By Eric Peterson | Oct 11, 2021
Aurora, Colorado / San Diego + Los Angeles, California / Nashville, Tennessee
Live screenprinting and experiential marketing
The Silk Screen Machine was born in a deep slumber.
De Baca describes a dream he had in 2011: "I was chasing an ice-cream truck. When I got up to it, I ordered a Fudgesicle and a Rocket Pop. Instead of handing me ice cream, they printed T-shirts. I was just blown away."
A Google search the next morning proved fruitless, planting the seed for The Silk Screen Machine. "It didn't exist, so I built it," says De Baca.
That involved buying a 1985 Grumman Olson step truck and transforming it into the world's first mobile screenprinter. Welders built out a service window, then De Baca enlisted Denver street artist MPEK to give it a eye-grabbing paint job.
"At the time, budgeting was crucial," says De Baca. "I got this all done for an insanely low price." The final tally for the truck and the conversion was just south of $20,000.
The strategy took a bit of time to emerge. De Baca initially showed up at the Denver Cruiser Ride and other events to print and sell shirts. "People were excited to see us," he says. "They were stoked about what we were doing."
But the company's first event booking "changed everything." A financial services firm wanted The Silk Screen Machine to print shirts during a conference at the Colorado Convention Center. "We printed over 1,000 shirts," says De Baca.
That's when The Silk Screen Machine shifted from gonzo retail to experiential marketing. "That actually set the whole trajectory in motion:, 'Wow, we actually have a service,'" says De Baca. "It's not just, 'We show up and live screenprint,' we actually have a business providing a service."
To that end, clients can not only customize the shirts to be printed, but the van can be wrapped in custom designs, and a "Street Fleet" on bicycles can help drum up interest beforehand. The Silk Screen Machine has printed as many as 8,000 shirts over the course of a multi-day event.
The concept has drawn such big-name clients as Apple, adidas, and Red Bull. "We collaborate with these big corporations," says De Baca. "We work with their corporate and their legal teams for design. We do color matching."
Demand drove an expansion to four trucks and teams of contractors serving events in the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Denver markets. Revenues increased steadily year over year -- until 2020.
The pandemic proved extremely challenging as live events shut down for the better part of a year across the country. "COVID almost wiped us out," says De Baca. "That being said, we came back and now we're stronger than we've ever been."
Coming out of the pandemic, De Baca says 2021 has been the biggest year yet for The Silk Screen Machine. The company now sells and prints on masks as well as shirts, and has unveiled a new full-color process that is workable for live events. (Traditional multi-color processes proved a bit too slow for live screenprinting.) It also has a fifth truck in the Nashville market. "It's awesome, because it's another music city," says De Baca. "Kind of like L.A., but it's the country scene."
Challenges: "We're so fucking busy and we have a skeleton crew," says De Baca. "We're trying to plug holes and trying to get people to work. It's really tough without paying them a lot of money. It's really challenging to get someone to stay in Chicago for 12 days and give up their life for that time frame to work for us."
Opportunities: Pent-up demand for in-person events. "Our ability and our right to gather was stripped from us, so the first thing that we want to do when we have that ability back is gather again," says De Baca.
He says he also sees an opportunity to expand to more markets via franchising: "Chicago, New York, Miami -- we're now looking potentially at a franchise model.
"Influencing" is another opportunity, says De Baca. The Silk Screen Machine recently inked a deal with Ryonet to showcase the latter company's screenprinting equipment.
Needs: "Qualified people who have the same kind of vision as our vision," says De Baca. "We need more people, more boots on the ground, more in-house staff."