Extreme Vinyl: Year of the Underdog

Take a look back at the challenges and trials of your career to move forward successfully.

Banking on Bitcoin. Gender Pay Gap. The Climate Change Debate. These are just some of the current headlines dominating the nation’s cultural conversations as we dive into Q1 of 2018. I think we can find a glimpse of solace and escape, even for a few hours in the day, with our line of work in the sign and graphics industry. I am living proof that one can find their true calling and turn it into a career, embracing my life’s work with little to no regrets. Freelancers, tool craftsmen, designers, sales reps, product providers, graphic manufacturers, and vinyl wrappers – which describes me best – are just some of the key folks who inhabit our dynamic Wrap Universe. (Marvel and DC Comics each have their own respective “universe” named after them; why can’t we?) Even though collectively our vinyl work may not have been heavily highlighted or hyped recently in the media, I can only surmise that our achievements were understandably overlooked for the more serious or heartbreaking reports. It’s a sad fact that negative news always has a way of grabbing much more attention than positive headlines. I am driven by the conviction that our niche profession makes the world a better place in the visual sense. Nevertheless, we at Icon Image Graphics made our own front-page news by continuing to usher our vast and eclectic portfolios onto the international circuit these last 12 months.

After a decade in the business, my conventional wisdom to share with the masses is quite simple: Vinyl wraps are here to stay. I have witnessed the birth of a culture, movement, and art form; the advancement and upgrade of film and print technology; new and recycled design trends and aesthetics; the powerful/lucrative impact on local and corporate businesses; and the rise of graphic installers and influencers who have come into their own. The medium’s popularity shows no signs of waning as it solidifies itself as a permanent fixture in pop culture and a staple of many reputable tradeshows such as FESPA, SEMA, SGIA, WrapsCon, and more. We have made these accomplishments part of vinyl wrap’s vernacular now. Our chosen profession has made rapid strides and evolved as a viable force with an important presence in the visual arts. From London to Australia, we’re seeing a unified trend of wrap assignments – from the beginning phase to completion – being documented, digitized, and shared on social media by an individual or company. The internet has dramatically revolutionized many fields, including ours, and it’s nothing more than a massive archive of just about everything: art, video, photos, old, new, black, white, and everything in between. It’s in the “in between” where we try to distinguish our voice and place on the web without getting lost in an endless spectrum of information. There’s been a significant shift in how we promote, adapt, and conduct business today in the digital age. For this particular piece, I’m taking my talk about vinyl to the extreme and really asking those hard questions of what matters today in the life of vinyl wrappers.

Looking Back

In 2008, a rising (and young) graphic installer grappled with his first attempt at a complete Ford vinyl wrap for a local company. Armed with a bunch of wrap installation DVDs that he received from an impromptu visit to 3M’s posh facility in Minneapolis, he failed miserably as a beginner in his new venture. This van wrap was to be his debut as a serious graphic installer. The result was a disastrous endeavor that he wanted to sweep under the rug, permanently! It was such a shattering blow to his ego that he considered quitting the next day. After a series of additional misfires in the field, he still kept going until it finally clicked after a number of other jobs. 

I was this beginner during my early struggles in the business, but I did not quit. The offensive four-letter F-word – fail – has never been a part of my vocabulary. So, why did I underperform so spectacularly? Was it a lack of knowledge, experience, or training, or all of the above? What could I have done differently? The list of questions went on, but it was this definitive question that kept my interest and drive: What did I learn from my first experience with vinyl graphics that I would avoid next time? I had no choice but to be a beginner, start over, and allow myself to fail, especially with no support or guidance from industry veterans back in the day. Nor was YouTube, still in its infant stage, able to illuminate a path to a competent wrap job. 

