Robin Kavanagh

A&E Asks Women in the Industry: 5 Minutes with Robin Kavanagh

How long have you been in the sublimation industry?

I have been involved in the sublimation industry for over four years, though I’ve been connected with printing and publishing since I was a child.

What is your background?

I have a B.A. in Communications and an M.A. in English. I’ve built my career on building communications in all kinds of forms, from articles and stories to entire websites, books, and campaigns. Design and print have been an integral part of this evolution. 

I began in the editorial field before branching out into marketing communications and public relations. I’ve always been a print nerd and stayed primarily in the field of print communications. 

When I joined Sawgrass, I became immersed in a new aspect of the print industry – one filled with more color and creativity than I’ve had before. My job now is to help tell Sawgrass’ story across various media and help connect people with the business power of sublimation. 

What drew you to this industry?

I was drawn to the company because of the technology. The ability to design on a computer, create a print,and use that to decorate a product with such incredible color spoke to every creative bone in my body.

What is your favorite aspect of your work?

I really like being a resource of knowledge and experience for people. I speak with people at all levels of our industry on a daily basis, seeing the questions and issues out there that need answers. I like developing ways to deliver those answers, grow knowledge, and get more people excited about sublimation. 

What has been the biggest challenge in this role?

I think my biggest challenge has been becoming well-versed in all the technology surrounding sublimation. There is a lot to learn, and in my experience, the best way to do it is through hands-on experience. So, that’s what I did! 

I actually have four printers and two heat presses at home as well as a ton of different kinds of products that I like to experiment with and try out new things. Because of this experience, I’ve reached a good level of knowledge to where I can lead conversations online and provide advice for others. I’ve gone through trial and error, and this has given me a unique perspective on what our products deliver in the market. And as new developments come down the pike, I’m at the forefront of learning and keeping the edge I’ve developed. 

What motivates you to succeed in this industry?

I am a single mom of two girls. Everything I do is aimed at being an example to them of what they can do in their lives. 

Who has had the greatest influence on your professional career?

I would have to say my dad has had the greatest influence on my career. I’ve inherited his work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, which I believe has pushed me to always set and achieve goals.

What is your philosophy for success?

Never give up. I firmly believe that where there is a will, there is a way. Success depends on what you’re willing to do to achieve your goal.

How can other women succeed in this business?

The sublimation business is a business first and a creative outlet second. I think this business taps into a lot of strengths that women naturally have, and many of the customers who purchase sublimated products are women themselves. 

I think this industry is a great fit for women to create and build hugely successful businesses. All you need is confidence, curiosity, and creativity. 

Shifting gears … How have the markets for sublimation changed in the past year? In the past five years?

I think sublimators are getting more creative with the products they create. I see a lot of people pick out products from retail stores, bring them home, and sublimate onto them. Some are successful, while others are not. 

There is a trend of sublimating sequin pillows right now, and I saw the evolution of this trend through experimentation online. It was a cool thing to see. The more product decorators respond to trends in the market, the more I see them sell and their businesses change. 

Over the last five years, I’ve seen sublimation print technology drastically improve and the ease of printing and pressing make strides forward. I only see this industry expanding.

What contributes to these changes?

I think sublimation businesses respond to demands in the market. Sublimation is so versatile, and you can make products that fit so many niches. This naturally leads to growth and changes, which leads markets in new directions. 

What questions are custom gifts retailers curious about?

These businesses are always looking for information about basic sublimation techniques, getting the right colors, and working with our software. 

Any particular decoration trends that seem to be emerging?

Boho-style and watercolor designs are trendy right now. Sublimating onto white glitter heat transfer vinyl is also taking off. I’ve seen them not only applied to shirts but used as canvas wraps with photos. Sequin mermaid pillows are still in demand, and decorated apparel is always a best-seller. 

What aspects of sublimation printing technology make it such a popular technique?

Definitely the color and reproduction resolution. You really have to see sublimation in action. It literally stops people in their tracks. The transfer process is amazing, and both the color and quality of the print once transferred gets people excited. These products basically sell themselves once they’re seen by customers. 

The process itself is also easier than many other product-decorating technologies out there, not to mention less expensive. Create, print, and press: that’s the sublimation process. All you need is a computer, sublimation printer with inks and transfer paper, and a heat press.

What are some new applications to capitalize on?

Outdoor substrates are the most exciting application this year. New coatings on aluminum panels, yard signs, garden stakes, and other products are enabling sublimated color to last up to five years under outdoor conditions. This opens up a whole new world of signage and outdoor decoration opportunities for product decorators.

What future do you envision for the personalization industry?

Sublimation makes personalization quick, easy, and profitable. I see this industry growing, as there is always more and more demand for personalized products.

What area of the industry do you see has the greatest room for growth? Why?

I think the signage industry has enormous room for growth. First, sublimated signage enables photos, brand colors, fonts, and other digital elements to be brought to this application in ways that analog technologies can’t. There are a lot of possibilities for both soft and hard signage. Second, sublimation is a great add-on for sign businesses because it’s a less-expensive option than adding more production equipment.

What are some unique marketing tips that you’ve found success with?

It really is all about how you position your products. If you say you offer sublimated products or even that you can put a logo on a mug, people are not likely to respond. However, if you provide samples in person, high-quality images of your work, and position your products as fulfilling a need (such as preserving memories), you will get much more response.

How can sublimation shops stay ahead of the game in terms of their marketing/customer relations strategy?

Keep communicating with your customers. Whether it’s a monthly newsletter, daily social media posts, or just sparking up a conversation in your store, you have to stay on their radar. When you send communications, don’t focus only on selling. Give them information they need. People respond to content marketing. Find ways to connect with them based on their needs and wants. This makes you more valuable to them and increases the chances of landing a sale.

What can customers expect for the future of Sawgrass?

Sawgrass is going to continue to deliver value and quality in sublimation printing. We are growing all the time and always developing solutions to both meet the needs of the market and elevate the industry to its next evolution.

Jump back to the second installment of this series, where A&E talks to Owner of 5Star Awards Lisa Higginbotham.