The Story of BelQuette and Thinking like an Inventor

ColDesi has joined forces with BelQuette. Today’s blog post is with the two founders, Brett Wiebel and Mark Momborquette. These guys are a small business success story. They’ve been in the direct to garment printing business since the very beginning. They’ve been principle in introducing new technologies – for both their business and their customers’.

Mark Momborquette: We started this back in 1996. Our DNA is about making better tools for the industry. I had seen my daughter get her nails done using airbrush technique with a stencil. She had a Mickey Mouse put on her nails. It was a fairly long process and I thought “wouldn’t it be better to inkjet that image on?”

Later I approached Brett with an idea and we worked on it for about three years. We starting using commercial printers, ripping them apart, and finding a platform that would work. We developed our own coatings. We developed a patent around it and made a product that was sold around the world in salons. After that, I wanted to do large images on canvas.

 

However, I realized that it’s very difficult to buy the equipment and to stretch the canvas around the frame. Being the innovators that we are, we developed a flatbed printer that would print directly on a pre-stretched canvas. Their story is that they had a full-time job and they got inspired by something. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience where you saw a t-shirt and decided you could do it better. The difference between custom apparel startups and Brett and Mark’s story is that they have some engineering talent.

Why are we talking with Brett and Mark? If you’re currently a small business entrepreneur, it’s just a dream, or you’re not at the level you want to be, you have to listen to stories like this and realize that you can do the same thing as these guys. Not necessarily invent a printer, but if you have the opportunity to sell t-shirts and are connected in your business, you have to work it and make it a success. It’s not just going to happen for you. Look for inspiration and then bounce your idea off someone you trust.

Find someone who might be willing to help you do it as well. Your story can help others become successful in the custom apparel industry.

Brett Wiebel: It wasn’t that we developed this nail machine and then we were off and running. There were about 6 years before either of us went full-time with BelQuette. It was always after hours.

The fingernails started it but then we also started printing on inflated footballs. We developed machines to draw these different inkjet applications. At some point, we printed on t-shirts.

When we first developed the initial t-shirt printing machine – Flexijet – that’s when we were both full-time with BelQuette.

Don’t be afraid to work on the weekends for an extended period of time to realize your dream.

Mark Momborquette: You have to have a lot of failures. Persistence prevails. That’s what we were doing. We kept at it and made many variations of our first machine.

Brett Wiebel: The first generation ImagiNail machines, we couldn’t get someone to even try. Mark and I were walking around with colored nails, for years. We walked around with our hands in our pockets. We had to test the product to know how it would last. As a custom apparel business owner, you have to be willing to wear the stuff you print.

Brett Wiebel: The first image we ever printed on a fingernail was Mark’s face. This is what happens all the time. You have someone who’s gotten into the business and they’re frustrated. They haven’t made a ton of money yet.

They thought they were going to get this one customer and they didn’t. Then they got a big customer but weren’t making any money from them. These little failures happen. That’s actually part of making a successful business. You miss one, you miss one, you have a win, you miss, you miss, you win. You keep moving forward. You change with the times.

 

The takeaway from this blog post is that if you’re not where you want to be with your business, then you need to write down different plans and thoughts. Go back and read our blog posts or listen to our podcasts. Find some ideas and then try them. If you fail on two of them and succeed on one, replicate that. We get posts in our custom apparel Facebook group all the time. “I printed on these shirts and customers are bringing them back because they came apart. The print didn’t last.” If they’re doing embroidery, “It was the wrong color in the design.” You’re doing vinyl and it peels. Something isn’t working right.

Look at that as a step you’re going to have to go through, not as a huge disaster. You have to learn these lessons. We try to prepare you as much as possible: these are the shirts you should use; this is what you should look for; this is how you should price your orders. You are going to get these mistakes and they might not be because you did anything wrong. You just haven’t perfected it yet. You’ve got to be ready and give some thought to what you’re going to do when that happens.

If you haven’t screwed something up royally, then sit down and figure out what you’re going to do when that happens. This will help prevent you from panicking. What are you going to do when an order is due in two days and the company you order shirts from no longer carries that brand? What are you going to do when the color comes out wrong?

 

What are you going to do when the customer changes their mind or doesn’t pay you? You should know the answer. You want to find solutions rather than excuses. “We’ll fix it.”

Brett Wiebel: The first generation ImagiNail machines, we couldn’t get someone to even try. Mark and I were walking around with colored nails, for years. We walked around with our hands in our pockets.

