Tag: Dan Graham

BuildASign.com’s Troops Program Honors Veterans with Free Signs

Photo courtesy of BuildASign.com

Photo courtesy of BuildASign.com

Austin-based BuildASign.com has a special way to honor soldiers on Veteran’s Day and every day.

BuildASign.com announced Tuesday that the company has donated more than 337,000 welcome home signs and banners, worth more than $10 million, to the friends and families of returning military service members.

BuildASign.com, an online custom printer, has created a site that allows visitors to order free welcome home signs and banners or free banners and signs to show support for troops at home.

“Military families sacrifice so much and we are honored to support them,” Dan Graham, CEO of BuildASign.com, said in a news release. “I am immensely proud of our Troops Program and am excited that it is expanding.”

Massage.com Wants to Take the Stress Out of Getting a Massage

Reporter with Silicon Hills News

DanDan Graham wants Massage.com to work like a good massage, relieving stress for massage therapists and their customers.

Instead of kneading muscles, however, the online massage booking service does it by helping therapists find work and customers get a massage where it’s most convenient for them.

“Essentially, we want to be the live inventory of massage therapists and spa offerings for anyone, anywhere,” Graham said.

Massage.com is Graham’s first venture beyond Austin-based BuildASign, which he founded in 2005.

That venture is now a 260-employee company, operating in four countries with $57 million in revenue in 2013. Graham’s business and civic endeavors have earned accolades including being named Austinite of the Year by the Austin Under 40 group in 2012 and Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013.

BuildASign attacked a market dominated by mom-and-pop operations with the concept that people would buy signs – from yard sale placards to big banners and more – over the Internet with no hands on experience.

Graham’s new business, in its first months of operation, is definitely hands on, at least for the therapists and their clients, but it seeks a similar result in a market that’s fragmented and sizable.

There are as many as 350,000 massage therapists in the U.S., according to the American Massage Therapy Association. Most are solo practitioners working at the client’s location or in a spa, health club, a healthcare setting or a massage-therapy franchise. In 2013, the massage industry generated $6 billion to $11 billion.

Massage.com’s initial play is to help individual massage therapists book appointments with clients in the location preferred by the clients such as home or office.

Graham said that Massage.com conducts background checks on therapists and customers so that both sides are comfortable with the arrangement.

Payment of $89 plus tip for an hour session is made online through Massage.com. The company takes a percentage of the fee.

Ron Shirley, an Austin logistics executive, used Massage.com to book a session and said “it worked extremely well.”

The therapist arrived at the appointed hour, he said, “and the massage was great.”

Graham said massage therapists can list with Massage.com whether they want to book 40 hours or two hours a month. “We just add their availability into our network,” he said.

Massage therapist Tony Castro used the site after hearing about it from colleague.

He said the process was easy and helped with bookings. He especially likes that he can stay close to home by specifying an area in which he’ll work.

So far, the service is available in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

But Graham, who continues as BuildASign CEO, has more in mind.

He plans to expand Massage.com’s services to about 6,000 spas across the country. He said the service would help spas with online marketing and fill empty slots in the appointment books of therapists who work in the spas.

“We offer a tool to say, “Hey, you don’t need become an expert in online marketing. We’ll do that for you. And we’ll just fill your vacancies and we’ll just take a small percentage of the booking fee,’ ” Graham said. “Nobody says no to that.”

Graham said Massage.com will offer more features as it builds out.

A feature he’s enthused about is a rating system in which customers can review and rate their massage therapists and the spas in which they work. He said this should be a boon for massage therapists because those who earn high ratings should be able to draw higher fees for their services.

Massage.com’s sources of revenue include a percentage of the fee for the massage, fees for membership and subscriptions and gift card sales. Graham added that the site will offer massage-related services and products.

Massage.com is one of several companies around the country offering scheduling services for the massage business.

While most operate only in their metro areas, Zeel.com, based in New York City, has expanded to Miami, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, according to an article in TechCrunch.

Graham said that Massage.com’s nationwide spa network will set it apart from companies that book at-home massages. He’s also looking to work with hotels, corporations and nonprofit events.

And, he’s looking to repeat BuildASign’s experience in dealing with growing competition in outperforming competitors.

“I think that being first mover is great and having a great brand name is really helpful,” he said. “But ultimately we’ve got to be able to execute in the idea.”

As a name Massage.com is direct and comprehensive. And Graham found in right in his backyard.

