Photo by Amy Denney
As a novice CEO learning on his feet, Dan Graham says he reads many books on building a business and frequently networks over coffee. The other thing Graham often does, he admits, is make mistakes.
But the youthful entrepreneur said he thinks it is how he and his employees have reacted to those mistakes that has helped BuildASign.com, located near Metric Boulevard and Braker Lane, grow from four employees and $3.3 million in revenue in 2006, when the company was founded, to 230 employees and a projected $50 million in annual revenue in 2012.
“Really, I think the key is figuring out how to ... adjust your own behavior and how you adjust the behavior of the teams that you’re leading to behave in a more successful way,” he said.
Graham shares his missteps and successes with other small-business owners through a mentor program at Tech Ranch Austin, a local accelerator for startups in Northwest Austin, and at 1 Semester Startup, a class offered at The University of Texas.
He also sits on the board of the Austin Chamber of Commerce; works with Austin Pro Bono, an organization that connects volunteers with nonprofits; and volunteers at Lights. Camera. Help, a program that encourages nonprofits to use film to connect with donors.
Austinite of the Year
Graham’s volunteering and success have earned him nominations two years in a row for the Austin Under 40 Awards, which is given out by the Austin’s Young Women’s Alliance and Young Men’s Business League to residents who are successful in business and dedicated to community service.
This year, he won the Business and Entrepreneurship category and went on to win Austinite of the Year.
“Without a doubt, it’s the team that we’ve built,” he said of the win. “Our strategy with going into any new market, approaching any new business opportunity, is to get the right people on board. We spend a lot of time with a lot of resources making that happen.”
Graham and three friends—Blake Borgeson, JR Kraft and Ty Barho—launched BuildASign.com as a way for people to design their own signs using the company’s online templates.
At first, the group pitched their idea for an interactive sign design website to local sign companies, but the group was rejected again and again.
“We had a lot of sign companies tell us that they didn’t think the Internet would work as a medium for selling signage or they didn’t have sophisticated enough bookkeeping to get a handle on the cost savings that we were pitching them,” he said.
But if success is the greatest vindication, then the concept has proven itself 10 times over.
Nor are Graham and his partners are not stopping at signs. The company just introduced custom business card printing and recently launched EasyCanvasPrints.com, a website where customers upload their own photos and have them printed on a large canvas to hang as artwork.
“We kind of view ourselves as a custom print company,” Graham said.
A bunch of do-gooders
One of the main tenets of the culture at BuildASign.com is philanthropy. CEO Dan Graham said he encourages employees to volunteer for any of Austin’s nonprofit organizations.
“One of the things that people don’t realize is that within those 6,000 nonprofits that we have, there are 7,000 empty board seats. There’s a huge opportunity here in Austin to get involved,” Graham said.
The company recently launched a program in which it will match donations employees give to nonprofits up to a certain amount, and Graham said he has more incentives planned.
In 2011, BuildASign.com donated products to 350 local nonprofits and made more than $200,000 of in-kind sign donations.
Youth2Seniors, a nonprofit that fosters relationships between children and seniors, has saved roughly $800 in the last year through the BuildASign.com program.
“It allowed us to do things that we wouldn’t have been able to do,” Youth2Seniors founder Adelle Connors said.
Additionally, BuildASign.com offers discounts or free signs to nonprofits for events and fundraisers, and profits from those sales are funneled back into the program.
Another BuildASign.com program sends free “welcome home” signs to families with relatives in the military. Graham estimates that since the program’s inception in 2008, BuildASign.com has donated more than $7.5 million worth of signs, or about 210,000 “welcome home” signs.