 

We had to test the product to know how it would last. As a custom apparel business owner, you have to be willing to wear the stuff you print. Brett Wiebel: The first image we ever printed on a fingernail was Mark’s face. This is what happens all the time. You have someone who’s gotten into the business and they’re frustrated. They haven’t made a ton of money yet.

 

They thought they were going to get this one customer and they didn’t. Then they got a big customer but weren’t making any money from them. These little failures happen. That’s actually part of making a successful business. You miss one, you miss one, you have a win, you miss, you miss, you win. You keep moving forward. You change with the times. The takeaway from this blog post is that if you’re not where you want to be with your business, then you need to write down different plans and thoughts.

 

Go back and read our blog posts or listen to our podcasts. Find some ideas and then try them. If you fail on two of them and succeed on one, replicate that. We get posts in our custom apparel Facebook group all the time. “I printed on these shirts and customers are bringing them back because they came apart. The D2 printing didn’t last.” If they’re doing embroidery, “It was the wrong color in the design.” You’re doing vinyl and it peels. Something isn’t working right. Look at that as a step you’re going to have to go through, not as a huge disaster.

You have to learn these lessons. We try to prepare you as much as possible: these are the shirts you should use; this is what you should look for; this is how you should price your orders. You are going to get these mistakes and they might not be because you did anything wrong. You just haven’t perfected it yet. You’ve got to be ready and give some thought to what you’re going to do when that happens.

 

If you haven’t screwed something up royally, then sit down and figure out what you’re going to do when that happens. This will help prevent you from panicking. What are you going to do when an order is due in two days and the company you order shirts from no longer carries that brand? What are you going to do when the color comes out wrong? What are you going to do when the customer changes their mind or doesn’t pay you? You should know the answer. You want to find solutions rather than excuses. “We’ll fix it.”

Coming back to Brett and Mark’s story. How did the flatbed printer translate into BelQuette becoming a company and selling its first printer?

Brett Wiebel: One thing we learned from the fingernail experience was that the print area was really small and the substrate is really hard so it doesn’t take up a lot of ink. We looked around at other graphics opportunities where inkjet could fit nicely into. At this point, it’s the late 90s and there’s no one commercially inkjetting on to t-shirts yet.
Mark Momborquette: There was one machine on the market. It was very big, very heavy, and very expensive. I also think it didn’t have white ink. So white became a challenge for us. We needed to keep it from clogging. We spent a lot of time finding solutions for white ink. We ended up making our own solutions in-house because there was nothing available.
Brett Wiebel: We had licensed our intellectual property to a company in Tampa. That’s what brought us down to Florida with ImagiNail. We weren’t running the company, we were consultants. We were looking at other opportunities because this one was finished and someone else was running it. The interim was direct the canvas printing. We were selling the end product, selling them to artists and photographers.

Mark Momborquette: We had local museums that would give us art and we would produce pieces because we could do one-offs. That’s the beauty of anything digital. It was about doing unique pieces but with a very high quality. We decided this direct to garment thing seemed very interesting. We felt that it was a direction that would take off.

Screen printing is still an analog technology. It’s still used and will continue to be used for quite a while, but there is a transition to digital. As the chemistry gets better it’s going to open up the substrates it can print on. This is where our focus lies. The equipment isn’t invented yet to perhaps do things in a smaller format. It’s ironic since we’ve joined forces with ColDesi.

 

We’ve been watching folks and some of the steps you need to go through for applying different products – whether it’s a transfer or DTG. We already have some new innovations in the works just from the feedback from the ColDesi team. “Wow, that is a problem. Let’s fix that.” We were talking to Brett in Mark in their showroom and one of the items was a T-Treater, which is a completely unique pre-treat machine. We asked them to walk us through that item from problem to solution.

Brett Wiebel: It wasn’t the first pre-treat machine on the market. However, the machines that were on the market were in an enclosure. Before that people were using a paint sprayer which coated the environment around the shirt. They stuck to everything, which was why the enclosure was developed. Your shirt went in and sometimes the shirt sleeve got stuck in the device. They were trying to contain the overspray which was one of the things we wanted to address – let’s build a machine that doesn’t have overspray.

That 100% of the pre-treat went onto the garment – no waste. Then we said, talking about waste, if you have a graphic that’s 10x10” but you’re spraying the whole shirt, there’s waste there too. What if we target just the general area that’s going to be printed on? We also wanted the machine to be small and compact. That’s where the T-Treater came from. What is it in your business?

 

What are the opportunities? Brett and Mark look at a couple of ways to accomplish something, look at what is broken about it, what was messy about it, and spend the time to come up with good alternative solutions. That’s everywhere in your business too. You can talk about that with the people you interact with. We talk about going after whales in our blog posts and podcasts. Where you’re a small business trying to get in with the local university or another big business.

