karstpromo is not your average promo company. What started out as a retirement hobby of longtime Charleston native and Navy shipyard worker, Gerald Karst, has blossomed into a unique operation that manages branding and customization on a whole new level. karstpromo is a creative agency, focused on branding custom apparel and merchandise for companies. There is no “look at our catalog and let us know” happening here. Just pure brand centered conversations that keep that promo gear in the top drawer, and top of mind for your end users. karstpromo is also one of our longest tenured clients and we can’t wait to brag about them.
Since the founder's stepdaughter, Michelle Harris, took over for Gerald in 2004, she has taken the branding options for companies way past the traditional custom hats and shirts. In addition to expertly designed merchandise, they provide small or large format printing, full marketing design services, temporary pop-up merchandise shops, and new hire welcome kits to name a few.
Let’s learn more about the history of karstpromo and all they have to offer in the completely custom design world. Michelle recently shared some key insight into the brand and its vision with us, check it out.
karstpromo was created out of happenstance for founder Gerald Karst. He was sourcing uniforms as a Shriner and came to the realization that there were not many in this industry at the time for embroidered and screen-printed uniforms.
He began the business as a hobby focusing on apparel and industrial clients after retirement from the naval shipyard in 1996. Gerald’s stepdaughter, Michelle, joined the team in 2003 for what she thought was a temporary sales job after moving back to Charleston from Nashville. Albeit far from the music industry, Michelle liked the creativity behind her stepdad’s business and decided to give it a shot. In 2004, Gerald officially retired and Michelle officially took over the business.
Gerald is originally from Charleston, SC and started the business in 1996 after retiring as a City of Charleston Firefighter and Nuclear General Foreman for the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
Originally from Charleston, SC, she graduated with a BA from Belmont University in Artist Management, and worked in Nashville, TN in publishing and artist management from 1997-2003. She moved back to Charleston in 2003, where her mom owns an employment agency, Charles Foster Staffing. Seeking a more creative outlet for her next career move, she asked Gerald if she could sell some promo. She opened the phone book and made calls to get started, and the rest is history.
Michelle described the early days of running karstpromo as quite the learning experience.
“I didn't have a clue what I was doing! After my step father fell sick abruptly, I was literally left to figure out everything, not just selling, but paying bills, etc. The whole business. By the time he came back, I had reworked and restructured things to work better and he stepped back and said ‘Go’!”
karstpromo stands out as more than just a promotional goods supply because of their creative approach to custom items, and their exceptional service and support to their clients. We dive into three areas that really set the company apart from its competitors.
Michelle approached selling with an agency/creative mindset from the beginning. She intentionally transitioned the company from a typical distributor to a marketing/creative agency after seeing the need for more marketing support outside of just customizing products. This approach is more common nowadays, but at the time, the thought process to focus on design and strategy versus slapping a logo on everything was novel.
Michelle explains the approach to designing custom items with the right focus and quality inline with her client’s vision:
“We don't provide a catalog or site to just grab-and-go items. It’s a conversation. What and who’s it for? What's the marketing reason or goal? Timeline? Budget? Then we suggest the item(s), the plan. From there design is huge. People need to love it, want it, so they will use it. Otherwise it’s money wasted - it’s in the trash or bottom drawer. Design is a huge part of what we do. Subtle at times, it’s retail-inspired, on-brand, and intentional.
How do you make a tote bag for an insurance agency cool? That’s the problem we solve. Is a tote bag the right item to begin with? We make merch that people actually want. Creative, different, cool, useful.”
They handle the logistics surrounding delivery and production so clients don't have to. Can you order things online? Sure, but you are still leaving a few factors up to chance. Will it arrive on time? The right color? The right quality and feel? The answer is maybe. Simply put, karstpromo takes the maybe out of it. Or they fix it.
Michelle knew the accounting side needed to be managed by a professional if she wanted to focus on the creative stuff. Lucky for us, a client at the time referred us.
“It was the first hire I made when it was time to expand my team and ramp up sales. I was told to carve off what I don't want to do and find someone who does it better. I went through a few internal bookkeepers and CPA's, and then a friend (Lee at Ovbiouslee) hooked me up with Brad. I hate numbers, and cash flow to pay for products takes up a lot of time, moving funds, checking details etc. Accountfully was able to wrap up my day-to-day bookkeeping and big picture all in one.”
Outsourcing the company’s accounting solves the age-old challenge for a creative business owner like Michelle. Simply put, she says, “I can focus on all the other things; sales, team management, and bringing in more money for them [Accountfully] to manage!”
Check out a few of these offerings that Michelle recommends:
Employee and client gifting is easier and more fun through popup shops. They also keep marketing purchasing lower and more focused with company-specific shops.
Since COVID hit, there has been a huge demand for direct mail to new employees, and virtual conference kits sent directly to employee’s homes. Kits make the team feel welcome and bring a piece of each client’s branding to them.
Order your holiday and fall time swag now. Christmas in July means it’s time to plan ahead and do your purchasing for the holidays in the summertime. Inventory is still slow and production times longer, so order early! Karstpromo has organized an event to help accomplish this very goal. Check out the event news by following @karstpromo
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