Survival Letterpress, a Kansas City printing business owned by a husband and wife duo, was started from a minor addiction. Joey Gross’s fascination with old thousand-pound letterpress machines began his senior year at UCM in Warrensburg, MO — and it only intensified with the hunt for old machines. Searching all over the Midwest, Gross and his dad truck-and-trailered around to pick up once forgotten treasures from abandoned barns and newspaper shops.
The beauty to Joey is that no one knows the history of the machines. Who stood before them. How many papers were printed. How many hands fed paper through. He just knows that it must’ve been a lot. And for Gross, that’s what drives him to keep searching, keep restoring and keep creating.
Gross gave these machines, machines that should have printed their last print, a new life and welcomed them into the 21st century. Survival’s mission is as simple as using perfectly old machines: to keep the craft going and help it survive, one print at a time.
Tell us about Survival Letterpress.
Survival Letterpress opened in May 2014 when we moved most of our printing equipment out of our garage and into the collaborative studio Bonfire Space in Mission, Kansas. Prior to moving into Bonfire, I had been gathering equipment from Kansas and surrounding states, hauling it home on a trailer with my dad, fixing the presses, cleaning them and taking on random print work in my garage.
When I found out Bonfire had room for me and my thousands of pounds of cast iron, I jumped on the opportunity. I quickly began the branding process and Survival just hit me one night. These machines have endured the test of time — they are survivors. One of my presses is more than 100 years old and it still works like the day it shipped out of the factory. In my eyes, they are a reminder that not everything has to be new and up-to-date to function.
What do you love most about what you do?
My wife and I have graphic design degrees, so the fact that we can take our design knowledge digitally and transfer it to plates that work in these old machines really is something special in my opinion. The process is old, it’s messy, it’s greasy and the presses have a lot of character and can be frustrating to work with, but all of those things are really what I enjoy most about what I do.
You’re running a Mom and Pop Shop. How does that make what you’re doing different?
Every piece of equipment I have has been pulled out of a small town in the middle of nowhere. There’s always so much history and a lot of them, unfortunately, are ghost towns. These towns, at one time, survived on mom and popshops. The big box stores come in and we all know what happens after that. In a way I’m trying to keep that atmosphere alive. I like that when people contact me for print or design work, they are getting an email back from the owner of the company — the guy that prints their artwork, cleans the presses, makes the plates, mixes ink, makes deliveries and sweeps the floor.
Do you view a shop like Hammerpress as local competition? How do your businesses differ?
I wouldn’t say they are competition; Survival is different because of how small we are. Shops like Hammerpress are on a completely different playing field, and for good reason. They have put in time and energy and are unbelievably talented at what they do. Instead of competition, I view shops like that as inspiration. I always want to strive to be better, push myself to take on more and challenge myself to experiment and try new things in my shop because I know that’s how shops like Hammerpress got to be where they are today.
What was the path that led you here?
The path that led me here has been an interesting one and one that has been full of emotional highs and lows. It started in my college apartment my senior year, my wife, Amanda, and I built an exposure unit and I got a letterpress scrapbooking machine. We started making plates and prints in our living room. I honestly had no idea this is where I would end up four years later.
My parents got me a little tabletop printing press as a graduation gift and the addiction of finding bigger and better equipment started there. I’ve been lucky to have such a patient father and mother who are extremely supportive — my dad has been a huge reason I am where I am today with my shop. Without him I wouldn’t have any of the equipment I have. He’s been at my side for every move and is always the reason we get home safe and sound. Moving a 4,000-pound press isn’t easy, but I’ve learned a lot finding this stuff, rescuing it and bringing it home.
What motivates you to create every day?
I find a lot of motivation just going to the shop everyday. When you put your blood, sweat and tears into something and are proud of what are you are doing everyday, it’s not difficult to be motivated. This is my livelihood and I think that if I’m not motivated, I don’t eat and I don’t have a roof over my head.
Describe your typical day.
Everyday is different, really. Typically I show up the shop in the morning, try to get caught up on emails, send quotes to customers and take care of any business items that need to be handled. From there I make any plates for upcoming print jobs and mix the Pantone colors; I try to knock out as much print work as I can. I do deliveries for a few folks in town and I always seem to have a few errands to run during the day. If I’m not printing, it’s usually because I’m designing custom work for clients, but that part of the business has slowed down for me because Amanda is handling a lot of the design work now, which I’m really excited about.
