Adapting to Survive in the Digital Era: How one CEO saved a decades old company

Adapting to Survive in the Digital Era: How one CEO saved a decades old company
September 20 10:38 2017 Print This Article

I recently spoke with Rob Andelman the CEO of Nightmare Graphics and Nightmare Team Sports based in Columbia, Maryland. The slogan at Nightmare is “Powered by Identity,” — an apt slogan for a small, local business that started from the ground up and adapted with the times to achieve success and growth on a national scale. Rob shares the inspiring story about how Nightmare was founded, how they continue to grow in the digital era and how their commitment to authenticity helps them maintain a local vibe.

Jay: Thanks for speaking with me, Rob. I’m sure you’re busy running your business, but I’ve heard this amazing story about how your father had a passion for bringing identity to other businesses so he started Nightmare Graphics out of a basement with no running water? I’d love to hear the full story.

Rob: Yes, the story goes something like that. It actually all started in 1982 when my dad was a teacher and art director in Montgomery County, Maryland. He was in his late twenties and realized that he had already maxed out his career potential there and he refused to just cruise along for the next 30 years. So, he decided to quit teaching and he cashed out his retirement money to start a screen printing company. He bought one little press and he did all of the art out of our little townhouse. Soon he rented a little space in the basement of an old textile mill (that initially didn’t have running water) where he got everything off the ground and soon hired his first employee.

My dad always believed in controlling as much of the production process as you possibly can. As a result, we do all of our graphics right here in our Maryland facility where we have three full-time artists. We don’t use any clip art which really sets us apart from our competitors. We have our own manufacturing facility where we screen print the clothes, do the embroidery and we also operate a cut and sew factory where we manufacture our own clothing. We don’t outsource any part of the apparel process because authenticity is the most important facet of the Nightmare identity.

Jay: How did you branch into the sports side of things?

Rob: Our very first customer happened to be a sports league. Dad was constantly going after things he knew and he knew that PTAs, and schools and sports leagues all buy t-shirts. We’ve branched out significantly since then but we basically started out as a t-shirt company.

Jay: I’m always inspired by people who can build something from nothing the way your father did. I don’t want to gloss over his success in growing the business. How did he achieve such growth before the dawn of social media?

Rob: You know Jay, it was all through word of mouth. My dad is a very personable guy and he was able to network and build the business by tapping into his contacts in the local market in Columbia, Maryland.

Jay: The ability to network well is a very underrated business skill and it sounds like your father mastered that. The name Nightmare Graphics is unique to say the least, can you tell me where it came from?

Rob: I wish it was some great story but it’s really not. Originally the company was called Graphic Concepts but when my father went to incorporate it that name was already taken. So, he and the former art director locked themselves into a room to brainstorm a new name. After six hours of toiling over name ideas they didn’t have anything so the art director shouted, “Nightmare Graphics!” I think she thought the whole naming task was a nightmare or something. But my dad said, “Yup! That’s it. That sticks and it’s something you’re going to remember,” and they laughed but he was right, because it did stick.

Jay: There was no board vote? They just went with it. I love that tenacity.

Rob: Yeah, it was a bold move, but I give them credit because the name is hard to forget.

Jay: Speaking of tenacity, I’m sure things have changed with the times as they do for every business, but I’m curious to hear how social media has changed things for your business?

Rob: We’re actually ramping up our social media to help inform our customers what all we can do for them. When the business was set up my dad said, “everyone is our customer.” It didn’t matter if you’re a small family reunion, a giant corporation, or a sports league, and it still doesn’t. He set up the business that way and it’s’ worked out well for us. Now it’s my job as CEO to showcase our artwork on social media so all of our customers know what we are capable of.

The thing people don’t realize is that we operate one of the only cut and sew factories in the state of Maryland and in the entire country there’s only about 1,000 of them left. We do all of our screen printing, embroidery, sublimation and design in house.  So, to be able to showcase all of that through facebook and Instagram and Twitter and other platforms definitely helps drive business.

Jay: Your father’s strategy about serving a broad customer base instead of refining it to just a few groups is a surprising strategy for a small, local company. Most companies specialize in one thing. How did that work out for your guys?

Rob: In our industry if you do all of your own production and you have all the right equipment there’s no reason why you can’t service everyone. And that’s basically how the business was set up — it’s literally not saying no. Sometimes we temper a customer’s expectations of what they’re going to get and how they’re going to go about getting it but we don’t say no.

Jay: Your father’s ideas really seem to have sculpted your own business strategy. Considering that only 30 percent of all family-owned businesses survive into the second generation what’s the one aspect of the business where you have had to adapt the most to survive?

Rob: I’ve had to guide the company into the digital age. When my father started it in the 80s advertising could be done just through word of mouth but now everything goes through the web. If I could go back in time I would absolutely tell myself to invest in our web presence right when the internet took off in the late 90s. Even to this day many companies have abysmal websites because it’s something they don’t want to invest in. You will lose out on sales you didn’t even know you had with that mentality because if somebody comes to your website and can’t navigate it very well or if they don’t have all the right information they will go to a competitor.

Jay: Are you able to leverage your website for sales beyond the local market?

Rob: Yes, that’s the beauty of the web is that we’re able to have customers nationwide, and we even have some overseas business, but we’re still a local Baltimore company through and through. That’s the core of the Nightmare identity.