Hello World or Why I decided to start making neon signs.
To kick off this blog, here is the story of how Neon Popsicle got started.
I've always wanted to run my own e-commerce business. A strange life goal, I know, but it has been a long time coming. I've done the corporate 9 to 5 gig as a graphic designer. I moved into UX design and did some high profile work that I am super proud of. That was fun for awhile before the company started going through hard times. I moved on and went to a tech startup. Again different, but it came with its own set of challenges. I've started freelancing while I figure out my next move. After reading about passive income, and having lengthy discussions with other designer friends, I knew that I had to give this running an e-commerce store a go. Shopify, the online store software provider, which incidentally doesn't power this site, is a major company in town. So, naturally trying to run an online store was always a hot topic of discussion around the office.
Many ideas are slow burns, and I knew I had to find my niche first. It was probably about 2 years before I finally found an idea worth committing to, and even then it took a few key events to solidify the idea. The first event came in the form of a request from my brother. A restaurateur and bar owner, he needed a new sign designed for out front of a new venue he was opening up, and he wanted it to be neon. So, like I had done for him before, I designed and priced out a logo with options.
Boy was I shocked! Custom neon signs can be really expensive. I called around and got a dozen quotes from all the sign makers in about a 500km radius. The quotes ranged from $1800-$3500. I suspect the $3500 quote was the classic I don't want this job, here is a high quote instead of a polite no. Something that I had remarked on previously that always blew my mind, was how there is a sign maker in every small town across the country. How have we not seen more success into this space from companies such as vistaprint? Anyways, I picked a supplier that could meet our timeline and moved on to the next project. Something still bothered me about the range of quotes we got for such a simple sign though. A seed was planted.
The second key event was a trip to visit family in NYC. We were staying on the lower east side and it seemed like every restaurant, bar and coffee shop we went into had a neon sign. The frequency illusion or Baader-Meinhof phenomenon in action. Now that I had some insight it how expensive they were, something clicked. Perhaps this is the niche I was looking for. Was the high cost of neon a problem I can solve with an online only business model?
Neon signs don't need to be this expensive. The main inputs are the labor and skill that goes in to the glass bending and some pretty inexpensive raw materials. The best I can figure why they cost so much domestically is the overhead of having a small local sign shop in every small town in the country taking orders and delivering them by hand. If we can transition to an online fulfillment model and focus only on sizes of signs we can ship directly, we can eliminate that overhead for ourselves and make neon signs cheaper. My goal was to cut the price of that $1800 sign in half.
The second part of that overhead comes from the cost of quoting neon signs. Lot's of quotes go out, few orders come in. That's why I designed our self-serve custom neon option. You type what you want, and get instant pricing feedback on your design. If you have a design that's more complicated, we can build that too, just send us an email with any details or images. You can use the custom ordering page to get a rough idea on how much it might cost. It's not perfect, but it's a start. I have a number of ideas of how the ordering system can be improved, but before more gets invested in that, the idea of online neon needs more validation.
There was only one small problem. I had never made a neon sign. I needed to find a partner who I could work with to deliver on the promise of affordable neon signs. I would build the online store, and design the signs, and they would handle production. Borrowing inspiration from ordering custom paintings online and with a background of working with suppliers overseas (from a career at a major smartphone manufacturer and time at a hardware startup), I knew I could navigate that challenge. After some trial and error, I made a partnership with a sign shop in Guangdong, China that could reliably deliver neon, at a price we could both be happy about. So long as we kept the signs small enough to do standard international shipping, we found we had no problem competing as one of the best prices for custom neon signs around.
Next steps: We have a snazzy online ordering system, and brought in a partnership with a top-notch neon maker. Now we just need more customers. I am still figuring that bit out, but to start we are experimenting with Adword campaigns and measuring the ROI. I would also like to explore ad rates for instagram and facebook to see how they stack up for this sort of business. I have a theory that with the right designs, we might get decent traction on instagram.
Stay tuned sports fans.