It’s been a long road for Matt Apostol, Vince Apostol, and Robert Pfeffer, but the three friends wouldn’t have it any other way. The trio has spent the past decade living and breathing screen printing. It’s been endless days and nights of ink and T-shirts as they took their scrappy, small business from a tiny garage to a 12,000-square-foot warehouse. They cut their teeth printing for hardcore bands and up-and-coming streetwear labels under the company they founded, Glad Rags Ink. Nowadays, after being acquired by the massive merchandising network AKT Enterprises in 2014, they’ve shifted clientele and work mainly within the music and entertainment industries.
Their Pomona, California, location is home to more screens, printing presses, and squeegees than most of us would know what to do with. The sounds of old school hip-hop or classic punk rock can still be heard playing throughout their warehouse, but plenty has changed. Their current clients now range from 30 Seconds to Mars and Childish Gambino to Major Lazer and Busta Rhymes, and during this summer festival season, their facility will be moving over 40,000 units a month. Not bad for three humble kids from a sleepy suburb of Southern California.
They’re as good of friends today as when they first started (it doesn’t hurt that Matt and Vince are brothers) and both their work ethic and D.I.Y. ethos have never wavered. If one business wasn’t enough, the group (with friend Brian Kim) started a clothing label (Loud& Obnoxious) back in 2007. They’ll be the first to admit that the label has taken a backseat to allow more time for their screen printing business, but it hasn’t stopped them from releasing a variety of products throughout the year.
We spoke to Matt and Vince about their journey as business owners, the secret to finding success within a cutthroat industry, and what it’s like to go into business with some of your closest friends.
TYLER W: You originally started printing T-shirts because you needed to make some for your band. When did you realize the potential to turn that idea it into a screen printing business?
VINCE APOSTOL: It was pretty quick. We would show up to our shows with a full array of merchandise on our table because we were printing it all ourselves in our garage. We would do small runs since we were a small band, but we’d do multiple colorways and garments so our setup looked like a collection. Other bands at the shows would show up with one or two shirts. They’d get curious and ask how we get all this merch. When we said we print it ourselves, they would then ask, “Can you print for us too?” And that’s when the lightbulb turned on. We had a lot of friends in bands and also knew that there were A LOT of local bands we could reach out to. Even though we had no idea how to start a business, I did my best to learn how.
Matt figured out how to screen print, so I took it upon myself to do sales and market it. I utilized our band’s MySpace at the time to promote our service and make sales. Shortly after, Robert [Pfeffer] would see this potential as we were growing out of our garage and approach us about starting a real business. Robert is a numbers guy and understands all the other things about starting a business that were a foreign language to me and Matt, which made him the perfect partner for us.
At the time, we figured we were still young and didn’t have any major responsibilities or bills yet. None of us were married, or have kids, or mortgages, so we figured “Fuck it. Let’s give it our best shot.” We went all-in on our first office location (a 1,200-square-foot warehouse space with one office) in August 2008 in City of Industry, Calif.
“There’s always someone willing to be cheaper than you. But is that worth your time, effort, and skill? Is it worth your client’s time and risk?”
What were some crucial lessons you learned in the earlier years of running Glad Rags Ink?
VINCE: One of the largest lessons we learned was about extending terms to customers. For some reason, running a merchandise company can feel a lot like being a loan company. Bands and clothing lines want their merch, and they want it now, but they don’t want to pay for it right now. We learned the hard way about extending terms to a client without proper paperwork to protect ourselves. We were young, dumb, and naive—we thought that handshakes would make people keep their word. We were wrong, and to this day, we still have clients who have not paid for services rendered.
Additionally, it’s important to know your worth. We always thought for a long time that we had to beat everyone’s prices. And that’s not always true. There’s always someone willing to be cheaper than you. But is that worth your time, effort, and skill? Is it worth your client’s time and risk?
MATT APOSTOL: One of the most important things that we frequently preached about was the power of word of mouth. Every major connection we made, or business relationship we established, was because someone from our past experiences either remembered us as a band, or enjoyed booking shows with my brother, or loved the first small shirt order we printed and the customer service relationship that we built. People remember everything about their experiences with you, no matter how long ago it was, but it definitely shapes the initial interaction that you will have with them in the present and future.
L to R: Matt Apostol, Robert Pfeffer, and Vince Apostol
You’ve always put quality at the forefront of your business. What drove that decision? And was there ever a time when you were tempted to cut corners?
VINCE: I think it was due to our interest in streetwear at the time. Streetwear clothing companies always focused on quality and we loved that level of focus and attention to detail. We started screen printing not as a source of income originally, but for fun and necessity and creativity. We had ideas and wanted to bring them to life, but we wanted to do it the right way. Being the creatives we are, we wanted to output product that we were proud of. To us, screen printing is still an art form. And yes, absolutely we are always tempted to cut corners. There are always cheaper inks, equipment, and processes that we could have been using. But to us, it was always about finding the best way to produce using the resources we have.
