Susan Lotozo, owner of Flying Fish Studio in West Cape May, silk-screens a T-shirt at her workshop.

WEST CAPE MAY — Five years into her silk-screening company, Susan Lotozo faced a critical issue shared by other small-business owners — the major hurdle of trying to grow.

What would become the Flying Fish Studio originated as a side business in her living room while Lotozo worked as a hotel general manager.

Lotozo, an art school graduate, started small, selling wholesale T-shirts with her artwork and designs to area businesses and restaurants for their employees or to sell to their customers.

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After her first child, she rented a storefront to pick up more wholesale accounts but found people were interested in buying her products retail, too.

“I didn’t have any capital investment (in wholesale). In general, you would get paid as soon as you delivered the goods, and it would be profitable. But people kept knocking on the door and wanted to see what I was doing and would buy things,” she said.

This led to one of Lotozo’s major business decisions for the Flying Fish Studio, which now has eight employees seasonally and produces “tens of thousands” of silk-screened articles of clothing a year.

Lotozo sought the advice of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which stressed the importance of investing in inventory for retail. She ended up getting a $25,000 low-interest loan.

“I was at this growth point where I needed employees, but as soon as I started paying people, any profit that I had was going away. … They put me in a program with a female CPA in Atlantic City to write a business plan. … They said if you do this the right way, this $25,000 will revolve and make money for you, and you have to make that investment. And that was a stumbling block for me,” she said.

“That made a really big difference. It allowed me to increase the square footage of store and be able to fill it with inventory without expecting to have to pay for that inventory from the sales right away,” she said.

Wholesale and retail are now about evenly split.

Lotozo, 54, of West Cape May, owns a unique store on Park Boulevard, with a bright blue exterior. Inside, the shelves and racks arehold their own charm — fashioned from old doors and paint-splattered ladders.

The merchandise involves a variety of her designs, including T-shirts and sweatshirts with drawings depicting area beaches, such as Poverty Beach. A popular seller has been a T-shirt with artwork of birds congregating around a utility pole, an image Lotozo based on a pole outside the business’s front door.

About a decade ago, the business occupied a large workshop out back where it does its printing on hand-operated machines, one at a time.

The Flying Fish Studio sells at other locations as well, including a retail location just a minute’s walk away: the West End Garage on Perry Street, which includes an artists’ co-op gallery and an assortment of stalls and shops.

“It seems like it might be weird to do retail right across the street from yourself, but I knew the power of marketing that was going into making that successful as a whole,” Lotozo said. “I felt with 50 different vendors and 20 different artists in the co-op, they were all going to be marketing people to come in.”

Lotozo said the next idea she plans to implement she got from a carton of eggs she bought at an Amish market — a short description about the family and the farm that produced the eggs.

“Every retail customer is a potential wholesale customer, and that’s what I’m going to maximize on next, my next marketing plan,” she said.

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Been working with the Press for about 27 years.

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