I am here today with President and co-founder of Shine On Signs and Graphics, Harry Wilson. It’s been a full year since the doors opened and I wanted to take this opportunity to sit down and discuss how that first year has gone. Thank you for taking time today to chat with me.
It’s my pleasure.
We’ll jump right in and not take too much of your time. I hear all the time of young kids creating startup companies in their twenties. You, on the other hand, have had a full career when you decided to mix things up.
What exactly is your business background? You came from corporate America right?
I did. I had the great pleasure of working for Schneider Electric Company for 27 years. Originally I started out as a cost accountant in Peru IN working for Square D Company. Square D was purchased by Schneider Electric. I had the privilege of working in many locations throughout the US and overseas while with Schneider. Most recently I worked for Mikron Industries who specialized in vinyl window systems located here in Kent Washington.
That’s almost thirty years with some pretty large corporations. Have you been able to apply all that knowledge and years of experience into running a small business startup?
Absolutely. Technically my roles were primarily in Finance and IT. However, through the finance positions I was able to gain experience in manufacturing, research and development, quality controls, safety, and HR. Some of things that I learned during those years that I have brought here to Shine On include: 10-year strategic plan/models, 5S program, the production area was set up using lean principles and we review safety procedures based on safe start principles.
Seems like a good foundation to build a growing company. You are just through your first year though. What have you found to be the most difficult aspect of starting your own business?
Business is about people, process and products. In my prior business career all of these were in place. We were continually trying to improve on them. It was taking what was working and sometimes not working and making it better. However with starting a new business none of these were in place. We had to find and develop a team. Create processes where there were no process manuals and in some cases tribal knowledge. We had to learn all about the products from scratch. Everything was brand new. A 100% learning curve with everything.
Luckily, the benefit from being part of the Sign World Team is that there are other Sign Owners that I can lean on for advice and counsel. My mentors and suppliers are great. But at the end of the day, we had to create everything from scratch.
I haven’t started a company from scratch, but I have baked from scratch! That can be quite rewarding. What has been the most rewarding thing for you so far since making the transition to small business?
Seeing happy customers when we deliver or install a sign that shows off their brand. Being able to tangibly create something that is going to be seen by their customers and others hundreds of times a day and knowing that we are helping them fulfill their dreams.
That is must be significantly different than before.
Well at Mikron we would create a vinyl window profile that is shipped to an OEM who makes it into a window, who sells it to Home Depot, and then to a contractor and then finally to a home owner. And I was in a back office function. Very rarely did I witness an end customer experiencing the benefit of their purchase decision.
That must be really exciting to see and experience.
Definitely. Now we get to become emotionally tied to our customer. In one case we helped create a design for a customer based on what they wanted for their business, but also based on some of the experiences that they had earlier in life. The owners were in tears once the sign was installed. They still to this day get positive feedback from their customers about their signs. This is the most rewarding part of our business.
Obviously, not all experiences are like that, and it takes a lot of work to get there. Are there any specific challenges that you didn’t really see or deal with before moving into a small business setting?
[Laughs]. Daily it seems that there are little and big things that we didnt anticipate or deal with before. Setting up our legal structure to dealing with city government for permitting and sign requirements to learning how to read blue prints. Every day is a new challenge.
I think every new company in any industry is going to have its challenges. What made you choose the sign industry?
Back in 2014, I worked with a career coach to determine if I wanted to stay in corporate America or start our own company. After intensive interviews doing what I had been doing for the previous 30 years, I decided that it was time for a new adventure and we should open our own company.
So you just said “Let’s make signs?”
[Laughs]. Not quite. We then worked with Lori Sturn from eAdvantage4u, a Franchise Consultant. Lori has a step by step process on how to evaluate the types of business that would appeal to you. The first step was to understand what we wanted out of the business. Our priorities were foremost quality of life. Meaning a business that is generally Monday to Friday with normal hours. Working as an executive 60-80 hour workweeks, late nights, and long periods of travel are normal. Twenty-seven years of that was enough.
I can see how that gets tiring. [laughs].
Secondly. Business to Business. We wanted to work with businesses that were repeat customers.
