Julio Gil came to the sign industry from graphic design. In 2003, he had a small design company and found himself doing more and more designs for signs. After first partnering with someone to handle the sign production, he started learning how to make signs—a move that changed the direction of his work and his business. Listen in on his comments on his business and his approach to marketing the work:
We still see ourselves as a design company that owns a sign company. My roots are in graphic design and that’s what drives our business—even though we do our share of routine informational signs and make signs using designs provided by our customers.
From a design standpoint, it really changes things when you have to actually make the signs that you design. You start to realize that everything you design can’t easily be produced, and you rethink design. We run into that often with the design firms we work with. They say, “This what we want…” but we often have to explain that it may not be practical to produce.
The mix of work
We do a real variety of work, but our sweet spot is digital printing. That makes up about 70% of our volume. Beyond that, we do their business cards and ball caps, and we will paint their huge wall graphics, too. We do a lot of logo designs, and we do a lot of routine instructional and identification signs for the agricultural market.
Our market here is largely agriculturally based. So our customers include very large ag companies who have hundreds of employees as well as local small businesses. We also do logo design for small companies—contractors, restaurants and retail shops. And we do a lot of regulatory and informational signs for the ag industry.
The ag industry often needs a sign to help make sure that something doesn’t happen again or to make sure other things that need done do happen. We produce a lot of these in both Spanish and English so that the company’s workers can work safely and productively.
Website and social media marketing
A lot of our work comes from referrals, and most of the rest comes from our website and social media presence. We focus a lot on both the web and social media. We have YouTube videos out there, and we regularly post on social media. We spend money on that and SEO. Much of our new local work has come from social media.
Referrals are priceless, because they’ve seen your work and you’ve been recommended to them. Social media works really well, because we show them not only the finished work but also what goes into it with videos and photos. We show ourselves at work and also having fun. It helps people connect with you almost as if they know you. This has even helped us recruit staff.
It takes time to do social media effectively for a business. We’ve learned how to do that, and we keep refining our approach. We’re considering offering social media marketing to our clients, because most of them don’t have the time to devote to it or know how to use it well.
In the beginning I was a one-man show, designing and producing everything. Today I oversee a lot of the design work, but I don’t get to do as much as I used to. My job now is mostly handling the sales and marketing. As for business growth you have to let go of some things, and I’ve had to let go of the hands-on part of the design work, even though I really enjoy that.
Laura, my sister-in-law, is our general manager. She was my first employee when she was still in school. After finishing school, she came back because she liked the business.
Bernice runs the front office and talks to clients. She gets jobs started and moves them along. Mark and Derrick do the design and the printing. Alex and Sam handle the production for the shop.
I’m here answering questions all day long, making sales, going out to meet clients, applying graphics or whatever else needs done. There are six of us now but we have had as many as nine. And there’s Blue, the shop dog, too.
Our plan is to keep growing and keep finding new clients. In the sign business, you need a steady flow of new clients in the rotation to keep the work coming in, because most customers aren’t coming back for more signs every week or every month. We’re doing more with the web and online sales, too, for that reason.
The pandemic changed the game
The past year has been a challenge because of the pandemic. California had to shut down almost completely. We weren’t allowed to be working together, so I had to lay everyone off. I came in alone to stay ahead of some projects, doing everything myself.
As we were allowed to reopen, we started doing some senior graduation yard signs that we could market online. Our big clients kept us going, because the ag industry wasn’t affected by the shutdown. We did a lot of COVID-related signs for them and other businesses.
We managed to get enough work to get by. Then three of us ended up getting the virus, so that was a setback. California has gradually opened up, just finally allowing outdoor dining last week.
I think business will be different after the pandemic. Right now our doors are closed to the public. The only way to do business with us is by phone, email or for me to come to your site. I like this because it keeps everyone safe, and it is also weeding out the people who contact you but aren’t really serious about having you do their work. We get more serious clients who want to work with us.
We learned, like so many businesses, that you really can work this way. You can do a lot through email and cut down on travel time and interruptions.
Nobody likes change, and we often only change when we’re forced to. I tell my staff when they push back against doing something differently than we have in the past, that we have to always be changing and adapting, because the world is constantly changing.
It’s great to be a part of SignCraft like this, because I have gotten so many ideas from the work I have seen in it over the years. It’s an inspiration, and I’ve learned a lot from it. I really like Dan Antonelli’s work and his approach to the business. I’ve read his book, Building a Big Small Business Brand, and learned a lot there. He does some amazing work.
I often tell customers that we get paid to create art. It’s art that creates an image for their business and delivers advertising. For me, that’s the best thing about all this—the creative part. I wasn’t the best student in school, but I always was doing art and graphics. This business is right up my alley.
People sometimes ask me about going into business and how to do it. I believe that you just have to roll up your sleeves and go for it. It takes time and work and energy but it’s worth it. Nothing’s going to happen if you don’t make it happen. You have to get in there and do it.
I count my blessings and have no complaints. I’m really grateful to be doing what I’m doing, because I love graphic design. I was raised without a lot of money so that’s not what matters most to me. In high school, I worked in the fields with my parents and saw how our family struggled. I want to make a living doing what I enjoy doing with a group of people who enjoy what they do, too. It’s working and I’m thankful.
–From an interview with Tom McIltrot