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Fat Dad Custom Designs

By Marcia Derryberry, Contributing Editor

Building on its success of offering HTV transfers and decals, owner Todd Downing adopted DTF technology early on and hasn’t looked back.

Fat Dad Custom Designs in Moline, Illinois, has been in the printing business for 16 years and made a name for itself creating decals and stickers for race cars. It was more of a side hustle, says owner Todd Downing, until about six years ago when he began to take apparel decorating seriously. When an order for his daughter’s first birthday party was messed up, he thought there was no reason why he couldn’t do the printing himself using HTV transfers.

“We moved quickly in those beginning years,” Todd says. “We went from working out of the house to a 400-square-foot building to a 3500 square-foot storefront and eventually to an 8000-square-foot storefront in three years. And then, when COVID happened, I realized I really hated having a storefront and the exorbitant overhead involved in that and enjoyed being back at home again. I decided just to keep the business going from home and couldn’t be happier.”

In the summer of 2020, Todd says he stumbled on DTF and knew it was something serious to look into. He got married in Mexico during the beginning stages of the pandemic and says when he came back, he couldn’t believe how this new technology was taking off.

“We researched a lot and found that DTG Superstore [now DTF Superstore] had the best forum for our needs because they were taking DTG machines and converting them to DTF printers,” he says. “And so we bought our first converted printer from them. At that time, probably 75 percent of our sales were online anyway so it made sense. We remained diversified doing decals, signs, banners, HTV… we didn’t have all of our efforts in one channel and that’s what really kept us afloat during COVID. So, because we changed the way we did business and brought everything back to the house and added DTF, 2020 was a good year for us.”

Despite the positive growth, it was still a learning curve. “We were crushing it with HTV, doing rolls upon rolls each week,” Todd says. “But when we saw DTF coming on so strong that summer, I thought, ‘This is going to kill our HTV business.’ In the end, no technology really kills another; they’re all just additional tools in the decorating toolbox to give your customers what they need in the most efficient and quality way possible.”

Still, the entrepreneur realized DTF was definitely going to grow quickly because of its ease of production, full-color ability, and large- or small-run options. So, he bought two more converted DTG printers to keep up with demand. But the maintenance side of things quickly became an issue on these newly configured DTF printers, and he found himself spending a lot of money on replacing printheads. He knew it was time to buy a commercial DTF machine.

“The downside is that it’s a new process and we’re all learning as we go,” Todd says. “It’s in its infancy and people get frustrated over things because they don’t have the answers and education is just now coming onto the market. For example, one of our first challenges was working out of our house and I didn’t know how the power restrictions worked with this technology. So, I researched and found out we had to make sure we have power ventilation; things like that. And we made it work.”

The environment the machine is in plays a big role with temperature and humidity. But most of all, for those getting started, it’s staying away from the box movers that offer next-to-no support after the sale, he says. “What’s really important is the back end of things. Like what happens when the machine goes down? What happens when you need parts? What happens when the profiles are off? Too many people jump into the technology without educating themselves first because they get pulled into these marketing juggernauts that have no support behind them.”

“They have to know what they’re getting themselves into,” Todd says. “You have to know you will be babysitting a machine, although not as much as a DTG machine requires. I wouldn’t walk away from a DTF machine because who knows what’s going to happen to it? There’s going to be issues with it. It’s not so much the equipment because all of the machines basically are the same. It’ll get better as time goes on and there is increasing support out there, but right now, it’s just not quite there yet. You have to know that going into it. Some people are sold that misleading promise of ‘All you have to do is be selling those 30 shirts a month and it pays for itself.’ And I don’t know where that number came from. I think if you’re not producing at least 100 square feet of transfers, you should just buy DTF transfers from one of the many suppliers out there.”

With the new commercial printer, Fat Dad has expanded its business and is now printing DTF transfers for other decorators. Much of that work is coming from joining multiple Facebook groups and educating people about the process, which leads to those companies simply asking Fat Dad to do it for them. “The thing I love the most about selling to other decorator businesses is the majority of the time, the artwork is print ready so you don’t have to do anything,” Todd says. “They know what they’re talking about. They upload it, send it through, we send the transfers back, and everything works out for both parties.”

“We’ve gotten to the point where we have to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the next step for us?,’” he adds. “We either need to order another commercial DTF printer or we need to work with some of our partners to see what we can do to produce things faster. And that’s the route we’re looking into – how can we automate our business to make things easier without costing us more? And our business still is home-based with just myself, my wife, and my daughter working it. With more income comes more demand and more people, so I actually may have to hire somebody to help out.”

Todd says in the next one to three years we’re going to see DTF machines that will be similar to wide-format printers. Meaning more safety features, self-cleaning, the ability to not print for a week without having equipment problems, and less overall maintenance issues. He says in the next five years we’re going to see the major manufacturers offer some sort of DTF option. It’s a technology that’s here to stay and will be ever evolving.

Marcia Derryberry is the former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program. She now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in McKinney, Texas.

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