How to start up a sign writing business

Sign writer working at his busy desk under a lamp

Sign writer working at his busy desk under a lampYou'll need to have good design, IT and practical skills if you want to offer traditional or computer-based sign writing services. Our practical guide will help you start up and run your own sign writing business.

Research your target market

Customers

Many types of business and organisation require sign writing services, for example:

  • retail outlets of all sizes, from corner shops to department stores
  • pubs, restaurants and hotels
  • estate agents wanting a large number of 'for sale' boards
  • other businesses operating from premises to which members of the public have access for example accountants, lawyers, insurance brokers, dentists, garages and so on
  • a diverse range of organisations such as schools, hospitals, leisure centres, universities, churches, tourist attractions and so on
  • businesses that operate a large fleet of vehicles, such as driving schools, taxi firms, haulage companies, bus and coach operators or local delivery firms
  • tradesmen using a vehicle in the course of their work (for example plumbers, electricians or builders)

Think about other users of signs and display material. For example, sports clubs may use perimeter signs at their ground and motor racing teams may want their vehicles customised to display their sponsors' logos.

New businesses in particular may require a range of different sign writing services, including shop-front, vehicle and point-of-sale material.

You may decide that you will need to travel to find sufficient business. This might be the case if you decide to specialise in some way - for example in creating or restoring hand painted pub signs.

Establishing the level of competition

Having thought about your potential customers, you need to find out how well they are already served. A browse on Yell.com (classifications 'Sign makers', 'Sign writers') and other similar online directories will give you a good idea of the strength of local competition. You could also look at local print directories. Look out for branches of national firms and franchises such as Signs Express. Bear in mind that sign making services may be offered by non-specialists, such as printers, reprographic specialists, shopfitters and craft specialists. Depending on how your business operates, you might also face competition from online-only sign makers.

Find out as much as you can about your competitors. You may be able to discover quite a lot about them by looking at their websites and/or advertisements to find out:

  • what products and services they offer
  • whether they offer any specialist services, such as engraving, CNC routing or gold leaf decoration
  • whether they target any particular types of clients
  • whether they belong to any trade associations, for example the British Sign and Graphics Association (BSGA)
  • the impression their advertisement or website gives you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and efficient, good value, traditional, high-tech and so on)

Pay particular attention to businesses that appear to target the same market as you will - these are your key competitors. If possible, try to find out about their prices for key products and services.

Remember that DIY sign making products such as self-adhesive vinyl lettering and ready-made 'off-the-shelf' signs (for example standard safety signs) can potentially undermine demand for your services. You may need to convince your clients of the benefits of using a quality bespoke service such as your own and you may think about offering a range of off-the-shelf items yourself.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Why your business

There are a number of reasons why customers may choose to use your business rather than one of your competitors.

A gap in the market

Your market research might indicate a gap in the market that your sign writing business can fill. For example, perhaps no one in your area is offering sign writing on large vehicles such as horse boxes or motor racing support vehicles, or hand painting of traditional signs for pubs and restaurants.

Perhaps you have identified a more specialised niche that your business can fill. For example, making engraved plaques for professionals such as doctors, accountants or lawyers, or offering artistic sign writing and decorating of canal boats or hauliers' fleets. Maybe you have developed a new technique or a found a new material which you consider to be superior to existing sign making technology for certain applications. You may be the first in your area to adopt a new technology.

The right range of signs

As far as possible, try to match the range of products and services you offer with local demand. This applies whether you decide to specialise in a particular sector of the market or not. You may be asked to make a sign to a customer's own design, or you might be asked to come up with some ideas. Always make certain that you are clear exactly what the customer requires before starting work on a sign.

If you will produce signs for retails outlets, try to be aware of changes in fashion and vary your designs accordingly.

The right price

The price you charge for a sign will depend on a number of things including its size, complexity and the materials used (for example hand painted, cut vinyl, wood or metal). Some customers will be more concerned about getting the perfect sign for their business than paying the lowest price. Smart, eye-catching signs are important tools in creating the right image for any business and many people will be prepared to pay accordingly. However, unless your business is largely unopposed, you'll need to make sure that your prices are competitive.

The right image

Providing a helpful, personal service will go a long way to encouraging people to choose your signs. Having an in-depth knowledge of design and manufacturing techniques and issues such as the legislation and standards that your customers' signs need to comply with will enable you to provide useful advice to potential customers - particularly important as sign writers are often approached to produce a special design. You may also want to familiarise yourself with planning law so you can advise customers on whether they're likely to need planning permission for their signs. Always aim to be friendly, polite and helpful - remember that word of mouth recommendation is very valuable to your business.

Products and services

What sort of signs will you produce

You may decide to offer a broad range of signs in various styles and materials using several different techniques or you might narrow your focus and concentrate on offering a particular service such as producing low cost vinyl lettering and logos. Alternatively you might prefer to target a niche market. This could be because you've spotted a gap in the market, or because you have developed a particular interest or skill. You may be asked to make a number of similar signs by some customers or one-off designs by others.

Sign makers might offer some or all of the following products and services:

  • hand painted sign boards for pubs and restaurants
  • free standing pavement signs for all kinds of business
  • estate agents' sale boards
  • shopfront fascia signs of all types and materials (often illuminated)
  • internal signs for hospitals, schools, colleges and so on
  • safety signs, emergency signs and warning boards
  • menu boards (may be illustrated and illuminated)
  • door plaques
  • banners for fetes, carnivals, shows and other outdoor events
  • vehicle sign writing
  • magnetic signs for vehicles
  • adhesive vinyl lettering and logos
  • artwork for shop window displays, nightclub interiors, tourist attractions or haulage fleets
  • sports signs
  • murals

Signs are used in many different applications. Here are just some examples:

  • for exhibitions and presentations
  • as temporary signage, for example on construction sites or at an event
  • as decorative and architectural features
  • for point of sale displays in retail outlets
  • for general advertising purposes

Design, repairs and restoration work

While many customers will come to you with a clear idea of how their sign should look, others will ask you to design something for them. Basic lettering and banners are available from many sources, but offering a good design service for signs and logos may help you to attract extra customers, especially as your reputation grows.

