Making an imprint

Alumni turn their passion into a business with help from the community

Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

When moving his tassel to the right in 2013, Casey Coolbaugh could not have imagined that he and Chauna D’Angelo, a fellow cinema major, would start a business that would scale up to become a centerpiece shop in the core of downtown Binghamton within eight years. Muckles’ Ink, their 3,000-square-foot screen-printed-apparel shop opened in 2018, and includes its own printing studio and two stories of retail and office space. The store is adorned with an array of colorful and exclusive apparel, including iconic Binghamton Bearcats hoodies and sweatshirts featuring local restaurants.

In the same away that their shop is one-of-a-kind in the area, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo have unique backgrounds and pathways. But the source of inspiration for the owners of downtown Binghamton’s iconic business was their shared enthusiasm for cinema as undergraduate students.

Birth of Muckles’ Ink

Coolbaugh and D’Angelo first met at SUNY Broome Community College. Studying cinema together, they quickly found a mutual passion for filmmaking and became involved in the growing local art scene. After graduation, they transferred to Binghamton University to continue their studies and joined its renowned experimental cinema program, which exposed the budding creatives to many areas of film. Of particular interest was analog filmmaking — putting together footage by hand. A welcomed break from the digital filmmaking methods used today, the tactile experience of analog filmmaking inspired the pair.

The cinema program at Binghamton became ground zero for their startup. Its annual Student Experimental Film Festival in Binghamton gave Coolbaugh and D’Angelo an idea to create their own custom merchandise. “We wanted some cool T-shirts and totes to sell to fellow film students at film festivals,” Coolbaugh says.

Luckily, they came across the right opportunity to purchase their own silkscreen equipment. “We found a guy who was selling his whole basement operation. He was 70 and ready to sell the whole shebang,” D’Angelo says.

Both were fascinated by the equipment — a traditional means of screen printing that was dwarfed by the tide of digital printing technologies. Their passion for analog processes soon inspired another idea: Use this old process, mix it with the new way of doing things and start a business!

However, launching a startup is rife with challenges and uncertainty; research suggests that more than 50% of startups fail within a year. Despite high failure rates and little experience in business, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo were resolute in pursuing the path of entrepreneurship in their hometown.

“I know people here. I grew up here… I thought my best chance for success was blossoming where I was planted,” says Coolbaugh. The pair’s enthusiasm for art and Binghamton materialized into a business and Muckles’ Ink was born.

Quest for the best market

The business launched in 2012, with plenty of trials and errors. “We didn’t know what it would turn into,” says Coolbaugh. “It’s hard to forecast any more than six months down the road, certainly not a year.”

Since delivering the first order to their first customer, a high-school science teachers’ association, Muckles’ Ink has steadily grown its customer base. To market the business, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo performed live printing at events and focused on forming connections with local businesses to build trust in the community. At the same time, the founders had their eyes set on greater heights.

Eager to expand their reach in the greater Binghamton community, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo decided to focus on their alma mater. “We made a decision to pivot and really pursue mostly Binghamton University for our market,” says Coolbaugh. “We are alumni. We all need shirts. Students, faculty and staff… all need them.”

Following their decision, they reached out to Binghamton’s faculty and staff, including Binghamton’s president, Harvey Stenger. “He didn’t know me. We didn’t know each other,” says Coolbaugh. “We set a meeting, and I think it opened a lot of doors for us.” The University welcomed the pair as alumni and provided support for their business.

Since then, Muckles’ Ink has become an integral part of the University community. Student organizations, faculty and staff consistently place orders and Coolbaugh and D’Angelo have performed live printing at campus events, distributing shirts and totes free of charge. While building relationships with people one shirt at a time, they have also given back to their alma mater, hiring interns from the University and providing them with training in sales and marketing. In addition, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo volunteered to mentor students at Harpur College, the birthplace of their business. Seven years passed in the blink of an eye.

Incubating success

In its eighth year, Muckles’ Ink reached a turning point. A local landlord reached out to Coolbaugh and D’Angelo with an offer: The space for a retail shop in the heart of downtown Binghamton. However, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo foresaw a lot of financial and logistical challenges. “We didn’t know anything about retail,” says Coolbaugh. “We were too scared to make the jump.”

But Coolbaugh decided they had to grab the chance. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “If you need to do something, and you think it’s best for business to do it, you’re going to figure out a way.” Seeing an opportunity himself, the landlord financially supported Coolbaugh and D’Angelo in setting up a shop.

Lacking business expertise, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo needed expert input on how to incorporate retail into their business model. They sought help from the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, whose mission is to provide startups like Muckles’ Ink the space and direction needed to create a successful business. Muckles’ Ink joined the newly built Koffman Incubator, where its founders gained access to mentors who helped them one-on-one.

The incubator offered critical support for Coolbaugh and D’Angelo. They were able to network with local professionals, cultivate a “business mindset” and remodel their business model with the help of seasoned entrepreneurs. “Having people who think totally different than you do is critical to success,” says Coolbaugh. “We would not have moved into the retail location if we didn’t have resources, infrastructure and mentorship at the incubator.”

New beginning

After six months of business incubation, Muckles’ Ink was ready to take on the main street with its newly developed business model, offering custom screen-printing services and retail apparel sales.

The relaunch was carefully strategized. Coolbaugh wanted to prioritize the quality of service and slowly develop the business by leveraging word-of-mouth and a key location on Binghamton’s main drag. “A lot of businesses over-promise and under-deliver,” he says. “Our goal the first year was to slowly build the word-of-mouth.”

The strategy worked. Not only did business grow by more than 60% in a year, they also started receiving orders from customers who had learned about Muckles’ Ink by just walking through downtown. “This location alone is the best spot,” says Coolbaugh. “It pays for itself.”

With a retail space where customers can order and pick up their custom printing orders, Coolbaugh says Muckles’ Ink offers unique value. “There is not anywhere else in town where you can go in, sit down with the guy who runs the place and knows the business inside and out, and come up with a custom order at a reasonable price.”

Muckles’ Ink is making advancements quickly, adding customers, designs and different apparel types. The company hopes to continue serving the community, leveraging partnerships, learning and making changes as necessary. With each shirt, bag and hat, Muckles’ is leaving its imprint on the community that helped it get to where it is today.

Posted in: Arts & Culture