Will it be fun? // Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corporation //

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Welcome back to another edition of the
better sign shop podcast as always.

Well, not as always today,
I'm flying solo Bryant here.

Uh, I've got an extra special guest
is somebody that I have looked up

to for a long time in the industry.

I used to read every article
that the guest today published,

uh, his work has always been,
um, Very inspirational for me.

So, really excited to
chat with our guest, Mr.

Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corporation.

Uh, this should be a great conversation.

Uh, I hate that Peter
and Michael are not here.

Uh, They're just going
to miss out on the fun.

So without further ado, our
extra special guests, Mr.

Dan Sawatsky from Imagination Corporation.

All right, guys, we are joined by our
extra special guest and hero of mine and

Peter's, uh, Michael, I don't know where
you're at, man, but you're missing out.

We've got Mr.

Dan Sawatsky, legend in the sign industry.

I super excited to have you on Dan.

I really don't think you need
an introduction here, but, uh, I

just wanted to say It's been very
inspirational for me over the years,

reading all of your magazine articles,
looking at your work, studying it.

Uh, so it's really a treat to
have you on to the podcast.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.

So I'm

sure that there are going to be
a lot of listeners out there that

know who you are, Dan, that know
your work, that have seen your work.

But for those of our listeners
that don't want, don't you tell

us a little bit about yourself and
your business and your background.

Okay, I've been in the sign
business practically forever.

I started at age 14.

I lived in a very small town and my
brother entered a competition to paint

windows for for an event and he won 15.

This was back in the late
sixties, 15 was a fortune.

Something that took my dad, um,
a better part of a day to earn.

And, uh, we could do it in an hour.

So it was like, Holy cow.

This is a cool business.

So I was 14 years old.

I got my mom's Christmas cards and I
made up a sample book and I hitchhiked

to town because I was too young to drive.

And, uh, sold, uh, windows in that first
year I made 600 bucks after school while

I was still in grade 10 and it was,
uh, I couldn't think of a better way

to make a living than, than do that.

So, so

at 14,

that's amazing.

And it pulled it off again the next year
and made double that or triple that.

I can't remember.

It was a long time ago.

And then I started a sign
shop still in high school.

Uh, made horrible science and, uh,
really horrible, um, and right from

the start, I wasn't satisfied with.

I mean, I did my 1st truck and the 2nd
door on the truck absolutely bored me.

Um, so I was determined
not to be that sign writer.

But instead, do creative stuff.

So, I mean, uh, MDO comes in 4x8 sheets,
but you don't have to sell it that way.

They, uh, they make jigsaws to fix that.

So, we were cutting our stuff out and
layering it right from the very start.

And that's all we've sold
is, I've never sold, or sold

very, very few ordinary signs.

Uh, or that term ordinary and

I don't think I've ever seen anything
that you've done that ordinary

and that's no, I mean, I mean, I
asked when I did my workshops, I asked

people, what percentage of your work
would you be happy to see in a trade

magazine or enter into a competition?

And most people are happy with 2%, 5%.

Which boggles my mind is
like, why can't it be 95%?

Cause you can't hit a hundred,
but you can do pretty close.

So that's what we did.

That from the start and
people say, Oh, that's cool.

You can say no to, to ordinary stuff now,
but I've always said no to ordinary stuff.

And you know, I mean, you asked
Dan and Nelly, what do you do if

a customer comes to you with a
horrible idea that his nephew drew?

Oh, and my solution is, is, uh, try and
explain that that's not going to work for

him, try and sell them something better.

And if, if they won't go, don't do
it, walk away because tomorrow you're

known for exactly what you do today.


I don't want to be the bottom feeder.

I want to be the top cutting edge.


that makes sense.

So, you, in high school, you
started your shop, you said

you made some horrible signs.

Like, what was, what was, do any
of those projects stick out to you?

Like, what was, what was the horrible
sign that you were like, okay, like,

this is not where we want to be.

Like, this is actually what we want to do.

Well, I mean, everything was
hand drawn in those days.

And, I mean, I was broke.

I had no money, you know, like every kid.

And, and the layouts weren't that good.

The brushwork was horrible.

They were always done in a hurry
because I was always in a hurry

and, uh, the science reflected that.

But, but as I, you know, we try and
raise the bar with every single project.


When you do that, your signs get
much better in a real big hurry.

Was there, was there any like particular
project when you were first starting out

that was like, okay, like we've raised
the bar here and, and like what that it

does, are there any that stick out to
you when you first got started that were

like, Hey, we've taken a big leap here.

And what that project was like.

Well, every single project, uh, I mean,
you become known for as a creative

problem solver and so every project
quickly becomes out of your reach.

I mean, every project, even to this
day, we bid project not having a

clue how we're going to pull it off.

Um, but we always do.

We don't always make money,
but we always pull it off.


That's the curse of the sign maker, right?


We can do that.


figure it out.


I mean, I mean, it used to be this sign
shop is what that's where you went.

If you wanted something creative,
if you wanted a parade float, if you

wanted, you know, something unusual
to make your business stand out.

You go see your local sign guy.

Now you go for a vinyl sign that
everybody else does, which is sad.



Uh, so, like, tell us about
Imagination Corporation today.

Like, what does the business look like
today versus back when you first started?

I mean, Imagination Corporation
started out very small.

It was just my wife and I.

She helped out.

And we would do stuff.

My son Peter worked with
me since he was little.

I mean, Imagination Corporation,
my journey has been, uh, various.

In this big circle, it's it, I started out
doing window splashes, went to fine art.

Um, I worked with some 40
galleries and stuff from there.

I went in always doing
signs on the side at least.

Uh, and then went into historical murals.

I've done 125 all across
Canada and the US.

And then I discovered, uh, as, as my
quest to do wilder things, the theme park

industry has been a huge part of our.

Our repertoire and the tourism
industry because you can sell

more creative work there.

Most often I haven't
sold work in my own town.

Like, you know, people say
to me, Oh, I could never sell

work like you make in my town.

Well, I can.

You know, and why do they bypass you to
phone me and I'm a thousand miles away?

Is because that's what I'm known for.

And I think more people could do
the creative stuff if they, if

they just put their heart into it.

Start with your own sign.

Your, your, the, every sign shop should
have an award winning sign up front.

You know, the best they can do.