Thirdly, of course, we wanted to make a decent living.
And lastly, I wanted to make something. Wanted to be a manufacturing company since that is my entire background and I like being able to create something tangible.
With these priorities, Lori gave us a set of companies to conduct our due diligence on. We fell in love with the Sign World model, especially how willing and helpful the other Sign World Sign Owners are. It kind of felt like a family.
Seems like quite a lengthy, but successful process for you.
In one word, how would you describe your first year in business?
Thrilling. Seeing it all come together including the joys (Happy Customers) and the hiccups (learning curve errors, hijacked web site, staff turnover)
Quite the rollercoaster ride I would imagine.
It’s definitely had it’s ups and downs. [laughs]. But, it’s been thrilling.
What has been your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
There are a few that come to mind. One of our first opportunities was doing some R&D vinyl work for a major airline. The vinyl, ink and laminate that we used for the their project must past rigid FAA fire and burn requirements. We spent weeks developing and testing numerous combinations, with the help of a Sign World supplier. Eventually we found a combination that passed FAA requirements. It was a real learning experience. We continually are working with this customer on unique projects.
The second is with Republic Services rebranding project. We had to remove and reinstall reflective vinyl on 59 full-size garage trucks while not interrupting their schedules. What a great project and a great customer.
Any others come to mind?
We had to design and install a customized lobby sign for Crown Corr with lots of dimensionality. The sign turned out great and were very proud of the creativity that went into making and installing it.
I’m guessing with creativity and R&D projects come plenty of challenges. Have you had any major challenges on projects or specific sign types?
The R&D project I mentioned created lots of challenges. We are now in the middle of trying to find a vinyl material to wrap luggage bags.
Seems you’ve done a variety of sign projects. Is there any type you like to focus on, or would see the company specialize in?
Not really, but we do love vinyl products such as vehicle and fleet graphics.
Where do you see the company going in year 2, and beyond?
Our goal is to continue to grow with our customers. We plan on doubling the business this year and adding more staff. In year four we plan on moving into a larger facility where we can do more vehicle and bus wrap projects. We will also be adding more advanced manufacturing equipment as we grow.
Our specialty is that we can support all the sign needs that our customer has. We want to simplify the process for them so that they only need to come to one Sign Company versus several specialty companies.
I’m sure many businesses will appreciate that, especially with some of those large contracts that have lots of different sign types.
That’s the goal. Being the go-to company for businesses needing signs, and at the end of the day making the customer happy.
So what’s been the biggest challenge, for you personally, in starting Shine On?
Time Management. There is so much to do and so little time. You have to prioritize, delegate and outsource. Hire the right CPA firm, legal firm, IT firm, marketing firm and use their expertise. Finding the right firms is a challenge. But you have to free your time up from these tasks in order to focus on the business.
What about for the company? What’s been Shine On’s biggest challenge?
Growing pains. We have to keep growing and finding the right talent to help us grow. The business is there. We need to continue to deliver quality products on time every time. But we have to have the team in place prior to the growth. This is why we are continually investing in finding new talent for our team. We need the best team possible. Employees that want to help grow together both professionally and personally with the company. We are looking for employees that want to make this their company, not just a place to work.
Hopefully, its not all challenging- has anything been surprisingly easy or simple?
Surprisingly for me, the networking has been easier than what I expected. Im naturally not an outgoing person, introverted. Being in sales Ive had to become more extroverted.
I can image dealing with customers and networking as much as you do really helps with that. I’ve got one final question for you and I’ll let you get back to it. Probably what it most comes down to at the end of the day: Have there been any real rewarding moments for YOU in this first year?
Like I shared earlier when customers come in and have their picture taken with their signs and to see those beautiful smiles! That is the reward.
That’s a great reward. Hopefully, you have more and more smiles heading your way. Thank you for your time Harry, it was a great talking with you today. Good luck in year two.
Thank you, it was my pleasure.
This interview was done January 14, 2016. Stay tuned for my next interview with the woman behind the scenes. The owner and co-founder of Shine On Signs- Nancy Wilson.