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Start-up Success Stories

Small businesses make up a huge percentage of the privately run businesses in the UK. With this in mind, Brenda Hodgson shines the spotlight on some of our small sign-makers making their mark

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Signco created this unusual fascia for eyelash extension salon and training academy, Devon Lash Dolls

Standing out from the crowd

While small businesses account for the majority of private sector run businesses in the UK, their successes often go unnoticed, overshadowed by the big names that make the most noise. So, I am going to focus here on just three of the many small sign-making companies that have blossomed in the past 12 months.

Focused for success

A landmark year for Hampshire based sign-maker Lavastar was 2017. It saw the company topping the £1m turnover mark for the first time, as well as scooping the Small Sign-maker of The Year award at the British Sign Awards.

“That’s a big deal to a company who only a couple of years ago consisted of one person working from a single printer in their front room,” says director Ed Kelsing with justifiable pride.

The British Sign Awards judges were particularly impressed with the complete solution that Lavastar has developed for building wraps and site hoardings, covering everything from planning, through to graphic design, print and installation. In addition, optimisation of the effectiveness of designs has resulted in some clients seeing enquiries increase by over 500 percent, compared to the volume generated by their previous hoardings.

Lavastar printed this building wrap on framework for Clevedon Hall Hotel in Somerset

Just over three years ago, finding himself spending the majority of his time staring at a computer screen led Kelsing to make a career-changing decision.

“I wanted to make a career for myself that would see me getting out from behind the desk, while still using the skills I’d learned in previous roles,” explains Kelsing. “I had a background in design, marketing and print and, having friends who already worked within the signage industry, I took from them what knowledge and advice I could, and soon after, Lavastar was born.”

The company was officially established in 2015. Now into its fourth year of business, Lavastar has seen consistent and stable growth since the start.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a specific area of the business that has seen growth, as signage on the whole is a very broad service with many cross-overs,” Kelsing continues. “However, one thing we have noticed over the past twelve months is the variation of clients we now have on board. For a business that started out focusing pretty much solely on the property segment, the move we’ve made into other industries outside of property has certainly helped to cement our growth.”

This stunning screw-free hoarding, featuring hidden LED trims and push through illuminated 3D lettering, was created by Lavastar for Godfrey London

Kelsing puts much of the company’s growth down to employing the right members of staff at the right time and encouraging a work environment where staff members want to help each other to get the job done in a timely and quality fashion.

“We feel this merging of job roles and tasks also helps to keep our employees’ work lives fresh, in the sense that they’re not tied to a single repetitive task five days of the week,” he emphasises.

O Factoid: Small businesses accounted for 99.3 percent of all private sector businesses in the UK at the start of 2017 and 99.9 percent were small or medium-sized (SMEs), with SMEs accounting for at least 99.5 percent of the businesses in every main industry sector—Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. O

“Having a background in marketing and ensuring good use of any marketing budget has definitely assisted in the company’s organic growth,” Kelsing elaborates. “And having good staff who care about the quality of work they produce has also played a massive factor.”

Its focus on quality and service has been the key to Lavastar’s success. As Kelsing is quick to point out, the company has never focused on expanding as a business, having the greatest number of staff or buying the most expensive printer on the market.

We’ve learnt that if we focus on customer service and quality output, the growth part takes care of itself

“So, you could say we have no growth pressures,” laughs Kelsing. “We’ve learnt that if we focus on customer service and quality output, the growth part takes care of itself. We strive to make our clients’ experience as simple and painless as possible. (If a client is given reason to look elsewhere, they probably will.) Since the start we’ve stayed true to the values, product and level of service we believe we should be providing to our clients and not sacrificed this level of product or service in order to engage in price wars. This confidence in our own product also rubs off onto our clients and their confidence in the service they know they will receive from us.”

In addition, Lavastar runs a tight ship when it comes to estimating and outgoings to ensure that the company remains profitable as a business.

As for the future, Kelsing comments that, if history is anything to go by, he anticipates continued steady growth. The major focus will continue to be delivery of the best products and service to clients, whilst making the most of any new opportunities that come along.

“Having now worked with a number of big-name clients we’d like to think that the case for working with Lavastar is more compelling than it’s ever been—so fingers crossed for more of the same,” Kelsing concludes.

The power of one    

An apprentice served sign-maker, solo entrepreneur Chris Penney, director of Signco, based in Newton Abbot, Devon, brings his own unique blend of skills to his business.

Having started his apprenticeship in the sign trade 25 years ago, eight years later Penny bought the company he was working for from his employer and grew the business to five employees. However, in 2008, when the financial climate made business more difficult, Penney returned to working by himself, designing, fabricating and installing all his own signs.

Signco, the main letters were made from HDU foam, cut by hand and then painted and gilded in 24 carat gold leaf

“My work is very varied and ranges from vehicle graphics to full wraps, simple shop signs to fully themed restaurants and bar makeovers; also hand painted traditional sign-writing,” describes Penny. “But the themed signs are what I enjoy the most.”