Even if it takes them
five years to make it.

In their spare time.

There's no reason why you
shouldn't have that kind of sign.

And if you walk the walk yourself,
people want to buy into that success.

And how do they do it
is they buy your work.

So, you know, I, and then
promote it on the internet.

I think it's easier
than it ever used to be.

You know, before people could only
find me in the phone book or if

they happen to drive by a sign.

Now they type in creative sign and chances
are mine will pop up or dimensional sign.

No matter where you are.

So it's

again, with the internet,
it's become easier to share

your work.

I believe so.

I mean, in, in 19, no, 2008,
when that 2009, the big

downturn, uh, it affected us too.

And there was a ton of many,
many weeks I went out to the shop

and there was literally no work.

So, so what do you do?

Uh, build a sample, build your own
sign, uh, and that year I, I committed

to doing 12 major samples which are
still hanging on my wall with the

intent of, of when, when things improve,
I'll have the samples to sell work

because how do I describe what I did?

Like, it's impossible
to describe what I did.


I gotta show people.


I gotta show people what I did.

So, those samples, I mean, I
sent them into competitions,

I sent them to Sinecraft, you
probably read articles on them.

Uh, you know, a lot of the work
that is featured in the magazines.

Uh, is stuff that we've
done as samples, um, or

even just the pieces that you were
doing on your own home on like your CNC

router were like mind blowing for me.

Yeah, again, I, our site
shop is in our backyard.

I've always worked from home.

That's a conscious choice.

I made.

Before kids even came along and,
and, uh, it's been a great choice.

So I'm, I'm in a residential area.

I have residential zoning.

How do you, and so the, the city says
I can only put a very small sign up

front, but it doesn't, the city didn't
tell me what kind of house I can build.

So, I mean, people screech to a stop in
front of my house, and they're out there

taking pictures, and then they see my
little sign, and you see them whip out

their phone, and Google my name, and
boom, they know who I am, they know what

I do, they know where I've done my work.


tremendous is that?

That's like, that's the
definition in my book?

Of living outside the box.

Yeah, I mean, I

mean, if I could say if I
could put a title, I mean, you

probably have a different one.

But if when it went, when, when
the good Lord above calls your

name, I would put on your tombstone
that quote living outside the box.

Was a lifestyle to me, to me, that's
exactly that's exactly what I've

learned from you over the years is
how to look at things differently.


Not not necessarily in 2 D.

not necessarily even even 3 D.

nowadays, like, we're, we're looking
at things differently each and every

day, but you had this vision so
beyond the typical sign shop owner.

I don't even, I would, I would, I
would probably go as far as to say,

you're not even a sign shop anymore.

Uh, you, I don't think you ever

have been.

I still consider myself a sign
shop, but not an ordinary sign.

And, and it, I mean, it's interesting.

I, I don't believe I can sell my
work either in terms of if you,

if I, I don't do cold calls.

I've tried in the past.

They don't work for me because I can't
sell you something unless you want.

And most people, they're thinking of
an ordinary sign for a set amount of

dollars where I showcase my work and
people drive up my driveway regularly.

In fact, on weekends, I have to keep my
gates closed or my yard is full of people.

And if 100 90 of them
will go away with nothing.

I'll send them away.

They'll, they'll look and they'll look and
it's like, Oh, that's kind of out there.

Or it's, you know, and
they know it's not Walmart.

It's not going to be cheap.

Everything is custom, you know, and
everything is obviously expensive.

So 90 percent will price
themselves off my yard immediately.

And, and then 10, 10 of those people will,
I'll talk to in depth, maybe give them

a little tour of the shop, my studio.

Four of those will go to design,
one will be, one will build and,

and we actually, uh, qualify our
customers with five questions.

Everyone who gets to that,
into that small 10 or 4%, we

actually have a test for them.

They don't know they're being
tested, but I'm interviewing.

Sit down in my studio
and let's have a chat.

It's the same way I test employees.

They don't know they're running
a test, but everything's a test.

And so, in my mind, I'm
asking five questions.

And I'll interview the customer or
prospective customer, preferably

my son and I do it together.

And then, uh, we send them away and
say, we'll call you in a few days and

let you know if you are a customer.

I love that.

You guys are like totally
flipping this script

and the five questions are,
and the customer doesn't

know what the questions are.

This is questions we asking.

Inside the studio.

Wait, are they the same five questions?

Yes, they are.

Would you like to share
them with us here today?

Yes, sure.

I'd love to.

First question is, will it be fun?

Will it make me laugh?

Will it be fun?

Will it be fun?

Life is too short to not have fun.

So the job has

to be Wait, is Will it be fun
and will it make you laugh?


that the Same question.

Same question.



Is it going to be fun
for us and our staff?

You know, are we going to love this job?

Next question is, do we
have creative control?

If the customer is going to tell me how
to do the job, they're not my customer.

It doesn't mean I ignore my customer.

It means that I have creative control.

You've come to me as an expert.

Please trust me.

If you don't trust me,
you're not my customer.

Go away.

So if you bring me nephew art and
you insist on your nephew art,

thank you so much for coming in.

I'll see you around.

And you have to be that brutal.

Because if you put out a piece
of crap, you're, that's what

you're known for immediately.

Let's say, yeah, you don't
want to slap your name on it.

Third question, do we have time?

I mean, right now we're booked
into 2024 and pushing into 2025.

So if you're not willing, if
you come to me as a customer

and you need a sign next week.

Thank you so much for coming
in, but you're not my customer.

Please come when you have more time.

And I have more time because I'm
not going to, I don't work overtime

in my shop and neither do my staff.

So, uh, your time crunch
is not my problem.

That's your problem.

You know, go get a temporary sign,
pay a deposit and get on my list.

Cause that's the only way to get on
my list is, is a sizable deposit.


And you guys are booking
into 2025 already.

We're not full in 2024, but some
projects already going into 2025

and we're designing into 2026.


All right.


what's the next question?

Fourth question.

Is the project good for us?

Will it raise our bar?

Will it improve our reputation?

Cause we know it's good for the customer.

It's going to bring
them a ton of business.

He'll make hopefully a ton of money.

Based on the sign we do for him,
but is the project good for us?

Does it take us in a
direction we want to go

and do you physically ask
them that question or like

these are questions?

Okay, based on the interview in turn.

