When rocker RL Brooks decided to quit touring full time, little did he know he had the start of a business that would grow to become a wildly successful screen-printing shop, design house, promo merch distributor and fulfillment center.
It was his experience working a print shop in-between tours and some unusual encouragement from a boss that got the business off the ground.
“It was October 2008 when my boss came to me and told me he had to let me go,” Brooks said. “He also told me that I had the connections and knowledge to do this on my own. It may sound weird, but that conversation was the kick in the tail I needed to start my business.”
Seen Merch was born after Brooks wrapped up that final tour, but it really picked up a few months later after winning a big new customer. That’s when a lot of things aligned at the same time to put him in the position for rapid growth.
Enter, Micah Brooks, RL’s brother. Brooks needed better machinery to serve this customer so he reached out to Micah, a professional gambler who was living in Costa Rica. Online gambling was just made illegal and Micah was looking to return to the States to explore what was next.
“I told him I had an idea for a business but needed capital,” he said. “Micah knew fellow gamblers with money who would be willing to invest, and he was able to secure $60,000 for us right away.”
As Micah returned home to help build the business, one of Brooks’ printer friends was relocating his shop. Brooks was able to take over that space, bought the friend’s equipment and added new machinery. Seen Merch was now on the map!
Chances are you have apparel that was printed by Seen Merch. The company prints for a lot of Kansas City-area brands like Made in KC and Ocean and Sea, and for bands including Blondie, Willie Nelson and Cake.
Appreciating & Planning for Growth
For many years the company was growing around 100 percent a year, which has slowed to a still impressive 20 percent a year the past two years. Things are about to change as Seen Merch is in the process of acquiring another company that will double its size.
“I am proud of our journey so far; the ups and the downs,” Brooks said, “But I’m more proud of our loyal customers. There are companies we have worked with for a decade, and it’s great that we’ve watched each other grow.”
Brooks has a greater vision for growth that will allow him to shake up the printing industry. Typically, an industry ripe with low paying jobs, Brooks wants to grow big enough to impact the industry on a bigger level, starting with paying a living wage.
“It’s a lofty goal, but one that motivates me,” he said.
People Make the Difference
Team members of Seen Merch are artists and musicians, and the company gives them the opportunity to take time off for their art without losing their job. Brooks doesn’t think people will look back at their career and remember a shirt they printed. Rather, they will remember a show they went to or a thing they did. It’s important to him that everyone has a balance between work and their personal life—a core value of the company.
“We are a revolving door of going to have experiences and coming back,” he said. “Everyone realizes that’s what’s happening, and they value that balance.”
To ensure he hires the right people to support the culture, he focuses on personality more than skill set. By conducting long and multiple interviews, he aims to really understand a candidate to ensure he or she will fit in. The process has worked. Turnover at the company is better than industry averages.
“It’s hard to replace people, so we want them to stay as long as possible. And when they do leave, we hope they are better workers and humans than when they started with us,” Brooks said.
Personal relationships don’t always make the best business relationships. That was a lesson Brooks learned the hard way when a relationship soured and the work environment turned toxic.
Actually, it was Amber Goering who looked Brooks square in the eyes and told him everyone involved in the business needed to have the qualifications and understanding to do their job. That advice stays with him still to this day.
“This was one of the hardest business issues I had to face,” he said, “but once that person was removed from the business, the team was invigorated. I think the experience gave them insight into who I am as a person. They see that I’m human and not invincible.”
Brooks met Goering through the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP) and quickly realized she could be valuable to his business life. Initially, the firm helped him correct a software issue that wreaked havoc on his accounting system and he’s grateful.
“It took eight years of my business life for me to find this firm, and I’m not going anywhere,” Brooks said.
What makes you happy?
I love music so putting on my headphones or going to a show of a musician I love makes me happy.
Who is your favorite band?
That’s a tough one. It would have to be the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or maybe Bob Seger.
What do you do to instill your culture in a new employee?
Everyone is trained by colleagues, which helps ingrain the culture from the start. I also have a lot of check-ins along the way where we actually sit down and discuss how things are going.
How do you ensure you’re working on your business and not just in it?
I hired a project manager who is an extension of me working on my business. She is an organizer and a motivator who can keep me on the right path. This way someone is always focused on the business even if it’s not me.
How do you stay organized?
We rely on a couple of different technologies. Trello manages our workflow and Hiver allows us to have team discussions without adding to email. It also helps me delegate tasks. The yellow notepad will never go away either.