Four years ago Alex Liggett bought a basic vinyl cutter and a PC with some basic software and a box of mixed budget vinyl to make stickers and graphics for a race car that he and a friend were building. This is his story.
Today, with the help of a trainee installer I run a busy and fast growing print business from a 950sq foot installation centre. 18 months ago I bought a state of the art Roland print and cut system, laminator and now use top of the range Macs packed with the latest design software and vehicle proofing packages to cater for the design, production and finishing of full and partial wraps, vehicle graphics, retail signage, banners, labels and pretty much anything else a customer could possibly want to promote their business. I had managed to do all of this in my spare time along side a full time career too!
It's been an interesting journey so far. I've been on a number of hands on training courses, become qualified in wrapping and vinyl application skills, watched countless YouTube videos, experimented on my own vehicles, done work for free to hone my skills, met with reps to discuss material properties and compared different manufacturers materials. I've also been to trade shows, demo days and generally tried to speak to as many experts and business owners in the sector as possible to continually improve on what I can offer.
I spend hours every day watching social media to see what other people are doing, engaging with clients and potential customers and generally promoting the amazing work I've created. I've squeezed the most out of every single waking moment I had, every day to create and grow the business that I so proudly own and run today and I've done this along side a full time career (in a totally different sector to anything even closely related to print or signage).
A huge proportion of the amazing advice, tips and techniques that I've been lucky enough to be given along the way have been from people willing to talk to new comers to the industry, YouTubers trying to help people with advice and demos and from already successful business men and women from a range of sectors, all of whom have given their time and advice for FREE and I would like to start to do the same.
There are an enormous number of home print-shops popping up all over the UK designing and creating a range of amazing products from labels and stickers to tee shirts, vehicle graphics and wall art. As print technology becomes more advanced, yet easier to use as well as increasingly affordable, the path to the freedom of making a living from your spare room is easier than ever, but speaking regularly to a number of new "bedroom business" owners one ingredient seems to be regularly forgotten or under estimated.....how much HARD WORK it is!
I've captured thousands of images of my business set up from day one, jobs I've done, notes on materials, pricing, things that have gone wrong, suppliers and business owners who've given great advice and a whole host of other notes from the journey. I'd love to share these with anyone who's interested in whatever format helps the most be it video, in person, email or any combination of media to help new business owners grow their companies and meet their personal goals and targets.
There is enough work in the sector for everyone and no huge secrets to uncover, I just want to share what's worked for me and how I've grown my business into what it is today and repay the kindness that was afforded to me at the start of my journey.
The way I've started and grown my business will be different to some of you as I've had to do it in my spare time and sometimes sacrificed sleep and leisure time to get things done.
I have a young family, my wife and I have an 8 year old daughter and an 18 month old puppy so I've also worked hard to keep the balance between my work and family time (which I've got better at over the last 12 months)
In my full time job I work shifts so often have days free when I'm off, my daughter is at school and my wife is at work so I find plenty of days to run the business as a "9-5" but being used to working night shifts also means that on the occasions when it's needed I don't have a problem running overnight print runs and offering over night vehicle installations.
This serves my clients well, works for me and also means my customers benefit from reduced vehicle down time and a quicker turnaround. For overnight and priority work I also charge a premium so the business benefits well from these jobs too.
The main theory that's kept me going is "short term pain; long term gain" by which I guess I'm saying, yeah it's hard work at the moment and I'm often tired and working very long days, (sometimes 16-20 hours) but it will be worth it in the future when I plan to make the business my full time career.
My long term plan was always to build the business, invest everything that it generated back into equipment, premises and training so that it owed nothing and when I felt ready and able to make the move, take the plunge and leave my career, the business would already be running successfully and generating a decent profit.
As I said earlier, the path I'm taking won't be for everyone. If I hated my day job I'd have left by now and already be running my business full time. Similarly, if I didn't have a young family maybe I'd have taken more of a risk and left already, but this is the way I've done it and it's working for me in my current situation.
That said, a lot of what I want to share is relevant to a whole range of business types in different sectors and different stages of growth, so take from my journey what you want, what you can use and if there is anything you'd like to know in more detail please feel free to contact me and ask. That's the first thing to take form this right there, don't be afraid to ask!
I took a drive up to Manchester to collect my first machine. I had never used one, seen one working or even thought about which one to buy before but I had recently paid what I considered to be too much for a set of small stickers for our race car and I thought this was a much more cost effective plan.
I'd found the package deal for this one on eBay and the seller had great feedback and their business was established and they'd given some advice to me already through a few messages so they seemed like the perfect choice, after all I'd never intended this machine to be for anything other than my own light use.
An hour and a half drive and I was at the shop. For my £700 I was getting a brand new 600mm Liyu vinyl cutter with a used desktop PC pre loaded with some sign cut software and the drivers for the cutter, so it was a "plug and play" solution. It was great. I was so excited. I saw the machine working, had about an hours tutorial and selected a few boxes of vinyl to experiment with along with a few essential tools like squeegees, weeding tools, magnets, cutting mat and a metal rule and I was done.
I loaded up the car and drove home. Everything was set up relatively trouble free. I recreated what I'd been shown in the shop to show my wife exactly what I'd spent my money on and she was semi-impressed, although like with the race car, I think she was humouring me.
My next step was to to set about practicing, learning to use the software through YouTube demos as well as my own trial and error. I had to try and get my head around the limits of the cutter and understand what I could and couldn't do. This machine wasn't a printer, it would cut out shapes, letters and designs from vector files in pre coloured self adhesive vinyls, of which there was an almost never ending range from £1 per metre all the way up to over £80 per metre for wrap vinyl with air release adhesive linings and other features I didn't really then see the benefits of.
