If you’ve heard of Offbeat Press, Progress Label, or Hype Visual, then chances are, you know Drew Mueske (pronounced Mee-skee, people). But you may not be familiar with Carol Waddington.
According to Mueske, Waddington has been a silent partner in Offbeat Press since it opened in 2008.
“We created Carol to deflect telemarketers and sales people. Anyone wishing to sell us sky-writing, tsunami insurance or gorilla grams first needs to connect with Carol Waddington,” said Mueske. “She’s a crazed cat lady with quite the history and hundreds of extravagant reasons why she’s never in the office.” Carol even receives regular mail, he said, including loan and credit card offers, all of which sit piled on her desk, deep within the shop’s recycling center.
Carol is the longest-running of the various inside jokes and goofy activities—such as push-up, wrestling take-down, and carpet-square-tossing competitions—in which Mueske and his staff engage to de-stress and keep things fun, helping ensure that a business created during the Great Recession to be “too small to fail” not only survives but thrives. It has done so to this point through a combination of creativity, innovation, love for the work, and good timing (that grew out of bad timing).
Offbeat Press emerged a few years after Mueske graduated from UW-Stevens Point. He began by designing t-shirts as Progress Label, which he sold out of the trunk of his car and at local events, the first being at the old Studio Hall (recently and fabulously reborn as The Howard) as “a shy 23-year old slinging tees at a concert.” He’s learned and expanded a lot since those days.
After moving to Oshkosh, Mueske got involved in community events and organizations, often volunteering his skills, while yearning for a more creative outlet than the confines of his day job at an ad agency could provide.
“I love advertising, design, the creative process and strategy of creating brands, products, and campaigns,” said Mueske, “but I really don’t love agency life.”
By age 25, he had left the corporate world, taking on his own client work and freelancing for other agencies on special projects and campaigns. For his first three years of self-employment, the t-shirt label and freelance business were entirely run out of his bedroom and the only closet in his shared apartment. “I spent far too much time in that room,” said Mueske.
By this point, he had built up a small client base of bands, businesses, and organizations. He wasn’t yet a print shop, but knew how to make a good t-shirt, and worked with local print shops in Fond du Lac, Ripon, Oshkosh and beyond to get them printed. “Nearly every local print shop was the same,” said Mueske. “The local industry didn’t have much for new technology and there was a lot of old blood pumping out basic stuff.”
After a number of disappointing orders from local print shops, he looked elsewhere for better options, including eco-friendly, water-based screen printers. Mueske began working with two firms on the West Coast because there were no options for eco-friendly printing in the Midwest in 2008. The results were good, but the distance led to frustration and, eventually, Offbeat Press.
The owner of a local print shop had reached out to Mueske about purchasing his shop. “I had never thought about owning a print shop until that day,” he said. The seed was planted.
A few months later, his primary printer in Berkeley, California failed to deliver on the largest-ever order he had placed for his clothing label and subsequently went out of business. Mueske lost thousands of dollars in inventory and the majority of his summer sales opportunities.
Within months, he had put together a small team, found some used screen printing equipment and a small space, and took a big leap into starting a small business during perilous times. While the stock market had crashed and the global financial system was in meltdown, “none of that affected our plans,” indicated Mueske. “We opened our doors as the first eco-friendly, water-based screen print shop in the Midwest on December 1, 2008.”
“But starting so small also had severe challenges, curbing our ability to take on particular projects,” he said. “Had we not grown an average of 20% year over year for the first 3-5 years, we may not have made it this long.”
Ten years in, Offbeat Press is a Gold-certified green business, just one of three North American firms in its industry to earn this distinction from Green America. In addition to being more sustainable, working with water-based inks is a bit more complicated, requiring technical knowledge and experience. It combines conventional screen printing with chemistry, where the final print is only visible after the inks are heat-cured.
“We took a gamble many local businesses wouldn’t. Being eco-friendly wasn’t a popular thing here or in the Midwest when we started, but I knew that eco-friendly, water-based inks offered both an environmental and a quality advantage,” said Mueske. According to him, water-based inks are softer than the industry standard, plastisol (petroleum), and they soak into the garment to provide a better, more natural feeling print.
Offbeat also sets itself apart by offering unconventional print locations, such as over seams, onto collars, pockets, hoods and more to provide more creative print options. Their competition even regularly hires them for more complicated projects. Mueske also now has a full creative office, which goes by the name Hype Visual and has helped build hundreds of brand identities in dozens of industries, making Offbeat one of the few print shops in the region to offer this comprehensive set of services.
With full illustration, branding, strategy and design skills to go along with the innovative printing process, Mueske, his three businesses and crew have designed thousands of shirts and a whole lot more. “I really enjoy what I do,” he said, adding that, “Our staff has changed over the years, but we would not be where we are without a great group of creative employees.” A number have graduated from there and gone on to become self-employed in a variety of endeavors, so there are even more tentacles to this multi-faceted conglomeration of creativity.
With success has come the ability to give back to the place Mueske now calls home. “As a small business to business owner, we have the opportunity to work with a large variety of awesome small businesses,” he said. Among other things, this has allowed him to refer work to his clients. “I deeply value investing in the local cycle of commerce that supports community, creativity and culture in the Fox Valley,” said Mueske.
Further, “community impact has always been an important part of what we do and who we are,” he said. “As a green business that focuses on quality products at affordable prices, we’ve built great partnerships with organizations across the country.”
This includes offering discounts to community-focused nonprofits, which goes back to Mueske’s freelancing days. They also partner with organizations on events such as Walk for the Animals to support The Oshkosh Area Humane Society, The Local Food Fair to support Farmshed in Stevens Point, and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s annual Energy Fair. Additionally, Offbeat has developed its own events, like Hoodies for the Homeless, which benefits the Day by Day Warming Shelter.
“As a small business, we’ve donated over $100,000 in goods and creative services over the past 10 years,” said Mueske.
Not bad for a gig born out of frustration and on shoestring in a time of financial peril.