Mark Welsh Of AlphaGraphics: Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

How fulfilling it is to own your own business. — It seems a bit corny, but having the keys to my own building! Driving around in a vehicle with my company name on the side. Representing my business at Rotary, Chamber, and other events. It was very motivating, encouraging, and rewarding.

The world of franchising offers a unique blend of entrepreneurship and established business models. However, navigating the franchise landscape can be daunting, especially for those embarking on this journey for the first time. There are lessons to be learned, pitfalls to avoid, and success stories to be inspired by. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Welsh.

Mark is currently the Director of Field Operations for AlphaGraphics, an international franchisor that offers printing services, marketing solutions, and graphic design. Before this he ran a successful AlphaGraphics location with his wife for several years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about succession, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I had worked in the graphic design and printing industry for several large corporations. Managing teams as a creative director, I enjoyed the challenges and responsibilities, but also was frustrated when we did a great job and there was no strong reward for the efforts.
After the last corporate shut down and cut back in staff, I knew I needed to look in a new direction. That led me to finding an appropriate franchise model to guide me as an owner of my own business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One very interesting story was a man came into my center and wanted some carefully printed, quality controlled, color matched prints. We were happy to help him get these done (for a price) and he was very satisfied. He told me he had first gone to my competitor up the street and they tried and tried to help him; to no avail. Finally, the manager at the competitor told him to come see us. His words were “asking us to print this for you is like taking your wife to McDonald’s for your 50th wedding anniversary — you need to go see Mark at AlphaGraphics.”
This has served as a reminder to me of what makes my business unique and how I need to build relationships with trust and competence. Almost all of our growth came from word of mouth.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I love the quote attributed to Socrates: “There is no solution, seek it lovingly.” No matter how wise our choices and decisions may seem to be, there are always good alternatives and ways we could have done things differently. That’s okay…enjoy the experience and learn.
Every decision I’ve made during my life could have gone in a different direction. Starting a business was a great decision, but then things evolved and changed and I moved on from that decision. There is no perfect answer…enjoy the ride.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

AlphaGraphics is excellent in terms of their support for owners. When I was first starting out and struggling, we realized there were issues with our main system we used for pricing jobs and creating invoices. After a few calls, someone was sent to us and spent several days working with us to address and fix all the issues. It didn’t take long to get the response — and the response helped to solve the problem. We could have spent weeks and months fumbling with errors and mistakes, but they addressed quickly the issues we faced.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What factors did you consider when selecting your franchise, and how did you determine it was the right fit for you?

I looked for anything outside of food service — then looked at things related to topics that interested me. I had worked with AlphaGraphics centers in the past and liked the model and focus on quality printing. After Discovery Day I was convinced this path offered me the best chances for success.

Can you share a significant challenge you faced while establishing your franchise? How did you overcome this obstacle, and what did this experience teach you about running a successful franchise?

I suspect that no matter how well the franchise is run, there are still gaps and things you don’t expect and aren’t sure how to handle. For me it was silly things like managing all the pre-opening expenses and accounting. What I needed to keep, to pay immediately, or to not worry about. I had no business acumen and my background in the corporate world did nothing to train me.
Related to that shift from the corporate world; you will be doing EVERYTHING initially. You can’t delegate to a team, or associates, or boss to get things done. If you want it done; you do it.

Looking back to when you first started your franchise, what was one aspect that completely took you by surprise? This could be related to the franchising process, customer interactions, or day-to-day management that you hadn’t anticipated.

I mentioned some of the negative in the question above. The positive aspect I really enjoyed had to do with ‘owning my own thing’ — the satisfaction that comes from that level of involvement, control, and pain. It can be very rewarding. Additionally, I am not a sales person, but I really enjoyed the relationships with customers and ability to consult and help them achieve their goals. All in a very direct way. Very satisfying!

In hindsight, what advice would you give to potential franchisees about selecting a franchise that aligns with their personal and professional goals?

