By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
The transition from military service to entrepreneurship is an increasingly popular career path for veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tim and Shelley Larsen have made that transition at the James W. Strate Center for Business Development with their screen printing business, Privation Printing.
The business, which opened in the center’s business incubator space in May, offers custom T-shirt design and screen printing for jobs of all sizes.
Privation Printing got its beginning when Tim decided to leave behind a career in the Army and move home to Enid with Shelley and the couple’s two children, 12-year-old son Riley and 10-year-old daughter Josie.
The couple met during their senior year at Enid High School in 1997.
Tim went on to serve eight years in the U.S. Army, including a tour with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan, multiple tours in Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina emergency response.
During Tim’s last tour in Iraq, the couple made the decision it was time to break out on their own.
“When we decided it was time to get out of the Army, we had a couple of different business ideas we wanted to pursue, and this was one of them,” Tim said.
Shelley, who had until then worked at home raising the couple’s two children, is breaking into her first entrepreneurial venture with Privation Printing.
“My focus has been on our two kids this whole time, and now that they’re older, it’s time to break out a little bit,” she said.
The couple knew they wanted to start their own business after leaving the military, in hopes of gaining independence after the strict Army lifestyle.
“I knew within five years of leaving the Army I wanted to work for myself instead of somebody else,” Tim said. “When you’re in the military, you’re told where to be and in what uniform every second of the day. I thought it would be nice to not have a boss.”
The idea of working without a boss has since succumbed to a universal reality in small business.
“Starting this business, we realized every client who walks through the door is our boss,” Tim said.
The idea for screen printing came from a childhood hobby that had grown over the years.
“Growing up, I made a lot of T-shirts with stencils and paint,” Tim said.
He carried that hobby with him into the Army, where he made custom stencils and painted shirts for different units and intramural sports teams.
But, when it came time to turn the hobby into a full-time business, the couple found they had no experience in commercial screen printing.
“It was something I always wanted to do in the back of my mind,” Tim said, “but as far as actual experience ... we just jumped in with both feet and got started.”
The couple gained knowledge and experience from a free and readily accessible source — the internet.
“We did a lot of research online,” Tim said. “I’m a firm believer if you want to be an expert at anything, it’s only a few hours and clicks away.”
Tim said he and Shelley attended several training sessions on screen printing, but most of their knowledge of “what does what and how it works” came from searching the Internet.
While technology in screen printing has improved some over the years, the process remains essentially the same as when it was introduced in the late 1950s.
Images still are emulsified to the screens in a dark room and manually pressed onto each shirt.
The Larsens have expanded their screen printing capabilities by using combinations of plasticized images and dyes and using dot patterns to create shading without having to add extra colors, and cost, to the project.
The learning curve was steep. Their first job was accomplished in two long workdays, with many learning opportunities along the way. They now accomplish the same process in about two hours.
The business has grown quickly since May, now employing Shelley full time. Tim still works a daytime job at Vance Air Force Base as a wireless communications specialist.
With virtually no marketing budget, the couple have relied on social media to spread the word about and sell their products.
“This is one of those businesses where you really live and die by word of mouth and by customer satisfaction,” Tim said. “It’s all about being personable, creating art, getting it on shirts and getting it out in front of people. We’ve just had to create our own buzz.”
Through Facebook connections, the Larsens have created and sold T-shirts for a variety of military units, from the nation’s top Special Forces units to National Guard troops serving in Afghanistan.
Social media also has helped market T-shirts for sports teams and individuals in markets as far away as Germany and California.
Ironically, the local market developed later, and Privation Printing now is developing ac-counts with local schools, churches, small businesses and nonprofits.
The couple have set up a small-business printing system to enable small retailers to build custom lines of merchandise.
“We set up a process where they can just order a few shirts at a time, so they don’t have a huge up-front cost and they can grow into their shirt stock,” Tim said.
In addition to creating their own artwork, Tim and Shelley also feature the work of a number of local artists. On those designs, a portion of the proceeds goes back to the artist.
Privation Printing shirts now are featured in Enid at Lola’s Boutique, The Felt Bird and Garfield Furniture.
Shelley said the combination of social media and word-of-mouth advertising is quickly making Privation Printing a recognized brand in Enid.
“I think a lot of people are starting to recognize us, and it’s been amazing how supportive everyone has been,” she said.
The marketing model is working better than they expected when they built their business plan.
Less than six months after opening for business, Privation Printing has hit its two-year goals, and the Larsens have brought in an apprentice and are considering expansion options.
They credit their success in part to the support they’ve received at the James W. Strate Center for Business Development and Autry Technology Center.
Tim attended Autry’s Small Business Development Academy earlier this year, and entered Privation Printing’s business plan in the Grow Enid Cherokee Strip Business Model Competition.
Their plan took third place, netting them $5,000 for start-up costs.
“That $5,000 enabled us to upgrade a lot of our equipment faster than we had planned,” Tim said.
The day they received the award, their screen printing equipment was sitting on pallets in the business incubator space, having just been delivered.
From setup to growth management, Tim said the incubator staff have been invaluable in helping them surpass their business plan milestones.
“It’s an incubator in the true sense of the word,” Tim said. “From day one, it’s a process. It’s not an easy undertaking, but they help you take your idea from start to a fully functioning business.
“It’s a great program, and I would implore anyone new to entrepreneurship to contact them. They do a remarkable service here.”
Looking back over the past six months, Tim and Shelley said their success has been more than they expected, and they want to pass that success on to other aspiring entrepreneurs and those in need.
Tim said their desire to help others is reflected in the company’s unique name.
That name traces back to Iraq, and a Webster’s “Word of the Day” calendar.
“The day I was telling Shelley I wanted to get out of the Army, the Webster’s word of the day was privation,” Tim said.
He said the definition, “a state in which things essential for human well-being such as food and warmth are scarce or lacking,” inspired him to do more with the business than just turn a profit.
“It really told me, with our success we need to help others succeed,” Tim said. “The more success we have, the more we want to give back, locally and on a national level.”
“We’ve had so much success so fast, we really want to give back,” Shelley added. “We just want to see Enid grow, and see our generation grow in Enid. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”
For more information on Privation Printing, go to their Facebook page or their shop in the James W. Strate Center for Business Development.