Tubular Signs sparks new life with name change, diversification
Owner Ken Coleman calls his startup sign company guerrilla warfare for marketing.
The former Branson real estate broker and marketer for Killian Construction Co. had a hard time getting his collapsible real estate sign business off the ground. It officially launched in September 2014 as Tubular Signs LLC targeting real estate agents with easy roll-up yard signs.
Then, a 2015 Kickstarter campaign set a goal of $50,000 but only drew six backers pledging $478. The problem, according to Coleman: Few saw the promise of a collapsible sign.
Things began to turn, he said, when he needed to build a prototype for a booth at last year’s Keller Williams annual meeting in Austin, Texas.
Business partner Russell Smith, a 29-year-old independent engineer from Bolivar, developed a patent-pending sign that doubles as a post-hole maker and fits in a truck-trailer hitch. With a vinyl wrapping, Coleman said the new signs are sturdy – wind-tested up to 70 mph.
That led to an informal offer at the convention, he said, to sell his company for $1 million. Coleman said he declined, and has fielded other offers, but he sees new promise.
Since the Texas trip, Coleman said he began to realize he had something more than a sign that maximized trunk space for real estate agents. He calls it a new curbside marketing tool. Now, he said, the company is doing business as Guerrilla Signs – a reference to unconventional or surprising marketing and a gorilla’s strength – and he’s pursuing a formal name change.
“We actually have a new company that’s being formed called Guerrilla New Media. That could be confusing to people who would say, ‘How can that be a new media? It’s outdoor billboards.’ But they’re unique outdoor billboards. They are temporary outdoor billboards,” he said.
Since December, Coleman said he’s secured over $300,000 in sales, building a client list that includes Youngblood Auto Group, the National Association of Realtors, Commercial One Brokers LLC, commercial broker Tom Rankin and five car dealerships around the country.
“We’ve had a very good start in southwest Missouri, and we just had another 800-sign sale through Chrysler dealerships,” Coleman said.
Youngblood Auto Group General Manager John Widiger ordered at least 16 signs for his four lots along South Campbell Avenue. He’s spending $1,200 a month over the next year to run regular monthly promotions at the Nissan, Chrysler and Kia lots.
“They are attached to a mobile object, so they’re not considered a fixed sign, and I don’t have issues with the city,” Widiger said. “They really stand out, and they are interchangeable.”
Youngblood is big on event marketing, and Widiger sees the signs as a way to promote events on Campbell. He also said the signs allow the dealership to tie together radio, television and on-site marketing materials.
“I’m a big believer in point-of-sale marketing. With the flexibility of these signs, I can put three or four signs in front of each one of my stores,” he said. “The manufacturers do not announce their promotions to us until the last minute usually. These signs empower me to be able to change on a dime. I can have a turnaround on the vinyl in 24 to 48 hours.”
Curtis Jared, CEO of commercial property management firm Jared Enterprises Inc., said he wasn’t sold on the signs after meeting with Coleman.
“He said it could lock down and this and that, but if you have enough arm strength, you could just pull it out of the ground,” Jared said, adding he did just that with a demonstration from Coleman.
Jared said the traditional “skid” signs commercial brokers use are customized, so most people who would want that kind of sign wouldn’t go through the hassle. With over 100 commercial properties to manage in the area, he typically spends $400-$500 on larger, wood-based signs.
“I was concerned this could be a theft magnet because you could just pop your own banner on there,” he said, adding the metal also could be scrapped. “It may be the best thing in the world, I just don’t know yet, and until I’m completely sold on it, it’s a fairly expensive sign.”
Coleman said the signs start at $365 for a 4-by-4-foot sign, not including the vinyl wraps, which cost $60 per side with marketing. A marketing campaign can boost those prices, but volume buys can bring it down. Bumper hitches cost $100, as do the new 4-by-8 indoor signs with a base; the first was created for Youngblood. Coleman said car dealers don’t like stakes in their signs, so the foldout sign design has been modified for them.
Coleman hires independent contractors for the bases – primarily manufacturing those out of Stockton. The vinyl wraps are being produced by a Kansas City company, he said.
Stephen Critchfield of Commercial One Brokers in Branson said he’s bought 12 signs, which cost a little over $300 apiece.
“I’ve got six of them in the back of my Suburban, and I can’t do that with any of the other signs we use,” he said. “In Branson, you can’t get (other signs) in the ground because you’re on rock or heavy clay. The welds on the frames break, and the interior signs fall out or blow out. It’s just a giant pain in the rear.”
Critchfield said Coleman’s signs go in the ground smoothly and the wraps are easy to swap out.
“If we want to put something special on a sign, we don’t have to wait to have one painted. We can go get a vinyl screenprinted and put one on,” he said. “That isn’t why we bought them. We bought them because we think they will work.”