This is Alex Liggett’s personal journey through the printing industry and how he turned what was a spare room hobby into a thriving print business.
Part two - the re brand
During 2015 budgets in the motorsport sector were becoming tighter than ever, and I very quickly realised that there wasn't going to be such great profit to be had from all the motorsport sticker work I had been doing. This necessitated a considerable re think because what I thought was going to be the main bulk of my businesses income obviously wasn't going to happen.
What was encouraging though was all the work I had put into eBay, offering van lettering applications, had really started to take off. Sales were booming and I'd even started to offer an installation service for customers local to me, and it was from here that I realised that there were excellent margins to be made from offering my services to small commercial service providers.
The name Racevinyl was also of no use to me anymore as it really didn't convey what I was doing with the commercial vehicle work, and I needed something memorable, that described what I was doing and presented a professional impression.
Often when I'd arrive to wrap or apply graphics to race cars, I'd go to the team manager and explain who I was, and they would then shout over to one of the mechanics and say: "The Vinyl guy's here - show him the car.” The same had been true when arriving to work on vans, I was becoming known as "The guy with the van vinyls" or "The eBay vinyl guy" and so I decided I would re brand and call the business as The Vinyl Guys.
I liked it. It worked for all sectors, and there was nothing specific or confusing about it. The "s" in Guys rather than just Guy also gave a feeling of scale like there was more than just me doing everything.
I launched the new name with a new logo, website, twitter and Facebook as well as with a new (free phone) 0800 number with an answer service for when I couldn't get to the calls myself.The idea of all of this was to create the feel of a bigger company, having a person answer the phone with a script written by me and speaking to potential customers was far better than just voicemail, and the the new website and social media accounts allowed me to share my work and promote it to others using targeted adverts.
I had a new plan too. I now wanted to eliminate my printed vinyl outsourcing.To do this I needed to spend around £25,000 on a wide format print and cut machine, laminator, software and computer equipment as well as around £6-8,000 per year on premises because it wouldn't all fit in my spare bedroom.
My plan was the following;
- continue with the outsourcing to secure new work
- save every penny that the business made to invest back in the form of the equipment I needed
- develop my material knowledge and supplier relationships to drive down the material costs and put trade accounts in place to regulate spending
- explore the range of print and cut systems available, costs etc. to price exactly what I needed
I had by now outgrown the spare room. I was using the garage as a stock room, the dining table often became a work area and on one job I remember, a set of large panels for a pit garage wall, each one 8ft by 4ft all of which fitted side by side to create a single image. I ended up using the kitchen and patio to lay out the job before applying the prints to the boards. This had to stop!
I'd been attending shows and visiting suppliers further afield and had secured three reliable ones with whom I'd agreed a pricing structure to give me a sliding scale of discounted materials, depending on quantity purchased. I'd also started to narrow down the machines I wanted that I thought would suit my needs.
I kept the motorsport contacts I'd made and continued to sponsor a BTCC driver and offer discounted prices to other club racers with good social media followings in exchange for some Facebook and twitter mentions and my logo on their cars.This lead to other motorsport work as well as introductions to other sponsors, many of whom I discovered ran commercial fleets through their own businesses.
As I shared more images and videos of work I'd completed, I got more enquiries and orders, and by the beginning of 2016 I had worked on small graphics for DIY fitting, installed full wraps on cars, vans, trucks and curtain side trailers. I'd also found a really big market for banners and building signage.
Another easy and obvious up-sell were leaflets and business cards. Customers having their vehicle re branded would often be interested in these to match their vehicles new look. I found a reliable supplier of these, I would do the artwork and once approved I could turn around short runs in a day.
Early van lettering work
In March 2016 I'd finally used all the space up that I could at home. Much to the delight of my wife, it was time to find some work space. The business was regularly making enough to afford the move and it would mean increased production capacity, the ability to have a more professional workflow and if I could find the right space I was also looking for an installation area so I could have vehicles in-doors to install graphics and wraps.
After a lot of searching I found a perfect office space and roller shuttered unit not far from home. It was ideally situated only a couple of miles from one of my main customers, a commercial vehicle sales and leasing specialist who was regularly putting work my way. I set about moving my cutter, desk and computer equipment in along with the stock I had.The space totalled 950sq ft and it dwarfed my little desk and cutting set up.
I'd built this from nothing though and one thing I'd developed was a vision for how I wanted it to look. Not just the books or how I wanted the business to be seen by others, but literally how I wanted the set up to look; the production ‘hub’ and how the work would flow; where everything would be stored; where I'd sit; or stand to apply the graphics. I could see it all. I just needed to work harder now to get there.
The space allowed me to produce and finish the bigger truck, trailer and building signage work so much faster and in a much more organised manner - saving time and money. It also allowed me to do more than a couple of jobs at once too, and as the orders for vehicle installations kept flowing I had started to spend even more every month in outsourced print. I NEEDED my own printer. It would be the one thing that would all of a sudden create a huge increase in profit with out any extra work or customers needed.
I had my heart set on either a Roland or Mimaki print and cut system. I'd emailed and called around a number of suppliers to see if there were any ex-demo deals and to see what I could get them to do on price. Apart from our house and cars this was going to be the biggest purchase I'd ever made.