What inspires you to create?
There’s so much inspiration on the internet, and it’s so easy to access now. I can hop on Pinterest at any given time and find someone making something that totally blows me away. I can also find a lot of inspiration in the people around me, I share a space with six other creatives and we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and that’s huge. I would encourage anyone in the creative industry to surround themselves with people that are doing similar things.
What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?
I tried to start a company before Survival that didn’t really work out. The whole thing didn’t really make sense from the beginning, and the vision was confusing. I learned a lot from that with what works and what doesn’t. I just wanted a company with a clear-cut mission and identity. We are a letterpress and design studio — simple as that.
Would you consider your brand a success? Why or why not?
I think it is. Some people measure success differently, maybe by money or how long they have been in business, but honestly if this thing crumbled and fell apart tomorrow, I could look back and at least say I did it. I started a company before I was 30 and I loved every minute of it. And to me that’s a success.
What are you most proud of so far in your journey?
I feel proud every time I step into my studio and look at the equipment I have gathered. It’s been a tough journey, but it’s rewarding to see it all in one space being used to create beautiful things.
How do you build a customer base?
A lot of my growth has been by word of mouth, and I try to stay on top of my social media game. It’s surprising how many people come into the shop because they found us on Instagram. I’m not an SEO expert by any stretch of the imagination, but so far what I have been doing is working pretty well. Google has been good to us for some reason.
Why Kansas City? How does it influence your brand?
Kansas City is where I grew up. I was born and raised here, so it just seemed natural to try and start something new and make a mark. No matter how little or big of a business I am, it’s nice to have a corner in this city. Kansas City has become such a maker city and it’s very inspiring. Ninety percent of my customers come to me because they are passionate about supporting local businesses, and I think that’s an incredible thing that I hope, as a city, we can hold onto.
What sacrifices have you had to make to be an entrepreneur?
Time has been a big sacrifice. I’ve had to put in a lot of hours, which means I’ve missed out on things like hanging out with friends and being at home with my wife and dog. I’ve also put a lot of money into the company by buying equipment and moving into a studio, and we are still new and growing so we’ve had to be okay with living on a tight budget sometimes. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it if you are doing something you are passionate about.
What has been your most satisfying moment?
There have been two. The first one was when we finally got to a point where it made sense to move into a space, and the other was when I was able to quit my full-time job to focus on Survival.
What are your hobbies? Do they influence what you’re putting out?
I have so many hobbies sometimes I can’t keep up with them, just ask Amanda. One of my professors in school had a good point; he said graphic designers shouldn’t try to be perfect at a couple things but we should dabble in everything — I took that to heart. I want to know how to work a camera, make a decent video, be efficient in the creative suite but there’s stuff I think we can learn from doing ordinary things too, like fishing, rock climbing, fixing cars, sewing, baking, etc. I believe in some way everything we try can translate over into our career and we shouldn’t be afraid to have too many hobbies.
Do you follow trends? How is that reflected in your work?
I try to keep up with trends and look at design that’s current so that I can keep my customers happy. I’m still trying to find my style, but I think I’m getting there. I redesigned the Survival logo a couple months ago and have really enjoyed working with simple shapes and fonts. I love minimalist design and I think that’s where I’m headed.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
The company that I buy most of my paper from called French Paper in Michigan. They are amazing folks with a passion for the paper industry. They have a great brand and great design work on top of running their business well. It’s an American family run paper mill from 1871 — it really doesn’t get much better than that.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start his/her own creative business?
I would tell them not to get discouraged if things don’t seem to be working. The minute you start to panic about work not coming in, you’ll get slammed with emails. It can be terrifying to branch out on your own and I’ve had moments where I have felt like giving up, but you just have to trust that you’ve made the right decision. You have to be confident in yourself.
Where would you like to see Survival in 5 years? 10 years?
I wish I had a clear-cut answer for this, but I honestly have no clue. I was told by so many small business owners that I had to make a business plan and I never did it. I’m kind of glad I never did because the vision for this business has changed so much just in the past year. Things just happen, and right now I’m just taking it one day at a time — we’ll just have to wait and see what’s next.
To learn more about Survival Letterpress. and purchase products, visit survivalletterpress.com
Images and Interview courtesy of Joey Gross, Survival Letterpress.
This interview has been condensed and edited