MATT: We knew that screen print shops were a dime a dozen especially in Southern California. We thought to ourselves that the only way to truly separate yourself from the rest was to have a higher quality product with the best personal experience we could offer. The other shops just wanted to make a sale and call it a day. We wanted more from our business. We wanted longevity. I don’t think we tried to cut corners so much as we tried to save on expenses. We learned quickly that cutting corners always resulted in poor product.
What work went into achieving that high level of quality and what do you have to do to maintain it from slipping?
MATT: I look back and I remember spending countless hours troubleshooting, making mistakes and just trying to figure out why something didn’t work or how to make it better. In our first few years, we worked every single day, no weekends and no holidays, from morning to late night. It’s different now obviously because we’re not figuring out how to print but instead focusing on how to manage our workload and time efficiently. I feel as if we’ve been able to maintain high quality standards regardless of how busy we get because it is something that we preach daily to our entire team. We’ve quite literally been in every single job and position in this business, so we already know most of the errors and how to remedy them. And we are constantly reminding our team that everyone should be monitoring the quality of the product they see and are handling.
VINCE: Getting to that level requires a high standard of attention to detail and limitless patience. And with a growing company like ours, staying at that level can also be difficult as new press operators are hired. But my brother [Matt] hires and trains his staff at the same standard that he holds himself to, which is why we have the utmost trust in our capable staff to continue pushing out the best work. From top to bottom. The entire staff is aware of the importance of their respective jobs and that we depend on their abilities.
At what point did the idea of starting Loud& Obnoxious come into play?
VINCE: Soon after figuring out how to screen print, we started thinking about all the cool things that we wanted to put on the front of a t-shirt. The creative juices started flowing and we remembered that our good friend Brian Kim had ideas for starting his own t-shirt brand. That night, my brother and I called him over to the house and L&O was born. It was a result of our necessity to express ourselves creatively. There were concepts and graphics that didn’t make sense for our band that we wanted to print and wear, so this was our outlet for that. We were curious to see if we could create something that not only we could wear, but others would want to purchase and wear themselves.
What advantages did owning print shop give you as brand owners?
MATT: It gave us control over our own product and timelines. Being able to produce your own goods in-house means that you can keep your cost low, but also be more creative with exactly what it is you want to do with your brand. The only limitation we had was how hard we wanted to work, and how much time we wanted to put in.
VINCE: In the very beginning of L&O, we were still in the garage but the initial success of the brand actually ended up helping Glad Rags Ink grow. We didn’t even realize it at the time but we had accidentally created a marketing agent for Glad Rags Ink. The surge of popularity of L&O brought along an entirely new demographic of customers. By branding L&O as a D.I.Y. brand and promoting the fact that we print everything ourselves, we gained more clientele during a time when everyone wanted to start their own clothing brand as well. In the public’s eye, L&O appeared as a bigger company, yet our main income was really from Glad Rags Ink.
“And when opportunity knocks, you answer.”
More and more people in both the local music scene and streetwear were looking to get shirts printed for their own projects by starting bands and brands. With both Dear Life and L&O gaining popularity in their respective fields, Glad Rags Ink would see a continuous increase in sales and exposure. I just realized I sort of went off topic there but it is a key point I wanted to touch on. Even today, having our shop and access to all the manufacturing resources with AKT allows us to almost literally do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want with L&O and that’s pretty damn fun for us.
What have you felt were some major milestones that you had that really made you realize the company was growing?
VINCE: Moving into our current warehouse was huge. We had just completed our third year in business and we were bursting at the seams at the previous facility. We literally ran out of room for everything. Being able to make the move and then acquire more equipment was a major achievement for us, especially considering we started with next to nothing. Becoming a print vendor for merchandise companies and record labels in the music industry was also a great milestone for us. For kids like us, it was a big deal because these were the people we looked up to and they were giving us a shot to provide a quality service for them. It would help us hone our skills and continue to grow. It would also ultimately lead us into our relationship with AKT Enterprises, another huge milestone.
Was there any initial hesitation when it came to selling the remaining equity in your company and coming under the AKT umbrella?