Repair and restoration of old hand painted signs may be in demand and you might decide to offer this service if you have the necessary skills. While there is unlikely to be enough of this kind of work alone to support your business, it could provide useful extra income.

Sign removal service

You might also offer to remove an old sign that's being replaced or vinyl lettering from a vehicle that's being sold. This may not be as straightforward as it sounds - vinyl lettering, for example, is notoriously difficult to remove so be careful about quoting a price for a job until you have a good idea of how long it will take you.

Bear in mind that if you take away an old sign that you've removed then you'll need to have the appropriate waste carrier registration. This will probably be as a lower tier waste carrier (professional transporter or collector of waste in Scotland) which lasts indefinitely and is free, but if you remove anything that's classed as construction or demolition waste then you'll need to register as an upper tier waster carrier (waste carrier in Scotland) which lasts for three years and costs around £150.

Advertising your business

You will hope to benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations by satisfied customers who pass on your details to their business associates, friends and family. As well as word-of-mouth recommendation, there are various other ways in which you can promote your business and establish a sound customer base. For example you could:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • advertise nationally, for example in trade journals. This might be a particularly good strategy if you intend to specialise in supplying signs to a particular industry, such as the licensed trade
  • launch your own website or blog, containing details of your services and including examples of your work and testimonials from satisfied customers
  • have leaflets and cards printed - you could distribute these to local businesses and leave several with related businesses such as shopfitters, painters and decorators and builders
  • take a stall at a trade fair
  • use social media like Facebook and Twitter

The International Sign Association operates a suppliers' directory that allows prospective clients to search for a supplier based on the type of sign they require.

Make sure that your own business signs are excellent examples of your work. If you have premises, make sure that all exterior and interior signs are smart and in good condition. Your own vehicles provide an excellent opportunity to advertise your services whether you actually offer vehicle writing or not. Think about producing portable signs that you could put up temporarily at premises where you are working (with the owner's permission).

Try to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from its competitors.

Franchise

When starting up a sign writing business, you may decide that you would benefit from being associated with a well known established brand. There are several sign making franchises available that can allow you to achieve this.

Franchises range in size from large national organisations like Signs Express to small regional and local operations. Although different franchises vary in their detail, most feature the following key points:

  • as a franchise holder, you will remain self-employed but will use the identity (corporate colours, logos, trade name and so on) of the franchisor
  • in return, you will pay the franchisor a fee; this might be a one-off investment or a monthly charge, or a combination of both
  • both you and your franchisor will have to fulfil certain obligations; the franchisor might, for example, agree to allocate you an exclusive territory, while you might agree to maintain your outlet to a particular standard

Many franchisors will provide you with training if you need it, as well as advice and support on a range of business and technical matters.

Details of the above points are set out in the franchise agreement or contract, which both you and your franchisor will sign. The agreement will also deal with other matters, for example the minimum period for which the franchise will run.

Before entering into a franchise agreement, it is advisable to compare the terms of different franchisors to be sure that you are getting a good deal. Go through the contract with your solicitor before signing anything.

Price your services

Getting the price right is very important. Make sure that the amount you charge for each job is enough to cover the cost of the raw materials used to create a sign, your operating costs (including wages) and your own drawings. When setting your prices take into account:

  • the quantity and quality of materials used and their cost
  • the time taken to make the sign, including any time you spend on the initial design
  • an element to cover your profit

The sign making sector is very competitive and you are likely to have to price broadly in line with your immediate competitors unless you are targeting a niche market that's served by fewer business.

You may decide to work out standard and package prices for certain types of sign. In some cases, you may be able to work out a standard price per square metre.

Also consider how you will cost any other services you provide (for example repairs, restoration and installation work), how often you will review your prices and whether you will offer discounts or special offers and so on.

Special offers and discounts

You may decide to offer a discount on large orders - how much discount will depend on your pricing policy and the level of local competition. Perhaps you could offer a free pavement sign if supplying a large shop front fascia sign. You might be prepared to offer customers a discount if they commission you to design several signs at a time.

Check out the opposition for ideas and keep a close eye on any special offers you do make to be sure that they are working for you. Remember that although discounts may encourage extra business, they will also reduce the amount of profit you make.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing sign writing business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • the premises, business equipment, tools and machinery are already in place
  • there are established customers
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers of paint, vinyl sheet and other materials have been identified and relationships established with them
  • relationships with specialist sign installers have been established, depending on the types of sign that the business specialises in
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • staff are already in place
  • a business website has already been set up

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up.

Your market research into the sector as a whole and the locality in particular will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because they can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, machinery, tools and equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing, updating or replacing assets
  • the condition and value of any stock of materials that you are buying (for example vinyl or perspex sheets, wood, paint, ink and so on). Check this over carefully before agreeing a price
  • is the existing owner prepared to give you some training after you take over
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller. Are you sure that your particular sign writing/making skills match those of the previous owner - if not, existing customers are likely to go elsewhere

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

Franchises

Franchising can be a good 'halfway house' between starting out from scratch and buying an existing business. If you decide to operate as a franchisee of one of the large sign writing companies such as Signs Express, you'll still be setting up your own business, but you should benefit from the experience, resources, training, centralised buying from suppliers across a range of brands and the name of a business that is already successful. The franchiseinfo and British Franchise Association websites have further guidance to help you decide whether franchising is the right option for you.

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