In The Trenches: Crow's Feet

Back on Sunday, May 9, of this year, my family and I recognized a somewhat significant occasion. That is we “celebrated” my 50th birthday. The following day, Monday, the shop crew made sure I was not forgotten. They announced this date by way of Coroplast signs scattered up and down the highway, plus chocolate cake and black balloons.

I personally would not have made much of a fuss over that date, after all a birthday is just a birthday, and how in the world could I be fifty anyway? That’s not possible, is it?

Someone once said that old age is the most unexpected event in life, and I believe it. Time just flies too fast to keep up with it. Not that I’m old, or even feel old; after all I’m really just middle aged... well, if I intend to live to be 100, anyway. And, I sure don’t look fifty, right?

Yeah, yeah, the lips can lie, but the eyes tell the truth, my eyes especially. I would call the lines around my eyes “crow’s feet”, but I don’t think birds have that many toes! And, though I still have all my hair (a quirk of genetics, since most of the senior men in my family have little), there is getting to be more and more gray in it. So, I might as well face it, I’m half a century old, no two ways about it.

A few weeks after my birthday, Sharon and I marked the occasion of our 30th anniversary. These days, living to be fifty isn’t much of an accomplishment, but being married for 30 years gets to be more of one all the time. So this year is already significant because of the milestones that have been reached.

Fifty years of living, thirty years of marriage...and thirty years of being in business. In the sign business. Now that last one is hard to believe, too. Yes, very hard to believe, indeed.

Now, when you are forced to realize just how much time has passed, and recognize that what is in the past is gone forever and exists only to be learned from, some reflection seems to be in order. What would I do different if I could do it all over again?
In my personal life? Too many things to mention, but a lot of things I would keep the same, too.

In business? Well, of course if I could do it all over again, I would have saved a few thousand dollars, invested it all in Microsoft back in 1980, and retired about fifteen years later. But, since that can’t be done, and such a suggestion is of no value to my readers, just what insights gained from experience can I share with those who have fewer years behind them and more years ahead?
I think the answer to that question may be found in one word: focus. Focus and analyze, and focus again.

This may seem like so much double-talk, but it’s not meant to be. I believe it would be wise, soon after determining to be in the sign business, to also determine what type or types of work you should really concentrate on, and embrace the fact that this means eliminating many other types of work that might also be done. The commercial sign business is so diverse, and there are so many skills to master, so many techniques to learn, and products that could be offered to clients, that it is almost an unavoidable trap to be pulled into too many areas at once.

While this might seem fascinating and certainly would not be boring, having one’s energies divided and diverted in many directions is usually very inefficient and problematic. Specializing or focusing one’s talent, marketing, and business strategy will always produce much better results, and very likely, much better profits.

I know now that even though I enjoy most all aspects of commercial sign work, what I should have focused on are the types of work I can successfully train other people to do. Unless one expects to do all the work himself or herself, it must be a realistic possibility to train others to take over the work load.

So here are the four main questions I now see must be answered to determine how to succeed in this business:

1. What forms of work do I enjoy doing and really like being involved in? (Still first.)
2. What forms of work can I successfully train others to do? (A very close second.)
3. What forms of work can I actually make money doing? (Best and consistent profit margins, least amounts of wasted time, reasonable liability risk, etc.)
4. And, by process of elimination, what types of work am I not going to pursue. (Unpleasant decision, important decision.)

Once those questions are answered, it’s time to focus, focus, focus. With no delay, and only taking time to reevaluate to improve the strategy. After more than thirty years in the sign business, these few words are the essence of what my advice to someone younger would be.

Don’t try to do it all, specialize. Decide on a course and stay on it, regardless of the fact that your customers will do all they can to pull you in one hundred directions.
Oh, one other thing. Buy the building you work in. It just doesn’t make sense not to if you’re going to be in business for a while. When you outgrow it, buy another one and lease the first. This is perhaps the best IRA account the self employed sign maker can contribute to. I learned that lesson late, but I finally learned it.
Okay, okay, I said I’d keep it short, so I’ll shut up. That’s all for now from this old Texas sign maker. I hope you have a really good month, and a great year (which will seem like a month to me).

’Til next time,
— Rick