Adding New Dimensions At Spectrum Designs

Podcast Episode 62  Only successful organizations can provide sustainable, long term paid employment and expand to provide more job opportunities. This weeks guest Patrick Bardsley and Tim Howe from Spectrum Designs certainly understand this. Spectrum Designs is a social enterprise making custom apparel, such as hats, hoodies, and T-shirts. Spectrum Designs focusses on the enterprise as much as the social, and in doing so continues to expand and create more employment opportunities for young people with autism.

Patrick and Tim share the story of Spectrum Designs, how it grew from an idea into a business that now provides custom made apparel products to some of the biggest companies in the world. This didn’t happen because Spectrum just focused on just providing employment opportunities: it happened because it focuses on quality and on-time delivery as this is what matters to the end customer. By doing this the business has grown to now provide even more jobs for people with autism.

Spectrum Designs is the perfect example of how to marry the social and the enterprise, and illustrates how simply delivering a quality product on time can drastically change the perceptions of and expectations of young people with additional needs.

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Podcast Transcript

DEBRA: Welcome to Episode 62 of the Journey Skills podcast. I’m really excited to share this episode, not only because my guests and their project is amazing, but because after I spoke to them, I got so many great ideas which I believe I will one day use to ensure that my daughter has paid employment. And I think you’ll get the same sort of inspiration.

That’s not to suggest that we are all going to start up our own companies but part of the advice they offered towards the end is about starting small. So, this is one of those anything-is-possible kind of discussions, which will hopefully get you thinking about new ways of doing things.

I’m talking to Patrick and Tim from Spectrum Designs which is a social enterprise custom apparel business based in Port Washington, New York. As you will hear, the story of Spectrum Designs is meteoric, to say the least. This is more than just about toasting success, it’s about seeing the tangible proof that young people with additional needs can compete in the open market as employees.

Patrick and Tim both originally come from the UK, so they also share their thoughts on the differences between the way the two countries think about social enterprises versus charities. This conversation around the relationship between social enterprises and charities is one I think needs to be had more often. I feel there’s too much of an emphasis still on charities being the way forward in terms of helping young people find sustainable work. I’m in no way suggesting that charities don’t play an incredibly important role especially as government funding diminishes. But I do think when we start talking work and sustainable employment that whilst charities have a clear role in training and helping develop skills, they often don’t have the resources to build an actual enterprise. One which can make money which then is used to pay people a living wage which they can obviously then use towards living a more independent life. And this is I think an issue that needs to be addressed at some point; the idea that we can run a business with young people who have additional needs and that that business can make money and I think Patrick and Tim showed that that’s actually possible.

Anyway, the passion and commitment of Patrick and Tim and those who actually started the project and work in the project today is, I think, inspiring.

DEBRA: Today I’m talking to Patrick Bardsley who is the co-founder and CEO of Spectrum Designs and also Tim Howe who is the Chief Operating Officer at Spectrum Designs. Welcome.

BOTH: Thank you so much for having us.

DEBRA: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves and also about Spectrum Designs? How it got started and what exactly you guys do?

PATRICK: So, Tim and I actually went to high school together in Wales in the UK and ended up here in this surreal situation. Back in 2006, I got job at Special Needs Summer Camp, upstate New York and met Stella Spanakos who’s a parent of a child with autism called Nicholas. I just fell in love with the work and had the best summer of my life and kept coming back every summer and had a special bond with her son, Nicholas who was a young teenager at the time.

So, I kept coming back summer after summer and Stella and I would have recurring conversations around “This is great but what’s going to happen next? What’s going to happen when Nicholas graduates from high school?” I kind of had that itch in me where I wanted to try and answer that question somehow. I had this opportunity in 2010 when Stella said, “Why don’t you move over here, finish your undergraduate at university in England and then come and get your Master’s in Special Ed here in New York and live with us, help me with Nicholas during the day and go to grad school?” I thought, “That’s great! Delay life a little bit longer and end up going to grad school in New York. And of course, I love Nicholas and I wanted to help her with him.

So, he’s an only child. I moved over in January 2010 and then six months in, a tragedy struck, when Nicholas’ father passed away very suddenly and he had heart attack. And so, our whole life changed. Stella had always said that she wanted to create something to answer that 21+ and I had 6 months to grad school and she said, “Okay, the time is now.” And so you know like a return policy, they sold his business and we started the Nicholas Center which is named after him and that was a human service educational center (agency is term used here). But pretty quickly, we realized that we were going to be chasing jobs we were going to be knocking on doors and we were going to be asking supermarkets and whoever to provide volunteer or potential employment opportunities to our population and we didn’t want to do that. We thought, “Why won’t we create the job?” and so that’s when Spectrum Designs was born.