Before I could lead my own team of graphic installers or build strong customer rapport, I had to apply the lone-wolf mentality to my career in order to prevent my company from operating at a loss, or worse, taking a sharp nosedive. The lone-wolf concept is the idea of going at it alone while leaving the pack behind. It involves cultivating your own personal and professional growth by learning every aspect of the discipline, which means getting your hands dirty by constantly practicing, training, researching, and learning. During this period, it becomes a transformative journey where you try to figure it out by yourself – all the nuts and bolts of the sign and graphics industry – before rejoining your loyal pack. And anyone who masters their craft will face moments of fear and doubt and somehow must find the inner resolve to keep moving forward. Admittedly, my inner struggles these days are all about the pressure to match previous success or surpass it with my clients. Upcoming challenges include lending my custom services to what I dub the Holy Trinity of Pop Music (three superstar acts with high-profile outings), developing a documentary series, and catching a flight to oversee a series of specialty wraps for the upcoming Chicago Auto Show. It seems that each new inquiry or assignment follows with a more complex and demanding workload. 

I have learned that a healthy dose of competition is not such a bad thing for your business. I know this must be a bold statement, but it does inspire change (to which many people are not accustomed), keeps you on your toes, and builds team spirit when it comes to the 9-to-5 grind. Just navigating the web has revealed a number of first-rate wrap shops of all shapes and sizes offering a variety of services in their area that can cover many territories. It’s happening with a growing frequency. One way of setting yourself apart from the rest of the herd is through industry certifications. Having an industry certification by established brands and organizations such as 3M, Hexis, Avery Dennison, or PDAA via their training courses and tests will validate you as a professional member of the trade. Certifications are essential for shop owners as they show your customers and vendors that you are “doing it like the pros” when it comes to the actual installation and dealing with each manufacturer’s film and its warranty. I believe that prospective installers should have at least a year of wrapping experience on different types of substrates and vehicles while using and experimenting with a wide range of media before you make the jump.

Moving Forward

So what’s really at the top of my New Year’s resolutions? Building a world-class team with an aggressive growth plan to double my crew in six months. I’m preparing myself to be let down if my plan doesn’t materialize. And I will probably be let down because good help is hard to find. The hiring process or, more specifically, the interview phase, is even more puzzling, especially when I walk into a meeting with a set of requirements and qualifications for what I think would make an ideal candidate. The reality is that these candidates will usually fall short of what is on this list. 

My best advice is to trust your instincts when you make that final decision of nabbing a candidate who may just be your next employee of the month. Ask yourself: Are you completely comfortable seeing this new person walking through your front office door every day? My troupe of experts is a group of trusted individuals (who I spend more time with than my loved ones) that my business partner and I have trained and brought into our inner circle to help us attain all our short- and long-term goals. It’s about finding the perfect staff that sticks – the ones who can stay around for the long haul to accommodate our round-the-clock, fast-paced environment. This topic has always resided at the top of every shop owner’s list whether they acknowledge it or not. 

As a leader, I am tasked with creating a positive work environment with the intent that each staff member can contribute to better employee morale with increased engagement and productivity. I liken it to driving recklessly down several lanes. If I don’t choose one lane, they may not follow me much longer – or at all. Although a cliché, treat each employee how you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. 

According to the Chinese calendar, we are immersed in the “Year of the Dog.” The Chinese Zodiac associates the dog with loyalty, honesty, and intelligence. Those are the same qualities I find in the people with whom I work every day. Without those people and their support, I wouldn’t be here now speaking about a profession that I’ve come to treat like a loyal companion. 

guitarFor me, it’s been a decade-plus effort of many career highs [Editor’s note: Look right and in the gallery below for images of guitar wraps printed and installed by Sino’s team for Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show.] and lows in my role as a serious graphic installer in the vinyl wrap industry. To be exact, as I write this column, it’s been 10 years, 6 months, 4 days, and counting. If I had thrown in the towel when times were tough, none of my accomplishments would have ever happened. I have always been a firm believer in making mistakes, seeing the recovery from the occasional blunders and glitches as a crucial component of universal success. 

Rather than reflect and dwell on your own shortcomings, I think you should make a series of realistic resolutions that would benefit your company by revisiting the lessons and roadblocks that you encountered in 2017. Take an uncensored look, like I have, and seek out those conversations, moments, or experiences with your business that you may wish to move past or forget. Embrace them and start making your own attention-grabbing headlines.

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