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From Fine Art To Sign Art: CEO Convos with Office Sign Company’s Ryan Fritz

While he admits the CEO thing is always a work in progress, there’s one thing Ryan Fritz is certain of: Good design is everything. An artist himself, Fritz has woven his passion for creativity into the fabric of Office Sign Company, and he says it’s a big reason for the brand’s success. This is what he’s learned in his decade of experience as a head of company.

1. Clean the toilets.

Before I founded Office Sign Company, I had developed this briefcase of building blocks throughout my career—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And if I hadn’t spent time in any one of those areas, I don’t know if we would be successful today.

Growing up, I did t-shirt design, I worked on websites, I worked at McDonald’s—I made hamburgers, I took out the garbage, I mopped the floor. There was no dillydallying.

That was always what my mindset was: Work hard. It didn’t matter what it was.

You shouldn’t think twice about being a CEO and being willing to clean the toilets. I promised my mom that I would clean the toilets forever.

2. Staying “lean and mean” gets harder as you grow, and that’s okay.

I use the word “agility” a lot. We’re always focused on trying to be more agile, which gets exponentially harder as you scale.

Imagine everyone is tied together at the waist with a rope. When there were five of us, it was, “Hey guys, let’s jump to the right.” And everyone would jump to the right.

Now, with 40 people, you tell your team to jump right and three people go left, 12 fall down and the rope splits in half.

And that’s when you just have to say, “Okay, let’s try again.”

3. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

Often times, when I have discussions with young entrepreneurs, my advice is pretty simple: Jump. Just jump in.

I’ve talked to a lot of other CEOs who struggle with perfectionism—I know I do, to a degree—but the sooner you realize this, the better: You’re not going to be able to avoid every pothole. You’ll figure it out as you go. You’ll get some flat tires, but you can go back—after you destroy your car—and fix them.

4. A CEO’s biggest challenge is managing people. Appreciate the good ones.

Back in the early days of Office Sign Company—when there were only a couple of us—we were eyeing these two candidates for our very first customer-service position.

We offered the job to one of them, and then a few nights later, the other guy—who we almost hired—showed up on the news. He’d clocked his landlord in the head with a dumbbell and was on the loose.

It was probably the first time I realized how important people are. And it’s made me grateful for the good ones ever since.

5. Do what you need to do to be your best self.

I’m the most outgoing introvert you’ll ever meet, but I need my alone time. I need it where it’s just silent.

It’s definitely a personality thing—probably something about creative types. You have this whole world in your brain. I don’t need people all the time. In fact, I need to be away from people sometimes.

And it’s not necessarily the busy-ness of work and kids and all that. It’s more uninterrupted thinking time. My brain is always working so if there’s a noise, it stops and I have to start the thought process all over again.

And it’s like a dang steam engine. You go to bed and it’s like “choo-choo!” and you can’t get it to turn off.

6. Don’t always be trying to fix the bad. Make an effort to celebrate the good.

Something I’ve really worked hard at is to change my mindset from, “We have to trim every last bit of fat” to, “Let’s reward the people who do a good job.” And that can be very difficult for me because I’m a very glass-half-empty kind of person.

7. Be a yardstick of quality

This is probably my single favorite business quote.

It’s from (former Apple CEO) Steve Jobs, and the full quote is actually, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

It’s not as much about demanding excellence as it’s about people just knowing that’s your standard.

8. Knowledge is meant to be shared

A saying that’s always stuck with me is: If you make it to the top, make sure you send the elevator back down.

And while there are definitely days when I feel like I don’t have anything to offer— it’s still hard to view myself as a mentor or sometimes even as a CEO–I see these kids who are in the infant stage of starting a business and it’s like, I know I can give them SOME advice.

9. Pulling punches is rarely helpful

I’ll tell someone when a design is bad.

It’s such a fine line because if you don’t say something, you leave them in a place of, “This is good enough.” And it’s not good enough.

Most people will be okay if you’re honest with them.

You do have to pull back sometimes, of course, because you can tell when you’re sucking the air right out of the room. It’s like you can see your culture drifting out the window like a giant balloon.

10. When you’re first starting out, favors can be the best currency.

A lot of entrepreneurs—myself included—know this frustration all too well: You have some expertise, you have some experience, but you don’t have a portfolio of “real-world” clients. So what do you do?

The solution seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people think they’re above working for free. If you can’t get clients organically, you’re going to have to build that clientele the hard way.

Find someone who you can help and say, “I can help you. Hopefully, somewhere down the road, you’ll be able to help me.” It might be three days or it might be three years, but it always comes back to you.

11. We live in an amazing community. Give back to it

When I was young, I really didn’t understand why giving back was so important. I was like, “What the heck is community? I can’t make a difference.”

And it’s cliché, but you really do start being the change you want to see. It doesn’t always have to do with sponsorships and things like that. Just by being involved, we can make a difference. We have 40 employees now. If we all do a little something, think of the impact we’re having.

It’s at a point now where it’s become a part of our values—How do we serve our customer? How do we serve each other? And how do we serve our community?

It can be within the company itself, too. If your department is caught up and another one’s struggling, reach out and see if you can give them a hand. If your coworker has a flat tire, give them a ride to work. If we can help each other out in this little work bubble, how will that not affect our larger community?

12. Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

A couple years ago, I presented at 1 Million Cups, and during the Q&A, this sixth grader asked me, “What do you do when you feel like giving up?”

First of all, it blew me away that they were even thinking about that, but my response was pretty simple:

“You can’t. You give up and you’re done.”

As I thought more about it, I realized just how much that encompasses me. I don’t see myself as talented. I just work hard. And when you work harder than the rest, good things happen.

13. If you’re a CEO or a manager, learn this very quickly: You no longer get to be yourself.

I remember (Vanity President & CEO) Mickey Quinn saying in Fargo INC! a few months ago that she adapts to her team because she knows they’re not going to change.

And to a degree, that’s what I find myself doing a lot. And it’s not always fun, and it’s probably not fair. Sometimes, you think, “Why can’t I just be me?”

It’s maybe the biggest challenge for CEOs. If you’re a perfectionist, put a little asterisk by it. Because yes, you might be a perfectionist, but you don’t get to be one in real life anymore. It’s too challenging.

You might be someone who hates metrics and numbers, but guess what? Somebody has to do it.

14. Use your own past experiences and frustrations to be a better boss

I remember one job I had many years ago where I had logged 45 hours for the week. And I left early one day for my daughter’s softball game, and my boss emailed me—didn’t confront me but emailed me—and said, “This schedule isn’t working for me.” Never mind the fact that I had 45 hours in already and should’ve been gone by 8 a.m.

So I was like, “Okay, I quit.”

I still remember stuff like that. Even though we’re a production facility, we always try to accommodate if people want to go see their kids or whatever it might be. Some people want to start at seven so they can pick their kids up at school every day. And that’s fine. Just try to be flexible.

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Written by Nate Mickelberg

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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