These Chicago entrepreneurs have a plan to keep manufacturing jobs in America

Andreas Rekdal
February 20, 2017

While waiting in line at the merchandise booth of a major music festival, the savvy consumer has two important questions in mind: “Do I really need another Radiohead t-shirt?” and “Who the hell is making all these t-shirts, anyway?”

You might be surprised to learn that many of those shirts are still printed right here in the United States, by thousands of independent screen printers scattered across the country.

Stokkup has a plan to keep it that way. With its cloud-based system that manages every facet of a screen printing business, the Chicago startup wants to help local businesses streamline their processes and keep their costs down.

“With as much competition as there is in this market, a 1 percent price difference changes everything, and 2 percent makes you a completely different person,” said founding member Rich Santo. “Stokkup is all about giving a true visual into what’s going on, so you can make the right decisions and ultimately [help your] bottom line.”

The process of manufacturing custom apparel is surprisingly complicated. There’s quotes to be delivered, art to be created, machinery to operate, and massive piles of products to box, stack and ship. Each step in the supply chain has to be carefully coordinated, because inefficiencies at any level can eat into a company’s already tight margins.

Stokkup guides that process from start to finish. By integrating with apparel suppliers to get negotiated product prices and by taking input about labor and materials, the platform helps printers get a handle on how much an order will cost them before providing a quote.

From there, it becomes a hub for all the artwork, communications and logistics surrounding an order, all the way through packaging, shipping and billing — like Salesforce, but for tees instead of leads.

The platform was created in partnership with Culture Studio, a Chicago-based company that prints t-shirts for bands like Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam and for retailers like Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic. Altogether, it has a daily output of more than 30,000 t-shirts.

“These developers came and shadowed Richie and I throughout our entire process,” said founding member Carlo Oviedo. “There’s probably 14 different departments that touch one single order. So after two or three years of shadowing what we do, looking at efficiencies and how we manage our metrics, they built Stokkup.”

The software also lets printers take a broad view of their entire shop and plan operations in a way that makes maximal use of available capacity.

“The scheduling board we have is completely unique to our industry,” said Santo. “We’re at 1871 right now, and I can tell you exactly how much capacity is left at our shop, what order is on what press, what it’s running, how long it’s going to be running for and if we have any foreseen issues.”

Although the process of setting up and running the actual printing machines remains manual for now, managing partner Ricky Regalado said Stokkup is currently in dialogue with some of the biggest printing machine manufacturers about opportunities to integrate directly with presses.

Having spent two years fine-tuning the platform with Culture Studios, Regolado said Stokkup is finally at a stage where it’s ready to be opened up to other screen printers. For Santo and Oviedo, opening the platform to other shops entails giving up part of their competitive advantage. But in their view, anything that helps American screen printers stay competitive is good for Culture Studios as well.

“For this entire industry, our biggest competitor is overseas products,” said Santo. “The technology that we can bring to the marketplace makes us all better, and hopefully it brings more American jobs and more American manufacturing back.”


Image via Stokkup.

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