I'll beat around that but in
turn, okay This is questions

Pete and I ask each other gotcha.

And the last question we ask
is is there enough money?

Because we know we're going to change
things as the sign goes through, we know

that we're going to make mistakes, or
things are going to go wrong, or it's

going to take longer than we think.

It always does, especially
in a complex project.

So that has to be built in from the
start, because it quotes a quote.

And we never increase our price.

Well, okay.


I have, I have 2 follow
up questions to that.

The 1st 1 is ever since you put that
policy in place, those 5 questions,

have you ever the 1st question is, have
you ever deviated from those answers?


And we read it every single time.


And you've regretted it every single time.


So, as a follow up to that,
I would like to hear about.

Why that has bothered you?

Like, what was it?

Is it the interaction with the customer?

Did it not meet those


Either I didn't make money or because
I wanted the job too bad and I bid

it too low, or it won't satisfy me.

And I knew I could have done better.

And that drives me nuts.

And you thought you could have did better.

And that drives you nuts.

Was it, was it just like a low
Lear project or was it just like

the, the clients kind of demands?


I mean, I do a lot of the sales or
first initiation and we, we ask these

questions and then we'll do a run at the
design where I do a run at the design

with Peter looking on my shoulder or my
daughter back looking on my shoulder.

And they go, Oh, that's cute dad.

But what if we did this?

And it becomes that much crazier.

And then the question we ask
ourselves is are we willing to risk

the job to do that kind of work?

And if the answer is yes, then
we don't even pitch the lesser

design We only pitch the cool one
because most times we go into a job.

There is no budget If a customer
is concerned about money,

there's not enough money.

He's better off to go get
a plane signed somewhere.


So this is my second question.

You mentioned your son.

I would assume your son is a
partner in this business with you.

He's he's the majority owner.


he's the majority owner now.


Good for him.



We're going to have to go here soon.

He's sitting right beside him here.

I don't half a percent.

You own a half of percent in the business.

Why only a half?

Okay, I have so many

questions, but let me ask you this.

I'm 69 years old.

I don't need to own it.

And man, besides he's better
than I am at everything.

I mean, I trained him.

I mean, how often do you get to
train your boss when you're little?

And if he, if he, if he's
not good, it's my fault.

I screwed up.


That's the ultimate ownership
mentality right there.

Has there ever been a time
where you and Pete saw a project

differently and had a difference of

opinion every single


I mean, how do you come to a resolution?

He's the owner I can defer to him.

Okay, so it's

just the amount of equity.

There's no creative

there Oh, I mean we argue and sometimes I
say look at the customer won't you know,

like we just did a design for a mini golf
Uh, that was the owner wanted a logging

theme and Peter pitched robot dinosaur
logging theme, which was very cool.

And so, uh, I, I pitched, I said, I don't,
the customer's not going to go there.

I don't, I don't think
so, but I did the drawing.

Anyhow, we did a concept drawing
of, for both versions and the owner

sadly didn't take it, which happens.

I mean, I've got.

Full of designs that have not yet
sold and the keyword is not yet

because we can repitch it just

in a different application
different type of idea.

Yeah, there'll be a customer
that that is braver.


what do you call that?

You call that your, your

secret stash?

Yeah, we got, we got, there's
a lot of secrets that The dream

stash, the imagination station.

I mean, I'll never get to build
all the crazy ideas in my head.

And nor will Peter, but we build a lot of


Yeah, you guys have
gotten your fair share.

I will say that.

It's amazing.

So do you do the concept drawings before?

They do a deposit or like, Hey, we think
this could be a fit and like, Hey, you

got to the deposit before we even do

the teaser.

But, but I explained to the customer
that, that an idea like design work

needs to be paid for before I do it.

Because I, once I show you
something, I can't take it back.

And then that being said, I'll do
you a teaser with the understanding

that you don't own this drawing.

It's mine.

If you want it, you have to pay for it.


And then one drawing, I mean, most
times our design contracts are in

the tens of thousands of dollars.

So they'll get one free low res drawing.

And then, and then once they pay
for design, they'll get their 15

or 20 that's part of the package.



It's such a totally different process than
like the average sign shop, which is why

I was so excited for this conversation
because like you, you take the, the

average model and like totally flip it

on its head.

Yeah, I mean, if you come to me and say,
I want a house number for my house, sorry,

we just, you know, it's a small job for
us is, you know, just like 10 grand.

So if you want to pay 10 grand for
a house number, that's fine, but

nobody does because that's silly.

But we'll, if you want us to design
your house and do all the fancy crazy,

you know, and house numbers part of
it, and there's a package that's, you

know, 50, 000, let's stop and, and the
house number won't come in at 10, 000,

it'll come in at, you know, a thousand
bucks as part of a bigger package.

So, like, what type of
projects are you guys?

Doing most now?

Is it still like theme parks and, and like

tours and stuff forth?

Theme are, yeah.

Theme parks, uh, are a big part of it.

And, um, I, I was a keynote speaker at
a theme park convention five years ago,

and in the, and this was in Florida.

There was, I don't, there was
40,000 people that convention.

It was big and in the
audience was a farmer.

And he said, come to my farm.

And I went, okay, cool.

Come to your farm, you
know, here's my fee.

And he said, fine, we need, you need
to book three days plus travel time.

So it was five days in Nebraska.

Turns out this firm has seized,
uh, upwards of they're gonna hit

half a million guests pretty quick
in six weeks on an annual basis.

And now we do a semi load of
signs for them every year.

And that farm is, the farm business is
a cool business and they share, I just

spoke at another conference, a farm,
tourism farm conference in the spring.

And we now have, I think, 15 farms
that we're doing design work for.


And is it just like

a, like they, like a tourism farm?

Like people come in to...

Pumpkin farms,

you know.


oh, gotcha.

Oh, okay.



Makes sense.

And the apple cider is and
all that kind of stuff.

Uh, gotcha.



Like corn mazes and pumpkin patches.


I mean, that's a business I didn't
know existed five years ago.

Yeah, yeah, those are increasingly
popular in my area in the

backwoods of West Virginia.

So I can imagine outside
of a major market, it would

be a very sizable business.

So and then the theme park industry and
then tourism industry is big for us too.

You know, resorts and things

when you weren't quite as well known as
you are now, like, did it, like, what was

different, I guess, like, did you have
these questions initially, or this is

like the model that you've like crafted
over the lifetime in the industry.

