Trace George saved up time off from his job in IT for a manufacturer so he could spend Monday mornings stalking the parking lot at a Home Depot.
The owner of VSP Graphic Group, which now provides all the branding “eye candy” for the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, and a host of other professional and collegiate teams, started his business in Buffalo by focusing on eye-catching vinyl car wraps. A workshop speaker at the Genesee Community College’s Creativity Conference in Batavia last week, (Wednesday, Feb. 28), George explained how he used creative tactics to build his business from sideline to a national success.
“What is that pond you want to fish in and what is that lure you’re going to use?” he asked. During one of his frequent visits to Home Depot for projects in his own home he noticed all the independent contractors who were also coming, usually every Monday morning. So Home Depot became his pond at first.
“They need branding,” he told himself. “I’m going to be the contractor sign guy.”
His lure? His own colorfully decorated pickup truck. George parked the vehicle in the contractors-only area for three hours each Monday morning, tipping the parking lot attendant $20 to look the other way. Then he went to a restaurant that provided a view of his truck, and he tipped a waitress $20 to serve him coffee and save his seat for three hours.
Every time a contractor stopped to admire the branding on the truck, George scooted out of the restaurant to reel in the prospect. The result was $58,000 in sales in just three months, working just three hours a week. That came to $1,611 an hour.
“Be creative in how you build your business,” George told the audience of mostly students, college staff and potential entrepreneurs.
While VSP still does car wraps — 2,400 a year —it has diversified widely. “Our company has taken a whole new direction in athletic branding,” George said. The company now has offices on both coasts and shifted from doing 95 percent of its business directly with consumers in 1995 to 96 percent of its business with other businesses in 2017.
Sports has been a huge part of the business, but VSP also covered 92,000 square feet of wall surfaces at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, does virtually all the visual branding at the Oscars ceremony for CBS Viacom, and the product display branding for Fisher Price and Scott’s Lawn.
This week’s event at GCCC was the fifth creativity conference and the first to focus on entrepreneurship, kicking off a year of events related to that topic.
“We believe if we arm our students with that skill, it will make them more of an asset to an organization,” said Lina LaMattina, a business professor at GCC who teaches a business course in creativity. By bringing in speakers who have started their own business, LaMattina said, the college hoped “to make entrepreneurship something that’s more approachable and accessible.”
Several speakers described themselves as “accidental entrepreneurs,” who came up with the idea for their business almost by happenstance, but then followed up with passion and hard work. Such was the case for Three Heads Brewing in Rochester, where a group of neighborhood drinking buddies started sampling West Coast regional beers and then tried brewing their own beer at home. Geoff Dale, one of the “three heads,” said their home brews started attracting more fans than the West Coast beers they shared with their friends. They submitted five homemade beers to a brewing competition in Buffalo about a decade ago, walking away with three gold medals and a bronze and the assurance that what they were doing could be a successful business.
Those early group experiences helped shape the company’s continuing emphasis on community, Dale said. “Beer to me is a communal drink.” He can’t recall attending a single concert where beer wasn’t part of the experience, he said. “The idea is always to tie in fun with our beer.”
Featuring Rochester images and names on the beer bottle labels has been a helpful selling point, Dale said, as former Rochesterians like to boost their hometown by having these products shipped to them.
Dale co-presented with Leslie Ward, founder of the Lovin’ Cup at RIT’s Park Point development. Ward went to college to become an English teacher, but then found organizing events and marketing, first for nonprofits and then restaurants, was more her style.
When the Park Point development became available, the native of Henrietta decided to pitch a locally operated restaurant and music venue.
“This town deserves something that’s organic and true,” she said. Her passion convinced family members and other investors to back her idea, using a name she thought up years before. No one knew what Lovin’ Cup meant at first, but the same was true when Starbucks came onto the scene, she said.
“At the beginning it was throwing events, making them awesome and not even making money off the tickets, just so people would come back,” Ward said.
Even today, with Lovin’ Cup established as a live-music venue and restaurant, and after two expansions, Ward spends 10 hours a week organizing events, such as its annual voice competition, and promoting them on social media.
Both Dale and Ward said they have had to change how they do business to accommodate customer preferences. Lovin’ Cup launched with counter service only but quickly added servers when customers showed a preference for being waited on, Ward said. Similarly, there have been some wonderful beers that the owners of Three Heads love but had to abandon.
“If it doesn’t sell, kick it to the curb,” Dale said. “You have to have an ego to open a business, but you have to leave it at the door once you open the business.”
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