As a college student and an avid runner, Michael Hughes thought of himself as a hard worker. And, a bit of dark horse.
Growing up in Issaquah, Hughes often talked about running his own business. But life seemed to be going down a different path, until an opportunity—printing designs T-shirts on his own press—presented itself. Hughes took it and ran with it.
Starting from his Snoqualmie Ridge garage, now at a 4,000-square-foot factory at Preston, Hughes’ business, Dark Horse Ink, is hitting its stride.
The name of the business comes from Hughes’ college days, while on the running team at Seattle University.
“It was this work-horse, dark-horse” mentality, he said. “If we had a chance of success, it was through hard work.”
Hughes founded the company in 2008, at age 25. He still has the original four-arm press in operation at his Preston factory, but has since added bigger, more impressive machines.
Out of college, Hughes started a career as a teacher. But that wasn’t the right fit.
“I love math and I loved my kids,” he said. “But I wanted something that I could keep growing…. I’m in my 30s. This is the decade where you build a dynasty.”
Hughes got into screen printing in a roundabout way.
His wife, Megan, had started a business, Earth Babies, offering children’s clothing and items. She was contracting with a screen printer for some of her products, but it was a frustrating process. At a Portland trade show, Hughes and his wife met a screen-printing vendor, and started asking questions and crunching numbers.
A light went on for Hughes. Soon, he was starting his own printing and embroidery business.
Hughes moved Dark Horse Ink to Preston’s business park in 2012. He had reached what was possible at his home, but ready to grow. Last summer, Dark Horse met its biggest project yet, an 11,000-shirt job for the Seattle Marathon that required many different clothing items. Hughes is still fulfilling orders from it.
“I never want to say, ‘I’ve arrived,’” said Hughes. But the high-profile marathon job “is an indicator that we’re making it. It’s symbolic of a jump in our roles. It solidified what each of us do. It’s also symbolic of a next step in logistics.”
How a shirt is made
Dark Horse’s Preston office includes a dark room, storage and a factory floor with presses of various sizes. Customers will bring designs to Dark Horse, or Dark Horse makes them for clients. Usually, designs must be tweaked on a computerbefore they go on your shirt.
Every design is printed on a transparent sheet coated with a light-sensitive emulsion, which is developed to create the ink print that is placed each shirt.
Shirt presses look a bit like a merry-go-round. Shirts ride on rotating arms. After getting stamped with ink, they go into a fast, infrared dryer. Designs can require several impressions of ink.
Transparencies are re-used, with the emulsion washed off by chemicals. Hughes insists on powerful filters to keep any chemicals out of the drain.
Hughes is not easily satisfied. Take him to a department store, and “I notice things that are imperfections” in the prints. “If you start thumbing things, you’ll see.”
At Dark Horse, “I’m constantly asking these guys, if I see something that is not perfect—‘Is this me being a screen printer, seeing this, or does the general public see this?’”
The embroidery business is growing—Dark Horse uses contractors in the Valley to do the work—and Hughes has plans to expand that effort, and other aspects of the business.
Hughes prides himself on Dark Horse’s growing abilities to print on newer fabrics, such as a surprisingly soft material made from recycled plastic bottles.
“We’ve kind of become experts on some of these fabrics, just through printing things,” Hughes said. “This is where we want to take it. We want to be a specialty print company.”
Family and team
Business ownership comes naturally to Hughes.
“I like being a part of my (team’s) family livelihood,” he said. “I really like being a part of the community.”
“My mom told me, when I was a kid I was always talking about having my own business,” Hughes added. “I think it was always a likelihood.”
He’s an avid member of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s an energy about it now that’s been a lot of fun for me to be a part of it,” said Hughes. “I’m just grabbing the coattails and following along.”
He recognizes that he puts in a lot of hours.
“My mom always said, when you run a business, it’s the whole family,” said Hughes, who tries to balance work with family.
However, he’s got a tightly knit team to rely on, including Jeff Dunn—“We call him the DOC—Department of Corrections. He’s the quality control guy,” says Hughes. Heather Berry runs the office.
Zach Shaw is the print manager. He oversees a team of print technicians, managing jobs from start to finish. He was promoted this winter.
“I’m excited, I’ve already learned a lot and I’m ready to keep refining my skills,” said Shaw. Outside of Dark Horse, Shaw plays in a band called Lanford Black and coaches Issaquah High School cross country runners.
• Dark Horse Ink is located at 30540 S.E. 84th St. Suite 1, Preston.
Contact the business at (425) 222-3555, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.darkhorseink.com.
Michael Hughes holds up a transparent shirt design created for SXSW.
Two students help cut rags in the Dark Horse shop.
Zach Shaw is new print manager at Dark Horse Ink.
Hughes, testing designs on his large screen press.