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Small Businesses survival, an excuse for lowering the bar?

I think it is fair to say that most sign businesses are experiencing an increase in business compared to the last 4 to 6 months.

I know talking to a few suppliers, they are also experiencing record sales figures, even allowing for some exaggeration, I think most have probably made budgets easily this last month.  So, now that things are settling down, and workloads are getting back to normal, I wonder if the industry as a whole is any better for it.


 Shane Drew has been involved in the sign industry since 1992. 
 Before that he had a very successful career in sales, winning several Sales Awards before deciding on a career change in his early 30's.
 Shane has been writing freelance articles since 2002 and is a sign industry mentor for sign shops both in Australia and Europe, is a regular contributor to Europe's biggest sign industry forum, and is well known in local circles for his passion about the Australian Sign Industry.
 Shane is Managing Director of Drews Sign It Pty Ltd, a family business who are supporters of several major charities and not-for-profit organisations, donating over $30,000 in signage in 2008 alone.
 A recent highlight is his appointment as a Green Guardian for his support of Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on Queensland's Southern Gold Coast.

We've seen some major players stumble and some unfortunately fall by the wayside, with large numbers of good sign, design and fabricator people losing their jobs. We can only hope these ones have stayed close to the industry.

Most long term small businesses seem to have hung in there. The advantage is probably that they can run very lean in hard times, especially mum and dad businesses like mine.

Interestingly, the 'Small Business Notes' web site says that the belief that small businesses fare poorly in economic slowdowns is a common misconception. It points out that 'most solidly run small businesses actually hold their own during downturns. One reason for this misconception is that entrepreneurial ventures experience a different growth curve than more established businesses'. It goes on to state that small businesses 'see a downturn as a time of opportunity. Not only do they have excellent employee choices, but as other areas of the economy tighten, many larger businesses are outsourcing services that small business can step in to supply. Entrepreneurs, after all, are noted for finding opportunity in the most unlikely places - why not a recession?'
That said, I'm not sure that a lot of businesses are ready to take on more staff just yet.

I've seen more sign and print businesses going toward better automation though, thanks in part to the Government 50% tax incentives. I don't know the figures, but I guess the wide format printer sales would also have benefited from these tax incentives as well. I know the commercial car dealerships were rubbing their hands together too. I went down to look at buying a new work van, based on the incentives available, and I had to literally take a number and wait in line. I'm not sure that car dealers have had that sort of business for a while.

The one disappointing thing I'm sure we've all noticed is the crazy prices some sign shops have been quoting, just to get the work. I wonder do these businesses consider the long term cost, not only to themselves, but to the wider wide format industry. Do they really care? Is lowering the bar really the answer.

Any business owner knows that margins are the necessity of any business that wants to survive and grow. Unfortunately the competitive industry that has become Wide Format Printing is prone to get rich quick oxygen thieves like many other industries.

Entry level machines are easier to afford, software is easier to use and cheap substrates are, well, cheap. The problem is these wannabes put more importance on turnover than they do margins. They end up going nowhere fast. Not to mention the lack of talent some of these new entries into the market display.

As a result we see a lowering of the bar in terms of quality and design. Application is poor, materials are unsuitable for the task, and the industries reputation takes a battering.

As an example, earlier this year I lost a job on a vehicle due to my price. I'm not the cheapest, but I'm not the dearest either. I quoted on using a good quality cast material for a vehicle with some complex curves. I was beaten by a shop using a polymeric material. My argument that the material was not good enough was met with disdain.

Two months later the vehicle is a mess. The vehicle owner now reckons that all vinyl  sign materials are rubbish, and not worth the investment. I was annoyed that the 'other guy' was basically dishonest, but it didn't effect me as much as it does the whole industry.

What is the answer?

Should we see suppliers providing brochures on the 'best use' for their products? Perhaps have authorized “Brand” applicators' that should be insisted on all advertising and vehicles, as well as compulsory training and inductions? Brand advertising or Sponsorship on our uniforms? Advertising rebates from our suppliers? Should we become affiliated with a brand in our promotions?

I don't have the answers, but I do know this. If we don't start raising the bar on the collective quality of work and the quality of materials, we are going to find that the value of our industry will be reduced.

Clearly, if we don't have a long term view of the wide format printing industry, we perhaps should do something else. If we do want to be here for the long haul, then it is in our interest to raise the bar, to constantly improve.

The focus needs to be back on quality not price.

Competition is good. Good competition is better.  

Shane Drew