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The Lure of Vehicle Graphics

All of the start-up know-how on this moving market.

If you’ve been out on the streets at all, you’ve seen the vehicle-wrap market explode over the last five years. With technological advances peaking at the same time market demand is at an all-time high, ambitious shop owners have to ask themselves if it’s time to jump into the game.

That decision is a tough one, though. I love the wrap game, and after wrapping thousands of cars, our company has made it a profit center for our business. But there are certainly much easier, faster, and cheaper products to produce-and especially to reprint when something goes wrong-than a vehicle wrap. As shop owners, it’s our responsibility to explore opportunities and make sound decisions about the products and the focus of our companies, and within the past year I’ve noticed a trend of shops exiting the vehicle-wrap category.

But many more are adopting this application-so why all the interest in wraps? It could be that they retail for more than $3000 each, and almost every wide-format printing company can benefit from them. So let’s run through the factors you need to consider before you start wrapping the world.

A big investment

I like to start with the capital commitment-it’s just where my brain goes first. The following are the investments that must be made to end up with a vehicle wrap and a happy customer, and I’ll estimate the low- and high-end cost of each.

* Finding customers, or having them find you: Low end, $50 for a banner hanging off your building that can be seen by traffic. High end, $100,000 for a PR firm and good marketing campaign.

* Closing the deal: Low end, $0 because most shop owners are great sales people and don’t get paid commission anyway. High end, $40,000 to $150,000 to hire a savvy rep for a base salary plus commission.

* Presenting a design: Low end, $2000 for design software and template software, if you have a capable computer, design skills, and some time in your day (usually 4-10 hours per wrap). High end, a $5000 PC or Mac-the faster the better, and dual monitors really help-plus $2000 in design and template software, and, potentially, a senior designer on your staff, with an annual salary of $35,000 to $60,000.

* RIP-ing the files: Low end, $300 if you get real lucky on eBay and have an unused, fast computer with huge hard drives.High end, $1500 gets you all the bells and whistles in RIP software, and a $5000 RIP server saves a ton of time.

* Buying vinyl and ink: Low end, $1000 should be enough to buy the cheapest ink and media-then plan on re-doing the job every couple of months. Eventually you’ll figure out that using the cheap stuff is the expensive way to do it. Don’t scrimp here! High end, $2000 should get you started with a good batch of UV inks and a roll of repositionable cast vinyl with great performance, a great warranty, and some peace of mind.

* Printing: Low end, $10,000 if someone down the street goes out of business and you can pick up a working 54-inch solvent inkjet that prints about 90 square feet per hour, or maybe you already have one and someone on staff who knows how to run it. High end, $600,000 (or more) will get you 2000 to 4000 square feet per hour, and if you have that kind of cash, you can get a pretty good print operator to run it.

* Laminating: Low end, $5000 if that shop down the street has a nice used 60-inch cold laminator as well. Most large-format shops have one of these by now. Plan on $500 to get the right laminate. High end, $40,000 can get you the Cadillac of laminators-increased speed and easier to use.

* Trimming: Low end, $200 is about what our first 2x4-inch plywood and cut mat table cost to build. You’ll also need a finisher who’s good with a ruler and a blade. High end, $150,000 will get you the fastest automated trimming equipment with built-in cameras and conveyer belts.

* Installing: Low end, $50 and 3 to 4 days of your precious time if you can grab a squeegee, some prep solution, a handheld propane torch, a tape measure, a grease pen, and some masking tape. High end, $2000 to fly in one of the nation’s best installers and stand back and observe how the masters do what they do.

I know these are some pretty wide ranges in cost, but the ranges are real. We started at the low end (or maybe even lower), and 10 years later we’re set up with everything we need for a high-volume wrap operation.

Looking at a quick total on the possible capital outlay, you can get in the game for as little as $20,000, or even less if you happen to have some of the equipment already, or you could invest as much as $850,000 or more to get a volume operation set up. This assumes that you have much of the staff, facility, and utilities already in place-think power, exhaust systems, air compressor, lighting, floor space, training, color-proofing equipment, etc.

The learning curve

Regardless of how much money you have to spend, the learning curve is hands-down the most prohibitive factor in becoming successful in the vehicle wrap industry. We overlooked some learning-curve factors when we jumped in blindly a long time ago.

Here are a few problems you’ll need to think about solving: Who will do your installs? Who will handle your warranty and repair work? Which ink works in which printer on what media at what speed with which RIP at what temperature and at what humidity?

As you can imagine, those who know the answers aren’t going to offer up their secrets, but there are great schools, associations, and trade shows out there to educate you, and you owe it to yourself to explore them all and make an informed decision. Sometimes the shortcut is doing it the right way from the start, even if it seems more expensive at first.

The right business

Your marketplace also should be a huge factor in your decision-making process. Determine whether there is really a solid demand in your city, or how far your shop is from the closest city that has a solid demand. Who are your competitors, and how good are they? What are the local rates for design, print, and install? If you’re not well positioned in a healthy market, it won’t matter how good you are.

But an even bigger question might be whether vehicle wrapping is a distraction from or an addition to your business’ core competencies. This is a tough question, but it must be answered. Two of the most profitable (and agonizing) moves we ever made at bluemedia were to remove two product lines from our offerings: Web design and rollable tradeshow graphics. We were great at websites, but when our designers were working on logos and websites, they weren’t dropping files to the printers. So we had to consciously kill a profitable product line in order to channel their time and energy into a more profitable direction-large-format print design. Our new mantra: "If we aren’t printing it, then we aren’t designing it."

Scary, but it worked. It was especially frustrating for the tradeshow graphics-we had every piece of equipment we needed, so we figured that would mean we’d automatically be good at producing them and they’d be profitable, too. Well, we weren’t good at that type of graphic, and it wasn’t profitable. So, after arguing about why we weren’t good at it for three or four years, we decided one day to just stop trying, and I can honestly tell you that I don’t miss those reprint headaches at all. Other operations are great at producing those types of graphics, so I let them do it. The lesson here is to know how to recognize when a product line isn’t adding to your bottom line. If vehicle wrapping seems like a natural progression for your company and you have most of the factors going your way, then I say look in to it. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of a start-up wrap company, I might humbly suggest that you start with banners and decals first.

Our company wouldn’t be where we are today without vehicle wraps. They’ve gotten us notoriety that has helped us gain market share, the ticket price is great, and we have a lot of fun and success with our wrap product. Shop owners who do their homework will each come up with their own answer on whether to jump in or not. So if you’re curious, do some research and find out if you have a fit. And remember: Don’t learn a hard lesson; learn an easy one. Done right, they can have the same result in the end.

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