Profile: Keith Smith
Posted on Sunday, January 1st, 2017
Brushworks Signs & Graphics
Shop size: 2200 sq. ft.
Roland VersaCAMM 540B printer/cutter
Graphtec 24-in. cutter
Adobe Creative Cloud software
I grew up around the sign business. My dad was a sign painter and I was around his work. We did signs, banners and billboards together. I learned a lot from him then worked in other sign shops and kept learning.
You have to learn most of the sign business through experience. They don’t teach this in college. I spent some time in college, but they weren’t teaching what I needed to know. Making signs involves a lot of different, practical skills plus knowledge of effective sign design.
Design makes the difference
Sign design is about appeal and distance legibility and effectiveness on very large graphics, which is different than most other graphic design. That doesn’t get covered in school. You learn that by working alongside other sign people, and by trial and error.
Most of my work is real life signs for real life small businesses. I never hear a customer say, “I have an open budget—just do something amazing, no matter what it costs!” Most small businesses have budget limitations and their own ideas about what they want and need. I usually have to work within those boundaries.
When I’m doing a design, I often do a little extra that I know will boost the sign’s appeal. I think of that as advertising, because it almost always gets a great reaction from the customer. That usually leads to more work, either from them or from referrals.
We do a wide range of work—everything from storefronts to promotional signage for the local hockey team. Our customers know that we can do whatever signage they need. We can do their trucks, their windows and their T-shirts.
Surviving the recession
I think that’s helped me make it in business for these 10 years. I feel pretty good about surviving, especially considering that much of that time was during the recession. I went into business about a year and a half when things started sliding.
I was fortunate to have started when I did, because I had started to develop a customer base. When I moved from the shop location to working from home, they followed me.
But the typical sign sale went from like $2000 down to $500. That meant you had to do more jobs and find more customers than you did before. The business got a lot harder, but I made it through it.
I’ve been a one-man shop until just a few months ago when I made some changes. I took on two partners who were actually customers of mine. Our goal is to build the business. They aren’t involved in the day to day operation; they’re co-owners who are successful in their own business. I moved into their building and added some help.
When you work alone it can be hard to manage the workflow. It’s seldom just right and manageable. Either it’s a little slow and you’re trying to line up more work, or you’re overloaded and trying to get everything done on time and keep customers happy. I think it’s good to have staff to help with the production. It frees you up to keep ahead of the workflow.
Focus on design
I think it’s really important to offer well-designed signs. There are always going to be competitors who try to build a business on charging less than anyone else. They can’t afford to spend much time on design, and they use low-quality materials to keep their cost down. Sooner or later it catches up with them, and they don’t get the return business and referrals that you need to survive in the sign business.
We plan to continue being the not-your-normal-run-of-the-mill sign shop that we are. We’d like to get a little bigger and add some capabilities, but plan to remain a design-based sign shop. We like to focus on what we do best. Sooner or later most shops have the same equipment, but design gives you something worth selling.