoo. At that time, it was owned by a jeweler that had retired and so we leased it from him. It wasn’t a storefront so much as a workspace. I was there for a year and then I moved to what is now the 410 Project across the street from Pagliai’s Pizza. That was a building that was owned by Jim Lyons who was part owner in the Square Deal, the bar right next door. He became a friend and he rented it to me and then eventually we lived upstairs. We fulfilled what probably these buildings were originally designed for which was the proprietor would live upstairs and then go downstairs to their business. We were living that 90 years later from when the building was built.
That became a thing where we were living there and then going downstairs to work. It was all just very compact and became our lifestyle.
How long were you there?
We were there until 2004, that is when we built this building and moved here.
What precipitated that decision? How did you know it was time to—Because it’s a big leap to just go out and do your own business and then it’s another even huger leap to actually build a building.
Well, it gives you a lot of pause because it is a big decision. I guess we were just up to the rafters down there as they say, and we wanted to invest in an automatic t-shirt press. There was no way that was going to fit into a 20-foot wide building downtown. That was when we started exploring what would it really take to do this and seeing what the banks would do and then just feeling like if we’re going to do this, we’re going to need to do this now. And we just did it.
So you started with resort wear, then moved into custom t-shirts but now your product lines include all types of items.
Yes, but it still all starts with t-shirts. Then other products stem from what people are asking for combined with the apparel. Our distributors offer what have turned into giant catalogs of items. I have old catalogs that are more like pamphlets of what you could get and now they are literally an inch and a half thick.
Actually too many choices sometimes, I think. It’s overwhelming!
Yes. That’s a very valid point because one of our jobs, we feel like, is to help curate the choices for people and help them make sense of the fact that there are 20 different–not even that–there are 100 different t-shirts they could get and each one has 68 colors that they could get. That’s part of our job actually, to help people identify what best suits their needs and what they are looking for, rather than have them look through hundreds of pages of product.
As you said, it is a competitive industry. What do you think sets B.Stark apart? How do you carve out your niche in the market and get people to choose you?
Honestly, it’s always been word of mouth and not a lot of advertising. I think that you could characterize us that we’ve always really been sticklers on the quality of our work and I think that isn’t always true in the t-shirt printing world. We take it seriously, we take the quality of the artwork and every aspect seriously. That’s why we do it all in-house so we control the quality at every step. We’re not farming it out somewhere where we’re not totally sure what we’re going to get back. We have the control over all of the processes that we use to produce them. Our philosophy is that we want to be responsible for as much of the parts of the product as we can so that we can give the best. That includes the quality of listening and trying to fit the item to the person. Our focus is just to really help people get exactly what helps them do what they’re trying to do. We strive to understand why they are getting the apparel in the first place, then we can help them design and get the best product to meet their end goal and do it within their budget.
Do you think your industry is dependent on the ups and downs of the economy? Does it fluctuate that way or do you have something that people just need whether the economy is good or not?
I think it is somewhat dependent. People always will have to wear clothing and they really enjoy wearing clothing that helps them feel connected to other people or says something about who they are or want to be. That part is important enough to people that it remains no matter what the economy is doing.
Ten years ago with the Great Recession, what we really saw was people maybe weren’t getting quite as nice of a t-shirt or jacket but they still wanted to get something. It was an important part of their life to have that theme shirt or that shirt for their company that helps everybody feel like they’re part of the team. That’s the value of what we’re doing.
How has your target audience changed.
I would say when we first started it was more like events and the resort wear we talked about. Now I would say we have much more of an emphasis on doing really good clothing for businesses because we have strong embroidery capabilities. That’s perceived as more of a value-added thing. Then the name-brand thing is big now like the Under Armour and Nike. There’s more of a demand for that. So what’s changed in terms of the customers I would say, is that it’s just become more a part of the lifestyle even than when I started.
For instance, when I went to high school we didn’t have a shirt for when we went to sections or for every specific sports team. But now, they do. It’s just become more a part of how people feel connected to their activities in their life and the people in their life.
Speaking of being connected in that way, I know you’re very connected to the community and have a focus on helping organizations that come to you. Has that been a big part of your growth as a company too?
Yes, and really for me, that’s a big part of our identity of who we are and who we want to be. It’s really a natural outgrowth of the business that we’re in because we’re approached a lot by nonprofits and organizations. It’s a value that we can offer to somebody that’s trying to do a fundraiser or trying to promote something that is for the community. To me, and this has just been an evolving philosophy, you start out because you want to draw or you want to write something or whatever… but then it evolves into a thing where you see what you’re doing and you think ‘What’s the value of what I’m doing?’.
So I realized that I can help people through my art and through my business. I can promote their ideas, connect people with what they’re trying to do and connect to other people of like mind. It’s really about the feeling that we’re in it together and we’re part of a group rather than, ‘I’m doing all this by myself.’
