North Billerica, Massachusetts
Posted on Monday, July 2nd, 2018
5000 sq. ft.
3 full-time and 2 part-time
Roland 545 printer/cutter
Roland 640 printer/cutter
Gerber Sabre 408 router
Gerber Edge printer
Dave DeMeo got an early start in the sign business, attending Butera School of Art for sign painting at 18 and doing signs in the basement of his parents’ home. Trucks were lettered in the driveway, weather permitting. He worked in a few area sign shops for five or six years, then went full time into his own sign business.
Twenty-three years later, Sign Effects is a busy full-service sign shop serving Billerica, Massachusetts, and the surrounding communities, which lie just outside of Boston. SignCraft talked with David on a busy afternoon—in the midst of getting a few jobs out the door on time:
The work: I was trained in hand lettering, but learned quickly that the sign business was going in the direction that computers were taking it. I didn’t learn any of that at Butera, so I had to teach myself on the fly. I did the everyday stuff with the help of the computer, but I still did hand lettering, pinstriping and some airbrush work for custom projects. The shop kept growing, and here we are.
Today we do a little bit of everything here, including illuminated signs. I like to be able to do just about anything a customer needs done. Trucks and wraps make up a lot of our work. We have a CNC router for 3D signs and channel letter faces. There are plenty of flat signs, too, along with the routine work that most every shop does.
I also like to experiment and learn new things. I have a tendency to think I can do everything, so I get myself into some interesting projects. I’ve learned a lot that way, and it keeps me enthused about the business.
Managing the workload: When you do a wide variety of work in a small shop, it’s easy for the work to get ahead of you at times. I outsource some of the work, especially when we get too busy to do things ourselves. That’s a big help. If you can find quality vendors to work with, outsourcing really makes a lot of sense. There are some great companies out there who do wholesale work now for sign shops.
Target customer: I guess that would be the person with an unlimited budget who is willing to let me do whatever I think is best! [Laughing.] But that doesn’t happen very often. I would say my target customers are small businesspeople—the contractors, landscapers, plumbers and electricians.
We like to start by doing their logo design. Once the design is done, we can do whatever they want—make the business cards, do their trucks and help them with any other signs that they need. Of course, many of these customers are price conscious, so you have to get good at doing something creative that still works with their budget.
Marketing: We aren’t focused on one particular specialty, so we do what comes to us. Most of our work comes from word-of-mouth—we don’t have a salesperson. I try to do a decent job at a fair price and to treat my customers well. If you can do that, people will tell other people and the work will keep coming in. I don’t know if it’s the best way to market your work, but it works for me. Once a customer has seen your work and got a positive recommendation about you, you don’t have to spend a lot of time selling them.
That’s why you can’t afford to not make good on your promises, like delivery dates. I don’t want someone to tell a friend, “It’s a nice sign, but it took me six months to get it.”
I like to put out a quality product. I don’t want a job to come back—ever. We use highquality materials for everything. I don’t like doing things over, and I expect a sign to last. I’ve got jobs out 20 years that still look decent. Customers like that and they tell their friends.
Paperwork blues: The biggest issue for me is the paperwork and the estimating. It’s hard to stay on top of all that—especially when you’d rather be out in the shop getting the work done. When the shop gets to be this size, there’s a lot of paperwork. You can spend half a day ordering materials and doing estimates.
I like to be making things rather than at my desk, shuffling papers. That stuff wears me down and kills the creativity and the fun.
I do the estimating, design, sales, the CNC work and painting. My bookkeeper, Regina, does the invoicing and bookwork, and Nick handles the vinyl production and some design as well. John does the fabrication and installations, and the part-time people give a hand here and there.
Always learning: In business, you learn a lot of things the hard way. You learn you should have charged more for this sign or those letters. You realize you need certain systems in place or to have certain equipment. You learn the realities of being in business and the costs that go along with it.
Making signs is not a production-line business. Almost every job is custom, if only for the design side. Design isn’t a cookie cutter thing—you want to give them something a little different, and you have to put some thought into that. Even when you get into production, each job is a little different—and sometimes way different!
That’s what I like about the sign business. There’s always something to learn and always creative work to do along with the fabrication. You get to create designs then create the signs themselves. It’s a unique business.