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Sign Business Ideas That Worked (and Didn’t) in 2023

Brain Squad members share this year’s hits and misses.

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MAYBE IT STARTED with a New Year’s resolution last year, or maybe a friendly competitor clued you into a new product or service. Wherever you got the idea, you decided to give it a go this year and… Either it took off, succeeded, made money; or did only so-so, not bad, break even; or landed with a thud, failed miserably, lost money. You never know till you try, and here our Brain Squad relates their wins and losses for 2023.

BOTH THE GOOD AND THE BAD

A Hit: Separate quote line items for fabrication and install. Incorporate visuals into the quotes. A picture is worth a thousand words!

A Flop: Rolling out new initiatives without involving the team in the planning. Slow is smooth; smooth is fast! — Nicole Bergstrom, SmithCraft Signs, Phoenix

Worked well: A new focus on the type of work that we pursue.

Not so much: Being in the weeds above and beyond what we could be doing in the name of customer service.

We’re mainly focused on three specific areas of the sign division of the company:

  • Servicing existing clients.
  • Expanding our scope with existing clients. Bringing them to an understanding of our full capabilities, outside of the existing type of work that we currently perform for them.
  • New opportunities: Expanding our client/project base specifically around digital signage, experiential graphics, wayfinding, specialty lighting and architectural specialties. The range of project types runs the gamut: Mixed-use development, retail, residential, historic renovation, citywide identification and wayfinding programs, corporate, educational, transit and more.

Experienced and qualified staffing is always an issue, especially when it comes to our field team. The company has been built around the ability to service our clients on a fast and effective basis, which requires some very nimble scheduling as issues arise. The challenge lies in how to maintain that agility and commit to longer-term deployments for larger projects. — James Keppel, CLI Services, Denver

Positive: Going after and landing high-end work.

Negative: The smaller wayfinding jobs have turned out to be more work than they’re worth. — Michael Van der Melen, The Media Works, Norwood, ON, Canada

What’s worked for us: Adding a daily morning meeting for our designers, sales and production staff has worked really well. It lasts 10 minutes or less. The designers have to go through all jobs that are in proofing, which has helped our production staff know what’s coming their way soon so they can plan before it becomes urgent. The daily meeting has kept small mistakes from happening.

What we’ve scrapped: Bagels on Mondays! Our carb-conscious staff has stopped eating them! But for some reason the Friday morning donuts are still a hit! Haha. — Sabrina Davis, Port City Signs & Graphics, Wilmington, NC

What’s worked well: Live and work in an area where a near-category-five hurricane hit. Great for business.

What hasn’t: Live and work in an area where a near-category-five hurricane hit. Chaos for business. — Gary Wildner, GW Sign & Paint Co., Cape Coral, FL

EMPLOYEES

  • I was forced to take some time off this year with a cancer diagnosis and have been amazed at what the staff is capable of when I am not available. This has allowed operations to continue mostly normal and give me some much-needed time away. — Chad Lawson, Sign Pro of Skagit Valley, Mount Vernon, WA
  • This is a what hasn’t worked: We cannot find qualified employees who don’t expect to be overpaid. I’m part of groups that discuss this subject and they say be “picky” about the employees you hire. But it seems that nowadays, you don’t have a lot to select from. — Carl Heinlein, Cincinnati Custom Signs, Cincinnati
  • I have successfully traveled for six weeks and only worked remotely for the first time. My people are managing well while I take this trial run at semi-retirement. This will allow me to promote my new project while on the road traveling nearly full time. — Craig Carman, Nice Sign Inc., LaPlace, LA
  • This has been a “what’s worked” for us: hiring a sales person for the first time! We hired him as a referral from someone in a business networking group I am a part of. At first things were rough, and it took him some time to get on his feet in the sign industry, but now that he knows the products better, he is doing very well and has earned enough for us to say we’ve made a profit off the hire.
    We made the hire because we had to! We were stuck in the mud spinning our wheels with our current customer base. No one had time outside of production to do anything involving sales, so no new customers came in, just recurring business. — William Zeininger, Fox Stamp, Sign & Apparel, Menasha, WI
  • Hire slow, fire fast. Haven’t always done it, but this year let someone go within our 90-day trial period. Sure enough, within nine weeks found an ideal, more experienced replacement. — Jeff Thomas, Crossroad Sign Studio, Lynnwood, WA
  • What’s worked for us really well is empowering the team to make decisions and focus on the right people in the right seats! — Karrie Brock, Fastsigns of Toledo and Maumee, OH
  • We have started working with a local recovery facility for finding employees. They are very closely monitored; they are on time and motivated. They deserve an opportunity to be contributing members of society, and experience in the sign industry will help them with a job almost anywhere in the country. — Jasper Burton, Cuerden Sign Co., Conway, AR