So Spectrum Designs was set up as a separate non-profit but it’s a 501(c)(3) social enterprise which has the mission of employing people with autism and developmental disabilities in a fully functioning apparel printing shop; so t-shirts, hoodies, tote bags, that kind of thing. And we set that up in February 2011 just in her backyard, printing a couple of shirts a day, printing for autism families, really small stuff and then it just kind of was like, “Hang on a minute, my son has autism but I run a moving and storage business, can you make uniforms for my employees?” and I was like, “Yes, we can!” “Hey, I’ve got a deli, can you make stuff for the deli?” “I have tennis team…” And slowly but surely the degrees of separation started shifting because we were just doing good work and we had competitive pricing and people liked the mission. So we quickly moved out of the barn and expanded into 500 square feet and then in March 2013, Tim joined us because it was growing to a point where I just said, “You know, look, I really think you could come and help us out here.”

He’s got his master’s in non-profit administration and so it made sense that he could come and help with the organization and bring his skills to help us out from a business point of view and from a obviously non-profit standing. We grew and we has like 80% year on year growth and it was just incredible and here we are now we have an 80,000 square foot location, we’re printing upwards of 1500 shirts an hour, we’re employing 40 people, and we’re printing for companies like Google, Uber, Facebook. It’s an incredible thing to see.

Yes, we stumbled upon a great industry because the apparel industry, it can be broken down quite easily into steps. So, you start with the blank product, you execute XY and Z and you end up with this finished product and so there’s a clear beginning, middle and end. The nice thing about it is there’s obviously tremendous amount of repetition but because you’re doing different products and you’re doing customization, there’s all different colors, there’s all different designs, so, it doesn’t become monotonous. So I think that’s what makes it just a really great industry.

To take that one step further, what we found is that whereas people say, “That’s a really nice thing you’re doing.” Well, we have actually we’ve stumbled upon an incredibly talented, under-utilized market. And in terms of the employees we have, we have employees that I say our embroidery involves some fine motor skills but really high attention to detail; we have the cleanest embroidery in New York. You have individuals who we have to remind to take breaks. They’re not here to (I’m not being making broad generalizations but just what we found on the whole is that this particular work forces population) they’re not here to find out what everyone did over the weekend. We have to encourage that because they’re like “Look I’m here to work!”

With every sale, of course the dollars are important, we did 2.4 million dollars in gross sales last year and we’re really proud of that. But what’s more important to us is what that means for the productivity hours. How many production hours that gives to individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity and who were just been underestimated? And a lot of times, their whole lives. It’s just so super exciting. Tim got a giant order last week, it was like eighteen and a half thousand shirts and like we were excited, and we were like, “Yes, the dollars matter but it’s how many hours that’s going to create?”

TIM: 12 solid days of continuous so much work. In 2018, we provided just over 18,000 I think, paid hours for people with disabilities and it was double what we did in 2017. So it was this like huge moment for us. I think what we love most about it is this aspect it shouldn’t work. Like I have this conversation with people all the time but Americans kind of get on board with the idea of social enterprise and I feel like in the UK that’s a little bit more of discreet categories, right? There’s business who act to make money and then you have charities, who don’t make any money. They’re there to elicit donations from you, right? Those are the two discreet categories and that sort of middle category of social entrepreneurship doesn’t really exist. So much so that the idea of a charity to employ people with disabilities to supporting itself through revenue generation is just like, it’s a really tough concept to wrap your head around but it really works.

It’s like having these corporations to jump on the bandwagon is unbelievable part of the story that we never really expected. But we were expecting schools, local businesses and stuff to jump on it and go, “Oh, this is a really cool thing for the local community”. The thing that makes me extremely proud when I spoke to people about autism, I knew nothing autism. Pat always misses out the fact that he knew nothing about autism when he went to a special needs summer camp. What I really love about Spectrum’s mission and movement in particular is that you see the conversation. It’s like in microcosm, this little Port Washington Long Island area, instead of it being autism which is it, which side of the coin is it, it’s autism– those the guys who made the t-shirts for our volleyball tournament or those the guys who’ve made all of the tote bags for this like giant event, those the guys who print Uber’s like phone wallets and stuff. It changes that narratives. It’s giving another dimension to people on the spectrum and I think that is the thing that we’re most proud of. Even in this tiny little thing, yes, if spectrum expands and we start replicating this model across the United States and the UK one day.