We’ve talked about how your products and locations have evolved, another change is that you are no longer doing it all by yourself. How many employees are you up to now?
That can fluctuate a little bit, we’re at about 15 right now.
Let’s talk a little bit about technology and how that has changed the way you do business.
Actually, when we started the fax machine was considered pretty cool. [laughs] We still do have our fax number actually but it’s not a very big part at all obviously. But I would say the biggest impact technology has had, has been with the communication with the customers. Now it’s all email. That has changed a lot compared to actually mailing things to people like it was in the beginning, or calling. We see a lot of customers now who don’t even really want to get a call, they just want you to text them instead. The communication with the customers has changed.
Another big change I would say is the way that we produce items. I have things I’ve saved from when I started that I actually drew completely by hand, with pen and ink. I saved them because it’s a remembrance of something that would be completely impractical now. You could never do it. The technology has changed so that almost all of the art is done on a computer now.
That must’ve been a learning curve for you too though, right?
It was, but thankfully it happens gradually over time. What that technology does is speed up your ability to do a project and get it out to the customer. However, it also speeds up our competitors’ ability to do it. Which means it speeds up people’s expectations of how quickly you can deliver what they want.
When I started, there was a little bit more understanding or patience or whatever you want to call it from customers. They would understand that it’s just going to take a certain amount of time to produce and deliver. But that has all just been sped up and expectations are very high. That’s part of our challenge, to devise our systems and our communication within our company to come through on that, to get what people need and want and do it in a timely way.
What is the geographic area that you serve?
It’s really Mankato and the surrounding towns. We do some work for sales organizations that bring work to us. We don’t really have territories though. We don’t go after things in the Twin Cities. I would say we’re local and then with a ring around Mankato.
What services do you offer at B.Stark?
Screen printing and embroidery of all types of apparel. We do some promotional items, but not a lot because that gets back to the control aspect I was talking about earlier. We don’t have the capability to produce all of the items here so we lose some control. We don’t print the pens here, for example, but we do still offer that because it’s a natural for some people to add that product on to an apparel order.
I know another technology-related growth area is in online stores, which you can set up for organizations and businesses.
Yes, we have developed an online store system that people can use for employees or members of their organization to shop and sign up individually for what they want. People really like that and it simplifies the whole process. I think traditionally one person heads up apparel orders for their group and it is really a big job. The person in charge of getting the shirts for a group is kind of an unsung hero because they have to collect all the money, keep track of all the names and sizes and just everything. They are in the middle of it all. But the online store thing is really great because it gives everyone a link and then people can go there individually and look at their choices and pay with their own credit card. They can even personalize their apparel with a name or whatever. It just eliminates a lot of extra steps and stress for the one person in the group organizing it all.
I can tell from speaking with you that even after 30 years, you are still enjoying it.
Oh yes. I am happy and grateful. I really need to say how lucky we’ve really been with finding the right people to bring on board. We actually have two people that have been here over 25 years, and a number that are over the 10-year mark. That makes me feel good and it also is gratifying to help them progress and give them a good place to work. They apparently like to work here. We can keep the quality of our products and service high because we’re not constantly training in someone new. We don’t have turn over all the time. The people here are really talented at what they do.
So, yes, I definitely still enjoy the work. It always boils down to the people, and if you can have people that you enjoy working with, that’s just such a blessing.
Stark Outside the Office
When Stark isn’t running a business, he is, well, just running.
“I am an avid runner. I’ve been running since seventh grade. Once you start running, it’s always in there, whether you take a layoff for a while or not, it’s always in there. I just finished the half marathon in Mankato as a charity runner for the Livestrong charity.”
He’ll concede though, that B.Stark & Co. remains the main focus, even when it comes to hobbies.
“That’s a kind of a core thing for me. Really, I have a lot of interests and a lot of things that I’m interested in. But I think when you own your own business, it’s kind of a combination of a lot of things that you’re interested in. The business then really kind of turns into your one giant hobby. It is what it is because you have to be dedicated, you have to have a work ethic, you can’t delegate that totally.”
Stark as Husband, Dad and Father In Law
Stark’s wife, Micki, is not only his partner in life, but also in the business. They have two sons who grew up around the company, but have taken their own paths in life.
“We have two boys,” says Stark. “And actually my eldest son got married two weeks ago. So that was kind of a big step for us. Both of my sons live in Minneapolis. One is a web developer. My other son works for an autism center. So, they are both on their way.”
Bringing Ideas to Life
Custom art remains at the heart of what Stark is passionate about, and he has surrounded himself with people of the same mindset. The B.Stark art staff can create unique custom art based off a customer’s vague idea or start of a sketch. And they try to make it easy. Customers can submit a written description, rough sketch or a detailed drawing at any stage and the B.Stark staff will take it the rest of the way to professional finished art.
B.Stark & Co.
1621 Adams Street, Mankato, MN 56001