Entrepreneur opens Upward Graphics in Fulton two years after immigrating to the U.S. from the Philippines
By Payne Horning
Malbert Dela Pena has been operating Upward Graphics, a screen-printing and embroidery business in Fulton, for the past year. He opened it just two years after immigrating with his family to the U.S. from the Philippines.
Q. Tell us about your business. Why did you name it ‘Upward’ Graphics?
A. I have nothing but high hopes for this business and from the beginning it has always been about what God wants us to do to serve the people around us with what we have. The name “Upward” is a reminder for myself and my family to always look upward to God from whom all things come from and to whom all things belong. “Graphics” is the heart of all the services we offer in our business, from screen printing, direct-to-garment printing, embroidery, etc.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your journey from the Philippines and how you came to Central New York.
A. My wife Hazel’s mother is originally from Fulton and is currently a missionary living in the Philippines, where my wife was born and raised as well. We had the same screen-printing business in the Philippines, but the economy over there wasn’t doing well enough for us to raise a family of four and a little one on the way. We have been considering relocating to the U.S. for a couple of years already, but when we learned that we had a third baby on the way, we finally decided to take the leap and immigrate to the U.S.
Q. How did you handle immigration paperwork to come and work here?
A. It was a tough and long journey. Since my wife is the only one of us who is a U.S. citizen, she had to go ahead there to file a petition for me and our two daughters, Jae Red and Avril. It was a long 16 months of separation from my wife and a very challenging one. She had our baby boy Charles during this time of separation. I didn’t meet my son until we finally arrived in the U.S. when he was 7 months old. Since our arrival in the U.S. in January 2016, we have lived in Fulton and have been loved and welcome by beloved friends and family in Oswego County.
Q. How did Upward Graphics begin?
A. I have always had a businessman mindset and had been itching and praying to start my own business since I got here. However, we had to wait for the perfect time since I was new to the country and needed to learn how entrepreneurship works on this side of the world. So, I worked diligently as a screen printer and production manager for about two years, learning as I went and developing my skills.
Q. When did you feel you were ready to start the business?
A. In 2017, the company I was working for went bankrupt and had to let go of all the employees. We were in the middle of purchasing our first home at the time. All we had was our belief in God that all things will work out well for those who trust in him. To make the long story short, it did work out well: my wife smoothly transitioned from working as a part-timer into full-time without issue at her job, and my former employer took me in again to help them out. It was a struggle, but we managed, closed on the house, and decided as a family that we would use the garage to start up our own screen printing business. We started off as CNY Cheap Custom Tees in 2018 in our garage with a four-color, two-station silk screen press and a heat press. A few months into operation, we were reported to the mayor and forced to move into a commercial facility. Advertising online, we built our customer base little by little, added necessary equipment, and learned from mistakes. Having strong local competitors in Fulton, we got most our customers from other surrounding cities and Onondaga County. After a year, we decided we were ready for a brand to establish our business and register it officially as an LLC; that’s when we officially changed the name into Upward Graphics LLC.
Q. How was the transition?
A. We knew it was time when every time we faced a hurdle, we were able to overcome it by God’s grace; and the customers just keep coming, especially during times when we were ready to give up. Seeing things unfold before our eyes, meeting the right people at the right time, we knew the God was telling us it was time and we can overcome whatever lies ahead.
Q. What was key to your success in launching the business?
A. A lot of prayers and support from friends and family, especially my very supportive wife and children. Also, self-educating myself through reading books and listening to various speakers on various topics to improve myself as a businessman and strategies in building the business itself.
‘I have always had a businessman mindset and had been itching and praying to start my own business since I got here [in the U.S.]’
Q. Where did you get the funding to make this dream possible? How much did you have to invest yourself?
A. My wife and I set aside $4,000 initially from our personal tax refund to invest in CNY Cheap Custom Tees. We used it to purchase our first screen printing press, a heat press, and for advertisement online. After that, we just used every profit from projects to purchase whatever else we needed from then on. I didn’t start paying myself weekly until late last year when we felt comfortable enough that we will have enough to keep the business rolling.
Q. What was the most difficult part of making this a reality? How did you overcome those obstacles?
A. I think the most difficult problem we had was when we were reported to the mayor for operating in our garage. We were stuck in a dilemma: will we dive into the “real” world and open a commercial facility or are we not ready yet due to limited finances? Through faith, we took a chance and found the lowest-rate commercial space we could and started there. In the long run it worked out for our own good, we got a little more exposure and looked more professional to customers as well. More customers trickled in and we became more productive. We have since then believed that if God closes one door, he opens another one that is better for us — we just need to trust him. Like life in general, problems and difficulties that arise in the process of growth is the most difficult part of making it a reality. However, having the right mindset, surrounded by the right people, and constantly relying on God for strength and wisdom has helped me overcome these obstacles.
Q. In the process of starting your own business, what did you learn that you wished you had known from the start — a piece of advice for those who are at the beginning of this process?
A. I think what I learned that I wished I knew is all the regulations and processes that need to be done to be in accordance with the law. Ignorance of the law excuses no one — some of the basic things we had to learn the hard way. One example is we needed to register the business to the Department of Labor even though I didn’t have any employees at that time.
Q. The coronavirus pandemic has changed life for everyone, especially small businesses. How has it impacted your company?
A. It is a very sad situation we all are in right now. I cannot deny that we are also affected by it. Huge projects that were booked at the beginning of the year for March, April and May have all been canceled. However, we know we are not the only ones struggling and we cannot really complain. I always keep in mind a quote I got from the book “A Tale of Two Cities,” that says “It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times.” Having these words in mind, my wife and I discussed how we can make this situation into the best of times for us and everyone around us. One of our ink suppliers abroad happened to start producing face masks and knowing the need here, we tried getting some to donate to our first responders and health care workers. The response from the public was amazing and heartwarming. We were able to successfully involve the community in raising funds to get more personal protective equipment for our local heroes. This is the least we could do to help in this kind of situation we are all facing right now.
Q. Is there any silver lining from this experience that you think has made your business better?
A. The silver lining from this experience is it has kept me busy helping the people around me and at the same time gave exposure to Upward Graphics — more than we could ever imagine. We did have some projects canceled, but we also have had new customers. Because of this, we are very hopeful of what is to come for Upward Graphics LLC in the future.