TRAINING

  • Put your airline pilot hat on and view your business from 30,000 feet. Are your operations and people all scalable? If not, try to find ways to remove the multiple hats from your A+ people. Use them to train and onboard new staff. Make sure you not only get the right people on the plane, but in the right seats as well. Use the DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness) personality/behavior profile. — Adam Brown, Sign Effectz, Milwaukee
  • Staff training has been an investment and the team is more confident and productive. We have added two new employees in the last year and our training has been mainly internal. Each week we invest a couple of hours for each employee to train on running various equipment such as flatbed, laser, router, cutter, laminator and other equipment. We have had OEM training on some new equipment as well. The goal/benefit is to have everyone cross-trained so everyone can jump on any equipment and be productive. We are not as formal as we could be but we try to invest the time each week for some training.
    We have also used the Alliance Franchise Brands online training offerings (for Image360 franchises) to help with training the staff on design software and sign production basics. — Andrew Akers, Image360 DC-Silver Spring, Kensington, MD
  • This summer we performed an extensive multi-week 5S training program and it was excellent in how it positively affected our company’s processes and staff! — Derek Atchley, Atchley Graphics, Columbus, OH
  • After losing a key sales representative to a competitor, we trained two new sales professionals from outside the industry (how to do it right and be part of the back-of-the-shop team). — Pat Dacy, 3V Signs & Graphics, Torrance, CA

SYSTEMS AND TECHNOLOGY

  • Implemented a scheduling assistant to help keep customer service top notch and projects moving at a consistent pace. — Alexandra Lund, Bismarck Sign Co., Bismarck, ND
  • Creating processes and implementing the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) have done wonders for our organization. — Shaun Ensign, Legacy Sign Group, Westville, IN
  • We have invested in tools to make our production and job management more efficient such as a new computer RIP system, new file server and some equipment upgrades. This has allowed us to complete more work in fewer hours. Upgrading our ONYX RIP system and computer for our two Epson S-Series 64-in. printers have cut the processing time of an average file from several minutes to less than a minute. We added an NAS (Network-Attached Storage) file system with cloud capability so clients can upload large files directly to our network without third party software such as WeTransfer or Dropbox. This unit has also helped us reorganize client files and access them in a fraction of the time. — Ian McLellan, Hill House Graphics, Bristol, RI
  • We established a system for following up on quotes. In previous years it was pretty haphazard. We are seeing an increase of 20% of quotes turning into jobs because of better follow-up. — Ted DeWitt, Signarama-Covina, Covina, CA
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STICKING WITH WHAT WORKS

  • I’ve been staying true to what I like best in signmaking. Finding that niche keeps my interest in learning high and encourages always doing my best work. I’m not interested in wrapping a car as there are some very talented people in the community, but let me work on a dimensional sign any day. As mentioned, keep it fun. — Nancy Wilde, Wilde Signs, Vernon, BC, Canada
  • I like to be fluid enough to find my niche and weed out some of the thankless and boring jobs. Something that has worked well is to really listen to what the customer wants even though I may think differently. It’s important to give options. — Cindy Gillihan, Gilly’s Super Signs, Placerville, CA

A WIN-WIN-WIN

  • This is the first year that we are using a new sign system for our local town hall, which is an historic building and regularly runs social programs through the warm months. We produce their advertising signs for the cost of materials alone (6 ft. of removable laminated vinyl per panel), and reuse the panels many times through the summer. This means that we have a lot of barely used vinyl to be stripped from these panels every time a new event is upcoming. Being removable, and having seen hardly any weather, the films and adhesive are both in excellent condition and easy to remove in full sheets. We have started folding these sheets over onto themselves (adhesive face to adhesive face) creating extremely durable vinyl sheets that we have started using to make tool pouches and bucket organizers. This has solved two problems for the shop: a lot of waste material that would otherwise be tossed, and an upgrade to our tool organization system, while also significantly upgrading the sign system that the town hall has. — Jake Zani, Rule Signs & Graphics, Randolph, VT

PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

  • 3M Di-Noc has [continued to be] a huge success for us (see St, September 2022, page 46). Green walls (artificial landscaping) have also really taken off. — Brandon Williams, Brand Connect dba Triad Signs, Burlington, NC
  • Have done more wraps than usual. — Jeffrey Cross, Cross Signs, Seminole, FL
  • LED faux neon has really been a hit with some of our clients. I’m not sure how long the faux neon will hold up, but it looks great. — John Johnson, A-Plus Signs, Fresno, CA
  • Outsourcing digital printing has been the smartest move we have made in years. No more partial rolls collecting dust or remakes due to printer issues or worker error. Seeing empty waste bins that used to be full of digital printing products warms my heart! — Todd Sallas, Coastal Signs & Graphics, Slocomb, AL
  • Using Matthews Paint adhesion promoter on Chemetal laminates before UV printing on them works like a charm. We were having trouble with UV prints sticking to Chemetal. I took a PPG training course and got familiar with their line of tiebonds and undercoatings. The Matthews adhesion promoter is designed to get paint to stick to hard-to-stick metals so I figured I’d give it a try. Works great and we have been doing it since with good results! — Tyler Rodney, Inter Sign National, Baltimore

FINAL THOUGHTS

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” the old saying goes, but even the Brain Squad members whose new ideas, products or practices didn’t pan out still gained invaluable experience, data and insight. What will you try in 2024?

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a signage and graphics company in the US or Canada, you’re invited to join the Signs of the Times Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute survey each month, you will receive access to some of the industry’s freshest data on sales — including your fellow members’ comments on what’s selling and what isn’t — and can make your voice heard on key issues affecting the sign industry. Sound good? Sign up here.

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