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The Lure of Vehicle Graphics

(April 2008) posted on Tue Apr 15, 2008

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

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By Jared Smith

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.