When most Letterheads embarked on their careers, odds are they primarily focused on creating beautiful, visually captivating pieces of art — not balancing their books or schmoozing would-be clients to win that big job.
The fact remains, however, that a signshop is like any other business, and attracting new clients — and constantly stroking your existing customers — is as critical to your shop’s lifeblood as your skills with a pinstriping brush or a sandblaster.
Several industry veterans have offered suggestions that could give your shop the exposure it needs without a massive outlay of capital, time or sweat.
Make your shop a showplace
Jay Allen is the founder and president of 19-year-old Shawcraft Signs (Machesney Park, IL), which fabricates tradeshow graphics, entry monuments, business identifications and related services. While his current shop boasts a gargantuan 6,500-sq.-ft. space with five, full-time employees, he recalls the days of having been a one-man operation with words of wisdom on how David can outfox Goliath for the job.
"When a shop doesn’t have a large budget, it’s important that the owner devote a lot of attention to intangibles," Allen explains. "It’s essential to invest a lot of time and energy into pitching your services to your clients, and make it clear that you can do what the bigger shop or franchise down the road can perform. Every aspect of your job — right down to the forms you use for invoices and orders — must look as professional as possible."
Allen preached about the vital role promotion and marketing play for signshops in 1996, when he led a seminar called "SPAM" — not in tribute to the canned meat Monty Python’s Flying Circus honored in song, but rather "Self Promotion and Marketing" — at the International Letterheads meet, which Butch "Superfrog" Anton hosted at his shop in Fargo, ND. Most of Allen’s suggestions didn’t involve spending a lot of money, but rather time, timing and imagination.
"One of the best things a shop can do is write a press release and send it to the community newspaper," Allen says. "It doesn’t cost anything more than the paper, postage and the time you spend writing. Newspapers love community-interest stories, and you’re providing a good opportunity for them to provide one. Plus, there will be photos of your work in the hands of thousands of people who could easily be your next clients."
He encourages taking advantage of other low-cost publicity, including entering contests such as ST‘s Commercial Sign Contest, which features entries rated the best by a panel of judges from the industry.
Allen also champions making your office a selling tool. In Shawcraft’s lobby, numerous examples of the company’s handiwork adorn the walls. The shop also manufactures copies of its portfolio on CD for visitors. At $1.25 apiece, they economically present a shop’s work to the public.
Shawcraft also relies on its Website, www.shawcraft.com, to market itself. Allen enlisted the help of Doug Downey, owner of FreshInk Design (Stratford, Ontario, Canada) and a Website designer, to design his site. With eye-popping graphics and easy-to-follow menus and galleries, the site engages the viewer and enhances the shop’s image.
"Clearly, a Website is only a secondary tool — you’re not going to close a sale in cyberspace in this business," Allen says. "It’s an invaluable asset, though — it’s the representation of my shop for the millions surfing the Web."
Allen uniquely promoted Shawcraft — and the entire sign industry — when he hosted the 1997 International Letterheads’ Walldog Rendezvous in Belvidere, IL, a town of 20,000, 10 miles from Rockford. He and 300 fellow Letterheads fabricated 10 murals during the meet, which were later installed throughout town. The event garnered extensive coverage from local and regional media, as well as awards from the Illinois Department of Tourism and the Illinois Arts Council.
"I wasn’t trying to use the work of 300 signmakers for my personal gain, but the event gave my shop ample exposure," he explains. "In general, you can only gain from donating banners, paints or any type of material to a charitable event in your area. The cost of the fabric and your time really pales in comparison to the goodwill you earn from contributing to a cause."
Play to your strengths
Nancy Beaudette, co-owner of Sign-It Signs (Cornwall, Ontario, Canada) with Noella Cotnam, has worked in her shop for 20 years. Her shop began as a two-woman, 100-sq.-ft. operation, and has flourished into a 5,000-sq.-ft., five-woman shop that completes as many as 550 projects annually.
Spurring the shop’s growth has been Beaudette and Cotnam’s understanding of the community and its signage needs. Nestled in the St. Lawrence River Valley, Cornwall’s environs are relatively wide open and rustic, with numerous farms dotting the landscape.
As such, Sign-It staked its roots in producing farm signage: carving and sandblasting wood and urethane to help fabricate an identity for the area’s farms that have operated for several generations.
The shop continues to produce farm signage, but it has diversified to wayfinding signs, 3-D graphics, retail signage and more, shipped throughout the United States and Canada. The shop sped its growth through involvement in local and regional tradeshows, but found that keeping abreast of the local-business pulse was equally important.
"I think every signshop owner should be a member of their local Chamber of Commerce," Beaudette says. "It’s essential to be active with fellow businesspeople, and I made a lot of contacts with companies that ended up becoming our clients and subcontractors."
Approximately three years ago, Nancy played a role in establishing the Cornwall Image Enhancement Team, which developed an identity program for the city. Cornwall — which boasts a population of approximately 50,000 — is undergoing a gradual transition from an industry town to a more tourist-friendly, small-business-oriented area.
In the interest of promoting the town’s image — as well as her shop — she began working with the city council and the Image Enhancement Team to gain approval for the installation of murals throughout downtown. Local officials overwhelmingly approved the proposal, paving the way for the Walldog Jam, held in Cornwall in June (see ST August 2001, page 184, and September 2001, page 40).
Sign-It also opens its doors twice a year to host the Sign-It Caf
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