When I started doing workshops, I put
those, you know, articulated those

questions that we, we've always done
that, but not in a formal sense or, or

what are the questions, um, you know.

But we've always had
that sort of that test.

Yeah, I mean, it's, it goes
back to when I did murals.

You know, how do you
become famous for murals?

I was asked to do murals in a
small town on Vancouver Island

in British Columbia here.

Uh, and so we went there, painted a
mural, and again, a light went on.

It's a matter of looking and seeing
what's available in terms of opportunity.

And I said, people are going to come
to this town because of the murals.

It's a good town to do art.

And so a year later, we moved
there and, you know, the tourism

went from zero to 400, 000 people
every year and very, very quickly.

And the first question they had, because
there was like 30 murals through town,

which I did seven, is who did the murals?

And can I talk to them?

Because people from West Virginia want
to come, you know, drop in and, and, uh,

say, hey, this would go good in my town.

So who do we talk to?

And they would end up on my doorstep.

And, and I would take the time to
give them a tour of the town and they

went, Hey, would you want to come
to our town and, and sell this idea?

And it's sure.

So two weeks later, I'd be
on a plane to West Virginia.

And, and, uh, I'd talk to their
Rotary Club and they'd host a thing.

And I'd say, Hey, let me
do up some artwork for you.

Uh, and then if you do a limited
print of this, you can sell

them and pay for the mural.

And so a month later, they'd have limited
print and, and I'd be in their town doing

the first historical mural in their town.

And that would turn into three or four
murals because they know who I am.

And then, so now I'm, I'm
known in West Virginia.

People go there and say, who did that?

Well, here's the guy in British Columbia.

So I mean, you know, in 10
years and did 125 murals.

It's just a exploded.



See that makes so much sense
because you like you're helping

them almost like finance in a way
of like, Hey, here's the artwork.


Here's what to do.

Like, here's my fee.

I'm not going to discount it.

I'm worth.

This is going to bring 10 times
that to you guys in tourism.


Here's a way to pay for this,
without you guys being out

of pocket for it.

I mean, to be successful is not hard.

You just gotta wear out
lots of running shoes.

And run like crazy.

You know, it's, it's, I mean, I did
it, I did it in fine art, I did it in

murals, now we're doing it in theme
park signs and dimensional signage.

You know, and we're doing it
in the Hazelnut Inn, that's

my son's project next door.

It's, you know, it's...

It could be done in anything.

You just got to do it
better than anybody else.

And, and within the time, what's

the, what's the hazelnut in like a bed and

breakfast on steroids, I mean, it
started, uh, my son and his wife, when

they got married eight years ago or
nine years ago or something, they, they

wanted to stay in a castle, so they
had to go to Europe on the plane home.

They went, we can build a castle.

So, so a year later, they went
down to Hobbiton in New Zealand.

And Hobbiton is a movie set.

There's nothing there, but
everybody wants to stay in a Hobbit.

So we can build a Hobbit home.

We call it the Underhill.

And, and then there's a third suite.

So, okay, well now let's build
this thing and it's being built.

Uh, we get frustrated by customers
that will go 70, 80 percent of the

way, which is still a long ways.

And so every few years we take on a
project, our house, I built a mini

golf back in 2000, and now we're
building the end, which we call our

stupid project is there is no budget.

There's no limit to creativity.

It's going to be off the wall.

And so if you, if you go to hazelnut in.

com and you look at this thing, we've
been, imagine our utmost creativity for

five years, and it's not finished yet.

Cause we squeeze it in
between our other jobs.

There's 4, 000 people signing up.

Ready to book a room and we don't
know when it's going to open.

We don't know how much it's going
to cost yet, but it won't be cheap.

And you don't need to be.

And what does that project do?

Is that, that has already
been featured magazine.

That's already won awards.

It's already, and it's not finished.

So it raises our bar exponentially.


And it's your own project.

It's a


I mean, it's, I, I've seen up to five
and it's right next door to our house.

So when people stop, they just go
googa and stupid in front of our place

and take all these pictures and they
post them to their Facebook page.

And what are they doing?

They're advertising us.

Hey, do you take pictures of them
with their jaws just wide open?

To me, that would be interesting
just to come out and see like a

line of cars in your driveway,
people with their mouths hanging

up and taking pictures of all that.


I mean, we're in a dinky little
town where, you know, we're

only 3, 500 people in this town.


And that was, that was one of the
talking points that we had, right?

So how much does location matter for your


Location is absolutely critical
and not at all necessary.

Now we are on a road that goes up to a
lake that sees a million visitors a year.

So that's intentional, but at the
same token, I don't necessarily

sell signs to those people.

Um, they know the people I sell signs to.

So, so locate, I mean, people
say, Oh, I live in West Virginia.

I could never sell your kind of work.

Uh, silly you.

Yes, you could.

Uh, number one is build a webpage
that showcases what you can do.

It can be samples.

It can be drawings.

Uh, it doesn't have to be a hundred pages.

It's only five of your best ones.

And that's what you become known
for because nowadays is, I mean,

if you go out for dinner, you
Google it, where do you want to go?

I don't know.

You type in something and it pops up.

So you just got to be so
good that it comes up.

I mean, it's, I do a blog every
single day and I view that as very

critical part of our advertising.

We get 20, 000 hits a month.

Now I'm only looking for one customer.

I'm only looking for one.

So your odds go up.

And then you can ask your five
questions and pair that 20, 000,

that people down to the job you want.



many contact you in like
the course of a week?

A lot.

I mean, no, but I mean, and we don't
chase, I mean, I was just at a conference

and, and, you know, a customer comes
up to me and, Oh, can you, can you,

here's my card, can you follow up?

So, no, I won't follow up.

Here's my card.

If you're interested, call me
because I only have so much time.

I don't chase work.

We can't put, Peter says
he's, you can't push a rope.

They have to beg me to do
work and they have to answer

five yeses without knowing it

is like, do you have it?

Like if you like developed like this
radar for, for like kicking out people

that are going to waste your time in
the process, well, everybody talks


Yeah, that's what I was gonna say like
it would especially with like the work

that you do I can imagine there would
be a Lot of people that are like, hey,

we want to do this We want to do that
and we think you could do it really

well and then you know, like yeah I

mean, I was at a farm last week and and
I met those people at the conference

and it's called okay For me to come
visit is gonna be for three days.

