Looking for Trouble: Welcome to the Meat Grinder

Steven Vigeant owns Berkeley Signs, a commercial sign company serving the San Francisco Bay Area since 1985. Visit his Web site at BerkeleySigns.com or contact him at Steve@BerkeleySigns.com.

I received a large down deposit for a great job in a beach town 30 miles away that I should not have taken because I was already overbooked and it was too far away. For a variety of reasons, it took me a year to complete and became a stressful microcosm symbolizing the way things have been going for me over the last year and a half.

Mentioning the subject to anyone would give the listener a vivid snapshot of my recent life. It became a rather not-so-funny joke around the Letterhead doughnut coffee clutch.

“So what are you working on these days?”

“Well, I received a $3,000 deposit for a rush job in the spring six months ago, then I couldn’t get to it all summer. I worked up a dozen or so layouts for it, and the client and I email each other every week or so, but now it has taken so long I started using some of the materials on other jobs. Of course it was my fault in the beginning because I was overwhelmed with other work, and after a while I started feeling really stressed and guilty. There was a selfish element in that I wanted to get it done before Burning Man at the end of the summer but that was not going to happen. In late August, while in the middle of five jobs, I called her and I practically burst into tears when she said not to worry, that I shouldn’t stress, and it was too important to rush, so why don’t we meet after Labor Day to discuss it in person. Well what a relief, she was being so nice about it, and then she didn’t answer her phone for five months after I got back. And then, uh oh! Sure enough in March of the next year, I’m sitting at the computer and there pops up the much anticipated email as if no time had elapsed, ‘Are we going to get going on this, and you still have my deposit right? Oh and if I don’t get this sign done right away I think my husband is really going to get mad!’”

In a sense there was a perfect storm that erupted because the situation evolved just as my partnership with my life partner dissolved. She previously did all of the nuts and bolts organizing and suddenly that was no more. I have always done all of the other sign shop tasks myself, including installation. Suddenly my previous nearly impossible way of doing business became actually impossible with the added workload.

Consequently, I fell into a pattern of doing everything solo that just about did me in. I discovered a cycle that I suppose is common to many types of contracting pursuits. I call it the Meat Grinder. It starts with spending days and even weeks preparing multiple bids, some glorious speculation theories mixed with weak jobs I shouldn’t take. Then some of the cheap ones will happen and waste my time, and there will be many I don’t get, while I’m waiting forever for the profitable projects. I’ll feel like I am doing the right thing by answering every email promptly and making quick call backs as they turn into 30-plus emails, a couple appointments, a few detailed phone calls and even a few texts now and then. And no matter what -- I could be fixing a dog bowl street sign or doing a huge wall dog sign -- the people who are prone to sending out 30-plus emails will find me and the more I encourage them the more they send.

Then eventually while suffering through a few jobs I should have avoided, the good jobs will start to come in a big wave. At this point I’m living on deposits with a tremendous backlog of manufacturing to accomplish with large expenses to match. Subsequently, I’ll have no time for the detail freaks who need constant hand holding and the mistakes will find a way to happen and make it all chronic. Once the big jobs push out the small ones, I am becoming unreliable with everyone and my previous attention to detail erodes and then I have little time to address new leads and the cycle starts over again. Honestly, I am not sure how I’m supposed to plan out the work flow when 20 leads are all taking their sweet time pondering whether they can afford me, and many of them can’t. And then I have the “good problem” of having acquired too much trust and too much work, before everyone starts to wonder what is going wrong. “We thought it would take a while, but we thought he cared and did a great job.”

It seems like maybe that this could have only happened to a guy who seems to be proud of “looking for trouble,” and I am sure that I developed a job description that I deserve for better or worse. Yet there are a number of sales techniques and craft skills that I’ve been evolving that are very difficult to do as a solo contractor. Artistic artisan sign making does not line up very well with the reality of communicating via the internet. And yet the client is starting in the same place they always have since the beginning of time. They hope for some good ideas from a creative person they can trust in order to fulfill their highest goals.

This simplicity used to be much easier to muster when the client would have had to meet us on our own terms in our shops. They used to have to get out of their car and talk to people about signs they like or look for a signature and phone number on them, and then probably walk in with their napkin ideas to the shop they admire. Now, as we know, they email us their design and then feel free to yank our digital chain until we’re crazy.

“I’ll have a double-mocha and a sign package please. And I mean now because I’m special.”