Signage is more than just a job for 2innovate’s Steve Sandford; it’s a way of life
Steve Sandford is operations director at 2innovate, a trade only design and branding solutions company that provides bespoke internal and external signage for high quality branding and visual impact. Utilising a network of specialist providers, the company achieves eye-catching, thought provoking, innovative signage solutions that are managed for success from design to installation. Sandford says signage is more than just a job; it’s a way of life. We caught-up with him at the company’s Aylesbury headquarters to find out why.
How did you get started in the sign trade?
I started out in recruitment, so nothing to do with the sign trade at all. I went through various jobs after I left school and tried different things before I was made redundant. Soon after I took a call from a friend who had a sign company that wasn’t performing quite as well as it should have been and he asked if I would be prepared to take on the challenge of re-establishing the company’s brand. I looked at it as a fresh challenge and figured why not give it a go? I fell in love with the industry from day one and I still feel that way today. That was 11 years ago now, but it still feels like yesterday.
When and how did you become involved with 2innovate?
About three years ago, I began to notice that nobody was really looking out for the needs of the end customer. I think any kind of customer service is about giving a good experience for the customer. So, I took the decision to set up 2innovate with the ultimate goal of innovating trade supply. I wanted people to stop thinking of trade supply as just being about the cheapest price, or about cutting corners. I hate seeing companies that cut corners. Signage is more than a job to me; it's a passion.
Since starting the business, have things moved on in trade supply?
It's definitely moved on. I've worked in signage for 11 years and it's never been the same day twice; never in the whole time I've been doing this. How fantastic is that? There's no chance to get bored.
Everything for me is based around customer service, good products and giving good advice. We also back everything up with a five year parts and labour warranty. No one else is doing that. Every component we put into our products is first class, and we insist that our supply chain support us with only the best components. So, sometimes we're not always competitive but if you want your corporate signage to have longevity and be manufactured to the highest possible standard, can you put a price on that?
How do you work with a typical customer?
We work in partnership with sign companies throughout the UK and what we is do bridge the gap between us the manufacturer and what it is the sign companies are trying to sell into the end user. We also represent the end client, because at the end of the day it’s our product that is carrying their corporate brand and will be fitted to the outside of their company headquarters. So, we try to get as involved as possible, even at the initial planning stages. It's about working in partnership with the sign company and focusing on the ultimate goal which is promoting their end customers’ strong brand.
What types of sign are you usually asked to produce?
No two signs are ever alike, but we do produce all sorts of totem monoliths of the type you would expect to see outside petrol stations, industrial parks or retail parks etc. We recently did a pure light sheet projection sign which I don't know if anyone else in the UK has ever done before. We certainly couldn't find anything out about it, so it was just a case of what we might come up with and how we could implement it. We're very fortunate here as we've got a lot of signage experience within the team, and not just from within the industry but from construction, engineering, and various other related industries. It's good to bring those skills together because there are many ways of manufacturing things that you might not think of.
I notice that a lot of people in this industry will stick to going down the same route because it's what they know. In fact, what we've actually got to do as an industry is to look at the technology that is all around us; look at our supply chain, our adhesives, LED suppliers etc. and work together to come up with the next solution. Ten years ago, no one had done a rimless letter, and now when you look around in the sign trade there are rimless letters everywhere.
For us it's about daring to push those boundaries - sometimes we don't always get it right but almost everything we produce is bespoke. So in answer to your question, it can be anything you want it to be really.
You exhibited at Sign & Digital UK in 2017. What was your experience with exhibiting at the show?
I've been a massive fan of the Sign & Digital shows since about 2009 and I think it's such a positive show for our industry. As I have said, we want to innovate trade supply, but we also want to innovate the industry. For us, exhibiting at the show puts us right in the heart of the industry, and as a result we had new clients come to talk to us. Being a fairly new business, not everybody knew our brand or our values, so the show provided the perfect platform to get our brand out there and say this is what we can do to support you guys within the industry.
The sign industry itself needs to adapt to the changing needs of the market. Every single day we need to be looking at ways that we can become better, so we need Sign & Digital UK to help lead the way. It provides such an amazing opportunity for companies like us to showcase what we do. On top of that the show provides us with an opportunity to see what industry innovations there are, as well as investigate what’s going on in all the different application areas and to meet with potential new suppliers. Last year we found about half a dozen new suppliers just off the back of exhibiting at the show, and we have since worked with them all.
Are you planning to approach the exhibition differently next time?
I am planning to have an even more eye-catching interactive stand. Last year we had an interactive stand with some embedded LEDs where you could control the colour temperature of them, or you could put it on a flash in sequence. It became a real focal point that made people come over and take a look, which meant we could then engage with them and talk about all our other services. So, for me our stand has to be even more interactive because we want to have conversations with people, see what opportunities arise and meet new people that could become partners in the future. That's why they're at the show and that's why we do it.
What do you hope to achieve from being an exhibitor at Sign & Digital UK in 2018?
I think one of the key things for us with the show as an exhibitor is to walk out of the NEC with more than you walked in. So, for 2018 I would like to meet a thousand new people that I've never worked with before. I'd also like to talk to 1000 people who we have worked with before. I'd like to see how things are changing for them and what their perceptions of the marketplace and industry are.
To put my experience of exhibiting at Sign & Digital into perspective, I sometimes wonder how many visits it would take for us to get to see all of the clients that came to see us during the show? We must have saved a small fortune in time and man hours and days out on the road etc. We got our brand awareness out there, and we were able to look about and witness everything that’s new in the industry - for us it was a very positive experience.
Do you have any advice for anybody thinking of exhibiting at Sign & Digital UK next year?
Have a plan. We had some guys next to our stand who said it was all a bit of a last-minute thing and they hadn't prepared for it. They had a basic stand layout with hardly anything on it and nothing to help engage with visitors, and as such people kept walking past without paying them any attention. They were very frustrated with it all but the next morning they had a big shuffle around and brought in some extra bits and pieces to make their stand more enticing and they were packed out. They were more interactive and not just all sitting down and waiting around for people to come to them.
That's what it's about. If you don't put anything in, you won't get anything out of it. I think that's the same for everything in life, and it is certainly applicable with Sign & Digital UK. If you put into it you will get something out of it because of the people that are there. They might want to try a different supplier, they might give you an opportunity and that's all you can ask for. If you get an opportunity, it's down to you to showcase your abilities.
What direction do you see 2innovate taking in five years from now?
I'd like to continue to innovate in the industry. I'd like to continue working to encourage the signage industry to raise the bar where manufacturing standards are concerned. Here I am talking about raising the quality of the signs, the delivery of the signs, thinking about how the sign will go onto the building and understanding more about the end customers brand and what that represents - not just trying to sell a sign that's easy for you to make. It's about selling a sign that's the right sign for their business, that's the key thing. Hopefully, with that philosophy, we will be able to increase growth and continue to trade profitably.
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