Thinkin’ About Inkin’
Ambient Inks celebrates 10 years of printing and surprising growth
In the 10 years since they officially started their screen printing operation Ambient Inks, Tim Brunner and Aaron Brice, the company’s co-founders, have had a lot of firsts. Their first press, their first run of t-shirts, the first order from Bon Iver, the first summer of tour merch shipments, the first time feeling like the business was heading somewhere, their first festival, their first employees, their first European tour, the first time being honest with themselves about their snowballing workload.
The decade was filled with these moments. The good, the astronomically good, and the not so great.
“We want to make Ambient a place that’s actually regenerative, instead of being a business that just takes and takes. We’re finding a greater purpose that we can all come together on.”– Aaron Brice, co-founder of Ambient Inks
But in the course of 10 years, Ambient Inks has blossomed into one of the coolest and most unique businesses in the Chippewa Valley, helping bands, artists, and all kinds of clients get high-quality, responsibly-sourced merch in the hands of people all over the globe. Ambient Inks is now a staff of 25 and in the last decade, they’ve worked with 1,700 clients, processed nearly 7,000 print orders, produced over 800,000 garments, printed 75,000 posters, shipped over 100,000 e-commerce orders, and shipped to 91 countries. They’ve made merch for Lizzo, Bon Iver, John Prine, Sylvan Esso, Iron & Wine, Leinenkugel’s, and even the Manitowoc Minute guy.
And to think, it all started in a garage in Menomonie.
Brice and Brunner met during their time at UW-Stout. They were both print-heads who had taken a bunch of screen printing classes and fell in love with it. Finding their collegiate arts curriculum lacking in the screen printing department, they thought they’d strike out on their own.
They were looking for a small printing press so they could do limited orders for school orgs and bands when Brunner said, “Hey, I know a guy.” So the pair drove down to a storage unit in Chicago to pick up a press abandoned by its previous owner, and got a small set-up going in their Menomonie rental unit.
Soon after, chaos hit. They designed a t-shirt for UW-Stout’s homecoming – a rip-off of the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The shirt claimed “It’s Always Sunny in Menomonie.” Brice threw the design up on Facebook, then the next time he checked his phone a couple hours later, the shirt had gone Menomonie-viral – which is to say, they had 700 orders waiting for them. When it was all said and done, Brice and Brunner had to print 1,100 shirts for their Stout cohorts, just the two of them.
“That many people putting their trust in us was pretty amazing,” Brunner said.
Mikala Dale was an arts student at Stout at the time, and bought one of the “It’s Always Sunny” shirts. Now, she’s Ambient’s production director, and one of its most valuable managers. “I didn’t even think about it, I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll give these people my money,” she said.
That first huge order established the course for their success, their work ethic, and the way they’d run the business in those early years. Brice and Brunner were tenacious in looking for new opportunities to print stuff, doing all the printing, doing all the sales, doing everything themselves. One time, when Brunner got pulled over for a faulty muffler, he took the warning and then tried to hand the officer a business card ... you know, in case they needed some printing done.
“The eagerness and excitement of having a business and creating your own rules, you’re sort of naive to a fault sometimes, saying yes whenever you can because you don’t know if those opportunities are gonna be there tomorrow,” Brice said.
But over the course of the next few years, Brice said it was like their whole business model was playing catch-up. It felt as though they were behind, just busting their rear to keep up with the constant demand from their big clients, all while adding new ones. Even as they hired more and more people and moved to Eau Claire in a space inside Banbury Place, work didn’t stop coming in. They had committed to doing this thing for real, but even getting their press through the double doors of their new Banbury spot required them to precariously tilt it diagonally with a forklift and a chain.
“We took all our money, emptied our bank accounts, and committed to a whole summer’s worth of tour merch,” Brice said. “A lot was riding on that forklift.”
“We got 20 years older that day,” Brunner said.
As pallets of merch started filling up, the Banbury spot started to feel small almost immediately. But they kept grinding there, despite the limitations, for a few years until in 2015, they were ready to expand – with a shiny new press in tow – into their current location on the 500 block of Water Street. They relocated around the same time as the inaugural Eaux Claires festival, where Ambient would be tasked with running the merch tent, a perennially huge challenge for its small staff. Between being out at the festival grounds, running back to the shop to print more merch, dealing with long lines of eager music fans, weather complications – the festival proved to be a wild stress-test for the team. Even for one as well-versed in stress as Ambient Inks.
“We all lived at Ambient,” Dale said. “We all joked that we should get a washer and dryer, because we spent more time there than at our houses, which was super fun and we were all at the point in our lives where we could do that. Now, it’s that step into, ‘OK how do we make this sustainable so people can do this the rest of their lives?’”
It’s been a wild ride so far for Ambient Inks, with the ever-evolving growth of their staff, client list, and offerings. But now, on the dawn of a new decade, on the company’s 10th anniversary, they’re hoping that most of that early grinding and those all-nighters are behind them. Instead of flying loosely to meet increasing demands, Ambient Inks is making its next steps intentional: Developing a work-life balance for their team, nurturing their company culture, establishing departmental structure, and putting in the effort to make all of their products and practices sustainable – which is mostly unprecedented in the notoriously-wasteful apparel and printing worlds.
“We were always playing catch up, always. So these last few years have been responding to the actual ways we want this company to run,” Brice said. “We want to make Ambient a place that’s actually regenerative, instead of being a business that just takes and takes. We’re finding a greater purpose that we can all come together on.”
This isn’t the last you’ll hear from Ambient Inks as they gear up for the 2020’s. Ten years is a long time. A couple kids who started printing stuff in their garage now have an opportunity before them to make a real, tangible, and lasting difference in this field – all while making some really cool stuff.
“What’s the point of growth if you’re not going to do something with that growth?” Dale said. “If you’re just growing to grow, what are you doing it for?”
Ambient Inks is hosting a 10-year anniversary open house at their shop at 524 Water St. in Eau Claire on Jan. 16 from 5-9pm. They’ll have live printing, live music from We Are The Willows (the first band they ever printed merch for), shop tours, and they’re donating all their food and merch proceeds to Wisconsin Conservation Voters. To learn more, visit ambientinks.com.