Profile: Ken Stiffler
By SignCraft Magazine
Posted on Monday, April 25th, 2016
Wooster, Ohio, sits roughly between the larger cities of Akron and Cleveland, about an hour or so from each. It’s in a county that’s home to about 115,000 people—along with Ken Stiffler’s sign shop, Sign Design Wooster. SignCraft asked Ken about his approach to the business and what’s behind its growth on a recent busy afternoon.
When did you open your doors?
Sign Design Wooster
5000 sq. ft.
Seven full-time, three part-time
Mimaki CG-130 plotter
Seal 54 laminator
We opened the shop in 1981. We subscribed to SignCraft about the same time and have been reading it ever since. [Laughing.]
When you opened, you were painting signs.
For the first 12 years we did, then we began making a soft transition into the world of digital. We’ve been upgrading software and hardware ever since! It’s been good, though, and it’s led us to doing a lot more work.
What’s your current mix of work?
Our primary focus these days is vehicles. Last year that made up 62% of our sales. We did almost 400 vehicles in 2015. We’re on track to top that this year, which is great.
It looks like you do quite a few wraps — and that your wrap designs keep the main message out front.
That’s partly from what SignCraft has taught us. I’ve studied that work—done by some of the best in the business—for decades and tried to apply what I’ve learned.
I explain to my customers that I don’t do what I call “Super Bowl wraps.” You know what I mean—the ones with lightning bolts and wild textures and all these effects — but you don’t know what it said after you’ve passed by. They remind me of Super Bowl commercials. They’re cute or funny, but once they’re done you don’t remember the product they were advertising.
I tell customers that if they will let me design it selfishly, the way I think it’s best, I will get their message out there. I will increase their contacts, via phone calls or the web. And if they put out a good product, they will make more money because of this wrap.
Like any sign, a wrap has to be clean and concise. I tell clients, “If you want it muddied up or you want to design it yourself, you might as well take the money and blow it on a weekend. You’ll have more fun and better memories.”
How big is the shop?
We’re right at 5000 sq. ft. and about 3000 feet of that is garage bays and shop. We bought this building nine years ago, right before the economy soured. We went through some very slow times like everyone, but the past two years have been excellent. We’re having another year of unprecedented growth. We’re up 67% over last year.
We’ve actually outgrown it. It has two big bays with 16-ft. doors, and I plan to start adding a third bay shortly. It’s not unusual for us to do six or eight vehicles in a week. It’s not all wraps, of course—some of it is large graphics. But either way it’s hard to handle that volume with just two bays. We need more room.
So the plan is to add another bay and keep rolling along?
It is. I’ve weathered the storms, as so many of us have. Things are positive for us now, and I’m not going to sit back and worry that it may not hold out. I’m going to take it to whatever level it goes to. Right now that means more room and more personnel, and eventually a second printer.
You dream about growing your business and you keep working at it, then you turn around and realize it’s happening. Those slow years make you appreciate what’s happening now even more. It’s made me push harder to get work out of the shop efficiently.
I’m 57 now and I look at the business differently than I did when I was 37. I’m looking forward and thinking, ”What can I grow this into? What will this business be like in 10 years?”
What do you think customers really want? Is it price, turnaround, service?
I think they want a sign that is going to work—one that that will actually return cash to them in the form of business. That’s why it’s got to be good, clean design.
Beyond that, though, it’s a matter of showing up and delivering what you promised when you promised it. We’ve all struggled in those areas from time to time, and we’re fortunate now to have a large enough staff to be able to do that effectively. It can be very hard to manage all that in a one- or two-person shop. It can make for a lot of late nights and weekends.
Customers value that, though.
That’s true. We’ve all had times when we were just too busy to get out to meet with the customer as quickly as we should or to return a call that needed returned.
Missing a job isn’t really just about this one particular sign or one particular truck. You really miss out on the whole relationship with that client over the years ahead. It may add up to dozens of signs and six or eight trucks over the years. Not to mention the referrals they give you if you do a good job for them.
What’s the most frustrating part or challenging part of all this?
I think it’s the result of technology being so available to the customer. It gives them the ability to position type and graphics on the screen, but that doesn’t necessarily result in good, effective design. Unfortunately, that’s not always apparent to them. They can be quite impressed with what they did. But a sign person can take one look at it and know it will not be effective.
You have to tactfully say, “I really appreciate you bringing this in because it gives me an idea of what you’re thinking…” It’s a gentle way to tell them you want to try to grow that idea into something that will give them a return on their investment.
And that’s what a sign is — whether it’s a $400 sign or a $4000 wrap. It’s an investment. If you don’t get a significant return on that money, then we haven’t done our job.
Even if something looks okay on a business card or in a print ad, that doesn’t mean it will look okay on a sign or a truck. I explain to people that I’m in a 2-to-4-second industry. That’s all the time I have to successfully get the message to most viewers.
When I do a sign design, I want to create a hook that will get the viewer’s attention — something appropriate that will keep their eyes on the sign for a few extra seconds so that they get the message.
Like most sign people, I haven’t had any formal training in sign design. Most of us haven’t. I got my education from the people who have taken the time to share their ideas and their work in SignCraft.
Challenges and frustrations aside, the business is still fun, and that’s what matters. That’s easier to say after a few good years, of course. But helping people get good, effective graphics has always been fun for me.