I had considered lease and finance options but as the business wasn't my main job (yet). I decided that rather than commit to a monthly outgoing for a number of years I would be patient, wait and save everything the business had made to own one outright. This was only possible because we weren't relying on the income of the business to live. I hoped this would give me a little more buying power too though, and enable me to be a little cheekier when putting a deal together.
I had been for demo days at a number of different suppliers to see both machines in operation and I'd by now discounted the idea of a used machine.They seemed to hold their value very well and so the difference wasn't huge and also, being totally new to using these machines, the main thing I wanted was the support and backup that came with a new machine as well as a long and trustworthy warranty.
I had booked to attend a trade show at the NEC as this would be a great place to get an amazing deal on a machine. It would be a chance to see the machines side by side and speak to the manufacturers, suppliers and also users to see what would be the best value for me.
After a lot of walking between the Roland and Mimaki stands and between two re-sellers as well as talking to three very helpful business owners, I'd made my decision. It was Roland for me.
Their support network, training academy and warranty were amazing. I'd had recommendations for both but Roland seemed to reflect my passion for what I was trying to achieve. Their team were so helpful and the quality of the output and software were brilliant.
I'd also found my supplier. We had discussed ongoing material and ink pricing deals too as I was paying for the machine outright, and on their stand they had a brand new machine that had done a few hours demo printing.They went and agreed with Roland that they could sell it to me as new with a full warranty, so it was a done deal. I now owned a wide format Roland inkjet printer.
We agreed delivery, installation and training and I was so excited! I spent the rest of the show listening to the suppliers material advice and also speaking to Roland's recommended material supplier about their range and pricing. By now I'd developed a good knowledge of materials and about what I'd be using most of.
I no longer traded on eBay and I'd ventured far from the budget end of the materials range.
I had positioned the business as selling not only a product but a full service.
I would now meet with customers in person, when possible, and discuss their needs. I could show them the materials and talk about the differences between the cheaper, mid range and top end vinyls and wraps and with them, decide which best suited their project.
I'd do the same with the design process. I wouldn't say to them, for this price you can have this many re designs or this is the design for this much and this one for this much, it would be more of a process than that. This more personal service meant that I wasn't just giving a price and a final product, I was giving advice, listening to a customer’s needs and explaining my prices and this had lead to an overall increase in the average customer spend. I was providing a solution.
By the time the printer arrived I was more than ready for it.The week before it was delivered I'd spent almost £1,000 in outsourced vinyl printing. With the machine this would have cost me around £200 (max) in ink, material and time, so you can see the immediate profit increase that the machine would generate.
My new print studio
The installation day was filled with training and me making notes in the hope that I could get straight to work with it. I'd got jobs waiting and although I still had the trusty old cutter, this machine would replace that as it would print and cut, or just cut depending on the work. It was also over double the width so I could buy wider materials which were cheaper than the 600mm vinyls I was using, so there would be a slight material saving too.
I got to grips with the software straight away. I'd bought a new stand alone computer to run the printer and RIP software as well as invested in a new MacBook Pro and iMac, both linked to my Adobe suite software package subscription. I worked between the MacBook at home and the iMac in the office with both being updated using the OneDrive cloud as well as Adobe’s own cloud service.
To design and offer proof work for vehicle graphics I had also invested in an amazing product by Impact Graphics. A set of 1:20 scale vehicle outlines, cars, vans, trucks, busses, bin lorries - you name it, they have it. This meant I could design the wrap or graphics on the outline, send it as a visual to a customer for approval and once approved, send the design through the RIP software (at 2000%) making it full sized (without having to get a customer to measure a thing) and simply hit print. The accuracy of these drawings is spot on, and if you have anything to do with vehicle graphic design it's an essential investment.
So by late 2016 the printer was in and I'd got to grips with it, but all the work I was supplying for long term vehicle installations needed to be laminated.This would give the 3,5,7 or 12 year life span guaranteed depending on the material and laminate used. I now needed a laminator, and the guys at Vivid did me an awesome deal on a brand new machine. Everything was going so well and I was now all set up and rearing to go.
During this time my dad was a huge inspiration to me in growing my business. He and his business partner had done the same with their company in the 90's making a huge success from nothing, and he'd gone on to do the same in a number of other business ventures, so he'd always been a sounding board for my ideas and plans. Therefore when he died at the beginning of 2017, to be followed soon after by my father-in-law, our home was full of grief and everything just ground to a halt.
My father in law was responsible for my patience in business, and he had taken an immense interest in the business and was genuinely amazed at the results I was getting. He would ask a lot of questions and when I answered he would always have another angle for me to consider. He was the one who made me realise it was best to wait, push sales, earn more and buy outright avoiding owing money on the company’s main equipment. Along with my wife and my Dad, he was one of the people who delighted in seeing and hearing about what I was doing and gave great advice.
It would take three months before I was able to get back to any semblance of normality, and my next article will talk about how I learned the huge importance of building relationships with clients as well as other business owners in your sector, and growing the business further toward my eventual exit from my full time career (of 16 years) and the move into the print industry full time.
You can read part one of Alex’s journey here.