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Starting a Sign Business for $10K (or Less)

Make signs not deliveries.

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SIGNMAKING HAS BECOME a bigger part of the gig economy thanks to a greater accessibility of products. From more affordable options to increasingly compact units and user-friendly tech, it’s never been easier to get started. But what equipment and budget would it take to launch a sign business today? We think it could be done for under $10K. Let’s see what we can set up.

Your personal computer may have the speed and capacity to adequately handle big vector files and a variety of projects. If not, be prepared to spend $1,200 to $1,500 for a system. You will also need some type of software to create the designs. CorelDRAW is one of the most affordable packages, costing around $550. You could also subscribe to a service like Adobe Creative Cloud or SAi Flexi for around $52 to $60 per month.

So at this point you’ve burned through almost $2K of your startup cost (less if you have a computer). Now you need to decide what you want to do.

The least expensive route is to get a vinyl cutter. These machines will allow you to create banners, rigid signs, magnetic signs, vehicle lettering and graphics — and you can even branch out into garments using special transfer materials paired with a heat press.

Avoid “crafting” cutters if you want to have a serious business. While inexpensive ($300 to $500), crafting machines are limited when it comes to the width and length of material that they can handle. Supplies like blades can be very expensive as well. Opt for a cutter that is designed for signwork with a width of at least 24 in. If you can afford more width, go for it. As your business grows and you get more equipment, you may find the additional width handy. Plan on spending $1,000 to $5,000 for a good vinyl cutter depending on the features and size.

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Full-color window decals such as the one shown below are well within the range of a startup signshop.

If you just want to get into the vinyl cutting business, jump to supplies. At this point you will have spent anywhere from $2K if you own a computer and go with a low-end cutter, or up to $7K if you start from scratch and get a higher-quality cutter. But vinyl cutters can only use vector art for cut lines and do not print anything full color, so no photos or gradients. Maybe you want more.

If you want to create full graphic signs, then you need to produce prints that can hold up to weather and sunlight. Forget a desktop or even a wide-format water-based inkjet printer. You need an eco-solvent printer. UV and latex are out of the budget, but there are some 24-in.-width eco-solvent printers in the $5K to $7K range. Wider will cost considerably more money and you can do a lot with a 24-in. machine. Most are 4-color (CMYK), but that’s OK to start. More colors mean additional supply cost. With this arrangement you can do decals, bumper stickers and various other products that will help grow the business.

The final expense is start-up supplies with a budget around $500. You will need a few rolls of cuttable and/or printable vinyl, as well as rolls of transfer tape in both 1- and 2-ft. widths. It can also be a good idea to get a roll of magnetic media for vehicle mag signs. For tools you will need an X-ACTO or similar knife with blades, a couple of gold squeegees, a long ruler and STABILO pencils used to create washable marks.

Add this all together and you come up with around $9,500 if you go for both the cutter and printer. Depending upon what you already have you could reduce that cost down to $8K. YouTube can teach virtually all of the techniques, but you need to practice before you start to sell. Use social media, friends and cold calls to start marketing. Stick with it and find your niche.

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

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Chris and Kathi Morrison own and operate The Image Specialists, a full-service graphics company based in Clements, CA. Chris is also a Microsoft-certified systems engineer. Contact the Morrisons at [email protected].

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