The Secret Sauce


By Nona Phinn

Each year many start-ups launch, but not all of them survive. CustomInk’s Marc Katz shares with us the key ingredients that are part of his company’s recipe for success.

The alarm sounds. Samantha jumps out of bed and races to the bathroom. She hangs her head over the sink. She has a pit in her stomach, which feels like a million tiny ants have built an amusement park in the depth of her belly and are having the time of their lives. Samantha tells herself that today is like any other day. No different than the day before, just an average  Monday.

Yet, it’s not. This Monday was different than any other Monday. Today was the first day of the rest of her life. She would never have another day like this one. What if no one comes? What if they hate me? What if I fail? A hundred and one questions like this swarmed through Samantha’s mind as she prepared to face the day.

Finally, Samantha arrived. There was no turning back. She slowly approached her dream in the making, Samantha’s Homemade Tastery. The premise? There’s nothing like baked goods the way grandma use to make them — at least that’s what Samantha believed when she decided to take her love for baking and share it with the world.

“Here we go,” she said to herself. Samantha unlocked the doors, exhaled and turned her shop sign to open for the first time.

The Trick of Success

An estimated 400,000 new businesses open their doors every year in the United States, according to Gallup. Yet, 50% of these companies will fail within the first five years. The reasons for stopping one’s dream short of success are myriad. According to CNBC these reasons include overconfidence, lack of funds or poor pricing strategy. Still, there are a great number of new businesses that succeed every day, launching from humble beginnings to evolve into great forces in the marketplace.

Many companies fall into this rags-to-riches category. Subway, The Container Store, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and The Body Shop are all companies in which their current state exceeds the expectations their founders had when the companies’ open signs were first lit. CustomInk, an Internet apparel company that allows customers to design and order custom-made apparel and accessories, is another success story that falls in this category. This past BBB International Torch Award winner, started in 2000 with only 10 employees (known as Inkers), today is a mid-sized company that employs more than 1,500 Inkers and is consistently ranked as a top place to work. 


Is there a secret sauce to the recipe of small business success? There may not be one particular recipe, but there certainly are ingredients that can help pave the way to success. CustomInk, for instance, defines itself as, “A Company with Heart.”

In an interview with CustomInk’s Co-Founder and CEO Marc Katz, he reminded us that a T-shirt is more than just a shirt. “When we started, it was really about taking the custom T-shirt printing business and trying to make it better; more fun, faster and efficient online. In the process of doing literally tens of millions of custom T-shirts for all sorts of groups, occasions, and causes, we realized that the business wasn’t about shirts at all. People were coming to us not because they wanted to be clothed but because they wanted to feel a stronger sense of community.”

The idea of being a part of something greater than just selling a product was a key element that drew Katz to entrepreneurship and CustomInk in particular. He wanted to be a part of something that was meaningful. For more than 15 years CustomInk has been helping to connect people and create lasting memories through its products. Its T-shirts represent stories and memories that people want to hang on to.

Once the company uncovered the real intent as to why people bought CustomInk’s shirts, it began to provide innovative solutions to meet its customers’ needs. The company now offers services, such as a fundraising platform for those seeking to raise funds for a particular cause and a sponsorship platform, which helps groups find brand sponsors interested in securing real estate on their shirts. “All of it, however, is for that larger purpose of building a stronger group and activating a stronger community,” explained Katz.


Caring about each other, about the work and the outcome is doing things with heart, living with heart. Not just because it’s good business, but because it’s the way you want to live.”

To Katz, being a business with heart includes a focus on customers, Inkers and company character. “Back in the early days, when customers called us, the phone rang on every desk and who ever got to it, got to it,” he recalled. “So everyone was very engaged with customers and got how meaningful the experience was to them.” Katz himself spent a great deal of time on the phones as a sales rep. It was more than exposure for him, as he enjoyed connecting with customers and learning firsthand what people cared about and what would make the difference for them. Over time, Katz and the CustomInk team took what they heard and learned from their customers and applied it to streamlining, rethinking and better understanding the experience their customers required from them.

“Something that I think is really cool about our business is the vast majority of our revenue is from repeat and referral customers. That took some time to build, but it stems from this deep commitment to the customer experience and satisfaction. We take care of our customers out of genuine, sincere caring,” Katz proudly proclaimed.

Being a constant on the best places to work lists is not an easy triumph. Katz said he believes CustomInk continues to do so because Inkers are not only empowered, they are dedicated to the positive impact they create for their customers and the other people that their work touches across the business. CustomInk also provides an environment where Inkers are responsible for being themselves and living up to their own values. “You know, all those things that make people who they are but also make for a strong sense of team and camaraderie,” explained Katz.

It took just a few years after being in business for CustomInk to identify its core values: the Golden Rule, treating others how you want to be treated; Ownership, making it personal and taking responsibility; and Innovation, always looking for better ways of doing things. The company understands that this is aspirational and in their imperfection they “with heart,” strives to do their best to live up to these values. Katz shared his “aha” moment. “It’s funny, the more we became aware of the underlying purpose of our business being about community and helping people to build them, the more our own internal values made sense.”

“As much as possible, try to bring into alignment what you really care about and who you are with what your business model is about,” Katz recommended to other businesses. Katz believes that The Golden Rule coupled with Ownership and Innovation are the values of a healthy community and that the consistency between what CustomInk is about internally and what the company is trying to do out in the world makes for a truly great marriage. They align beautifully.

Referencing Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, Katz also encouraged anyone seeking to step out and start a business to find your sweet spot, that thing you are most passionate about, good at and will make you money. Find that overlap and focus on that spot. There may not be a secret recipe but a suggested formula from Katz goes something like this: passion x talent x luck = success. Lastly, Katz advised that any potential entrepreneur should be able to distinguish between true risk and mere uncertainty. Uncertainty or fear of the unknown paralyzes and trips up individuals from taking those first steps. Don’t let it. However, don’t dive into huge risks that are not called for. “As an entrepreneur you really have to grasp both and intuitively understand the difference. Be a risk manager but have a tolerance for uncertainty,” he said.

At the end of the day, doing business with heart is part of the secret sauce for CustomInk’s success. Katz concluded, “Caring about each other, about the work and the outcome is doing things with heart, living with heart. Not just because it’s good business, but because it’s the way you want to live.”