John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past seven years. He knows their ups, their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for the CoFounders of Sign Badgers: Justin Nelson, Eric Roethel and James Botnen.
1. Tell us your Sign Badgers elevator pitch?
Sign Badgers is a small sign shop that does big things. Every day, our team is working with walk-in customers looking for yard signs or stickers all the way up to companies with locations across the country to provide store signage, equipment decals, and custom display solutions. We want to be the go-to sign shop from simple to complex and everything in between.
2. How do you separate yourself from other sign manufacturers?
We like to be very hands-on and collaborative with our customers. The fact that our products are being presented as a representation of our customer’s company or brand is something that we take very seriously. A lot of times when a customer comes to us with a project or an idea, they need our experience, suggestions, and insight in order to bring it all to life.
A lot of our customer relationships have developed from the idea that we want to be seen as an extension of their team. We go the extra mile on each project instead of just maximizing the volume of orders passing through our shop, which ultimately gives us an opportunity to earn future and repeat business.
3. While I’ve known your team and company for several years, for the sake of the readers, as we may discuss this in the upcoming questions, will you please share more information about your other brands/ businesses?
Although most of our focus and day-to-day attention is geared towards our local customer base through Sign Badgers, we have a few other brands under our operations umbrella. Signs 4 Work (www.signs4work.com) is an online e-commerce website that offers a premium, consistent line of office signage that companies can use to outfit their entire building.
- Signs 4 Work (www.signs4work.com) is an online e-commerce website that offers a premium, consistent line of office signage that companies can use to outfit their entire building.
- Event Badger (www.eventbadger.com) is a company that we launched in 2019 to supply events and conferences with high-quality wood, metal, acrylic, leather and paper name badges.
- Cozy Timber Co. is a company that we partnered with in 2018 that custom manufactures double-sided farmhouse-style signage for vendor fairs, boutiques, and e-commerce sales.
- In 2019, we also sold a company called Shirts From Fargo that we had owned and operated to provide the community with event and corporate apparel.
4. You seem like you are very entrepreneurial within the main holding company itself, with these different facets. How do you go about developing and managing these diversified lines?
This has truly been one of our biggest challenges and lessons as we’ve grown over the past several years. In the early stages of Sign Badgers, it was very easy to pivot and jump from idea to idea or to chase down every job just to help keep the lights on. We were all over the board, bouncing from pressing custom shirts for an event to changing out a flagpole rope for a local company to pulling an all-nighter in order to finish up a vehicle wrap. It didn’t take long to realize how unsustainable that cycle was both for the health of the business and for us personally.
Part of the thought behind separating the aspects of the business into different “lanes” was that it allowed us to be more intentional with our focus rather than having everything fall into one bucket. As soon as we created that separation, we were able to see that our local-facing sign business, Sign Badgers, was where we currently needed to be placing the bulk of our attention and efforts. It’s still often a challenge to stay the course and not get distracted by the other aspects of our business that we might find more exciting at times. However, we’ve found that the more that we focus at this stage in our business, the healthier our company, along with our personal lives, has become.
5. You mentioned that you sold off Shirts From Fargo at some point. Is that an example of refining your focus areas?
Absolutely. We had grown Shirts From Fargo to a point where it was generating about 30-35% of our overall sales and was profitable on a standalone basis. We had also started working with local charities and events with a unique fulfillment model that allowed them to sell apparel and promotional items online through the SFF website. However, even though we were excited about Shirts From Fargo’s trajectory, we couldn’t ignore how much of our time and energy it took away from the signage side of the business in terms of opportunity cost and spreading ourselves too thin.
The current owner has since taken Shirts From Fargo much further than we would have been able to with our diluted attention, and it has allowed us to pour that additional energy into areas of the business that fall more in line with where we need to be focused. So while we lost that revenue that we had built through the apparel/ promotional sales, we quickly recaptured it back within the year by our increased efforts and efficiencies in Sign Badgers and have since grown well beyond where we were with both companies under one roof.
6. That strategy of understanding areas of focus reminds me a little of how you decided to bring James on as a business partner a couple of years ago. How did that decision process go?
When we made the decision to bring James on board a couple of years ago, we were candidly going through a pretty rough patch of burnout. We were still spread very thin at that point and working around the clock to keep juggling everything. Although we had a couple of great team members, our company was still very scattered and lacking operationally. Rather than having defined roles, responsibilities and processes, we were basically operating with a “whatever-it-takes” mindset where everyone was acting as their own project manager and tackling customer jobs and projects solo.
We knew that James, who Justin had worked within a previous print production job and had kept in touch with, was looking to make a career change and that his skill set was in the area that our company was lacking in. Even though our strengths in business were all different, most importantly our values as far as the priority of building a healthy work environment and supporting/empowering our team were in line with one another. Once that puzzle piece fell into place and James came on board, we were all able to lean into our individual strengths and start the ongoing process of organizing the company into a more functional, focused business, which has paid dividends in terms of a balanced workflow and healthier culture.
7. What does culture and fit mean to all of you at Sign Badgers?
We have an awesome team at Sign Badgers, and over the past few years, it has become very clear that they are the most important part of our business. We’ve also found that it is more about finding the person that’s the right fit as far as attitude and initiative rather than the person with the most experience. We brought on a good percentage of our employees at points where we weren’t necessarily looking to hire but couldn’t pass up on the person. In every one of those instances, it has paid off tremendously and we’ve grown from a team of five to fifteen over the past couple of years.
Our successes are a direct result of our team and so our number one job is making sure that we’re there to support and empower them to create a healthy work environment that they can feel proud to be a part of and where they can do great work. We do that by offering different benefits and perks as we’ve grown, such as a paid week off between Christmas and New Year’s (outside of normal PTO accrual), 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, flex scheduling and cultivating a positive environment, among other various things.
8. For Event Badger, what kind of impact did COVID have on this business line?
In February of 2020, we attended our first tradeshow with Event Badger and started to see progress in sales through the efforts that we were putting towards marketing and SEO. We had also developed a number of customers who were event planners around the country and were using our high-end, innovative badges for their events and conferences. Then came the COVID pandemic and everything ground to a halt because nobody was putting on any events.
Fortunately, we had the ability to pivot our efforts into other areas of the business and all of our eggs weren’t in the “Event Badger basket.” It’s something we don’t take for granted, as we know that many businesses in these industries, even a handful we regularly do business with, weren’t so lucky and got hit extremely hard by this downturn. As things have worked their way back towards normal, we’ve started to notice orders picking back up and more requests, which is exciting for us and hopefully a good sign of things to come
9. If you could go back in time to Eric, Justin and James from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
Hiring good people is always a risk worth taking. Early on when we were overextended and our day-to-day was more in the business than on the business, we thought of a million reasons why we shouldn’t add to our team, couldn’t afford it, no time to train, right person/wrong seat, timing is wrong, etc. And now, looking back, the best decisions and the biggest steps forward that we’ve made at Sign Badgers all include hiring great people and surrounding ourselves with a good team.
10. What can we do as a community to help Sign Badgers succeed?
Do business locally as often as you can. We’ve got a supportive community and part of the reason why we’ve been able to grow is that we lean on other local businesses. When we’ve got a banking question or had uncertainties about programs during COVID, we were able to pick up the phone and call our banker at First Western Bank & Trust in West Fargo. When we’ve got an HR question or if an employee has a question about benefits, we can pick up the phone and call our benefits team at PRO Resources in Detroit Lakes. We collaborate on projects with other local sign shops in the FMWF area all the time, and many of our supplies and rolls of media are sourced from vendors in the region as well. Whether your business goes to us or another sign shop in the area, we all benefit when business is done locally.