It's gonna be 5, 000 plus expenses
And then, and then the drawings are

basically a thousand bucks a sheet
for, for a concept drawing, you know,

a concept drawing looks like that.


So that's a thousand bucks.

And I can do three of those in a day,
which customer doesn't need to know, but

it's, it, you know, and, and the design
package has to be paid for in advance.

So, so I got a check from
this customer for 20, 000.

So that weeds out all the people
who are the wannabes in a hurry.

You gotta want me.

You gotta have a vision.

You gotta, you know, trust me.

And you gotta like buy into
the process wholeheartedly.

Otherwise, it's just not a good fit.

And then, you know, that customer
and they get to talk and say, I'm

not trying to sell you anything.

But understand if you want me
or if you want a piece for next

year, you have to book by January
or you're not going to get it.

And I might be sold up in January.

I don't know.

That's next year.

So what is like the, what's like
the average scope of a product?

Like, where do you guys
usually come in on?

Like if we take like a mini golf,

at a million bucks of which
our budget is at least half.

I mean, we just did one.

It came in at 900.


But are they approaching you at like the.

The very formation of it.

Like, Hey, we know we're
going to do a mini golf.

It's going to

be Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, you have
to trust me is I don't want to

do a jungle mini golf I don't
want to do a pirate mini golf.

I don't want it all the common
ones Go away, not interested.

But from the very inception, like
they're coming to you and saying,

Hey, we want to do a mini golf.

We want you to do it.

It's going to be here.


They've seen my work.

They not, again, I'm not Walmart.

If you're trying to save money, uh,
don't do the job or hire someone else.

Um, you're not going
to save money with me.

I'm going to deliver good value.

But, uh, I'm not a bargain
in terms of price alone.

If, if price is your
concern, I'm not your guy.

Yeah, I,

I just trying to understand like, the
scope of, of everything that you guys do.

Like what's involved in a project

for you guys.




Typically there's a preliminary design
first, where I showed it at one drawing.


Like the concept, if, if people
are under it or on it, it needs

engineering, which it's gonna add.

Uh, we just.

It can add significantly to the
price, which we get, you know,

I do the design, hand it to my
engineer, my engineer stamps it.

And brings back and that's required
for building permits and stuff,

typically, and then, uh, and then it
goes into this studio for fabrication.

We've got a very talented team,
and we've got a structural welder.

We've got, you know, uh,
there's, uh, 4 of us weld.

Um, and then, and a lot
of it is pure grunt work.

It's hard work.

You're tying glass, you're bending steel,
you're, you're troweling cement, you're

carving it, and then, and then the paint.

So, yeah,

I can just imagine, like, start to
finish, like, how many hours do you

guys invest in like a mini golf?

Well, typically, if we got 12 months
of the year, we're gonna do one,

possibly two, um, major projects.


And then a few minor ones where, you
know, a farm wants Two signs or one

entrance or something, and we can
do, you know, three or four of those.

So, and that'll fill a year.

I mean, our projects, I mean,
signed, uh, signs of time just asked

me for some articles or some, uh,
pieces for the contest this year.

And he said, I don't have it.

Isn't going to give you this
year because our projects started

before last year's contest.


Started and we haven't finished them yet.

They're not installed.


I, and it is just like it,
the stuff that you guys do is

such, so immersive, you know?


And that's, I, I think that's why Pete was
like, you guys are not even a sign shop.

Like you, you guys build experiences
mostly what I would, yeah.

A sign is, A sign is, you know,
most people define a sign as a

flat board with letters on it.


. That's not a sign that I
don't know what that is.

A sign to me is anything that
draws attention to my customers,

product, service or business.

That can include the building, the
landscaping, the features, you know,

why can't it be a 30 foot dinosaur, you
know, or a robot that's 30 feet high?

I mean, we just did that project for
South Dakota, the big robot, and I

said, okay, what is your objective here?

And he says, well, we have a busy road
by our place, I want to stop traffic.

I said, okay, that's, you know, that's
not a cheap project, but yes, I can do it.

You know, and we have, we have a standard
in our shop and the standard is, this

is, and it's too easy now because
everybody carries a camera on their phone.

But back in the eighties,
it was the same standard.

Dan, it's called if someone
isn't taking a picture.

where the newspaper isn't up front.

Before I finished installing, I have
failed miserably and I'd never fail.

That's a high


I can tell

you, like, I've only hit that standard
a couple times with the signs that

I've done.

Why not every project?


I agree.

I mean, imagine how fun that,
imagine how fun that is.

And that's a, that's a conversation
I've had with Mike and I, that's

why I hate that he's not on this
one of like, that's why he got into

the sign industry, like to have fun
and make these like creative signs.

And for, I feel like that's why
a lot of people get into the

industry and then it, it just goes.

South somewhere, or like we just
fall into a rutt, um, money.

Do you have it?


Could be.

Do you have any advice for, for
somebody like that, of like, Hey,

like I used to have this desire to
do these super creative signs, and

now I'm like, I'm, I'm in this rutt
of like, Hey, we're, we're not doing

that work that I wanted to be doing.


Fir first.

First, my advice is what
does your sign look like?

Is it the best sign in town?

Will it win an award?

Uh, if it, if it isn't shame on you, time
to time to start your, your, your new

project and, and build your business.

Cause I mean, I've had hundreds of people.

I've had hundreds of people take my
workshop and most of them, or many of them

are people who are exactly, you described
they, they, they, this is what they want

to do business has dragged them way off
this horrible path and why is because.

Uh, well, you buy a new piece of equipment
and the payments are 1500 a month, so you

got to make that payment, you know, in
my, you know, I mean, I, I understand all

that stuff, but it, but it's different.

You got to think differently.

I mean, when we bought our CNC
router, I actually won a competition.

I went down to a science show.

It was either Florida or LA.

I can't remember, uh, ASA show, ISA.

And, um, getting the prize was
anti climatic, because it's called,

here you go, and that was it.

It was just, okay.

I mean, first place in Signs of the Times
magazine doesn't buy you a cup of coffee.


And it doesn't make you a better
person, so you got to get over that.