 

When you’re sitting down with those people, have them explain their problems to you. What don’t they like about the process of ordering? Ask them about their job and what bothers them. Perhaps they order shirts from one place, jackets from another, and uniforms for their janitorial workers from another place. They have to manage multiple vendors. How can you simplify that?

 

Apply this problem-solving approach to your business. It’s how you’re going to win new customers. Especially if that business already works with another company. Ask them what they don’t like about doing business with their current supplier. “I’m trying to improve my business, what are two or three things about your current supplier you don’t like.” Perhaps the issue that the customer is having, you don’t have a way to fix that yet. Perhaps they want to be able to order online or have an easier way for their team to try on shirts to get the right sizing.

What if you come up with a solution for that? Once you have a solution you can come back to that customer and thank them for giving you a great idea. You might not be an amazing problem solver. Everyone has their own strength. Still, find out what the problems are and consult someone who is.

Brett Wiebel: As a small business owner you need to resolve problems, but you don’t need to be the sole source of how to figure them out. Just walking around the ColDesi showroom we can start to ask questions about the equipment we sell:

  • On a DTG printer, why do you have to tuck the shirt under like a mattress cover?
  • Why are heat presses so heavy?
  • Why does the spangle machine need oil as frequently?
  • Why does the cutter work like this?

From the Colman & Company side of things and the custom apparel supplies, how can we take the problem-solving approach to make things more efficient? Including labeling and boxing. We’re always looking for new products to solve a problem a customer is having. We also want to talk about some of the things BelQuette has done as innovation from scratch.

Mark Momborquette: We like getting those calls from companies because they’re a challenge. They’re coming to us with an issue that they’re looking for a real solution. It gets us thinking and working together. Taking a step back for a moment and talking about the Mod one DTG printer, we found they were large and difficult to ship. When there was a problem there was often no choice but to have a technician go on-site or to have the machine shipped back. To ship the printer back it required a skid and often its original box. The platen mechanism and the frame is not the problem. It’s the inkjet side that needs the repair. Let’s break that part out and now it can ship overnight weighing only about 45lbs.
Brett Wiebel: That was 2007. You’ve seen modularity work its way into the industry since but in 2007 they were all big floor mounted machines or tiny desktop.
Mark Momborquette: We had to make sure that an owner of a machine was never stuck days on end without a machine. We needed to be able to reassure an owner that we could get them a new printer module sent to them next day. We’re wired to look at things and ask ‘what is a better way to make what that person is doing more efficient?’

Brett Wiebel: We worked with some of some of the biggest names in the business. They all had issues: manufacturing problems, logistic problems, quality problems. On the Mod One, we went into a number of these companies and installed them. Then we worked with their engineering team to say “the software needs to do this or the workflow is different here.

 

” As a small engineering company, we were able to go in and talk directly with the engineering and the management teams. We were able to hear what their issues and work them out together. We weren’t just listening and coming back with a contraption that fixed all their problems. It was always a solution that asked “What is the issue? Does this fit your bill? Let’s work together to figure it out.

Mark Momborquette: We would actually change the way our machine worked to suit their needs. Someone would have a completely different set of issues, which we would then address.

 

One box does not fit all. It was an advantage that we will continue to provide. That’s where our strength is. BelQuette is a think tank that industry professionals can rely on to provide independent solutions that are developed for them. Working with ColDesi provides them with an opportunity to focus on what they like to sink their teeth into.

As a business owner, you probably do a little bit of everything. We have a number of blog posts and podcasts that talk about this very issue. As an example, if accounting isn’t your strong point, we know it’s going to cost you a little bit of money, but you can find a service that will help you get that done. It takes it off your plate, to focus on the other aspects of your business. You have to look for the opportunities to hand things off.

Brett Wiebel: It started with just Mark and myself in a basement. Then it grew and grew until we had to go full time, it couldn’t be a side project anymore. Persistence is what got it there. When you are looking to outsource something, there’s a fear of change. There’s fear in that “if I move this piece, it could knock down the tower.”

As a small business owner, you’ve got to give it some thought and take some risks sometimes. If you say “I’d love to have an accountant to do all that for me, but I can’t afford one.” There’s a problem for you that you need to search for a solution. Can you afford not to? What would you do with that time you get back? If you spend three hours a week doing bookkeeping and you’re not very good at it, what else would you do with those three hours? Could you sell more shirts?

Do the math on what marketing or production could provide in terms of ROI in those three hours. Then you might be asking yourself “Can you afford not to?”