An Austin massage therapist had owned the domain name since 1995. Screen shots of a Massage.com website from the late 1990s (viewed via the web.archive.org), show a landing page that proposes to be a one-stop shop for massages and massage products. But apparently that’s as far as the website went.

“I talked to him over the course of many months, describing where I saw the vision for Massage.com,” Graham said.

After eight months, the owner bought Graham’s vision and sold the domain name to Graham outright. But, Graham said, the previous owner has ongoing incentives as the company progresses.

So far, Graham and three others have funded the company. He said he’s not ready to disclose the amount or who the investors are.

Besides building out the website, Graham, who remains BuildASign CEO, is hiring the Massage.com management team and looking for office space.

Once ensconced, he said, “We’ll probably need to hire a full-time massage therapist to make sure everybody’s relaxed.”

Six Nonprofits Chosen for CreateAthon Austin

AIGA Austin and BuildASign.com will host the 24 hour CreateAthon Austin starting Sept. 20 to bring volunteers together to help nonprofits with free marketing and creative services.
The nonprofit organizations chosen for CreateAthon Austin include: Austin Clubhouse, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, Con MI MADRE, ECHO, Hope Alliance and Without Regrets Foundation. They were chosen from applications from area nonprofit organizations for 30 projects.
The nonprofit organizations chosen represent a variety of causes from mentoring children to helping the homeless and mental health awareness.
“The nonprofit selection has been the most difficult part of this project,” Dan Graham, Founder and CEO of BuildASign.com, said in a news release. “Every organization that applied was so deserving and does such great work in the community. We would love to be able to help them all.”
Now CreateAthon Austin needs volunteers with advertising, marketing, graphic design, public relations, web development, copywriting and other skills. To apply and find out more details, please visit the CreateAthon web site.
“Austin has some of the top creative talent around,” Erin Bender, President of AIGA Austin, said in a statement. “Whether you’re a designer, art director, developer, copywriter, or just interested in helping some amazing nonprofits, we’re excited to bring the community together to do our part in giving back.”

A Bootstrapper Born Out of Necessity: BuildASign

“Sign, Sign everywhere a sign” – Five Man Electrical Band

Dan Graham, CEO and Founder of BuildASign

“Warning: This house protected by Ninjas”

That’s one of Dan Graham’s favorite signs.

The CEO of BuildASign occasionally goes into the company’s 60,000 square foot manufacturing and warehouse facilities to look in its sign bins to see customer orders.

“It’s never a dull time,” he said.

Graham clearly enjoys his work as the head of one of the country’s largest online sign printing companies.

And how he got there is one of Austin’s best bootstrapping entrepreneurial tales that has become legendary in the city’s startup community.

Graham, who has an undergraduate degree in computer science, ran a web development business with three friends: Blake Borgeson, Ty Barho and JR Kraft. He wanted to make extra money while he went to the University of Texas School of Law.

They built basic websites for companies and often tried to upsell them on more elaborate e-commerce platforms.

They created BuildASign.com as an optional website for a local graphics company. But the company didn’t want to pay $7,000 for it. The platform put the approval process for print jobs like custom designed signs in the customer’s hands online and eliminated expense and time.

“The sign shop market is very fragmented,” Graham said. Austin has about 150 sign shops and tens of thousands of others exist around the country, he said.

“We built out a prototype,” Graham said. “We went door to door trying to sell it. We were told the Internet wasn’t an appropriate place to sell signs.”

They presented it as a cost savings model and they decided to prove it out on the revenue side, Graham said.

“We took our prototype and launched it out there,” he said.

And they started getting orders online. But they needed somewhere to print the signs. They were just four guys in a ten foot by ten foot office with two computers and no manufacturing plant.

“We partnered with a local print shop,” Graham said. “We guaranteed a three day turnaround.”

The print shop started delivering BuildASign’s orders late. So Graham and his partners arranged to print their own signs in the shop after hours.

“We went to the print shop after it closed and worked until two or three or four in the morning to get our stuff out,” Graham said. “It wasn’t a great deal for us. We were paying for labor and we were doing the labor.”

In 2005, BuildASign leased 1,200 square feet of space and a printer and got into the sign making business.

“We had been pulled into it by necessity,” Graham said.

By the end of 2006, BuildASign had $3 million in revenue and $7.8 million the second year and then $10 million in 2008, $12 million in 2009, $20 million in 2010 and $30 million last year.

“This year, we’ll do $45 million to $50 million,” Graham said.

Graham graduated in the fall of 2005 from the University of Texas School of Law after two and a half years but he hasn’t taken the Texas Bar Exam yet.