But it is important, because number
one, it, I mean, When I, we're going

to go around the circle a little
bit here, uh, in 1981, I picked up

a sign magazine and it was Signs of
the Times annual competition issue.

I still got it on my shelf.

It's dog eared.

And I said, someday I will
be good enough to be there.

That was a promise to myself.

I never worked up the courage to
enter for, I don't know, 15 years.

I should have, but I didn't.

So my advice to people is do one sign
this year that is good enough to enter a

competition as a sample and then enter it.

And if you win cool, if you don't.

Well, now you know where the standard is.

You gotta do better next year.

But then, then hang that sample on your
wall, and that becomes a sales tool.

Next year, do a better sample.

And next year, do a better sample.

And it's, to be, if you want to do
what I do, it's a, between a three and

five year journey, to do it full time.

If, if you're, you know, and then
raise your prices by 20 percent

overall, everything, and scare
all your bad customers away.

That's just good advice.

That 20 percent you scare away will
give you time to work more samples and

you're on your way to becoming what I am.

Simple as that.

Simple as that.

Walk the walk.

Be the, be that guy.

I mean, if you, if you raise your prices,
I, I, I talked to a guy in Alaska.

And he took my workshop eventually.

I went and visited him because I was
bidding a cruise ship at that time.

I went in to shop and he's,
he's in Alaska in a town.

There's no road into this town.

You can only go there by boat or plane.

So he's the only sign shop in town.

And I said, tell me what's
wrong with your business.

And he goes, I'm working endless hours.

Uh, he says, I'm not doing
enough creative work.

Uh, and I'm not making money.

Well, it's simple.

Raise your prices 20%.

And he goes, I'll lose 20
percent of my business.

I said, yes, you will.


Cause it'll be cheap.

It'll be expensive enough that
people can go to another town and

ship their sign in and replace you.

Okay, but those 20% you
don't care about anyhow.

They're not creative work because if
you're doing creative work, you're

the guy you think you gotta go to.

And I said, if you raise your
price 20%, you're now making 30%

more than you were before because
there's no cost attached to that.

That's pure profit.


So now you have.

And you're not working overtime anymore.

So, you know, and then set a project
when I do my samples, I set it just

outside my studio door as I go into
my workshop and everybody in the

world, I know, waste 10 minutes a day.

And that's a very, very
conservative estimate.

You know, don't, don't watch
a CAD video and go work on

your sample for five minutes.

Every day.

So you

put it front and center,
like where you can't miss


And when you get a real crap job
that sucks your soul, reward yourself

with half an hour on your project.

I love this man.

Like, no BS, like, Hey, like, just do it.

And anything less than that is just an
excuse that you don't want to do it.

I mean, I mean, if 20
people took my workshop.

Everybody was going, Oh,
yes, yes, this is cool.

Half of them will never do anything I say.

The other half will do it for a week
and then they'll fall off the wayside.

And you get down to two
will actually listen to me.

And in two years, I guarantee
you they're doing better work.

Way better work.

Do you, uh,

do you stay in touch with the people?

Like, are you, are you
still doing your workshops?


quit now because of...


It's, that was my passion.

It's not my boss's passion.

I got you.


But do you stay in touch with a
lot of the, the sign makers that it

shows and stuff, or they send me pictures.

I mean, it's very gratifying to see
someone send you a picture and say,

Hey, Hey, look what I'm doing now.

And I mean, I helped change
the industry in a small way.

It's not in a small way.

Well, I mean, I, yeah, but
I've influenced people.

I hopefully lose people.

I mean, I love poking people.

You know, I mean, if I met you at
a show and you were saying, Oh, I'd

like to, let's say that's an excuse.

I'll poke you right between
the eyes and say, smarten up.

Don't give me crap.

You know, I don't have time.

Hey, you think I'm not busy?

You know, how is my life different?

You know, if people say, Oh,
you're, you're lucky you're

born under a shining sun.

Uh, Hey, I just had a
heart, not a heart issues.

I just had an open heart surgery.

I did.

My life is no different.

You know, people die around me.

My life is busy.


Business goes south occasion.

I make horrible mistakes that
cost me thousands of the dollar.

Every, my life is no
different than anybody else's.

I'm still a very lucky guy because I've
got family supporting me and I've got,

you know, I've got the most awesome
boss in the world and life is good.

I mean, I'm 69 years old.

I've been in business 55 years.

I have no intention of retiring
Because if I retire what am I gonna do?

I'm gonna come up in the shop and have fun
Well, I started doing that full time at

age 23 So I guess that's when I retired.

It's all in the mindset.

I love that.

Before we close this out, can
we, do you mind if we touch on

like the family business thing?



a little bit.

So when did your son like
take over as majority


Uh, that would be six, seven years ago.

And it required a huge
mindset change on my part.

Right down to, I mean,
just check your ego, dude.

You're not in charge anymore.


what I'm most curious about
is like the transition.

What happened if Peter worked
with me for 14 years and then

he went away for 14 years.

He said, I need to be, I need to
be Peter for a while, not damn son.

I'm like, cool.

And he became an animator.

He got his teaching degree in mathematics.

I mean, he's a smart guy.

And then he came back to help us
build our house, uh, 10 years ago.

And I said, I want to make
any, he taught for six months

and it wasn't what he thought.

So I said, I want to make a deal.

You can't refuse.

Is if you want to come back, I'll bonus
you enough money that you can buy the

business because I don't need money.

So it was a five year plan or
that's what we talked about.

So then we went to see the accountant
and he said, uh, explain to me

what happens if Peter comes back?

And I said, well, the business will go
from doing 350 to over a million a year.

Instantly like that.

And he said, you tell me
you're not in it for the money.

If that's the case, don't
make a deal in five years.

Cause you'll pay too much tax and Peter
will pay too much for the business.

Do it today because this was two
weeks before the end of the year.

Uh, gotcha.

So we wrote up an agreement in the next
two weeks and January 1st came along.

I was no longer a majority
owner of the business.

I owned half a percent.

The next Saturday I was in town
driving to town, doing some errands.

And I went, I just stole the truck.

I didn't ask Peter if I could drive it.

And it was like, in my head, it's
like, you're not in charge anymore.

You can't do this.

So I told my wife and she said,
uh, cause I hadn't owned a vehicle

personally in, in 30 years.



And she said, do you,
do you want a vehicle?

