Moving his bobble to the right in 2013, Casey Coolbaugh couldn’t have imagined that he and fellow movie major Chauna D’Angelo would start a business that would grow into a central store in the heart of downtown Binghamton within eight years. Muckles’ Ink, their 3,000 square foot screen-printed clothing store opened in 2018 and includes its own print studio and two floors of retail and office space. The store is adorned with a range of colorful and exclusive apparel, including iconic Binghamton Bearcats hoodies and sweatshirts featuring local restaurants.
In the same way that their boutique is one of a kind in the area, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo have unique backgrounds and journeys. But what inspired the owners of the iconic downtown Binghamton business was their shared enthusiasm for movies as undergrads.
Birth of Muckles Ink
Coolbaugh and D’Angelo first met at SUNY Broome Community College. Studying filmmaking together, they quickly found a common passion for filmmaking and became involved in the burgeoning local art scene. After graduating, they transferred to Binghamton University for further education and joined its renowned experimental filmmaking program, which exposed budding creatives to many areas of filmmaking. Of particular interest was analog filmmaking – stitching together images by hand. A welcome break from the digital filmmaking methods used today, the tactile experience of analog filmmaking inspired the duo.
The movie program at Binghamton became ground zero for their startup. His annual Student Experimental Film Festival in Binghamton gave Coolbaugh and D’Angelo the idea of creating their own custom merchandise. “We wanted cool t-shirts and bags to sell to fellow film students at film festivals,” says Coolbaugh.
Fortunately, they found the right opportunity to purchase their own screen printing equipment. “We found a guy who was selling his entire basement operation. He was 70 years old and ready to sell everything,” D’Angelo says.
Both were fascinated by the equipment – a traditional means of screen printing that was being eclipsed by the tide of digital printing technologies. Their passion for analog processes quickly inspired another idea: to use this old process, mix it with the new way of doing things and start a business!
However, launching a startup is fraught with pitfalls and uncertainties; research suggests that over 50% of startups fail within a year. Despite high failure rates and little business experience, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo were determined to pursue the path of entrepreneurship in their hometown.
“I know people here. I grew up here…I thought my best chance for success was to thrive where I was planted,” Coolbaugh says. The couple’s enthusiasm for art and Binghamton materialized into a business and Muckles’ Ink was born.
Quest for the best market
The company was launched in 2012, with much trial and error. “We didn’t know what it would become,” Coolbaugh says. “It’s hard to predict more than six months down the road, certainly not a year.”
Since delivering the first order to its first customer, an association of high school science teachers, Muckles’ Ink has steadily expanded its customer base. To market the business, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo performed live impressions at events and focused on building connections with local businesses to build trust in the community. At the same time, the founders had their sights set on greater heights.
Wanting to expand their reach in the greater Binghamton community, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo decided to focus on their alma mater. “We made the decision to pivot and primarily sue Binghamton University for our market,” Coolbaugh says. “We are elders. We all need shirts. Students, faculty and staff…all need it.
Following their decision, they contacted Binghamton faculty and staff, including Binghamton President Harvey Stenger. “He didn’t know me. We didn’t know each other,” says Coolbaugh. “We set up a meeting, and I think that opened a lot of doors for us.” The University welcomed the couple 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 place orders regularly, and Coolbaugh and D’Angelo performed live impressions at campus events, giving out free shirts and bags. While building relationships with people one shirt at a time, they also gave back to their alma mater, hiring interns from the University and providing them with sales and marketing training. Additionally, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo volunteered to mentor students at Harpur College, the birthplace of their company. Seven years passed in the blink of an eye.
In its eighth year, Muckles’ Ink has reached a turning point. A local owner contacted Coolbaugh and D’Angelo with an offer: space for a retail store in the heart of downtown Binghamton. However, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo foresaw many financial and logistical challenges. “We didn’t know anything about retail,” Coolbaugh says. “We were too scared to take the leap.”
But Coolbaugh decided they had to seize the opportunity. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “If you have to do something and you think it’s best for companies to do it, you’re going to find a way.” Seeing an opportunity himself, the owner supported Coolbaugh and D’Angelo financially in establishing a store.
Lacking business expertise, Coolbaugh and D’Angelo needed expert advice on how to incorporate retail into their business model. They enlisted the help of the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, whose mission is to provide startups like Muckles’ Ink with the space and direction to build a successful business. Muckles’ Ink joined the new Koffman incubator, where its founders had access to mentors who helped them individually.
The incubator provided essential support to Coolbaugh and D’Angelo. They were able to network with local professionals, cultivate a “business spirit” and reshape their business model with the help of seasoned entrepreneurs. “Having people who think totally differently than you is critical to success,” says Coolbaugh. “We wouldn’t have moved into the retail store if we didn’t have the resources, the infrastructure, and the mentorship at the incubator.”
After six months of business incubation, Muckles’ Ink was ready to take to the main street with its new business model, offering custom screen printing services and retail apparel sales.
The relaunch was carefully planned. Coolbaugh wanted to prioritize quality of service and slowly grow the business by leveraging word-of-mouth and a key location on Binghamton’s main thoroughfare. “A lot of companies over-promise and under-deliver,” he says. “Our goal the first year was to slowly build word-of-mouth.”
The strategy worked. Not only did business grow over 60% in one year, but they also started receiving orders from customers who had heard of Muckles’ Ink just by walking around downtown. “This place alone is the best place,” Coolbaugh says. “It pays for itself.”
With a retail space where customers can order and pick up their custom print orders, Coolbaugh says Muckles’ Ink offers unique value. “There’s nowhere else in town where you can walk in, sit with the guy who runs the place and knows the business inside and out, and offer a custom order at a reasonable price.”
Muckles’ Ink is growing rapidly, adding customers, designs, and different types of clothing. The company hopes to continue serving the community, leveraging partnerships, learning, and making necessary changes. With every shirt, bag and hat, Muckles leaves her mark on the community that has helped her get to where she is today.