Photo by Alyse Horn
David Burns and Jake Huffmyer, cousins and co-founders of 3E Studios.
By Victoria Stevans
In the 10 years since its inception, 3E Studios, a custom screen printing and embroidery shop, found a home in the Northside and a family within its employees and patrons.
In 2007, David Burns and Jake Huffmyer, cousins and co-founders of 3E Studios, were printing t-shirts out of a basement.
“We started the business in [Huffmyer’s] basement in Beaver County, where he grew up,” Burns said.
Today, their office on Western Avenue is spacious, around 5,000 square feet, with room in the front for visitors and space in the back for both automated and manual screen printers.
In the upgraded space, the original silk screening equipment from their basement days can still be found. Although not in use, it sits on a shelf above the new printers as a memento.
“It’s little, dinky, and held up by bungee cords,” Huffmyer said. “We used to whack screens into alignment [with a] mallet, now you have these micro-adjustors and lasers.”
“It’s the same basic equipment, just 30 years older,” said Burns.
The business was started and has been sustained by Burns’ and Huffmyer’s well suited skills sets.
“We have a pretty symbiotic relationship. His strengths and my strengths are complimentary,” Burns said.
In college, Burns studied graphic design and worked at a screen printing shop, while Huffmyer studied audio and electrical engineering.
“[Huffmyer’s] got an engineering background and can fix equipment. I have a graphics background and a little more extroverted [personality], I’ll be out [in the front] a lot,” Burns said. “It’s been good.”
However, like any small business, it took Burns and Huffmyer time to reach liftoff, regardless of their complimentary natures.
“It was just the two of us, both of us had other jobs, it wasn’t very substantial in the beginning, or significant,” said Burns. “So we took a year to get our footing [in the basement] and then moved up to the Northside.”
The two cousins moved into the top floor of a recording studio on North Avenue and began running their business above it.
With this transition, 3EStudios incrementally grew. Burns and Huffmeyer invested in new equipment, visited the Northside Development Fund for a loan, and started working with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of Pittsburgh to sharpen their vision for the future.
“That’s when we started thinking what is this, what are we here to do, and why,” Burns said. “[3E Studios] was born in Beaver County, but it grew up in the Northside. That’s really where we found our identity.”
For Huffmyer and Burns, the Northside has become home. It has also been large factor in their business’ success.
“[The Northside] has definitely been integral to how we grow,” Burns said. “A lot of our clients are in the Northside, the vast majority of them are local.”
“Even if the customers aren’t from the Northside, we have probably made the connection through some sort of circle that we’ve developed by being here,” Huffmyer added.
Three years after moving to their space on North Avenue, 3E Studios moved to their current office on Western Avenue. In another period of expansion, Huffmyer and Burns hired more employees, bulking up their staff and garnering more customers.
Since that move, 3E Studios have created a supplementary family – apart from Burns’ and Huffmyer’s blood relation – through their relationships with employees and patrons.
“I think there has always been a little bit of conversation about this [business] acting as a second family for us,” Huffmyer said.
“[3E Studios has] ended up becoming a sort of an extended family, to the point where it is kind of why it exists,” Burns added.
Certainly, the printing studio’s family feel and focus has weaved itself into the business’s philosophy.
“We don’t ever like to not have a solution for somebody. We want to make sure that we can get things for you even if [what you need is] not what we do,” Huffmyer said. “There are some [companies] we know that have a different process than we do, so if [what you need] doesn’t fit with us, we can point you somewhere that is trusted.”
“It all goes back to that family philosophy of keeping mutual respect,” Burns said. “We value individuals. Some of the employees we have today are the first we ever had, same with customers. So, that’s important even from a vendor standpoint, when you operate in a way where you’re not burning bridges.”
However, this person-centric approach has not always been the most advantageous monetarily, although it is beginning to pay back, according to Burns.
“I think having that philosophy was a really long game strategy. When we put the importance of people, whether that be ourselves, our employees, our customers, above profitability we didn’t look good on paper for a lot of years,” Burns added. “But, eventually, when it finally did catch up, it’s really stable because a lot of our customers we’ve known for almost 10 years.”
3E Studios has a wide customer base that ranges across the Northside, Pittsburgh, and The United States. They work with large businesses, small businesses, charity walks, community organizations, and many others.
Although the physical product differs from order to order, their most sought after and long lasting commodity is their customer service.
“There isn’t really a most popular product. The product is the process. It’s the feeling that people get working with us,” Huffmyer said. “To us it’s always been about what kind of experience we can create for you, because it’s all custom. It’s all about you, your visions, and your goals.”
At the core of Burns’ and Huffmyer’s business is a desire to make a tangible, positive difference within their company, intimate circle, and community.
“If I were to simplify [our purpose] down, it’d be: ‘trying to make an impact somewhere,’” Huffmyer said. “We print t-shirts, simply, so if you have a cause, we are rallying behind that, we are trying to get people to come together.”
This thirst for making an impact bleeds into 3E Studios’ relationship with the Northside and its inhabitants. The staff and founders of the print studio are routinely angling towards community service. In fact, Burns just finished his tenure as Northside Rotary President.
“That was good, that got us to a whole other level of community involvement outside of business,” Burns said of himself and his fellow employees. “We were out there picking up garbage on the highway, and [participating in] a bunch of charity events.”
Since the business’ outset in 2007, Huffmyer and Burns have not only focused their attention outwards on their community presence, but also looked inwards to refine their office environment.
Presently, 3E Studios employs a total of 12 staff members. This growth, from two staff members to 12, has required Huffmyer and Burns to alter the cadence of their conversation surrounding their business.
“The whole focus changed from very technically oriented – how do we just be good at what we do – to how do we keep a sustained system of 12 dynamic people,” Huffmeyer said.
Even with this shift of focus, from technical to managerial, the core of 3E Studios’ intentions remains person-centric.
“You spend so much time at work, you want to get up every day and be excited to get there and do things,” Huffmyer said. “So, that’s really what we have focused on trying to create here. An environment where people want to come here and do things, because the projects are exciting.”
“We are building a system that keeps building itself,” Burns said.