Dane County Small Business Awards: Sign Art Studio

0623 Dcsba Signart Ezine Panel

Since its founding in 2005, Sign Art Studio has grown to 20 full-time employees, and it has enjoyed an average annualized growth rate of 38%. Yet according to founder and President Dan Yoder, “we’ve kept our heads down” and only in recent years did the company focus on increasing its profile via networking events and social media.

Virtually its entire book of business had been generated by word-of-mouth referrals but raising its profile has maintained its strong financial results. “It started seven or eight years ago … but we’re doing more [intentional] business development stuff,” Yoder explains. “My wife joined us late last year, and that’s her wheelhouse. That’s what she loves doing, and it’s a key part of the company now.”

Sign Art Studio is one of five companies to win a 2022 Dane County Small Business Award. To select this year’s DCSBA class, IB convened a judging panel of past award winners to evaluate each nominee on three main criteria: company growth and success since inception; the benefit package provided to its employees; and the contributions and impact the company makes in the community.

Signing on

For Yoder, the object is to build the best signage around and not just be different with the types of signs being built but be different in how his sign company would operate. Sign Art Studio predominantly works with business owners, general contractors, and architectural firms on new construction projects, and manufactures nearly all its electrical signs in house, but another part of the explanation for the company’s results is something that most successful companies emphasize from a cultural standpoint — take care of the employees who take care of customers.

Yoder calls it “taking care of the house” first — a design-centric house. “It’s about making sure our people have the tools they need to be successful in their roles,” he explains. “That design approach and the drive to use unique materials and approach projects a little differently, that’s what gave the company the foundation it needed in those early years.”

The company also has an internal battle cry: “Make Signs, Not War.” It’s not really a political statement, but more of a staff motivator that Yoder describes as the company’s guiding north star. Sometimes, the competitive landscape can be very chaotic in that there are tight deadlines, and it can turn into a battle. “The whole idea is that we want to make this a smooth a process for our team internally, and also for our clients,” Yoder states. “Whether that’s design approach, coordination efforts with general contractors and subcontractors, negotiations with municipalities, or sign ordinance strategy — you name it. We want to make this a fun and smooth process.”

Also smoothing out the lumps are strong benefits (featuring a zero-dollar medical deductible), an executive coaching program for personal and professional development needs, and a flexible work environment. Sign Art Studio has a four-day work week in which employees generally work 10-hour days — 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. — from Monday through Thursday and have the next three days off. That’s the case 70–80% of the time, although certain employees occasionally work on Friday if there is a tight deadline.

“We started doing that during COVID, and I don’t think anybody would want to go back,” Yoder says. “It does at times provide some scheduling challenges with new construction, but with good planning and good communication, it’s been working great so far. People love it.”

They also love the way the company contributes to the community, whether it was providing sandwich boards during the pandemic or the company’s support of the Kids Building Wisconsin program. Of all the philanthropic programs that Sign Art Studio supports, Yoder is particularly proud to be part of a CAST, the Community Alliance for Skilled Trades. In trying to shine a light on the trades, particularly the signage trade, a local school district has sent classes through Sign Art Studio. Groups of school children get bussed in and get a tour of the shop, learning about jobs in graphic design, fabrication, and operating heavy equipment. “There is so much this particular trade has to offer that nobody really knows,” Yoder notes. “It’s kind of a ghost trade in that regard.”

Making such connections is done partly out of professional need to address the labor shortage and partly for personal reasons for the appreciative Yoder. “There has been a little turning back on the trades, and for me that hit home because without the trades, I don’t know where I would be,” he says. “I barely graduated high school. I did not go to college. I was fortunate to find a trade that I fell in love with at an early age, and I’ve stuck with it since I was 19 years old. I wake up every morning loving this work that we do.”

Signs of respect

The 2022 Dane County Small Business Award judges included Jeanne Carpenter, owner of Firefly Coffeehouse; Fatou Ceesay, owner and manager of Cairasu Home Care; Jon Konarske, publisher of In Business magazine; and Jason Potter, CEO of Farwell.

Given that Sign Art Studio was selected by a panel of business peers, Yoder says it means the world, especially for a company that until recently has kept a low profile. “It’s absolutely great to be recognized by other business owners in our area,” he states. “It’s quite humbling. That’s probably the best way to describe it. We’re pretty surprised.”

Editor’s note: The public can network with this year’s winners at an award program and reception on Thursday, July 21, from 4 to 6:30 p.m., at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. 

Coming up:

Tuesday, June 28: The Creative Company

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