My Company Was Forced Out of Its Niche, Lost Its Customer Base -- and Survived

Last Updated Aug 20, 2010 2:39 PM EDT

By Brenda Mulberry, CEO, Pike Products, Merritt Island, Fla.
My screen-printing company Pike Products has been devoted to making space-themed T-shirts since I was inspired by The Space Shuttle Columbia's first mission in 1981. I even created a trademark, SpaceShirts, for that part of my business. I have a retail store located on the main highway that leads into Kennedy Space Center, and I also fill custom T-shirt orders for space centers around the country. My company has been through a lot of unexpected disasters, such as Category 3 hurricanes, the Shuttle Challenger exploding during lift off in 1986, and the arrival of my twins in 1995, which some friends suspected would finally be the end of my business. But we survived it all.
Then the unimaginable happened: Sept. 11, 2001. Fearing another attack, space centers around the U.S. were shut down, including the Kennedy Space Center and its visitor center. My retail store was all of a sudden on a dead-end road. When the center reopened many months later, the public's interest in space exploration had waned, and so had government funding. People were simply more interested in what was happening on earth. Shuttle flights slowed from one a month to only a few per year, and tourism to the Kennedy Space Center was strictly limited by heightened security -- no more private cars were allowed. The future looked bleak, but I wasn't ready to give up.

I went back to the drawing board
The decline of the space program forced me out of my niche. During the time the Kennedy Space Center was closed, I had to lay off a couple of part-time employees.

Although I didn't give up printing space-themed shirts altogether, I knew it was time to branch out. I have a degree in design and I put it to use.

In the wake of the attacks, I noticed that people became more interested in showing their support for the United States, so we started printing patriotic-themed T-shirts. I also began taking on projects that weren't just about screen-printing. My store now sells coffee mugs, souvenirs and gifts, and has gone back to selling our original product: customizable dive bags for scuba gear.

I started networking
At first people weren't even aware that my company could make anything except space-themed T-shirts. So I went to my local Rotary club meetings and Chamber events and started giving away free customized T-shirts to other local business owners. Even though I gave away about $1,000 a month in T-shirts, advertising to the local business community this way was cheaper and more effective than spending $2,000 a month on Yellow Pages ads, which is what we had been doing previously.

After I had given away enough T-shirts, the word got out and we started getting orders from time shares, hotels, doctors, tourism companies, cruise lines -- the list goes on. When times are tough, it's best to try and figure out ways to help others -- often they'll pay back the goodwill.

I rebuilt my retail business
After Sept. 11, business at our retail store took a nose-dive. Even after Kennedy Space Center reopened, tourist visits to the site never recovered, and I had far fewer people driving by my store. When the Shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003 we were all devastated, which affected internal and customer morale. Not long after, I had to find a new way to attract retail business.

Through the local visitors' bureau I got in contact with hoteliers and put out rack cards in their hotel lobbies. If guests ordered T-shirts, my company delivered them to the hotel. We advertised this special offer on our website - www.spaceshirts.com - so quite a few people who came to stay on nearby Cocoa Beach already knew about the deal and ordered T-shirts when they arrived. My company also expanded its online store, which meant people didn't have to come out to Merritt Island to make a purchase. Word got out, and sales started to pick up again.

Pike Products continues to grow
I plan on making space-themed shirts as long as there's any demand. Fortunately, with the space program on its last legs, people are suddenly in a big rush to purchase memorabilia before it's all gone.

In spite of all the turbulence, the business has managed to maintain steady growth since the mid-1990s, when we reached about $500,000 in annual revenues. Last year my company made close to $1 million in revenue, and I currently have 13 employees. I chalk my long-term success up to adapting quickly when disaster strikes and never giving up, no matter how bad it looks in the moment.

-- As told to Harper Willis

Brenda Mulberry has a degree in clothing and textile merchandising and design from Florida State University.
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