And I went, yeah, I
think I'd like a vehicle.

And she says, what do you want?

And I said, I want a yellow Jeep.

Cause I had one when I was a kid
and she says, why a yellow Jeep?

And I said, well, so I can take the top
off and I can feel the wind in my hair.

And she says, uh, you better hurry.

So I drive a yellow Jeep.

There you go.

So was there like, was
Peter always interested in

running the business?

He's not in love with running the
business as much as I was running a

business, but the dude is talented.

And he's, he humbly says, well, I'm
standing on your shoulders, that's

why he says, you know, everything I
do learn from you and now, but, and

so he's taken it to the next level.

Would you, would you?


Would you attribute that to like the, like
the, the first question, like your first

principle, like, Hey, is this going to be
fun or is it, is it like something else?

Because I talked to a lot of owners that
are in this similar position where like,

Hey, I've, I I'm getting ready to retire.

I'm retirement age.

And like, I want to hand this down.

I would love to hand it down
to family, but family, dude.

May not be interested or

yeah, and and and it's important that
you don't hand it someone that doesn't

want it Like Peter has to be Peter Peter
is better at the business than I am I

mean much better and and much better
businessman I mean we were doing a job in

Trinidad or bidding a job in Trinidad just
when he came on And, and this was like

14 shipping container, 40 foot shipping
containers full of signs and features.

And, and he says, do you
mind if I review the bid?

And I said, no, please do.

And he said, are you
happy with the prices?

I said, yeah, no, I'm
happy with the prices.

So he goes through and he comes
to me and he says, uh, there's

nothing in here for the skits.

How are you getting me in the container?

Why don't we just take our
tractor and push him in?

No, no, he says, the way we ship is
we build our features on a pallet,

custom made steel pallet that barely
fits in the container and it slides in.

We still do that way.


He says, how much does it cost
to build one of those pallets?

And I went, I don't know,
it's part of the feature.

And he says, no.

How much does it cost?

And it, the number we came up with
once we started doing some math,

because Peter is a mathematician,
where 8 feet of pallet cost 500.

Yeah, so is it not insignificant?

No, and, and he said, Plus, you
have to, how long does it take?

And well, you just push it in.

No, he says, you've got, you've got a
guy guiding it, another guy pushing it.

And you've got, you know, we
handle it in our shop, we've got

to take the wheels off you, you
know, and so we put a number to it.

And then he came up with
a price of per foot.

And it got to be, when we
did the math, it was 90, 000.

That I had put in a bid.


And then he says, okay,
what about in Trinidad?

You got to get those things back out.

And I said, well, they're flying
you to Trinidad and I'm there.


But he says, you know, when you're there,
it's called, what color do we paint this?

How do we do this?

Where's the landscaping?

Because you're running
around doing all that stuff.

He says, we're going to double
that bid for getting this

stuff out of the container too.

It was 180, 000 that I
had left on the table.

Customer never blink.

That's Peter.

He's a smart guy.

So he, he, when we go through our bids,
we have the formula because, you know,

people say, how do you cost your stuff?

It's like, it, it boils down to
what, what is your shop rate?

Which is a very, very important number.

And then how long is it going to take?

And then put a buffer in there and
then mark up your materials and, you

know, all that usual, you know, I've
done articles and stuff in Sync.

So it all has to be factored in.

And so, you know, and it boils
down to, and most sign shop owners

forget about this, is number one
is what do you think you're worth?

How much do you want to
make in a year as owner?

So you put that number.

Now that number is sacred because
anything that cuts into that

number comes out of your pocket.

So, if you have to buy a new computer
next year, the company has got to

have enough money to buy that computer
or it comes out of your pocket.

If you need a new car or new software
or new blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,

blah, that all, that, that all.

And then what it, your employees
too, because everyone else

gets paid before you do.

So, you know, those are all important, you
know, as you calculate your shop rate and

what is stuff worth and all that stuff.


so good to hear you say that like that's
like the method that we Practice and teach

and it's not different than than any like
it shouldn't be any different for anybody

else out there, which is nice Even at
the the level of the game that you're at

like, yeah, cuz typical you sell prices
software doesn't work It's but we have a

we have a spreadsheet that we go through
and then there's a fudge factor into that

Saying, you know, you know, again, it goes
back to your five questions because you

know, stuff is always going to go wrong.

It's always going to, you know,
what happens if we make it two

feet taller because it needs to be.

Does the customer have to pay for that?

Uh, the answer is yes, but up front.

Not after the fact.

I want to hear more about the inner
workings of what you and Pete have there.

You know, you just mentioned
that a typical sign shop software

doesn't work for your shop.

That you're using a
spreadsheet of some sort.

Talk to me about some of the
tech stack that you use to make

the imagination station work.

That your dream team work.

Tell me about it.

Well, number one is we, we try and
pay our help better than the industry

by far because they're there.

They're that creative
and they're valuable.

A lot of people say, oh,
staff is nothing but a cost.

Staff is your most valuable asset.

I mean, I get to sign the
jobs and I get all the credit.

But I don't do the work, you know,
there's pieces that I don't even

touch that come into our shop
that have my signature on them.

So, number one is, is the value
of those guys is incredible.

Secondly, is, is, uh, have
the best equipment, you know.

A shop router is cool, but a multicam
will do it better and faster.

But you got to price accordingly and
technology has screwed up the industry

to I, one of the examples I give is,
is, uh, you know, let's say Peter does

science and you carve them by hand.

And you, Brian, you have a
ShopBot, which is a great machine,

and I've got a Multicam, which
does stuff three times as fast.

So, Peter sells a sign for,
for, pick a number, for 5, 000.

And he puts a whole week into that job.

Now you can do the job and half
the time because you've got a

nice little computer to help you.

And if you charge the shop, the same shop
rate, you're selling the sign for 2, 500.

And my machine is, is twice as fast again.

So if I sell the same,
same shop rate, 1, 250.

That's what's wrong
with the sign industry.

It's all driven by,

like, the equipment.

It's by stupid thinking.

That says the shop rate is, a
shop rate is not a shop rate.

It's, you know, the way I look at it
is if it takes me, uh, I figure my, my

CNC router can carve a sign five times
as fast as I can carve a sign by hand.

And I'm fast.