“It’s not something that I need for the job that I have,” he said.

His parents were OK with his decision. His mom is now a retired librarian with the City of Austin’s Milwood branch and his dad served as deputy executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

“If they had been making the decisions for me they would have advised having a backup plan,” he said.

But instead of taking a high paying job right out of law school with a big firm, he really wanted to “give the entrepreneurship thing a go,” he said.

In the summer of 2005, Graham quit a legal internship once BuildASign started getting some sales.

The company turned a profit its first month.

To work full time, the partners needed to get paid. They quit their day jobs in two shifts and by the end of January 2006 they were all making a salary as full time employees.

“We haven’t taken any venture capital, loans or other investment,” Graham said. “That kind of bootstrap mentality has been with us since the beginning.”

The company operated “lean” with a little l, meaning they watched every penny that they spent. They also subscribed to what came to be known as Eric Ries’ Lean Startup movement, which means deploying a product quickly and adapting and changing to meet customers’ needs.

“We were able to build our customer acquisition tool with sweat equity,” Graham said.

BuildASign spread the word about its services through Google Adwords and it hired its employees from listings on Craigslist.

“Our business, just in its nature, is a lot more conducive to bootstrapping,” Graham said. “You’ve got to have a gradual and scalable model to bootstrap your business. So that you are funding yourself as you move forward.’’

Most of BuildASign’s growth has come organically. It has bought a few companies, but acquisitions make up a small percentage of its revenue growth, Graham said.

“When we do acquire companies we’re looking for companies that fit into our existing business model,” he said.

Philanthropy is a big part of BuildASign’s company culture

Last year, BuildASign acquired ReflectiveRealEstate.com, which made reflective real estate yard signs and Carwrap.com, a vehicle graphics company.

BuildASign offers other products in addition to signs: bumper stickers, business cards, magnets, license plates and flags.

A couple of years ago, BuildASign began selling into Canada. A year later, the company expanded into the U.K. and six months ago, it entered the German market. Still, international sales make up less than 5 percent of revenue.

BuildASign’s largest market is serving small businesses with the real estate industry making up the largest segment.

Consumers order everything form novelty license plates to dorm room signs.

But business isn’t just about making a buck.

“Philanthropy has been a part of our business since the beginning,” Graham said.

BuildASign donates cash or signs to nonprofit organizations. It has given away $450,000 to more than 400 nonprofit organizations. Seven employees spend their time focused on the giving program.

In July of 2008, BuildASign started a program to give away 10,000 welcome home banners to families of returning military. They sold out in a week and a half.

“Ultimately we made more than 250,000 banners worth $7.8 million,” Graham said. “That’s been a fantastic program from all accounts.”

Graham doesn’t just donate money and goods. He donates his time. He stays actively involved in the Austin community.

“I was born here. I’ve a got a nine month old daughter. She’s going to grow up here,” he said. “We have an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up to make a difference.”

Austin Under 40 selected Graham as “Austinite of the Year” last March.

“Dan is a strong community leader who contributes his time to a variety of non-profit and City of Austin development boards,” Lance Parisher, Austin Under 40 co-chair, said in a statement. “He also mentors young professionals and emerging entrepreneurs in the hope that they can learn from his success.”

Kevin Koym, founder of Tech Ranch Austin, said Graham serves as a mentor to “many, many, many entrepreneurs.”

He’s successful because he’s very focused, Koym said.

“He experiments as he did with BuildASign by trying it out as a consulting project,” Koym said. “Then he focused in on something that was working. As we say in Lean Startup practices, he found a product market fit and he just grew the hell out of it.”

Graham’s personality is also a great asset, he said.

“He’s really approachable and very friendly and because of that people naturally want to support him and he deserves it,” Koym said.

Graham serves as a great example to other entrepreneurs, he said.

“He can teach other entrepreneurs that good guys really can be successful,” Koym said. “If you’re focused and a great guy helping other people and things like that then you can really be successful.”

Out of the four founders, three are still owners and only Graham and J.R. Kraft are still active in the business. Kraft serves as the company’s president.

BuildASign has grown from just four employees initially to 230 employees and is currently hiring 10 more.

Four months ago, BuildASign expanded into 22,000 square feet of office space and another 60,000 square feet of manufacturing and warehouse space in North Austin.

Venture Capitalists and Private Equity firms approach Graham all the time about investing, but he isn’t interested.

“We’re doing very well,” Graham said. “We don’t need to take money from anyone. We’ve been profitable since our first month in business. We think there’s a huge opportunity in the market in front of us.”

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