The owner of a Snohomish sign company is an engineer from the tech industry with big ideas on how to grow his tiny startup.
Manifest Sign owner David Green, 57, wants to change the way Americans think about signs with “next-generation signage” more sensitive to the environment.
For example, he said, it’s annoying to be driving at night and suddenly pass a street sign so bright its light is invasive.
“Why can’t we produce signs that are a little bit smarter, that can sense the environment and self-adjust and do things along that nature?” Green said.
He dreams of a research-and-development side of his business that would explore such questions and lead to new technologies, he said. And he’s looking for investors to help him build it.
“I think there is a huge world out there that has yet to be tapped,” he said. “And I want to be part of that.”
Green said he also wants to create a robotics division at Manifest Sign, to design robots able to perform tasks humans often can’t do, such as the challenge a manufacturer recently put to him. It requires building a prototype of a robot able to coat materials quickly, accurately and repetitively in a reasonable time, with very little to no human interaction.
Complications have come up as he’s delved into it. It’s usually between the hours of 3 to 6 a.m., he said, when he spontaneously wakes and ponders solutions.
“And I’m not there yet on this first prototype,” he said. “I’ve got most of it, but not all of it. When I get all of it, then I will build it.”
In the meantime, he’s working on growing his customer base for his existing sign business. He needs to establish positive cash flow to keep the company solvent. He’s not there yet either, he said, though he’s close to breaking even.
He opened Manifest Sign last year, Green said, but only got really serious about operating it this past spring. Prior to that, he was busy learning the equipment — including a large printer, cutter and laminator used in sign-making — as well as the basics of running a business.
It’s been “a radical change” in his life and he’s “astounded” at the amount of effort it takes, he said.
“Even as small as we are,” he said, “just the amount of overhead it requires in terms of accounting, taxes, you know, keeping up to date with all the forms and the licensing. I’m naïve, I guess, in that sense, because being in the corporate environment, I guess you take that stuff for granted.”
He never intended to be a business owner. Born and raised in Utah, Green said he moved to Silicon Valley for a job after college and met his wife there in 1985. He worked in the semiconductor industry, he said, before moving up here in 2000 with his wife and four daughters, fleeing the Bay Area’s congestion and high cost of living for Snohomish.
Continuing to work in the corporate environment for a semiconductor company in Lynnwood, Green said he fell in love with the beauty of the area when asked to volunteer with the Boy Scouts. In doing so, he “discovered the hidden treasures of the Puget Sound,” he said, hiking mountains including Mount Pilchuck.
“I’ve hiked that a number of times,” he said, “and what an experience it is, to go up to Pilchuck Peak.”
After the Lynnwood company, Green transitioned to Microsoft, working on the Xbox and related products for several years. “It was wonderful,” he said of his time at Microsoft. The project ended, however, and Green was out of a job. When someone at the unemployment office suggested he look into owning a franchise, Green dutifully took a class on the topic. A full franchise didn’t appeal to him, he said, but his research led him to consider sign-making.
And so he became a business owner. His wife, an elementary school teacher, came up with the name, Green said, and the two invested their retirement savings in Manifest Sign. He hired someone to help him set up a website, but Green is his company’s only employee at the moment, he said. Much of his business is in subcontracting work out to other companies.
Manifest Sign operates under a “contract agreement,” he said, as “part of a family of national sign-makers here throughout the United States. It is not a franchise, but I have access to tools much like you’d have with a franchise.”
That enables him to find companies he can trust to handle work in other areas of the country. So when a business in Southern California wanted an “Inciseon” sign, similar in looks to neon but using new LED technology, Green ordered the sign and arranged to have it shipped to an installer.
“I’ll never see that sign,” he said. “But we’ll do it and my hope is to develop that enough here with enough interest that we become a distributor, where we actually start making the sign, we start producing the technology here under license agreement.”
That’s for some day in the future, he said. In the here-and-now, jobs that Green has taught himself to do on his own include installing cut-vinyl signs on the sides of vehicles.
“I love the look and the feel and the touch of vinyl,” he said. “And when you put it on vehicles. There’s something about placing down vinyl that’s kind of an art. It really is an expression of art.”
An expression of art
It hearkens back to his childhood days of loving to draw, he said, and to the early days of computer graphics, when he designed 3D graphic systems for flight simulators and the military.
Sign-making can elicit emotions in customers that Green likens to the process of falling in love.
“It’s sort of like that favorite car, if you will. It really, when it’s done right, it embodies that logo and that emotion that they want to portray to the world,” he said. “It’s really an interesting and personal experience, watching them go through this.”
As an example, Green cited Randy Little, of home remodeler Little’s Construction in Stanwood. Little wanted a particular style and look for his red work truck, Green said.
“So we spent a lot of time, quite frankly, in developing that image and creating that artwork,” he said.
He was “very excited and happy” with the result, Little said. He’d been wanting signage done in the same font as that on his business cards and billing forms, he said, but could find no one willing to take the time to do that for him.
Then he met Green, who completed the signage to his specifications on a trailer he uses for work. So when he bought a new truck, going to Green was “a no-brainer,”he said.
“He’s real passionate about what he’s trying to create for people,” Little said of Green. “He’s a stickler. And he’s a pretty good artist.”
Happy customers are important to him, Green said, which is why he won’t do any jobs he doesn’t feel capable of doing, or that he feels won’t turn out the way people envision.
“I mean, part of the art, I guess of anything, is to try to figure out what your customer wants,” he said. “And you get certain vibes, like I think this person probably wants something that’s beyond either my capacity or knowledge to do. Let’s refer that. And I don’t have any qualms about doing that.”
Signage in the future needs to include more eco-friendly products, Green said. He has visions of a printer that could print directly onto surfaces and eliminate the need for the vinyls used in sign-making, so much of which ends up in the landfill.In the meantime, he’s encouraged that Hewlett Packard has developed ink-recycling programs and seems to be getting even more serious about sustainability. He called it as an “organic movement” for commercial signage products. Hewlett Packard is now working on a program where participants can become certified to use company materials, he said. When they’re done with the materials, Hewlett Packard will dispose of them.
“It’s not just putting it in the landfill,” Green said. “They actually grind it up and reconfigure the material so it can be used.”
As for Manifest Sign, it’s poised to grow in any number of ways, he said, depending on where a breakthrough occurs. But he has high hopes for his company.
“I really want Manifest to be known nationally, as not just a consumer of a product,” Green said, “but actually a manufacturer of materials and products that help create the right signs, if you will. Or new sign concepts that we perhaps have not seen yet.”