So if, if I charge 200 bucks an hour,
which is not unreasonable in this time,

as a shop rate, That sign should be worth
a thousand bucks an hour on the machine,

which is not unreasonable because it's
a hundred thousand dollar sheet and you

should be charging that kind of money.

And the customer doesn't need to know if
I carved it by hand or did on the machine.


That's what I was getting


That's the point that
I want to make, right?

Customer doesn't do it.

And I, I make, purposely make
my signs on the machine look

like they were done by hand.

We introduce texture and, and do a little
bit of hand work after it, hand paint

them, so that it is a handcrafted sign.

That I cheated like crazy.

But to me, it's having a machine
in the back is no different

than having employees help me.

But it doesn't, yeah, it doesn't make the
sun any less valuable to the customer.


at all.

In fact, it should make it better.


You know, and, and same thing, like
we use a 30 pound precision board

and in the industry, especially
10 years ago, that was unheard of.

Everyone used 15 pound or 18 pound.


Uh, and people say, well,
30 pound is twice the money.

Is Yeah.

To buy it.

Yeah, I agree.

I don't disagree with that, but it
adds three times the value because

I mean, people say, well, how do
you sell to your expensive work?

And it's simple.

I said, I have a piece of thir 15 pound
in my shop, which I can take and run my

fingernail into in front of my customer.

I don't tell 'em my fingernails are as
tough as screwdriver, but I run my finger

and make this horrible scratch in it.

I, and then I hand my customer
a piece of 30 pound little

sample and he can't touch it.

Is will you, will you pay
a hundred bucks for that?

And he went, absolutely.

Well, guess what?

I just made money and I'm selling
a better product and I'm setting

myself apart from my competition.


It's never about price at all.

Not at all.

Not at all.

You know, and in these days of
hyperinflation, I mean, I had a customer

come to me, I bid a job last year.

They didn't do it.

They came back this year and they
say, we're expecting an increase,

um, but can you do the job this year?


It's 20 percent more.

They went, okay.


Don't apologize for anything.

Be proud of what you do.




If that's the message that everybody
takes away from this, a hundred

percent, um, As we transition into
a close, I, we always ask everybody

this, but what's the, what's the future
for you for Imagination Corporation?

Straight up.


I'm, I'm more encouraged than
ever, you know, as I go through

Sinecraft or the competition.

Uh, magazine, the article or,
uh, issues of the magazines.

I think the quality is
improving in general.

There's still lots of crap out there, but
I don't, that's, I don't have competition.

I'm not worried about them.

I want to raise the industry.

Because the more I raise the industry,
the hap, the better it is for me.

I'm encouraged, but sign materials are
better than they've ever been in terms of

durability and, you know, all that stuff.

The internet has allowed
us to market worldwide.

I don't, there's no limit.

Great answer.

Uh, like personally for you,
Dan, like what, what do you

want to be remembered for?

I want to be remembered as, as
a fun guy who inspired people.

Hopefully I'm remembered for cool
work, but it won't last forever.

But and I want to be a family guy.

I want to be the best grandpa in
the world Uh, and I think we're

doing pretty good in that regard so

How many grandkids

do you have?

I have three.

Uh, the youngest one will probably
be the guy who uh takes over the

business He's five years old.

Uh henry, we built a little wooden
dinosaur a few months ago and He had fun.

We did it in our shop.

He cut out with a jigsaw.

I mean he's five years old And we
screwed it together And when we were

finished, he looked at me and he
said, Grandpa, he says, this is pretty

cool, but I think we can do better.

He said, I said, so what do you want?

He says, I want a dinosaur
that I can get in and drive.

It has to have a motor.

Uh, you know, and so we built one
for the parade on a golf cart.

You know, that's the guy that, you
know, he's going to stand on his dad's

shoulders who's standing on my shoulders.

Imagine where we're going to do then.

I mean, this is a kid who grew up and
built a 50 foot dinosaur in his sleep.


Yeah, that's,

that's amazing.

So am I excited about the future?


Uh, and I won't be able
to keep up to those guys.




could you at at five, he's like, Hey, this
is good grandpa, but what if we do this



I mean, at at two, he, he
would come to me every day.

Am I big?

I said, oh, yeah, you, you,
I've definitely grown since last

night, you know, and we'd measure
him and he'd be all excited.

So, so can I learn the weld
today, ? Uh, not yet, but soon.

It, uh,

that's great.

That's great.

I super excited to,

didn't weld until I was in my twenties.


And he's ready.

He's ready now.

That's great.

Well, Dan, um, man, this has
been a great conversation.

I really appreciate you coming on.

This has been, um, like when we
first started the podcast, I was

like, I was making the short list
of folks that I wanted to talk to.

You were definitely right
up there at the top.

Uh, so I appreciate you coming on.

Uh, been a big inspiration for me.


Keep interviewing the best of the best.

I mean, we're all saying the same thing.

His reach for the stars.

Don't do crap.

Uh, you know, Dan Antonelli's is
designed like your life depends on it.


Yeah, it's

amazing how different business models can
be, but the core values remain the same.

Yeah, Dan and I do very different stuff,
but Dan has been a hero of mine forever.

You know, I mean, Shane Durnford,
hero forever, you know, Tom McEltrot,

you know, these guys are all.

Excellence beyond excellence.

Um, any, anything we can promote for you
or, you know, obviously I think everybody

in the industry already knows who you guys


Yeah, no, just, just good, promote good
stuff, you know, raise the bar, build

samples, uh, live, live your dream.

You know, if you want to do the good
stuff, start building samples today,

you know, put five minutes into it.

It adds up.

Perfect device.

Perfect device.

Um, Dan, thank you so much for coming on.

Really enjoyed it.

Uh, excited to, to launch this one
and hopefully, you know, sometime

in the future, we can have you back.

Uh, and maybe bring Peter on as well.

I think that could be
an interesting review

as well.

He's a much better guy than me.

Is he still sitting beside you?

No, he, he went, they're busy working.

That's even better.

He's not sitting beside you and
you're still singing his praises.


he's, he is awesome.

He's my, he's my ultimate hero.

Oh, that's

great to hear.

Dan, thank you so much.


appreciate it.

My pleasure.

So that's the episode.

I hope you enjoyed it.

I'd like to give one final shout out
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Creators and Guests

Will it be fun? // Dan Sawatzky of Imagination Corporation //
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