Kathleen Zeitler had to think twice before purchasing a flatbed press and other equipment from a closed printing shop in Ohio. The cost was $1,500, and 33 years ago, that was a lot of money for a mom of three.
Yet, she says, by faith, everything came together. Despite her protests, a neighbor said he was lending her the money, and arrangements were made to pay it back at a rate of $100 per month.
“I had a girlfriend who helped me,” Zeitler said. “We rented a trailer, drove to Ohio, got everything loaded and then headed home. I had a tiny garage attached to my home on University Avenue (Green Bay), and I started my sign shop there.”
With no business plan but a great deal of gumption, Signs That Sell (www.signsthatsellplusprinting.com) was born. Although a self-described poor student and bad speller, Zeitler felt it was what she was called to do.
“There was something that stirred inside of me," she said. "I have a special gift for design and colors, and I made up samples and started stopping at businesses to show what I could do. They almost all went with me.”
Restaurants and other businesses quickly came on board, and the baby steps resulted in a growing business. Posters were offered and then the business expanded to where it now includes signs, lettering on vehicles and doors, business cards, postcards, brochures and other products.
The flatbed press was replaced by vinyl lettering. Then, there was digital lettering. Equipment was updated, and the business suffered a few bumps as the industry evolved.
“I was told by someone I knew that I should invest in a digital printer, and if I did, he had a customer that would use me so that I could pay off the loan,” Zeitler said. “So I bought the printer, but the customer went out of business and I had a $400 a month loan. Not only that, I had trouble with the machine and no one would stand behind it.”
But it isn’t Zeitler’s personality to complain. Although the business struggled and it was the hardest thing she had gone through, she dumped the machine and increased focus on what she did best — vinyl cutting and designing.
“It was hard because I’m one person and this is my living. But it was a lesson learned, and I decided to let it be. I refuse to let my disappointments or challenges hold me back; there is no reason to do that. Why would you waste your breath on something negative?” she asked.
This advice is part of what she tells entrepreneurs when presenting at Urban Hope. Being an entrepreneur means that there will be problems, but a person’s reactions determines their resilience. Whether buying equipment or signing contracts, entrepreneurs need to carefully review everything and get references.
And, as a graduate of the Urban Hope entrepreneurial class, a program she took when starting a second business, she recommends education.
“Go to classes and get the basic information, talk to other entrepreneurs and listen to their experiences, and make sure you have money saved," she said. "Don’t quit your full-time job.”
As one of the rare entrepreneurs to have been in business for more than 30 years, especially in an industry that has changed greatly, Zeitler loves to give back. Her generosity supersedes thoughts of financial gain, and others have a multitude of stories of how she has helped.
She has also adapted to changes in marketing, processes and competition. The world does not look like it did all those years ago. Yet, there are things, she says, that have not changed.
“I want the kind of success that comes from helping someone else; that’s my success,” she said. “When someone comes in my shop, I have one-on-one service. When it comes to sales, I truly want to help them. Why wouldn’t they want to go with me?”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.