PATRICK: So potentially, alter patterns of thought, right? And obviously that could be tremendous.

TIM: And it’s not something we ever talk about. It’s not something we ever discussed. It’s not something we’re aiming at. We’re aiming at employing more people. It’s like how can we talk about Spectrum in the Nicholas Center. We talk about how they impact 80 families and that’s just great! I love the way that sounds especially considering I remember when it was Pat and I printing shirts until three o’clock in the morning and it was just some guys coming from school districts in the day and now it’s like actual employed hours, it’s actual paid employment and we’re just expanding and widening the horizons on that.

DEBRA: So what’s the process for your employees? How do you find them? How do you train them?

PATRICK: You know, we mentioned the Nicholas Center and the partnership; I mean that is a crucial partnership. The way the Nicholas Center slots in is obviously Spectrum Designs is the apparel printing. Our business, our income, comes from selling shirts so we don’t have any relationships with the government or any of that kind of stuff in terms of job coaching. So the Nicholas Center handles that human service element; they provide job coaches, they work with either the school districts or the parents or the State to provide that support. So the Nicholas Center contracts with the school districts, individuals can come at the age of 16+, get real authentic vocational experience on our shop floor and then the idea here is that they then transition (after they gone through this learner journey) transition to employment if they wish to when they graduate and it’s a nice, smooth succinct transition. The individuals are already trained. We’re happy because we have someone who knows all the information, knows our safety procedures and all that stuff and so we have this great pool of individuals we can pick from and hire. So that’s the main way I would say we hire people but we obviously go through the normal traditional methods of posting jobs.

So the other thing that we do that is a little bit extra, I would say, is that we have our head of HR and chief of staff, Mackenzie is also a licensed social worker. So she understands and can provide. Because employment’s really important, the retention is equally important. And that’s kind of the shift that’s happening. People are going “Okay, we’ve done a pretty good job at creating employment opportunities, there’s tons more to do. But how do we stop these really staggering retention numbers where individuals are just losing their jobs or quitting because the typically functioning supervisors or co-workers just haven’t been trained and don’t understand there’s a different way to communicate in some instances that could be much more effective?”

And so, what Mackenzie does for us is she’ll assess individuals, assess what may be causing them any kind of anxiety or stressor anything reported from a supervisor and then she’ll meet them and sort of fill that area again for those who perhaps aren’t receiving those services. And honestly, she’s providing support to everyone. And I believe that actually perhaps any HR, Human Resource person, should probably have a pretty good understanding of mental health in any workplace whether you have a neurodiversity or not. I can’t tell you the amount of jobs that she’s probably saved in having done this for just a year with us and the people whose lives she’s improved by just being there and knowing the right strategies and ways to point people in the right direction at times of potential crisis.

We work on tight deadlines and these things spinning and moving and sometimes our printers who don’t autism, they’re not necessarily educators. We train them but we can’t expect them to be educators and sometimes they can be like, “Hey I need this now!”. They’ve got a job to do too. So it’s not a classroom but it’s also not a typical print shop. So it’s kind of in between. So you have to really work on adjusting things and having good recruitment and retention policies and having things in place.

TIM: The balancing act is so crucial like it’s there in between like at what point are we just an employer, what point are we just a print shop, at what point do we have to make sure that people aren’t paying more to work with us. They’re not waiting longer to work with us. They’re not sacrificing quality to work with us and then we can check those big boxes. Because if you can’t, then Uber wont care, they still need to meet the pricing that they want right? As socially responsible and as up for supporting autism employment they might be, they’re not going to compromise quality or price or time frame to do those things. If there like I’m going to donate to a charity, I’m going to donate to a charity but if I’m making a purchase, then they’ve got their sort of economical hat on and getting that balancing act right is just that’s the fight that we have every single day is that I get to just treat this as if it’s a completely normal print shop and the guys at the Nicholas Center are treating this like almost like it’s a school and making sure that the guys are constantly progressing towards their individual goals. My job is basically to not care about any of that. Make sure that we print t-shirts on time, that we’re getting everything done that we’re seen by corporate America (and I suppose the world) as a legitimate business, as a legitimate resource because that’s how we’ll grow.

DEBRA: Just in terms of expanding and growing, do you feel you’ve got systems and process in place now that enable you to scale up?

