Karen Seage, Owner of the Snap Underwood printing franchise, has built her business to be one of the most successful SNAP franchises nationally. Focusing on Indigenous printing has been key to Karen’s business model, and enables her to support the Indigenous community, and the reconciliation programs of Government departments and companies, creating ripples of social impact. Securing the 2018 Commonwealth Games printing contract was a catalyst to Snap Underwood‘s exponential growth.
How did you transition your career from studying graphic design to now owning your own business?
It took a long time for me to do that transition. Snap Underwood is my second business. It happened over about many years. First, I studied fine arts, then moved to graphic arts. After graduating I got a job in the printing industry. I worked in art departments for about 20 years. My first job was at Queensland Label Makers where they asked me to run their art department. I was 26 and had just finished uni. I was shocked they’d asked me, to be honest. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. I had an interview with three women and they said, ‘Just walk into the Art Department and say you have a lot of experience and don’t tell the team you have just finished uni.’ Well, that’s what I did and somehow pulled it off.
I stayed at that job for seven years, and the company is still going now. They were like family to me; Del the founder has passed now but I am still grateful of her confidence in me. I had my babies while working there. I would have my baby and then go back to work straight away, two days later. They set up the breastfeeding room for me. I wanted to come back early and they were willing to change things for me.
I ended up moving across to work for Snap about 17 or 18 years ago. That was when digital printing had just started coming out. They hired me at their production house in West End (the Hub) to start their digital department. While I was waiting for their new digital printing machines to arrive, I learned everything about the printing process – to bind books, guillotining, drying times. This really helped with the graphic artwork because I could see what happened when designs were printed. I learned so much. I stayed there for a couple of years after the new digital machines came. At the time, the Hub did all the printing for all the 20 – 30 Snap centres in Queensland. One Snap owner owned three of the centres and all the Snap franchise owners had shares in the hub.
One day, one of the franchisees rang and I happened to answer the phone, which wasn’t my usual job. His feedback was that I was amazing on the phone, very accommodating and would be good at sales. He asked me to work with him in one of the centres he and his wife owned. I went from the Hub to his store and he taught me everything about sales. I ended up managing his centre at Rocklea. The sales were up $100,000 when I was running the store. When he went overseas with his wife for 6 weeks, I had been there for three years and had to do all the financial reporting. Coming back from the airport he rang me and I asked him if he was sitting down – I told him I had made $158K for him. He asked me how I did it as they had never made over $100K before. I’d sold 1000 drink bottles to a local gym with their logo. At the time they weren’t doing merchandising, so I found out how to do it. You don’t say no to a customer – you find out how to make it happen.
One of my boss’s stores was Snap Underwood. I was 48 at the time and happy where I was. But he asked me to go to manage Underwood and offered that after 12-18 months, whatever profit I made, he and his wife would go thirds with me. I still had a wage, but I liked the challenge he was offering. After the 12 months, I had made $99K profit. The store was now valued at $125K to sell. He discussed this with me, told me how well I’d done, and offered to sell it to me. I used my profits and bought it for $90K. Handover Day was on my 50th birthday.
I knew there were no Indigenous printers in Queensland 11 years ago. I told Snap Head Office the only reason I’d bought this business was because I wanted to make it an Indigenous print shop. In doing that I needed to create my own logo, and get my face out there.
A colleague said, ‘You have built this business up successfully – if you tell people, you are Aboriginal, they won’t buy from your centre’. I said, ‘If it impacts people that badly, this business isn’t for them!’. The Snap CEO approved it and told me to go hard. I did a lot of marketing, went to every networking event I could, and rebranded Snap Underwood. Then, I got onto Supply Nation and started doing networking with them. I got in touch with the elders in the region as well. Once I became more known as an Indigenous centre, the bigger businesses came, like Westpac and Lendlease. This has meant I can give back to Indigenous communities, and now I can donate printing to community when they need it.
I wanted a place that Indigenous people could visit and feel safe and secure.
Tell us how Snap Underwood became one of the most successful Snap franchises in Queensland?
It happened after we won the work for the Commonwealth Games. Currently we are still in the top three Snap Centres in Queensland. We are very successful now and we are up there with other centres in Sydney and Melbourne. Now, we have sales just under $1 million. Although, we hope this is year we will surpass that. 98% of our business is driven from Indigenous work – for example, Indigenous procurement policies for bigger companies and other Indigenous business. My marketing is aimed at start-ups and companies that support Indigenous, so I can employ more First Nations people.
How are you a role model for other people in business?
When I first started there were very few Indigenous women running their own businesses. I employ more women; they are being trained and they haven’t done study before. They have apprenticeships under their belt, and this supports them around raising their children. Two of my staff have come from domestic violence situations, so working and having a career to be proud of is really important to them. Their self-esteem has changed so much. They work full-time, they raise their children on their own. They don’t want to be on Centrelink and they are proud of themselves.
One of my employees said, ‘I was totally broken before. But now I am absolutely thrilled with myself’. I always knew she had the ability – she just lacked the confidence because of what she has been through. Just to see the happiness on her face was amazing! That is what makes us the Snap Centre we are. I also gave her a bonus that is just for her. Everything she spends is for her kids, and I want her to feel good about herself.
I can be the way I want to be, to represent this Snap centre in the model I have created. My centre is like an Indigenous art gallery. I use a lot of Indigenous artists and commission them to do work. Their work goes into the Reconciliation Action Plans and business cards etc. and it is supporting artists as well.
How have you reached more customers?
A lot is word of mouth. People say nice things about us. It is a warm place to come. We did some dictionaries for ladies from Groote Eylandt. They came down to visit and they felt so at home. We were so rapt they came. They were nervous as they had never been to Brisbane. They liked that I cared that their language is important, and that they are important.
Also, once we were successful with the Commonwealth Games and met all their tight deadlines, all the Queensland Government employees that worked on the Commonwealth Games went back to their government departments. Those departments then started using us for their print work. Again, they feel safe. Government workers are nervous. They don’t want to choose a printer that will let them down. We started at the bottom with Queensland Government and worked really hard. If we have to stay all night we will do it, and that work has paid off in the long run.
What are some of the challenges you experience as a women owned business?
My biggest challenge was finding a motivated and dedicated team. It took a few years but I have that now and we have been working together strongly for over 7 years.
Also keeping on top of the accounts and getting payment in as quick as possible. Sometimes this can be an issue. Cash flow is your blood line.
What is one piece of advice to another Indigenous woman wanting to start her own business?
You have to be prepared to work really hard. There is stress and long hours. Have passion and love what you are doing, so it isn’t a burden.
I am blessed that my daughter works with me and I am hoping she takes over and the business always stays Indigenous. My advice would be to start sooner and don’t hold off.
You are the female economy. Whether you are a female consumer, business owner or a woman in the workforce, you can create gender equality by choosing female led brands.
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