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Growing a home business

Roxbury woman launches custom embroidery venture

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Growing a home business
Surrounded by spools of colorful thread, Lisa Martin runs a business out of her Roxbury home, specializing in custom embroidery.

Lisa Martin had been operating an embroidery business as a sideline for 13 years, working out of the kitchen of her Roxbury condo to produce customized baseball caps, jackets and other items. Then, last year when she was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant at a local nonprofit, Martin went all in.

She purchased an engraving machine and began marketing her skills to wedding planners, funeral homes, sports teams — anyone who needs a custom touch.

Martin had worked as a seamstress, but found the work long and involving with little payout.

Then she began to notice how many people were wearing custom-embroidered hats.

“I noticed a lot of people wearing the hats,” she said. “I asked one man how much he paid. He said $75. It was from Lids. I started asking people what they would wear, what they liked.”

The ten-needle embroidery machine she bought, with its rows of colored thread and LED control panel, now occupies a corner of Martin’s kitchen.

Originally, she saw the machine as a way to supplement her income.

“At first my goal was that it didn’t have to make me wealthy,” she said. “I wanted it to pay for itself. But I did make extra money with it.”

Now Martin moves seamlessly from one contract to the next. High school sports teams send her jackets and other apparel. She loads the spools of thread into her machine and, with focus, can turn out more than 100 items a day.

Local hospitals have been a good source of revenue. Last year, one sent her an order for 133 jackets. Martin embroidered the hospital’s logo, along with the names of the 133 residents. The job took three days to complete.

Martin has relied on word-of-mouth marketing. But clients come from everywhere, including Google searches.

“A lot of this stuff is kind of weird,” Martin said. “This girl from a sorority at MIT came to me because she wanted embroidered hair bands. She came by here in an Uber, dropped them off and picked them up a couple days later.”

One approach that thus far has not paid off has been government contracts. Martin registered as a minority business enterprise with the state, but garnered little business. She said she’s often approached by larger contractors looking to increase their chances of winning a bid by including a disadvantaged business.

“Often times they’re desperate,” she said. “The first contract I got used my information, but never gave me any work.”

Martin says city and state contracts make up a small fraction of her overall business.

From cloth to metal

Getting established in the embroidery business has been relatively easy. Martin says she relied upon word-of-mouth to drum up contracts, talking to people at church, at her daughter’s school and obtaining referrals from past clients. She recently purchased an 11-blade engraving machine, obtaining a microloan from the nonprofit lender Accion.

Now her business includes brass memorial plates, etched glass and other engraving jobs.

Martin says she did not need a business plan.

“When I started this business, it was already six years old,” she says.

But a business plan may soon be necessary, with the engraving machine and raw materials taking up parts of her living room and her kitchen almost entirely occupied by the embroidering machine and its supplies. Martin is looking at her options for opening a brick-and-mortar location in the Roxbury area.

While competing businesses, such as the custom sportswear chain store Lids, charge as much as $75 for a custom-embroidered baseball cap, Martin can turn a cap around for a third as much and still earn a decent profit. And while local youths favor the customized hats Lids sells, they have to travel downtown or to a shopping mall to obtain them.

“Nothing like what I’m doing exists in this area,” Martin said.

Ideally, Martin says, she would like to team up with a silk screener to open a full-service clothing customization business. With a physical location, Martin could sell both the embroidering service and the hats, jackets and tee shirts that clients want to have customized, thus earning more profits.