Don’t pick something because you think it will be ‘fun’. Hobby businesses are likely going to make you hate the hobby, or never have time to indulge. For me I knew printing and design and that made it a good fit. My learning curve was definitely shorter than if I chose another business model. I also didn’t want to be dependent on people walking in the door, such as most business to consumer models. I liked the idea of building the business and working with established, ongoing clients. Definitely found that here.

How do you balance adhering to the established systems of your franchise with the need to innovate and adapt to your local market? Can you provide an example of a successful adaptation or innovation you implemented in your franchise?

I think AlphaGraphics does a good job of providing a set of guidelines or maps to help guide you. However, once you’re established, you can go off the reservation, so to speak, and explore related areas that might fit your market. For example, because of my design experience we were able to pursue a wide variety of clients that needed design expertise and bring them into our fold. I know other owners who happen into a niche of clothing; screenprint, embroidery, or direct to fabric, and do really well, even though it’s not a core product or service.

What are your “Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Opening a Franchise”?

1) How long it would take to hit breakeven/profitability. — It was suggested to me in various documents when breakeven would occur. However, these forecasts cannot account for major recessions, pandemics, etc. It always takes longer, but still feels good when you finally keep hitting and going beyond that number.

2) How rewarding relationships with staff and customers could be. — I like people and interactions, but I’m definitely not a typical SALES person. I was scared of doing sales, but happy to work with people to help them grow their business. That was cool. Then, working with a team of dedicated employees and helping them with their lives was super rewarding. One of my first hires was a young man just out of college with a design degree. He started slowly, but has grown and now is a creative director at a large marketing firm doing wonderful things. To see his changes and growth was super nice.

3) How fulfilling it is to own your own business. — It seems a bit corny, but having the keys to my own building! Driving around in a vehicle with my company name on the side. Representing my business at Rotary, Chamber, and other events. It was very motivating, encouraging, and rewarding.

4) How easy it is to get sucked into working in the business and not focusing on the things that matter most. — So many of us want to be the hero. The firefighter that solves all the problems in the business. However, the best way to find satisfaction and success is in delegating, trusting others, and letting them solve problems. My biggest successes were when I was outside the building, talking to customers, and strategizing about the future. Sitting at my desk solving problems is way too short term and unfulfilling. You keep looking for more fires and wasting valuable time.

5) How hard it is to go through the transition of selling your business. — Yes, I sold the business. After several years I realized that although there were so many aspects I enjoyed, there were things that were holding me back or distracting me from other things that matter most. My wife and I had long conversations and decided to move in a new direction and a buyer was found (too quickly, perhaps). Once the deal was signed and he took over, it was hard to give up being the owner. It had become part of me and hard to separate from who I was. If you sell; don’t try to stick around too long to ‘make it work’. Get a transition done and get out of the way. Remember; there is no solution, seek it lovingly. You’ve sold it and time to move on…

As your franchise has grown, what have been the key drivers of its success? Looking forward, what strategies do you plan to implement to ensure continued growth and sustainability in an ever-evolving market?

Our market is obviously changing dramatically. I hear often “isn’t print dead/dying?” and my reply is that it’s changing. We have shifted emphasis from long run printing, to short run with variability in order to capture client’s needs. We have added marketing services that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Signs and Banners are still a growth area for our centers. There is no end to what can be done to help clients communicate with their customers. But, if you don’t keep up and adapt, then you could be caught in a dead or dying business.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

As an owner I was always worried about a catastrophe of some type. We had some serious flooding at one time and the water came within feet of flooding the center. Another time a roof leak was scary. Employees are problematic as well as super rewarding — but they can keep you up at night. Cashflow, early on, was definitely the biggest worry.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think many people are afraid of speaking up — talking to others, sharing ideas in a meeting, expressing feelings. We (obviously not everyone) tend to hold back. Many times I wish I would have just said ‘hello’ to someone and not been afraid of the response. I’m not an introvert, but real, honest sharing of ideas is hard to come by and more needed.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Mark Welsh | LinkedIn

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.