Posted on Friday, March 8th, 2019
There have been a lot of great articles in SignCraft over the years—helpful pointers on design, color, techniques and more. Many veteran sign makers have also shared solutions to the challenges that go along with running a sign business: dealing with customers, marketing and selling their work.
When Greg Preheim passed recently, we went back to read the article that Theresa, his wife, had written 20 years ago on how they ran their business. It’s practical, hard-earned information that is just as valuable today as it was then. This sort of knowledge is gained by trial and error in the day-to-day operation of a sign business. It’s time-tested and proven by the success of the business and its longevity.
Greg had been in the sign business for over 55 years and Theresa had joined him for 32 of those years, working alongside him and helping make the business run smoothly. We hope these tips, in her own words, will help your business do the same. —Editors
At our shop, Greg and I turned out signs for storefronts, small road signs up to 8-by-16-ft., pictorials, graphics and truck lettering. We also specialized in creating murals, which allowed us to capitalize on Greg’s pictorial skills.
Greg and I worked together as a team. I tended to do most of the pricing, designing and computer stuff, and he did most of the pictorial work. Ours was a custom sign shop. We had a computer system and a plotter, but still did a fair amount of work with paint and brushes. Even on our vinyl work, we emphasized layout and design rather than just getting it out the door.
Screen prospects from the first call:
We stayed quite busy and often found ourselves booked a month or two ahead. I found one of the most important things to managing the workflow was screening prospective customers.
I began screening prospects from the first call. If a caller begins their conversation with, “I need a price on a… ” I knew they probably aren’t calling because they knew we did quality work—they’re just looking for a quote. I explained that we didn’t do quotes over the phone.
If it sounded like a small job that would sell for under $100, I went on to politely say that our specialty was custom work and that if they were looking for something quick and inexpensive, they would be better off working with another shop. If they are looking for something of quality, though, we’d be glad to do the job.
No more $100 sign jobs:
Unless it was a loyal or repeat customer, we referred the small jobs away. The two of us could only do so much work, and they took time away from the work we like to do best. The custom work fit our shop better. When I sold a nice $800 job, it would be in and out of the shop in a few days. If I sold eight $100 jobs, they would require more time and probably more aggravation. There would be eight customers to deal with, eight sales processes, eight projects to keep on track.
Add value to build your business:
Our sign work often involved a logo design or a pictorial of some sort. This adds value to the sign, and that’s what sets us apart from our competition. We added for the cost of custom graphics but customers valued that look.
Remember, too, that South Dakota has a considerably lower median income than the national average. Big sign budgets are not very common. I learned what the average business owner in our area would spend on their storefront or their vehicle graphics. Tight budgets taught us to be really creative using practical materials and techniques!
We pushed our mural work, and that can be hard to price. When we first started doing them, I talked it over with others who did murals. I came up with a price-per-square-foot range that depended on the many variables in this type of work: type of surface, complexity of the project, and how much fun the job will be. I added mileage or airfare, food and board, and materials—including the cost of books and other reference material. We set a minimum for anything under 100 square feet.
The mural work was creative and fun. It allowed us to create murals from California to New York—and survive here in South Dakota!
Watch your scheduling:
Murals often require a large block of time, and it’s important to schedule any large sign project carefully. When I put a big job on the schedule, I usually doubled the amount of time we estimated it would take. This left time for problems, should they arise, and also to work in the everyday projects. For smaller, routine custom jobs, I usually told the customer the job would take two to three weeks. I watched the schedule, though, to make sure we’ll have room to get to things in that time-frame without working day and night.
Try a six-hour workday:
We tried not to over-extend ourselves in our work so that we had time for R & R. We planned on a six-hour workday. In a business where you are working physically, mentally and creatively, that’s long enough.
Working long days consistently will fry you. Everything starts to suffer—your work, your family, your health. You need time off to get away from the shop and the work. When we felt the quality of our work is slipping or started finding it hard to be creative, we knew it was time to take some time off.
Learn to say no:
Greg finally learned how to say no when it was necessary. It’s not easy, but to stay in control of your business, you have to say no. If you have a small custom sign shop, you simply can’t say yes to every job that comes in the door.
In our case, we avoided all electrical sign work and turned away small jobs. It’s not that we couldn’t do it, but that it wasn’t what we did best. We referred some work away to those who specialized in that type of work.
If our experience is to be believed, being a little hard to get is a sure way to have your sign business grow. The more we have limited ourselves to the types of work we enjoyed the most—and did the best—the more growth we saw. We also didn’t feel like we’re spread too thin, trying to do all different types of jobs for different types of customers. We were more in control of our business, and that was a good feeling.
Greg’s journey came to an end November 20, 2018, at the age of 73 from lymphoma. He opened Greg Signs in 1963, outside of Irene, South Dakota. Greg failed painting in college, then ironically spent 55 years earning his living painting signs, murals and portraits! He had spent his last few years doing what he loved best—drawing and painting portraits.
I joined him in 1986. In 2001, we started Whimsies, a business that focused on upscale custom signs and artwork, and in 2014 had segued the Greg Signs name into it. I’m still creating custom signs and vehicle graphics, and I have started teaching art workshops as well.