PATRICK: Yes, so we moved into this building just over a year ago and almost immediately we had a group from a neighboring county over the bridge (and still in New York), say “We want this in Westchester.” So immediately, we were like “Let’s enjoy the smell of fresh coffee” but at the same time, it forces us to start thinking that way and saying, “It would be a disaster if we did ever replicate and somehow the commitment to the quality of the commodity, the product, all the service that would be a disaster” And so… because we stand by those two things and they go hand in hand.

So what we did then was we instituted core values. So we started with core values that five core values that really guide who we are based around putting people first, professionalism, innovation (I’m always wanting to, like Tim said) be better than yesterday, helping of the environment and of, you know, emotional health and mission, of course. Staying true to our mission. And so the reason we have core values is it’s almost like an oath, everyone pledges to it, everyone signs off on them and you stay true to them and also it’s a management tool. So someone isn’t in line with that, you know, why your core values. We can be like “Hey!” And so, it’s a really good way of management and to making sure that everyone stays true to what’s at the core.

And then also, what we’re doing is Mackenzie and I are working on an HR manual that we can give to another place but also share with the wider community about some of the things we found to be mentioning the core values, mentioning what Mackenzie does from a retention point of view, mentioning the on-boarding process. With expansion, you get further and further away from the original co-founders, the original story, original mission and we want to do everything we can to mitigate that risk because you know I think that’s what separates us in terms of you know what we do is that commitment to quality of our products and service.

DEBRA: So you said you start thinking about expanding, how long before you’d start to do that do you think?

PATRICK: I think it’s probably six to twelve months away, maybe sooner. This is often parent-driven. It was originally parent-driven by Stella and Nicole and the group of other families here on Long Island. This is parent-driven by this group in Westchester. They want to see it happen. They come here, they’ve seen it and you know these are individual who are potentially late 20’s and 30’s who’ve never received a paycheck and you’re just like, “You would walk into our team here. You’d be great.” but you know, it’s too far. So, it’s just so exciting to be like we can do this again with a whole group of people and open our doors so much wider. It’s frustrating to see someone who’s obviously got so many skills and just has never, for whatever reason, has never been given an opportunity to thrive. And you know, there’s so many more benefits to employment than a paycheck, right? It’s about having an inherent feeding of self-worth, being part of a team, someone needs you.

I’ll never forget a parent saying to me a few years ago. We had to run a Saturday shift because we’re so busy, nice problem to have, but you know we were running it and I called a parent and I said, “Look, you know, I need Gregory this weekend. Is there any way he can come in? I know it’s short notice.” And she was just like “No one’s ever told me they needed my child before.” And I was like “That’s really nice. But can you come? Like I need him now. Let’s move on.”

It’s incredible for us to be able to kind of fill some of that and you know the communication that happen every single day; it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s friendships that have been formed, parents have even got together and they’re buying a house nearby to put their children to live and then walk to work. It’s obviously it’s all about work-life balance. And for the parents to be able to say, “Okay we’ve taken care of the 9:00-5:00 and now it’s 5:00 PM until 9:00 AM.” That’s the other thing that we obviously haven’t tackled where we focus on employment in the daytime but it’s incredible that that’s happening around us.

TIM: What I found really spectacular about the Westchester expansion is that Spectrum is self-sufficient. It’s past self-sufficient. We’re a nonprofit but it’s turning a profit. So, we’re making money. So, the natural progression is that we would eventually expand. Instead of going to people and saying, “This is where we’re going”, maybe this is where we’d be looking for investors if we were for profit. But what happens is, this group of parents from Westchester sort us out and said, “When on earth you get a chance to put money into something that will then become self-sufficient, right?” Because we can put money into this and this is it. It’s not like we’re going come around the following year cap in hand and go, “Hey, man! We’ve got to fund the next thing” They’re saying “What’s unique about this model is that you can set it, you’ve shown that you can do it, in Port Washington, you can drop a model like this, you’re going to employ people with disabilities to work in it and staff it and it’s going to be self-sufficient and it’s going to generate its own revenue.” And they’re like, “This is a no brainer. This is like the most exciting project we could possibly be involved in.”

In 2019, the moment ever before, like this whole year the electricity has just been palpable and the names that have been thrown out like Dr Pepper and Viacom and all these crazy big businesses who were going, It’s a no brainer for us too because we can check our corporate social responsibility box just by making a purchase that we would have made anyway. Our budget line doesn’t change but we’re supporting disability employment at the same time. So the fact that on one side we have parents saying “This is a great model. How do we get involved?” and on the other side we have a big business like looking out saying, “This is amazing, how do we get involved?” and we’re just on the middle going “Let’s just hang on for dear life.”

