Expand Your Shop?

Sure. Even better – take the hill by plotting a future course, expanding your digital printing and growing your profits.
Photo by Darek Johnson

The June issue of Forbes magazine featured an article titled “America: A Growth Industry” that included charts showing that Fortune 500 companies’ revenues had grown faster than the US gross domestic product. The text said, “The breakneck growth of tech companies such as Apple and Amazon.com helps explain the acceleration. So does globalization: America’s largest companies were simply better positioned than mom-and-pops to expand their businesses abroad.”

“Mom-and-pop?” I looked it up. Businessdictionary.com cheerlessly said a mom-and-pop is “a small, independent, usually family-owned, controlled and operated business that has a minimum amount of employees, has only a small amount of business volume, and is typically not franchised, therefore open for business only in a single location.” Investopedia.com said Internet sales have caused a swell in mom-and-pop businesses because they don’t incur the brick-and-mortar overhead costs. Many sign companies are mom-and-pop shops or close cousins to that genus, and many sell signs online. Still, they’re not flying as high as the Fortune 500 firms. So, what do Fortune 500 companies have that mom-and-pops don’t? Money. Lots of money. And consultants. Fortune 500 payrolls include hundreds of clever people – consultants, analysts, advisors and others – who carry out research, produce data, study trends and guide future courses.

Odds are, you can’t afford consultants or extensive research, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck because, truthfully, if you’re a small-business person, you’re smarter than the average bear and can do your own research. As usual, my recommendation is to keep it simple, record most of your notes on copy-machine paper and enjoy creating a plan for your company – one that puts you on a continuing profit course. Your first project is market research. What new business is available? Next, we’ll look at how to afford it, how to decide what to buy and then how to buy it. However, before starting any idealistic projects, you need to determine if you have the money.

No. Wait. Your first project is to install a planning board – a simple, large, whiteboard that you can write on with erasable markers, plus attach Post-it notes, tape cut-out magazine articles and your copy-machine paper notes. This board allows you to rearrange plans, ideas, concepts and concerns. For example, when you see an interesting case study presented in a magazine, cut it out and tape it to your planning board and then scribble any related thoughts on Post-it notes and affix them nearby. Add other related items as you see them – media, tools, inks and digital print ads. The big corporations hire researchers to create a literary review of their subject interest so they can study what is happening in the field. This is your version.

A prime example is to cut out the ST “State of the Industry” from the July issue and tape it to your idea board. The composer of this survey, Mark Kissling, ST’s managing editor, has noted that 86% of the 180 survey respondents sell banners; 85% sell window graphics; 76.7% sell vehicle graphics; and 56.6% sell floor graphics – all of which can be produced with a digital printer. You’re selling all these type of digital prints, right? Sure. However, humor me further and turn to page 40 of the September issue to see a case study showing a 1949 Kaiser Vagabond wrapped with digitally printed graphics. The graphic was applied by Surf City Graphics in Huntington Beach, CA. Most importantly, the wrap job came to Surf City through Mackey’s Hot Rods, also of Huntington Beach.

You’re talking to local hotrod shops for wrap work, right? And body shops? On your whiteboard, next to Mark’s “State of the Industry” wrap data, tape a copy of the Surf City case study, to remind you of such prospective clients. Make a note to continue to think of cars, but not in a conventional sense. For example, Dan Porter, owner of Magnagrafik (Cincinnati), specializes in graphic designs for sports and racing cars. I telephoned Dan and asked about his market. He said he ships digitally printed, contour cut, magnetic graphics – removable racing stripes, Porsche logos and personalized trim – to Porsche and sports car owners worldwide. He also wraps race cars.

Also, use your whiteboard markers to draw lines and boxes that link or combine ideas. In no time, you’ll have an accumulation of case studies (with additional ideas and notes) that your shop can match or outdo. Next, outline the plan in steps, research the ads and information for validity, talk to manufacturers and others who might do the same work (out of state calls are more readily accepted), review your shop economics and begin implementation.


Photo by Darek Johnson
Photo by Darek Johnson

Whether you’re adding to your stable or first venturing into digital printing, you must plan a route – there are many options, so choosing isn’t easy. However, once you walk through the elimination process that starts by cutting and taping digital print machine ads to your whiteboard, your options will narrow. Tape your favorite case studies near the machine ads that you believe match your needs list.

First determine your needs, said Rob Tonetti, owner of Cincinnati’s Speed Pro Imaging. I met Rob at the grand opening of Graphics Solutions Group (GSG) sign supply company in northern Cincinnati. Denver-based Speed Pro Imaging’s 140 franchises offer signs, graphics, tradeshow displays, window graphics, vehicle wraps, murals and, get this, elevator door wraps. Did you think of that?

I asked Rob what he thinks about before buying a new print machine. His background is in corporate finance, marketing and corporate sales, so he didn’t hesitate. “It depends on your business and what you want to print,” he said. Then he listed critical decision properties: print speed, print quality and lamination requirements. He added, “We’re fortunate because, as a franchise, we receive advice from the corporate tech department and we also talk to other franchisors who own the equipment that interests us.”


In February I wrote about buying digital print machines and listed three consternations: buying the wrong machine, an unrealistic view of costs and its effect on cash flow, and an overzealous view of your market. There, I recommended that you:

Conduct market research to determine what type of digitally-printed signs or print products are in demand that your shop could produce and sell, which will narrow down your machine choices. In this process, ensure that your chosen market is willing to pay the prices you need to profit. Also, check to see if nearby shops are producing similar print products, or are planning to produce such products.

Conduct preliminary web or tradeshow research and pick three print machines that might do the job you have in mind. Also, study any ancillary products these print machines can produce – that you haven’t contemplated – and determine if your shop could also produce and sell these products. An example is a printer that makes signs, banners and posters, but will also print-and-cut product labels you could sell to local manufacturing plants.

Research the print machine makers to ensure they’re well-known in the sign industry. Ensure that they offer online training, tutorials and post-purchase marketing advice. Avoid web chat rooms because they’re too often dominated by self-styled “experts” who offer flawed opinions and advice. Instead, ask the machine manufacturers to provide you with contact information for their buyers, so you can personally talk to machine owners.

Visit tradeshows, manufacturer’s display sites or suppliers to see and operate applicable print machines in action. Take your own image files (in a .pdf format, with photos and text) on a thumb drive and ask the print-machine demonstrator to help you process the file. Insist that they coach you as you operate the print machine. Do not just stand and watch.

My final and constant advice is that you project your shop’s cash flow over the next 12 months, without including the new machine costs and that possible income, so you have a monthly cash flow figure to measure against your new operating costs incurred by the new printer. Compare the costs the new machine will create – installation, training, materials, software – and form a forecast chart that reveals the machine’s cash flow integrated with the present cash flow, especially over the first few months, the period when the machine expenses will be higher than the machine’s earned income. Now, ask yourself if your present cash flow can handle the additional expenses until the machine produces the expected additional income.

Do this by estimating the sales you expect to gain with the new printer when it reaches its peak and, typically, subtract the salary and materials (media, ink and cleaning materials) and overhead costs that reduce that sales figure. Estimate a break-even point, write it on your whiteboard, and track and record your machine- plan progress weekly. Noted on the whiteboard, these final steps will remind you of your successful plans and reveal any complications within days of their occurrence.

Photo by Darek Johnson
Photo by Darek Johson


Signs of the Times October 2018

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