An Interview with Mike Stone, Top Drawer Graphics and Screen-printing

In.Business students visited Nanaimo’s Top Drawer Graphics and Screen-printing company for our inaugural opening conference in 2015. The youth really enjoyed visiting with co-owner Mike Stone and learning about the screen-printing process. With our second closing conference right around the corner, I thought it would be nice to catch up with Mike and ask him about his experience of being an entrepreneur. 

How long have you been in business?

We have been in business since April of 2007. 

What do you do at Top Drawer Graphics?

We design and produce custom decorated apparel and promotional products.

How did you advertise when you first started out?

To advertise when we started I joined a networking group called BNI and that helped a lot. We took out a couple newspaper ads and I went to see a handful of businesses that subcontract print services to let them know I was open.

When did you reach to that comfort zone that you knew that your business was a success?

I don’t think I have ever reached a comfort zone. It took about 2 years before I was comfortable knowing that the customer base we had kept us busy enough to keep everything going and by the third-fourth year we had challenges of keeping up.

Are you a sole proprietor?

No, we started out as a partnership and have recently incorporated the business.

Why did you decide to switch from a partnership to incorporating the business?  What were the advantages? 

We switched to incorporation for a few reasons; mainly for tax purposes. We had no idea what our individual taxes were going to be at the end of a year and we got surprised by some large income tax bills. We also wanted to limit the liability on ourselves if anything unforeseen was to happen in the business. Now we pay ourselves like employees and the money left in the business for growth isn’t taxed so heavily. We also follow the advice of our accountant.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Malaspina College in Nanaimo (now Vancouver Island University). I took the 2year design program from 1996-1998.

What made you decide to start your own business?

I decided to go into business for myself after working in the industry for 12 years. I wanted to try to run a shop of my own.

Did you write a business plan?

Yes, I did write a business plan.

Did you get a loan to start the business? How did having a business plan help? 

My partner had some money saved for start-up and I was lucky enough to get a small personal loan from family. We have taken loans for equipment and the unit in our building that we purchased after operating for a few years. We used the BDC which is a government run bank that takes a little more risk than the big banks. Unfortunately in the beginning stages of our business, my business plan did not help at all with getting financing from the big banks. At the time, I did not know about the BDC. The business plan gave me a clearer picture of what I needed to accomplish to get the business off the ground but, to tell you the truth, the big banks were of no help at all. They didn’t want to give us the time of day, even with good credit ratings and a sizeable amount of our own capital.

What makes your business so successful?

Our business has been successful due to good customer retention made possible by high quality standards and a focus on customer service. Most of our business is generated by referrals from our client base.

How do you collaborate with other local businesses? 

We do collaborate with other businesses, if we are too busy to take on another job or if it’s not something we do we will refer to other companies in town. We have a good working relationship with an embroidery house called Brand Xpress. They help us with embroidered jobs and we help them with print jobs. It is a good relationship we have with them.

What advice would you give a young person that wants to start their own business?

The best advice I could give to anyone starting their own business is to own up to mistakes and use them as an opportunity to show your clients how you handle a bad situation. It’s how you handle these situations which will set you apart from your competition. Also, network as much as you can, especially in the early stages of your business. There are many business groups you can join where you can get a lot of advice from other business owners.

Anything else you would like to share?

Yes, I have a book that really helped me understand a lot more about being a business owner. The book is called The E-Myth Revisited. It helped me realize that just because I was skilled and knowledgeable of the industry in which I started our business, it didn’t mean that I would be successful in business with those skills alone. Becoming an entrepreneur is a whole new job unto itself requiring a whole new mindset.

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I am really grateful to Mike for sharing his experiences while growing his business. For our closing conference this year, we ordered our In.Business t-shirts from his company and I must say they look fantastic. To get in touch with Top Drawer Graphics and Screen-printing see their contact information below.

Website: http://www.topdrawernanaimo.com/
Tel: 250-591-1771
Email: topdrawer@telus.net
Contact: Mike Stone

Blog by Koren Bear
Pacific Regional Manager, In.Business