As a blog that loves all-things local, one of our greatest joys is seeing our favorite local businesses grow. Kong Screen Printing is dear to our hearts, so when I realized it would soon be celebrating eight years, I jumped at the excuse to see what the team has been up to.
In The Beginning
We first met Kong Screen Printing back in 2012, its second year of business (Kong was founded in 2011). The Austinot was treated to a tour to learn about the screen printing process. Even then, as a relatively new business, Kong had a strong reputation as a straight-forward, customer-friendly, just plain fun company to work with.
Fast forward to seven years later, and I found co-owners Ryan Burkhart and Bruce Braden to be the same great guys we met in 2012, character unchanged by the growth of their business.
The business grew out of its previous location about five years ago. Now based on Airport Road next to the annual home of Blue Genie Art Bazaar, Burkhart and Braden have two full-time designers, 12 other employees, and a brand new printing machine.
During my visit, they nonchalantly shared about hosting an international business class wanting to learn about their company. Then they excitedly showed me their new Topo Chico refrigerator, a gift from Topo Chico itself. That’s pretty much the perfect summary of Kong Screen Printing. A business achieving such success, while remaining focused on fun, quality, and care.
Superior Attention to Quality
The focus on care came up several times, and it occurred to me how much this transcended all aspects of the work. Kong is still THE recommendation you get when you ask about screen printers on local forums.
If you take a moment to admire some of the company’s past work (which decorates the offices), then you’ll recognize several successful local brands and dearly loved local events.
As I walked around, shirt printing was actively occurring on all machines. Burkhart pointed out how each person in the process plays a role in ensuring quality for each individual shirt. One employee actively monitored the ink level in the machine, so consistency was achieved. Two other employees personally inspected each shirt after printing to ensure it met standards. This was repeated on the other press with three other employees.
In seeing the stacks of shirts, the sheer devotion necessary for this level of attention was daunting. But each employee I talked to beamed with pride while explaining what they were doing, and then I understood. When people feel that level of pride in their work, it must be right. There is simply no other choice.
Kong’s Recent Expansion
Kong has expanded its design department to help clients tackle problems like logo redesign and package design. Sometimes, the design work will not even be printed at Kong–the design itself is the product.
Burkhart explained their experience as makers allows them to anticipate issues and challenges that inevitably arise, when working with different materials and printing methods. For example, without thinking of printing repercussions, your logo may be hidden under the arc of a mug handle.
This is a challenge everyone at Kong is excited about. Before I interrupted the designers to say hello, they were holding mugs and examining designs, busy in their process.
Because Kong allows customers to actively be a part of the process, customers react to this level of care and quality. Customers can go to the offices, see their shirts being made, take pictures for social media, and celebrate the moment with Kong. It’s the customer who appreciates the focus on care who will keep returning (and recommending Kong to friends).
Kong Screen Printing’s Employees
Another area of focus for Burkhart and Braden are their employees. On my visit, I picked up on the camaraderie and pride that leads to exceptional teamwork. The co-owners mentioned they get several people asking to learn the process in exchange for free labor. While that’s not something they support, it demonstrates their reputation for their craft, and how they’ve created a place people want to be. Employees learn all parts of the screen printing process and can nominate causes or events to receive sponsorship from Kong.
As I talked to the employees, they were all cheerful, smiling, and excited to talk about their work. They proudly answered my questions, and then quickly returned to their work. After all, there were shirts to be made and designs to be created!
An Austin Company
Finally, I took a moment to ask about Austin. In a city focused on start ups and entrepreneurship, what’s made Kong Screen Printing a success story others can learn from?
Burkhart and Braden thought about it and gave this advice: Get a good accountant; listen to what people are really asking; and be patient. Ever humble, they quickly transitioned to giving Austin credit for their growth. They benefited from a growing Austin with about 80 percent of their business being from other local companies. They also mentioned how the city’s reputation plays a role, with potential customers wanting to work with an Austin company.
After that forced moment of seriousness, they started telling tales of seeing their shirts “in the wild.” When this happens, they excitedly text each other and try to resist examining the shirt (still on the person), to see how well it’s holding up.
Through the laughter, I sneak one more thing into their guide to success: sincerely love what you’re doing and have a great time doing it. Congratulations on eight years, Kong!
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you ever worked with Kong Screen Printing?