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Starting a New Sign Business

For those who are considering venturing into a new business in the sign industry, we welcome you to the family. The sign profession is one of the oldest in our country. Signs have been a fundamental element in trade, commerce and industry for centuries.

By Johnny Duncan

There are definite records of advertising executed in stone and on bricks as early as 3000 B.C., so you are entering an industry with a rich history and with unlimited potential. Just looking at the various routes this industry has taken in the last ten years offers hope for new start-ups as well as existing businesses.

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  • Starting a business in any industry requires self-motivation, trade experience, patience, family support, some risk, and a passion and drive to stay the course. To become a business owner in this well-respected industry, we offer four “Be’s” to help you to develop a profitable sign business.

    Be a student
    If you are just entering this field with no prior sign making experience, you may want to consider working as an apprentice for an experienced sign maker. Whether it is in the neon segment, vinyl bus wraps or old fashioned sign painting, there are plenty opportunities for someone who is willing to work hard to learn the trade.

    Many sign professionals are looking for people that they can mentor and teach the proper techniques of their craft. A good source for finding these talented professionals is through some of the sign associations. Contact information will be provided at the end of this article for all of the resources available to help you in your new career.

    You can also get leads to companies that are looking for people who want to learn the trade through sign industry message boards and industry conferences. It is a good idea to begin now subscribing to various trade publications or take advantage of the free magazines online. There are always good articles, tips and advice for any area of the industry that interests you.

    Also, make it a point to study the latest technology and inventions regarding the sign industry at your local library. Becoming familiar with what is new and what is on the horizon will put you far above any other “newbie” and will also impress your future clients or employers. Remember, just because you may have to work for someone else for a while doesn’t mean that you are not in business. You can start now, “You Inc.” You control all of your income and expense, purchases, taxes and every other aspect of a small business even though the business for now is “you.”

    Educating yourself or, You Inc., positions your business for future contacts and contracts. Make your business as valuable as possible with knowledge about every possible aspect of your field of expertise.

    If you haven’t been to school to learn your trade yet, find out how to get in and make the time to do it. Don’t use excuses for not attending. If it were easy, everyone would be going. You will want to get the education necessary to help succeed in your chosen field. While a mentorship program could take the place of a formal education, it is better to get both if you can.

    Be organized
    Many folks with great ambition have failed at a business only because they didn’t take the time to create a plan. A business plan lays out all of your goals for the business. In detail, this includes what you will sell (products and services), who you will sell to (both demographically and geographically), sales goals (up to five or ten years), who will run the business (include partners and corporate information if any), and finally the business’ mission and/or vision statement.

    This tool will help you in seeking funding for the business, if needed, and serve as a guide you can refer to often to keep your business on course. It is not necessary to stick to the plan regardless of what happens, but the plan should serve as a guide that can be changed at anytime to alter your business course toward success.

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    When you're ready to make the leap, you will need to form some type of business entity. You should make an appointment with a qualified accountant, CPA and/or a lawyer in order to determine which type of entity you should form. You could setup your business as a corporation and then elect the Sub-S election as a small corporation. If you have a partner outside of your household that will be venturing out with you, you could elect to be an LLC, but you'll need a partner outside your house that will own at least 20% of the business.

    Then of course you'll need occupational licenses from your local city and county governments. And depending on exactly what you'll be doing, you may need state credentials for some manufacturing and installations if you'll be doing them yourself.

    You can find out these kinds of details from one of the above professionals or from a free service known as SCORE. This service, provided by the Small Business Administration, consists of retired business people from all types of businesses who provide answers to questions for the new business person. Their aim is to help you to succeed in your business. Contact them early in your business start-up phase so that they can help you to avoid costly mistakes.

    You'll hear a lot of different opinions on this topic, but when you're looking for equipment to start your business, remember there are Yugos and there are Lamborghinis out there. If you are serious about business, we suggest you not start with a Yugo as many are tempted to do, and start with a middle of the line choice from a name brand.

    We recommend looking at the Roland, Graphtec, Summa or Gerber Brands that have established parts and support chains around the country. You don’t want to waste money on the Yugo only to find that it is costing you more in the long run with down time, repairs and lost business.

    Finally, make a list of all of the small things that many people forget about when starting a business. You will be refilling the paper towels (buy in bulk), cleaning the office, answering the phone, ordering printing materials and so on. All of this takes time and money that should be factored into your planning stage. Things like ordering office garbage cans and file folders will drive you crazy later if you don’t plan for it now.

    Be ethical
    When beginning a business, the temptation to take shortcuts is great. There exists a hunger to be at a certain level (like the businesses you see all around you), without paying the price for experience.

    Don’t fall into the trap of taking the “easy way.” There are no shortcuts. You have to learn through the development process what your business can provide as well as what you are made of. Cheating customers, stealing business and providing inferior products and services only quickens the path to failure.

    At this point in the business game, your aim should be to learn and grow steadily. The mistakes will come and you will pour blood, sweat and tears into your business before seeing any fruit of your labor. Don’t swerve off of the path of your business plan. Stick to a plan of working with integrity and stay the course. The course is rugged, but the payoff is sweet!

    Be profitable
    Another strong temptation when beginning a new business is to price your services lower than everyone else with the theory being that you will gain much more business and be able to survive with the lower prices. Unfortunately, this strategy only works for established profitable businesses or those with a lot of capital already. Even then, it is risky.

    You are better off pricing according to what the market in your area dictates. This may mean pricing the same or more than a competitor. That’s alright. If the quality is in your products and services, you can compete. Remember, you are the new kid on the block so it will take some time for you to get recognition.

    Your best marketing tool is not your price, but your service. Find ways to out-service your competitors. In this way, your advertising costs are low because your reputation is being spread by word-of-mouth. Your pricing can be competitive because your customers are not coming to you for the price, but for the service.

    Finally, don’t ever be afraid to make a profit. You deserve a profit and it is obviously why you started the business. If not, we can direct you to some good articles on running a non-profit business.

    But since you are in it for the dollars, be careful not to sell yourself short. Keep an eye on your customer demands and place the value of your products and services according to this demand. Sometimes pricing your service below market value runs customers away. A study of the psychology of customers reveals that higher value is placed on services that are priced higher than normal. This is not always the case, but you are better off staying away from under-pricing.

    Good luck in your new venture! Visit often for more information on keeping your business running at peak performance levels.

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