I had worked out how to turn simple logos, basic images, shapes and text into vector (.eps) files and also got to grips with creating these files from scratch. Sometimes I'd have the odd wobbly line from transforming the PDF or jpeg into vector but I soon worked out how to smooth curves and replace imperfect lines with the hundreds of design tools the software offered. I had also made use of font matching websites to replace text parts of logos, as these would very rarely transform perfectly and imperfect cut lines would always bother me and result in a far from perfect end result. There is also a really useful website that has a huge range of the most popular and common brands logos available for free in a range of formats including vector so I made regular use of this too.
After a couple of weeks I had sold a few items. There was more time than I'd thought involved in set up, cutting, weeding, applying the application tape and then packaging them up, and I'd also under estimated my postage costs by about £3 per item as well as the cost of my postage tubes, so in reality I'd probably about broken even on my first few sales.
Being passionate about motorsport and knowing how much of a dent in a budget that a race livery can have, I had decided that the main customer base I was looking for was motorsport.
I named the company Racevinyl. Pretty simple really. I created social media profiles and set about targeting club and national racers, emailing series directors to try to get in to produce the mandatory series sponsor logos for them, and also contacted a few better known drivers to offer sponsorship in the form of free livery and stickers in return for on-car branding.
This created results faster than I thought it would. After only a short time I'd got my company name on three cars, one in a club series, one in a national beginner series, and the best was the one on the side of a British Touring Car (BTCC). It had created attention to my website and social media pages and was creating a steady flow of quick turnaround work.
I wasn't deterred with the van vinyls though, as there was clearly a market for the products. I'd received a few orders for items other than basic lettering too, and as I took more orders and used the machine more regularly, my confidence was growing.
One afternoon I received an email through eBay from a lady who ran a fork lift truck hire company in Birmingham. She needed 250 A4 sized stickers of black cut vinyl lettering with their name, email and emergency contact number on.This was my first big order and I set about quoting for the job.
It was a rush order too, so I added a little to the price to reflect the extra work as well as having already adjusted my postage costs for a heavier parcel.
I cut four sample pieces to try and gauge how long the whole job would take me. It took ages! The cheap, unbranded vinyl I had bought in bulk was great for the larger jobs but with such small sized letters and numbers, the Vinyl weeded terribly and took forever. (Weeding by the way is the process of removing the excess vinyl leaving just the letters and then removing the centres of the o's a's 9's etc).
I cut three or four more samples using more pressure on the cutting blade to try to make weeding easier but it really didn't help. The adjustments on the machine stretched as far as basic alignment and cutting pressure which was controlled in grammes, and put more or less force on the computer controlled blade depending on material thickness. In the end the entire job took two days to cut, weed and apply backing paper. It was a day late being delivered and because of this I offered a 20% discount. The customer did come back to me for a repeat order about two months later, but the issues with her first order had encouraged me to explore better quality materials.
I'd found a number of different suppliers, most of whom were some distance from me, so I contacted three of them and ordered a roll of their mid range black, red and white vinyls (the three colours I had been using most of) and started to experiment with them.
The difference was immediately noticeable. The feel and finish of the vinyl and the paper it came on were clearly better.The way the vinyls cut and the ease of weeding were also impressive, and although the vinyl was quite a bit more expensive, it would save so much time and give a more consistent and higher quality end product.
These materials were all mid-range vinyls, and to keep the same stock of these would cost three times as much as the basic material I'd already sourced stock of, but I decided to advertise the cheap vinyl I already had in bulk back on eBay, describing it exactly as it was and sold it (within two hours) to a guy doing the same as me with his spare room, who lived only a few miles from me.
I took it round and discovered he was using it to do large numbers for a job he had numbering up 300 recycling bins. He was very guarded about his business and the type of cutter and system he had and clearly didn't want to discuss it, so I took the money and used it towards re-building my stock of better quality materials.
By the time the new vinyls started to arrive a day later, the eBay orders had started to pile up nicely. I was offering a set sized side panel and rear panel and customers could fill that set size with whatever text or basic logs they wanted in a range of colours at a price that increased with the complexity of the logo and number of colours used.
If a customer wanted something for a particular van I'd ask them to measure the area they wanted to cover and I would size and price the work accordingly. Everything was sent out rolled in postage tubes and I would email over a set of easy to follow installation notes. It was working well. Orders were coming in thick and fast as the eBay recommendations began to grow.
So here I was, "Racevinyl" and a sponsor of a BTCC team, my name in the paddock of another two race series and a stream of eBay sales for basic van vinyls. It was good, I enjoyed the work but as I'd increased my push into a more professional arena alongside larger graphics companies, what I was able to do with the cutter just wasn't comparable to other companies offerings.
In order to remain competitive and still be an option for some customers, I started to offer printed work, wraps and banners which I out sourced to other specialist trade printers. I would get the job, create the artwork, order from the trade supplier - who would either deliver to me so I could install or deliver to my customer in blank packaging with my name on the delivery note - and this got me in with some bigger customers than I'd have managed alone, but it was expensive.
I did this with both motorsport and commercial customers and on the motorsport side it really squeezed my profits, almost to the point where I thought, am I doing this because I love motorsport or because it makes good business sense. Being honest with myself it wasn't the latter and I knew I needed a re think.
In my next article I will talk about how I transformed and re-branded the business from Racevinyl into the Vinyl Guys and outgrew the spare bedroom.
You can read part two of Alex Liggett's journey here.