Ink positive: With national ambitions, Custom Ink continues to grow

T-shirt printing company Custom Ink nets "a few hundred million in revenue," according to founder Marc Katz (below). Photo: Courtesy CustomInk T-shirt printing company Custom Ink nets “a few hundred million in revenue,” according to founder Marc Katz (below). Photo: Courtesy CustomInk

Custom Ink has been operating out of Charlottesville for nearly a decade, but the company has only recently put its name up for all to see.

The custom design and printing firm, which has shown staggering growth over the last 15 years, focuses on its online audience. Wherever you are in the country, if you want a bushel of unique printed T-shirts, is your huckleberry.

The city in which Custom Ink’s first and largest production facility is located has always been of less importance.

Company co-founder and CEO Marc Katz launched Customink with several college buddies in Northern Virginia in 2000. The idea was to take the largely fragmented custom T-shirt business—serving clubs, social groups, sports teams, bachelorette parties, nerds, goofballs and hipsters—and give it a single home on the web. Inc. Magazine ranked Customink, little more than a web portal at the time, the 55th fastest growing U.S. business in November 2005.

During the next 12 years, the company, which became Custom Ink in 2017, has grown more than 100 times over in terms of employment. While the privately held business doesn’t divulge specific sales figures, Katz says it’s doing “a few hundred million in revenue and growing.” The Washington Business Journal pegged that estimate at $230 million in 2014 and $300 million the next financial year. Katz told the journal he thought Custom Ink could eventually be a billion-dollar company.

“We are a category leader, and yet we have single digit market share because it is such a large, fragmented business,” Katz says. “It’s competitive, but we think we add a lot more to the industry.”

Always focused on letting customers print T-shirts on hundreds of styles and colors with custom or house-designed graphics, Custom Ink also offers bespoke towels, hats, bumper stickers, holiday ornaments, drinkware and promotional products. Much of the swag is printed right here in C’ville.

Custom Ink launched its first production facility, where it does design, printing and more, in Charlottesville in 2011, around the same time it started opening brick-and-mortar stores throughout Virginia. The local plant opened with just 30 team members but expanded in 2014, tripling its floor space and seeing local employment spike to 185.

Then, earlier this year, Katz and his team christened their first storefront in Charlottesville, setting up shop at Barracks Road. Custom Ink today operates 16 stores nationwide—in Virginia, Texas and Nevada—and plans to open another Virginia location later this year. The brick-and-mortars, Katz says, offer a fun experience that might get lost on the web—customers can stroll into the design center and work directly with a Custom Ink team member. The C’ville location uniquely offers same-day digital printing.

Launching the Charlottesville store is a move intended to not only grow sales but also connect Custom Ink to the community, Katz says. For folks who might not have known the fastest growing T-shirt printer in the country was anchored in C’ville, it’s a shining light of its services.

“Sometimes, if I was out with friends or my wife, I wouldn’t have mentioned [Custom Ink],” says Collin Wilson, manager of the new Barracks Road store. “But now that we have a storefront, I’m a little more forthcoming. It’s actually a natural progression, moving from an online presence only to giving customers an opportunity to come in and touch and feel what we have to offer.”

Grafton Boone, a production manager at the Charlottesville printing plant, says Custom Ink has been laying the groundwork in C’ville for years. “When we first moved down, it was like, ‘Hey, this doesn’t feel like Custom Ink,’” he says. “Now we are a part of the community.”

Long before the shop next to SweetFrog on the north side of the Barracks Road Shopping Center, Custom Ink’s been joining local fundraising initiatives and working with community groups like the Greene County Little League.

Now, people with a belly full of froyo can stroll by and see what’s going on at the nationwide dot-com.

“Business has been great,” Wilson says. “It’s been a lot of fun opening the store, seeing the interest from the community that comes along with that.”

Katz agrees—he couldn’t be happier to see the Custom Ink storefront bringing more local recognition to his nationally-focused company. But, big picture, the Charlottesville presence is much more than just a sign on a shopping center marquee.

“There’s a lot of market potential still out there, and we are very much thinking about the future,” he says. “We want to keep the growth growing, and I would expect Charlottesville will be an important part of the picture on an ongoing basis.”

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