It was precisely this blend of skills and variety of finished effects that caught the judges’ attention and saw Signco win the accolade of the Craftsman award at the British Sign Awards 2017.

One example of Penney’s work is the shop fascia created for eyelash extension salon and training academy, Devon Lash Dolls. This was made from a timber frame, 5mm foam and 10mm foam.

After the framework was made, 5mm foam was heat bent into place and covered with a two-pack car body filler. The letters were cut from 10mm foam, then screwed and stuck together. The same two-pack filler was then used to cover the letters; when dry, the filler is easy to work with to achieve either a smooth or rough finish. The sign and the letters were then given an aged effect with patch panels, bolts and screws. The overall sign was then painted with a two-stage rust paint, which contains actual iron, allowing it to rust naturally.

“The only thing that a computer did on this job was to draw out the template for the letters. Everything else was made by hand,” says Penney.

In the last 12 months, Penney has seen his workload almost double. “The digital print side of things, in particular, is getting a lot busier for me,” comments Penney. “For example, I have just finished St Cuthbert Mayne School in Torquay with internal and external wall wraps. I put my growth down to one thing, and that is word of mouth. I would say 95 percent of my work comes from recommendations from existing clients.”

Signco created this built-up Rusty Bottom Restaurant sign

Expanding on the ethos behind Signco’s success, Penny affirms: “I think my secret is always use quality materials that last, and don’t cut corners. I have signs still in place that have been there 15 years and still look as good today as they did when they were fitted.”

“I love working with my hands—painting, spraying, carving,” enthuses Penney. “Unfortunately, the trade is growing at a great speed and pretty much most young people that come into the trade are missing out on these skills due to the focus on the digital side of things. Most people could become a sign-maker nowadays just by buying a computer, plotter and printer, so I am very grateful I had the training that I had. And I feel my work portrays this. My philosophy for my business is ‘Love what you do’.”

Looking to the next 12 months, Penny says, “My plan this year is simple—keep doing what I’m doing and make signs that get people noticed. I have a few projects coming up in the next few months which should be very challenging but worth the late nights.”

The baby bloomer  

Recent newcomer to the sign industry, Ben Walker, franchise owner at Signs Express, Bristol, who opened the centre just over 12 months ago, demonstrates that sign company owners can come from many walks of life, and that ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ when it comes to creating a successful start-up business.

“I previously worked in the automotive electrical and diagnostics sector, and prior to becoming the owner of Signs Express Bristol, I owned my own Snap-on Tools franchise,” explains Walker. “However, the signs and graphics marketplace really appealed to me because of it being such a creative industry, and it’s so diverse.”

With his previous experience as a franchise owner, Walker stresses the benefits of taking the franchise route: “As part of the Signs Express network, I have the advantage of owning my own local sign company but with the back-up and support of such a well-known brand.”

Ben Walker, franchise owner of Signs Express, Bristol says he has the advantage of owning his own local sign company but with the back-up and support of a well-known brand

Walker officially opened Signs Express, Bristol in October 2017 and spent the months prior to the opening training in the industry and setting up the custom equipped production centre in Avonmouth.

He then assembled an experienced sign-making team and set about marketing the business through networking, proactive digital marketing and creating brand awareness in the local area.

“The Franchise Support Centre helped me to set everything up—from my centre signage and branding, website, to advertising and a marketing plan, so it was all ready to go before I opened the doors,” continues Walker. “I also attended a lot of networking meetings to introduce myself to the local area and within the first few weeks I had a stand at the South West Business Expo—a major local business exhibition in the area, which was a great opportunity to meet prospective customers.”

Over the past year we’ve grown far beyond my expectations and completed some really high-profile work in Bristol, which has made me really proud

Reflecting on his first 12 months in business, Walker observes: “Over the past year we’ve grown far beyond my expectations and completed some really high-profile work in Bristol, which has made me really proud. We’ve seen an increasing popularity in soft signage, wall graphics and wallpaper. In our local area, illuminated shop signage is also very popular at the moment as businesses look to stand out on the high street. I’m looking forward to the continued growth of the business and my team, which has recently expanded to cope with demand. We’ve got very ambitious growth plans and are currently ahead of our business plan, so I am very positive about the future,” he adds.

With the first 12 months now under his belt, Walker’s advice on starting and growing a new business is to make sure you talk to as many people as you can and spread the name of the company.

“Engaging potential customers on social media by sharing your work and giving them ideas is a great way to showcase the vast range of products on offer too. We have found that using our customers to help gain recommendations and referrals has also been very fruitful,” concludes Walker.

These three profiles highlight the fact that big is not always better when it comes to continued success and growth. So let’s celebrate this good news with a big shout out for the ‘little guy’ (or girl!).


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