20 years, 20 tips

By Dan Antonelli

Posted on Friday, February 25th, 2022

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In the summer of 1995, I officially registered my business, opened a business checking account, bought some paint and a plotter, and started my company. I still had a “day job” as a graphic designer, but I missed doing what I loved—which at the time was truck lettering and signs. A year or two later, I would quit my day job to work full time.

I remember how many people told me it was a huge mistake. They said this idea I had for working with small businesses on not only their signage needs, but their advertising needs, would never work. Despite being incredibly green and naive about what it takes to run a business, I guess I made it work.

It was also 20 years ago that I was first featured in SignCraft, and thus began a long relationship. I remember how honored and proud I was to have made it into SignCraft.

Today, we have 19 employees, and have outgrown our current space. We are in the process of building a brand new office, and I’m more energized and excited about our future than I ever was.

Over the years, I’ve had many readers ask me questions about my journey. Many have seen how my business has evolved, and how I got here today. There’s been so many lessons learned and mistakes made, I thought it might be interesting to share some of those lessons and tips: 20 years in 20 tips!

Be better tomorrow than you are today.  This is a hard standard to live up to. It takes hard work, and it’s not always even possible. But we continue to try and outdo ourselves with each project we take on.

Never be afraid to hire those who are smarter than you.  You can’t possibly be an expert on all things. Build a team of people who complement your own skill set, and you’ll build a company of giants.

Never be complacent in your success.  With every award we’ve won or accolade we’ve earned, we savor the moment, but know that tomorrow is another day and we need to do better. Always be actively engaged in the future planning of your business.

Don’t let your ego get in the way.  You hate it when clients don’t trust your expertise. Don’t do the same thing to those professionals you hire and employees. Let them do their thing.

It’s a business first, a love affair second.  Early on I made the mistake of thinking that as long I was doing what I loved, that was enough. I thought the love of what I did was a big part of my compensation. After having a family, I learned quickly it was not. I also learned you could be passionate and be compensated fairly.

Follow your passions and become an expert.  I found out early on how passionate I am about it. I knew how critical it would be for our success to become an expert on it. I wrote several books and a lot of articles, and brands have become the backbone of our success.

Your work is part of your marketing expense.  The extra you put into your work is part of your advertising expense. You recoup that investment on the next job. And the next. And the next after that. As the level of the work gets better, it becomes more sought out, and your pricing reflects the demand.

Surround yourself with those you admire.  Build a team of people whom you admire and can grow personally from. Remove from your circle those who attempt to bring you down, or tell you that you can’t do something, or continue to blame their own failures on external circumstances.

95% of something is better than 100% of nothing.  Don’t let the pursuit of total perfection stop the forward progress of your goals. Many people get hung up on having something be absolutely perfect, that the standard is never attained, and thus no forward progress is attained as you wait until you achieve this goal of “perfection.”

Contracts are your best friends.  Be professional at every step of the way, and use contracts for every job. Too many misunderstandings can occur without contracts. Get some written up, to not only protect your interests but also insulate you from liability.

Educate yourself to excel.  It’s important to continue educating yourself on your industry. Read books, attend trade shows and seminars, and soak up as much as you can.

Be as passionate about the success of your clients as you are about your own.  When you take a genuine interest in your client’s success, they notice and appreciate it. While awards and accolades are nice, at the end of the day all that matters is how your work translates into success for your clients. If you truly believe their success is the most important part of your job, you’ll share in their growth, as well.

You can’t do it all yourself.  Realize that’s it very difficult to do it all yourself. Share the load with your employees, vendors and partners.

Become an expert.  I set out to learn as much as I could about small business branding. My credentials and experience have helped. Publish as much content as you can. Share your knowledge with others, and try to educate your customers—not just sell them things.

Think about your business globally, not just locally.  As of today, our revenue is comprised of approximately 20% in state and 80% over the rest of the country and worldwide. If someone had told me 20 years ago we’d be selling brands and wrap designs to clients in the UK, I might have thought they were insane. There’s more business out there than just in your backyard—especially when what you provide is something clients can’t get locally.

Invest in your image and marketing.  It’s likely that over the last 20 years, we’ve invested over $500k worth of time in our own marketing initiatives. We’re focused on improving our marketing, our website and collateral. We continue to invest heavily in content marketing, as well. Make sure you look the part.

Plan for an exit.  At some point, plan for an exit strategy. While you may never execute that exact exit strategy, have one in place. You never know what the future holds. Plan for a day when you may need to leave your business or hand it off to someone else. Design your business so that it can run in your absence; otherwise, it holds little value to another party.

Say you’re sorry or you screwed up.  This applies to both clients and employees. Own up to your mistakes. There’s no school that teaches you how to be a great boss. You’ll make mistakes frequently—but it’s important to learn from them and apply the lessons moving forward.

Always look ahead and around the corner.  We also never rest on our laurels, no matter how smoothly things are running or how busy we are. We’re always planning for what may lie ahead. So many businesses stop their progress and marvel at their success, forgetting that it takes effort to stay on top.

Build a positive culture in the workplace.  Employees, and potential employees, place a high value on company culture. Build an environment that encourages creativity and fosters teamwork. Our work is serious, but we have a good time with each other. It’s more than just a keggorator and Pizza Thursdays that makes it fun to work here. We’re all pursuing excellence, and each person believes deeply in our mission and what we stand for.

This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of SignCraft.

To commemorate our 20th anniversary, we commissioned Greg Reid of Reid Signs [www.reidsigns.com] to fabricate this dimensional sign for our waiting room.

Dan Antonelli owns KickCharge Creative (formerly Graphic D-Signs, Inc.) in Washington, New Jersey. His latest book, Building a Big Small Business Brand, joins his Logo Design for Small Business I and II. He can be reached at dan@kickcharge. com. Dan also offers consulting and business coaching services to sign companies. For more information, visit danantonelli.com. On Instagram: @danantonelli_kickcharge.