Signarama Superstar

Maggie Harlow talks at-work sandboxes, responding to online reviews and lessons gleaned from raising a rap prodigy.
Maggie Harlow talks at-work sandboxes, responding to online reviews and lessons gleaned from raising a rap prodigy.

Maggie Harlow is the CEO of Signarama Downtown in Louisville, KY.

When you appeared on Signs Unscripted, you revealed that you used to be in the automotive business. What skills and strategies from that sector have translated to the sign business?
The sales side of the automotive business has been a tremendous help to me because in the automotive business, there is a 20% close rate. In the sign business, you’re anywhere from a 50-75% close rate. It feels so much easier than the car business. I learned a lot of techniques about connecting with customers, closing and negotiating.

Your husband works with you, right? How have you two made that work?
It took us a couple of years of working together to smooth out the edges, and I think the secret to our success is creating what we call ‘sandboxes.’ He has his responsibilities and I have mine. We try hard to stay out of each other’s sandboxes. We consult with each other, but for the most part, he does his work the way he prefers to do it and I do my work the way I prefer to do it. And we hold each other accountable to the results. If you have a difficult marriage, it’s going to show all the cracks when you go into business together.

According to your shop’s Instagram account, you’ve been celebrating your company’s 16th anniversary – with a lot of cake. What does 16 years in business signify to you?
I think 16 signifies to me that [the sign industry] continues to be a changing creature. The industry is changing all the time with new technology, new ways to do things, new competitors. This morning I said to my management team, ‘Is it possible after 16 years that we are still inventing wheels? We’re still trying to figure out how to do certain things?’ So, every day I’m learning something new.

Let’s deviate from the sign industry for a second – your son, Jack, is a certified rap star and is touring across the country. What have you learned from watching him progress in the music industry?
At age 11, my son declared that he wanted to be the best rapper in the world. We said, ‘Sure, why not? How do you that?’ We literally helped him craft that plan for how many hours a day he would have to [practice] in order to be the best rapper in the world. That experience of raising him has been a series of lessons in dreaming big, being willing to set bold goals and then working really hard to get them.

Your shop has well over 100 reviews on Google, and it appears as if you make a habit of responding to the reviews, even the rare poor review. Why?
I am so grateful that anybody gives me feedback. I love my five-star reviews; I’m more grateful to the people who tell me when we’re doing things badly. First of all, it’s not easy to call someone and say you did a bad job. And, I also I find it the richest experience for learning. So when something isn’t going right, I really want to dig in. I can listen to their complaints and even feel like they might be wrong, but I can learn something from it and help them feel heard.

What most excites and concerns you about the next five years in the sign industry?
It seems like every three years there’s a new printing technology. We have this new UV printer that prints texture that has been a game-changer for us and the types of products we can produce. I’m also very excited about my team. After 16 years we have kissed a lot of frogs and we have a really, really exciting team. I believe I’ll be able to focus on growing the company and they can focus on running the company. The thing that worries me is after surviving the recession, I have permanent state of mind for watching economic indicators. I never stop looking at my numbers and being prepared for the worst. I try to be prepared for the worst in a positive way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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