DEBRA: Do you think that when you talk about those big corporations, like you said, they’re ticking off corporate social responsibility but do you think at the end of the day, they’re really coming to you guys because the products there?

PATRICK: Yes, I believe so. I really do because like Tim said, they have an advertising spend and they’re not going to jeopardize their brand identity by something not being good quality and competitively priced. A hundred percent. Like we stand by that and we’ve got to stay true to that. We’ve always said we can’t come to the table with waving and flapping like “We’re a charity, support us, please.” NO! That’s the big price, top quality, good customer service. Often, we have customers go, “I had no idea!” And that’s almost the bigger compliment.

TIM: It’s like this big weight of responsibility that we have and that if we put out a deficient product, anything like that, there’s a chance that that could reflect badly on people with autism. So, Pat and I really, I suppose, crack the whip in that sense in keeping quality of product as high as it can possibly be. And innovating with new technology, buying new machinery and checking at new equipment, and going to trade shows.

PATRICK: It’s because it was a hurdle that we have (we still sometimes have to face). Like still, people will say even the Spectrum’s now, you know, eight years old and we’re working with these giant corporations, people will still say, you know, “I assume you’re going to be a bit more money. I assume it’s going to take a little bit longer. Is it going to be straight and everything?” And you’re just like, “C’mon!” So unfortunately, those stereotypes and those patterns of thought are still there. What can we do to challenge that? Well, we put out a great product and we do it in a fast time and we give it as a good price.

DEBRA: What would you say are the top tips for parents or someone who’s thinking about doing something like what you’re doing?

PATRICK: I think #1 is if you’re going to have a social enterprise, you got to underline the word enterprise. It’s got to be sustainable. You can have the the best social mission in the world but if you’re not able to pay your bills, if you’re not able to deliver product on time or service in a way that is competitive, unfortunately, your mission’s going to have a limited reach. And so, I think operating like a business is really, really important. And of course, staying true to that social mission. I’m not saying ignore the social in social enterprise, but you already have that, right? I think that’s #1.

TIM: I think the educational partnership is crucial. Right? Work with service provider/agency who can give you consistent staff so that they have consistency of message across all the people who might be coming whether they’re in a one to one, two to one, three to one ratio, so that they understand what’s going to be expected of the people with autism who are going to come and work or come and train before they walk in the door they understand that whole thing. That consistency allows the people running the business to focus solely on the enterprise part of it but that’s what raise it up. If you try and focus on both of those things, you’ll inevitably take it on in a whole lot of them.

PATRICK: And then, I think you know, the other one’s is sort more cliché, but you know little things I learned in moving over here is if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Just don’t be afraid to ask for help, to ask for advice. You’ll be amazed the kind of people that want to support and if you just asked. So just don’t be deterred. One of the biggest barriers I think Spectrum faced was probably me. You know, in the beginning, I wasn’t sure. I was like you have to get past your own doubt and your own fear, the failure and just kind of go, “Look you know I believe in this. Keep going forward.” There’s going to be days where you question everything and go, “What was I thinking?” but these are way outweighed by the number of days and hours that you feel great about what you do and that you see the impact and not just the impact on the individual we see, but their families, their friends, and the ripple effect And so, just think of those people when you have those kind of more difficult moments because they do come and they still come, all the time.

TIM: The last one I think is (I learned this a little bit later than you because I came in 2013) don’t be afraid to start small. Doesn’t matter how big your dreams are start super small. Spectrum’s first year of business, they did maybe $20,000, $30,000 in the whole 12 months. It took us a lot of years. Took us to 2014, 2015 to be actually not only self-sufficient but turning a profit and growing on our own steam and we didn’t need fundraising dollars (we still fundraise but just for new machines and stuff) and don’t be afraid of that first step because you have no idea where it’s going to end that. Start small and just take one day at a time, one person at a time, one hour of employment at a time and who knows you could be here in 8 years.
DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time.

BOTH: Thank you so much.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? Well, start small if this is a direction you want to go in. And also, most importantly, I think from this is think enterprise as well as social. You need to find a way to make sure that we fulfill a social purpose, but we also make a business that can be sustainable in the long term.

Spectrum Designs
Nicholas Center
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