SmartSign is one of America’s fastest growing e-commerce companies, and parent of MySafetySign, MyParkingSign, and nearly 40 other sites. The company manufactures and distributes a wide range of signs, tags, mats, and labels. Customers can tailor their signs to meet their individual needs, and through content-rich and authoritative retail sites, the company provides specific solutions to specific problems, such as preventing accidents in the workplace.
BusinessInterviews.com: What separates you from the competition?
Conrad: Fifteen years ago, our CEO, Blair Brewster, predicted that people’s taste for customizing their printed products would only increase. Since then, we’ve offered easier customization on our signs, tags, and mats than many of our competitors. We also price aggressively — oftentimes, our prices are lower than retailers who sell products that aren’t nearly as well-made as ours.
Additionally, our c-suite embraces risk. When we have relevant expertise or can contribute, ownership isn’t afraid of taking stands on issues that similar companies wouldn’t touch, and it’s always willing to try something new. We have an experimental, relatively non-hierarchical ethic that’s unusual in B2B – the question isn’t “Am I allowed to do this,” it’s “What cool things will we come up with to work on next?”
BusinessInterviews.com: Congratulations on SmartSign being one of America’s fastest growing e-commerce companies. What have you learned about scalability and managed growth during rapid periods of expansion?
Conrad: Thanks! Scalability is huge for us since we operate so many sites. At the same time, each site has a different customer base, which makes for a nuanced strategic situation. I think the first and most obvious thing we’ve learned is that not everything will work, even if it’s worth a try. It’s tough to operate social media accounts and blogs around B2B products, for example, and sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t. From a marketing perspective, our many sites make a unified branding approach tough, but we’re also insulated from inevitable shifts in search traffic. We value robustness over fragile efficiency, and I think that’s worked out well for us.
There are always more products to sell, but if you’re not careful, scaling can mean that customer desires get lost in the noise. We’ve started to be more strategic about the information we present, and I’d like to continue to make content and site improvements with that in mind. We still have room for improvement. Less can be more.
BusinessInterviews.com: What are some ways that the company has changed and evolved since first launching back in 2000?
Conrad: We’ve gone from a tiny startup that began in our CEO’s basement to a much larger two-continent enterprise.
When we first started, the company was essentially Blair and three talented programmers and designers who he had met and hired in Jaipur, India. They agreed to move to downtown Brooklyn. Over time, we evolved a permanent team in Jaipur that proofs designs, and takes care of some customer service and SEO practices. Yogesh, Abhay, and Rajeev are our institutional memory, and such warm, insightful colleagues – I learn from each one of them every time he opens his mouth. Led by Vikas Badal, our team in Jaipur does difficult work and is incredibly good at it. SmartSign’s dual identity introduces only very minor inefficiencies at this point, but it makes us much stronger, and it means we can have people working on any problem around the clock.
Our marketing team has changed a lot, too, in terms of both personnel and strategy. When I started, we never did meetings, and it was mostly just four siloed people working on totally unrelated projects. Since then, thanks to the expertise that’s come through the doors over the years, we’ve polished our approach: we have a solid playbook in place, a roster of freelancers and consultants that we work with, and established processes for nearly everything. Many of my colleagues have gone on to have stellar careers elsewhere, which tells me we’re doing something right. Going from startup mode to a more established company has been a privilege to watch, learn from, and participate in.
BusinessInterviews.com: What inspired your decision to donate gender neutral bathroom signs to college campuses?
Conrad: That campaign came out of someone complaining bitterly about products that we sold. The activist Sam Killermann wrote a blog post asking, why don’t these people make a sign that just has a toilet on it, since that’s what’s inside the bathroom? What’s with the skirt and the pants – is that really vital to communicating what the place is for, or does it just tell us what we should be wearing, on pain of harassment and ostracism? He had a good point. We reached out to Mr. Killermann, and he was happy to let us work up this design he’d come up with.
I think these products are Pareto-optimal – in other words, they make some people more comfortable without making anyone’s life worse. We also thought schools and colleges were a good place to start because people might graduate with an expectation that running into an all-gender bathroom wouldn’t be the end of the world. That shift has the potential to move everything from the expectations that we have about gender roles, to how we use and designate public space, even if only by degrees.
The giveaway also helped mydoorsign.com establish relationships with people who might make recurring purchases – something that can be hard to do. It was a win-win.
BusinessInterviews.com: You own and manage dozens of signs, tag, and mat websites. What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about e-commerce during the course of your career?
Conrad: Well, I don’t own our sites, but my bosses do! Anyway, my grandfather sold insurance, and my uncle sold real estate, and the thing they told me most often about their jobs was the customer is always right. As clichéd as that is, in e-commerce, it doesn’t mean you should just nod and smile at whatever people ask for. Usability implies a responsibility to shake off the curse of knowledge about your own products and sites, though.
When you sell products at volume, good usability means putting yourself in the shoes of the most confused, least decisive, least educated customer, and asking what they would want. You’re asking yourself how they would find their way from the Google search bar to the end of the purchasing funnel, and how to make that easier. Sometimes you can address those needs and sometimes you can’t, and sometimes A/B testing a button color doesn’t do anything at all, but adopting an attitude of sympathy is so important – trying to find out or at least imagine what customers see when they encounter your website, and then building those insights in.
BusinessInterviews.com: How do you plan to keep the momentum going?
Conrad: There are so many opportunities we haven’t taken advantage of yet! There are still usability improvements we can make to so many of our sites. We haven’t tapped into email marketing as much as we could, and I think that’ll be a huge growth area, as will asset management systems, apps, and content that customers can use in tandem with our products.
We’re always looking for new nonprofits to partner with, too. Finding organizations that need and can use our products in an innovative way is how we build many of our brands, and it helps us to push our branding goals ahead, little by little.
Soon, through myparkingsign.com, we’re also going to relaunch handicappedfraud.org, a site that provides a way for people with disabilities to call out people who park in designated accessible spots. That will give us a tangible connection to people who interact with our products the most, who think about them, and for whom they’re important on a daily basis.
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