Lad about town turned local man of business; John Sutton began his career in printing at 16, after being signposted by the job centre near an estate in Islington, where he grew up. Now in his 40s, he's a little surprised to see himself running Printville, having co-founded it with an old colleague, Kevin Jones, earlier this year.
With 45 years of combined experience guiding the company through the printing industry, John has witnessed the turn of technology from lithography to digital, alongside the development of the neighbourhood. One of the last few old school grafters in the trade who keeps the idea of community alive in an area that's being increasingly commercialised, we talk the talk with the personable gent…
A bit about John
Having left school with no qualifications, John explains how he got to where he is today; "I had nothing in hand, but I managed to find work at a company called the Medici Society," he explains. Founded in 1908, the club entitled members to high-end colour reproductions of fine art chosen for artistic value, beauty or sentiment. Though no longer exclusive, today the company licenses out its image library, sells prints in shops/galleries and hosts original works in its own exhibition space. It shares an equally rich history with John, who worked there for 13 years; "At 16 in 1986, I was just boxing up things and gradually worked my way through to the printing machines - you start off at a single colour, then a two colour, then a four colour and all the way up - better machines meant better money." The Medici Society Ltd moved to Hendon in 1999 ,which was John's cue to move on; "that's when I decided to leave, so I got made redundant on the Friday and on the Monday, which was my son's first birthday, I started at a company in Hoxton Street." He stayed at his second and last employer until December 2014.
Bigger than dreams
Did he imagine himself here, where he is now, at 16? "I've been at the Angel Islington all my life. I grew up on one of the roughest estates there called Packington. In the 70s that was very deprived, I'm still there now in fact. I think I was at the job centre, when they said try printing, so owning my own company has come out of the blue for me. A lot of friends from the estate who have gone on to do well for themselves, their career paths have done alright, I've got one mate who owns and runs an English School in Moscow, Russia. It's good to know, my sons can have a bright future, and I'm hopeful they'll do something with their life; they're both prefects and one wants to be a teacher while the other one's hopefully got an apprenticeship at our housing association."
With his second company based on Hoxton Street, John recollects his impressions of the community then; "We got to know a lot of the good and the not so good. Drugs at our front door and all the rest, but even so, standing on that doorstep was a great base for gaining local business. Shoreditch was already becoming more hip, and because we did flyers and posters, we'd get most of our work from places like 333 Mother Bar."
"I knew Kevin from my old company, he saw what my customer service skills were like and we set up together in January, and apart from the usual stuff of people not paying on time, it's been really good," says John honestly. "He’s got the business brain, and I'm the sales person, and the accounts, and the delivery driver! We balance each other out. Of course we have the occasional barney, but we both apologise to each other when we have our moments."
"A lot of really nice clients have turned into friends, like the Breakfast Club, which is a trendy café we do loads of printing for. Cargo's a recent one we've just got work from and we've done a lot on Camden Market: you'll see it everywhere from banners, business cards to even the vinyl that's on the bins." Places like Printville are undoubtedly the elusive facilitators of art and expression. John has had dealings with the likes of Red Bull and Vice in the past, but regardless of the weight those brands carry, it's the most loyal customers who pop into his mind when we ask about his commissions; "Hackney Community College, Homerton Hospital, Amersham Hospiital - they're not massive names but for they're huge orders for a small company like us."
The people connection
Despite rising through the ranks in the technical aspects of printing, John's ended up being the sales person in his vocation out of choice; "It's my personal goal to give a real human touch in service. I've known Moonlighting Nightclub from when they started off as Ombres at Well Street, because I used to go there. I'd get in when I was 16, and I sort of met some of the ladies down there, I don't even want to go into it - we drank a lot, put it that way. But when I told them about that, I was honest, luckily they didn't take it a bad way and I'm working with them now."
Watching your ps and qs, and other advice
In his world, success is basically about working your way up with the small details in service; "Going above and beyond simply taking orders in and just making sure people remember your face. I deliver most the stuff myself because I believe you should try and get to know your clients - ask them how they are and if their weekend was nice?" Aside from building up a rapport, he believes being able to walk away from a project gives Printville the upper hand; "If the digital artwork provided doesn't translate well into print, we'll tell the client so they can fix it or sometimes we'll end up not earning any money, we don't want to give anyone something low quality."
When the ink dried on printing
"I think the old school purists still using just lithography and letterpress, and these historic processes, are going to be made fully redundant in the next 10 years and phased out by the onset on digital." Aside from a rapid evolution in techniques which he's had to embrace ("Don't get me started on digital printing! It's just a glorified photocopier!"), John has noticed another unwelcome change in the industry that will ring true across the working sector; "In 1986, there was vacancies, very low paid, but they gave you the chance to rise up. Now the opportunity just to walk through, have a chat and start off your career isn't there anymore, unless you know someone."
Containerville and collaboration
"Containerville has been really good, it's not far from anywhere, it works out well with clients in the West End and we've got really good relationship with the neighbours. The apprenticeship company, Jump Programmes have brought a bit more life to the place with a few teenagers running around and we get on really well. I've been told that I'm the friendly one that talks to everybody - it's probably because I smoke and I'm always outside having a cigarette. But we've ended up getting quite a lot of work from a few of the containers."
Local collaborations include places like Stories on Broadway Market but he reels off a list of people much closer to home: brand consultancy OneAnother, independent blog Twenty Something, online rug company Woven, ad agency Rabbit & Hare, community focused Pop Up Projects ("We've just printed out Rastamouse masks for the kids to colour in") and BAFTA winning animation and graphics house Cub Studio ("Really nice fella, he gave my son shed loads of American football stuff for his birthday, don't even know him that well!").
John is refreshingly frank about the future: "We will try and move with the times! At the moment we've got the facilities to provide what most people need, and my son’s help me set up an Instagram account so that'll help. I hope it holds prosperity so I can get enough money to put my children through university or whatever they want to do."