Shop size: 600 sq. ft.
Roland GR540 plotter
While many sign business owners got their start doing commercial signs, Dennis Stanworth found his way into his sign business by doing design and production drawings for large electrical sign companies. After 20 years of doing designs and drawings for electrical signs, he opened Stanworth Signs, focusing on a market between large electrical signs and commercial work—storefront signs, dimensional letters, ADA signs, monument signs and channel letters.
He’s using his knowledge of sign fabrication and the help of a variety of wholesalers to serve his customers in the San Francisco Bay area. Just two years into the new shop, here’s what Dennis has to say about making it work.
How it happened:
I got my start in the sign industry back in 1994 working the retail counter at Denco Sales, a local sign supply house. When some of the customers would show me their sign work, I was amazed how they could make simple letters pop off a sign panel. It looked like exciting work.
So I bought CorelDRAW 3 and learned to use it at home. I landed a job as an entrylevel designer with Arrow Sign Company. Over the next decade I worked my way up to lead designer at the largest electrical sign companies in the Bay area. It’s kind of cool, driving around the San Francisco Bay area, to see all the work I’ve had my hand in.
A couple years ago, I found myself out of work. I decided to go into the sign business alone. I passed the state exam and am a licensed C45 electrical sign contractor. I think one of my strongest assets is knowing how large electrical signs are fabricated. Years of producing design and shop drawings for a team of salespeople gave me a great understanding of how signs are fabricated and installed.
The market and the work:
I’m not a typical sign shop. I’m not designing a lot of logos or carving signs or doing wraps all day. I work in an area with many high-end retail establishments, restaurants and entertainment venues. These are usually corporate customers who already have a logo or a good idea of what they want. Usually, my job is more about taking an existing logo and matching the fabrication method with the building architecture and city permit requirements.
To me, design is more about simple clean lines, negative space—as described in Mike Steven’s book, Mastering Layout
—and finding a way to make things pop without over-designing. I love to create something beautiful that shows the client’s logo well. There’s something to be said for clean and simple. There’s a lot of visual competition out there, and a lot of overdone designs.
Service gives a small shop an edge:
One of the reasons this is working for me is that when I get a call from a prospective client, I often drop what I’m doing and go see them the same day. I can produce a scaled drawing and building elevation within 24 hours for them to review and approve. Meanwhile, if they called a larger shop, they’re probably still waiting for the salesman to stop by.
I’ve landed several jobs simply because I showed up. Many customers tell me they had called a few shops but no one else had come. Prompt service matters.
Working from home:
My workspace is my garage, and I have a large office in the house where I do my designs. My cutter is there, too. In the shop, my panel saw and work tables fold up and roll away until I need them. I do all my vinyl work and assembly there.
I have a Roland GR540 plotter, and use CorelDRAW almost exclusively to produce scaled design drawings and permit submittal packages. I also use Roland’s CorelDRAW plug-in to drive my plotter. I often use Adobe Photoshop as well.
Outsourcing and collaborating:
Since I work from my home, I have limited fabrication capabilities. I rely on wholesalers for many aspects of production. I only use Steel Art Co. for my metal and painted acrylic letters. They turn bids around in hours, not days, which is paramount to getting my bids out fast. I use Cal Sign Wholesale in Modesto for my electrical signage. Again, they turn bids out quickly.
A local sign company, Speargrass Signs in Richmond, has a waterjet cutter and Micky cuts all my aluminum and Sintra PVC board background shapes. I use Signs of Our Times, an interior sign wholesaler in Roseville, to produce the ADA tactile signs. Valley Sign in Orting, Washington, does my sandblasted signs. For digital prints, I only use Signs365.com.
I don’t do much flat vinyl sign work. This part of the market is very competitive and that pushes the profit margins down. You can end up working day and night for a small profit margin. On my website, I market myself as a contractor, not a vinyl or vehicle wrap shop. I show layered PVC signs, polished metal letters, channel letters and monument signs.
I believe I compete more with the larger electrical sign companies, which have huge overhead. So usually I come in at a little less and grab a few of the smaller electrical jobs. I can’t do the big electrical signs or install something on a two-story building. But I can do everything else, and there’s plenty of that work.
I also do a lot of base-bid ADA signage for contractors. These aren’t design-oriented projects that you will photograph for your portfolio, but it’s profitable, easy work. I don’t mind pouring over a set of floor plans and programming the building for the required code signs. This work typically leads to bigger jobs and other sign work for the businesses that the contractors work for.
Building the business:
I’m on SignSearch.com, and I pay for additional advertising there. I have a listing in the service directory in Signs of the Times magazine, and I pay for a small amount of Google advertising. I believe this is why I come up at the top of the Google search page when someone in my area searches for a sign company. I built my site with GoDaddy. com, and they offer a service called GetFound, which I signed up for. I believe this has also helped my search ranking. I also ask most customers to leave a review on my Google reviews page, and I have plenty of good reviews there. These help your search ranking as well, plus I can tell prospects to check those reviews.
I’ve contacted all the retail and commercial property management firms in my area. This has led to some good projects.
I do enjoy running my own shop. For the first year, I was still checking the Help Wanted ads from time to time because I wasn’t sure if this would pan out. But I’ve landed some good accounts, and I’m building more relationships. I get a lot of satisfaction from the whole process—sales, design, permits, fabrication and installation. Having it all come together feels good.
Initially I thought I would get a small CNC router to cut my own letters and maybe a boom truck or maybe a tow-behind boom. Now I’m looking at how well things are working for me. I have no equipment payments or maintenance upkeep. I think the industry has changed a lot in the past two decades. More and more wholesalers are available. So for now anyway, I think I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing: quick response time, clean design submittals, and lots of hand holding for the client. I’m enjoying it.