VINCE: Of course! Glad Rags Ink was our baby. We watched it grow from birth into something we were incredibly proud of. We worked long, hard, and tirelessly to bring it to this point. The thought of relinquishing ownership was certainly frightening, but at the same time we knew we couldn’t continue on at the pace we wanted to without help. At that particular time and state of our company, we knew that this was the right move to make in order for us to keep growing and create careers for ourselves. To create long lasting sustainability, not only for us but our staff. We had never dreamed of selling our company but we did have dreams of getting to a point where our work could push us forward in our lives. And when opportunity knocks, you answer. Glad Rags Ink may be no longer but the spirit of our baby still remains. It’s still our shop to run and care for. We still get that feeling coming to work the same way we did for Glad Rags Ink. That feeling of knowing that our work matters. The harder we work, the further we go. Relinquishing ownership also meant relieving ourselves of the stresses that come along with being an owner. With those stresses relieved and a new team and world of resources at our disposal, the sky became the limit.
The world of band merchandise has certainly evolved over the years. How has the company and its clients managed to keep up with the trends?
VINCE: Absolutely. A lot of really exciting things have happened over the last several years, mainly with the advent of the smartphone and the ability for everyone to be connected to each other at all times. With the decrease of record sales, the music industry turned to tour and merchandise. Social media presence and online web stores are now essential for every band and artist. Following with current fashion trends allows our clients to stay ahead of your run of the mill band merchandise. But the best way to keep up with the trends is to set them. I personally take pride in actively seeking out new and unique garments, styles, and processes. We are always pushing the envelope with our available resources to see what we can come up with next. And our clients are always very excited about that whenever they have a tour coming up or if they want to spruce things up in their online collection. We take the attention to detail and presentation normally reserved for a clothing brand and apply that to our band merchandise. It definitely does not go unnoticed.
“I love our story. It’s a story I would read again and again.”
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
MATT: Every morning I wake up proud because I get to work with my best friends doing something I truly enjoy. Being able to still be creative and earn a living at the same time with people that I care about makes me feel like we continue to do things right.
VINCE: It’s really hard to pinpoint one moment as our proudest achievement. Sometimes it’s even hard for us to step back and look at what we’ve done. We get so caught up in our ambitions and keeping our eyes forward that we hardly take a second to celebrate our work. It’s not until someone we haven’t seen in a while visits the office and they’re blown away. Seeing it on their face reminds us of where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are headed. As cliché as it sounds, every passing day is our proudest achievement. I really do believe that. Because Matt, Robert, and I are always achieving and reaching for more. Every passing day is the furthest we’ve ever gone.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
VINCE: Aside from how to properly extend terms to a client to protect ourselves from sketchy assholes, no. Our journey was beautiful through all the ups and downs. I try to live this life without regret because you cannot change the past. You can only take what you have learned and move forward. Our story is something I am proud to tell whenever anyone asks. I love our story. It’s a story I would read again and again.
MATT: This question is always hard to answer because I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. Everything we did and didn’t do make us who we are, and I’m proud of that. I know that every time we have done anything, we’ve always done it to the best of our abilities because we truly care. And I don’t think that I would change that at all.
Do you ever have nostalgia for the earlier days of the company?
MATT: Yes, but I have nostalgia for all the things we used to do when we were younger: playing in a band, touring, just hanging out on any given time or day. Life was much simpler and didn’t worry about things that I now consider petty. Now that I’m older and supposedly wiser, the things that matter to me most are being happy, doing what you love and having your family and friends by your side in life.
VINCE: Hell yeah. We were more innocent then. We may be older and wiser now, but then we were younger and braver. Almost fearless in the face of naysayers and statistics. We just did it. Whatever happened, happened. We’d just roll with the punches. Times were simpler. Beer was cheaper. Just a bunch of kids staying up late trying to create. Our friends would always come over to hang out while we were doing our thing. Looking back, it boggles my mind that we were able to stay so productive with all those distractions but it really was our motivation. It made the long hours not so long.
“We just did it… Just a bunch of kids staying up late trying to create.”
How do you see the company evolving over the years?
VINCE: We are always thinking forward. The AKT umbrella is already so large but I think the evolution will be within each of the facets of the company. With east and west coast production facilities, online store fulfillment, ticketing, record label, design, web development, and event coordination, I think there is always room for improvement and growth to stay ahead of the competition. Our facility on the west coast may be testing out new services more than just screen printing. The web development for online store presence is always pushing to create an easier and more enjoyable experience for a customer, whether they are looking to buy merch from their favorite band or get their own shirts printed. We’re constantly seeking out new niche markets outside of music as well for new business. Now that we have bi-coastal production capabilities in the US, I personally would love to see expansion into other US markets or even globally. But that’s just me. And remember what I said about #2 of the Ten Crack Commandments? “Never let ‘em know your next move.” So I’ll have to stop here.
MATT: As far as AKT goes, I see the company being able to service the music industry in a more personal way and approach than any other company has been able to in the past. We are bridging the gap between huge companies/huge musicians and the smaller scene. The days of huge fronted record deals and 360 merchandise contracts are coming to a close and we’ll continue to be here to work alongside artists to help each other grow.
All photography by Noel Vasquez.