Small Business Saturday: Reframing the Meaning of Success

Perhaps it’s an indication of their business’ success when members of the local media refer to Phil Sherburne and Leia Bell as an indie “power couple.”

Sherburne, for one, doesn’t necessarily view himself and Bell that way — as some sort of force to be reckoned with on their local arts and business scene. But Sherburne admits he and his wife have grown to be “fairly well established in our neck of the woods.”

They are the well-known owners of Signed & Numbered, a thriving custom framing shop that has traveled a long road, through various addresses and incarnations, to become the successful Salt Lake City business it is today.

What started as a tiny poster shop later expanded to include custom frames and then morphed into primarily a frame business with very few posters but 20 employees. Signed & Numbered has received more than 5,600 positive reviews from users on Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage products. The store also has nearly 8,000 admirers on Etsy and has conducted more than 24,000 sales on the site.

This is a long way from Kilby Court (a concert venue Sherburne once ran from his woodworking shop), the near-foreclosure of a house, and working around the clock just to survive. Which is all the more reason why Sherburne comes across as the unlikely star of a business story.

A Woodworker Turned Business Owner

A woodworker by trade, the soft-spoken Sherburne admittedly does not like tending to the myriad details that contribute to a business’ success, or at least its smooth daily operation.

“I don’t do well with the day-to-day maintenance of a business. I want to be more dreamy and think about where it could go,” Sherburne says.

Yet Sherburne’s path has always been somewhat unlikely. Let’s start where it all began – the random discovery of cash.

In 1996, after dropping out of college, Sherburne found $2,000 on the counter of a local coffeehouse. Being a good Samaritan, he gave the money to the police. When they were unable to locate the owner, the money was given to Sherburne. That $2,000 became the seed money for his carpentry business, the first step in his professional journey.

While running his wood shop, building custom furniture, Sherburne heard about the closure of a local club and the need for concert space. He offered extra space in his wood shop – thus Kilby Court was born, which grew to be one of the city’s premier venues, hosting the likes of such big names as the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, and Rilo Kiley, among others.

Bell, meanwhile, regularly came to hear music at Kilby Court and later began her career as an artist there, screen-printing posters for the venue.

After their third child was born in 2007, the couple decided to sell Kilby Court and focus on artistic endeavors more conducive to family life. Not long after, Signed & Numbered (at least its first incarnation) was established. The store started as a poster shop and art gallery located below a record store.

At this point, the shop primarily sold posters from Bell’s collection. But customers kept requesting frames for their poster purchases. Unimpressed with the frames available on the market, Sherburne and Bell decided to make their own.

Framing eventually grew to be the dominant portion of the Signed & Numbered business, and it outgrew that basement home.

A series of moves led Signed & Numbered to its current warehouse space in South Salt Lake, which has been remodeled to include a storefront and a full wood shop in back. The company has been in business six years and specializes in custom wood frames, particularly made from poplar. Their frames, which take anywhere from seven to 10 days to make, range in price from $15 to hundreds of dollars.

Sales of artsy concert posters, which initially inspired the creation of Signed & Numbered, have fallen largely to the wayside. Custom frame orders make up the lion’s share of business and revenue.

“We haven’t even had time to keep up with the posters,” Sherburne says. “The state of our poster collection is pretty sad at this point.”

Still, as far as Signed & Numbered has come, Sherburne hasn’t forgotten the rocky road he and Bell initially traveled.

He vividly recalls long periods of hard work and lean years, running on fumes, and receiving foreclosure notices.

“We were working so much to keep things going that there was no way we had time to get a side job to supplement our income,” Sherburne says of their first few years in business. “Eventually we fell behind on bills, and got a foreclosure on our house. I didn’t know we were so far behind, it was a whirlwind.”

The foreclosure notice forced Sherburne and Bell to do some serious re-evaluation of their finances and how they lived.

Parents to three children, the couple opted to simplify their life and expenses, restructuring things so their overhead was as close to zero as possible. That involved moving into a small house purchased by Bell’s mother, for which they would have no rent or mortgage payments. Sherburne, in exchange, renovated the house on nights and weekends. The pair both drive old cars, thus avoiding car payments.

“We put everything into the business,” he says. “And simplified our lives so that we could continue on with business. And now, six years later, we are finally paying ourselves a little bit.”

The family of five lives on an income of about $40,000, he admits. That’s the entire salary the couple draws from their business, while they continue to work to help Signed & Numbered grow and flourish. And even though the couple live very modestly, Sherburne considers their business a success on many levels.

“I do feel like this is a success because it’s my business and we have a great staff, tons of happy customers, and we love going to work every day,” says Sherburne. “We’re still quite poor, of course, but I’m not going to focus on that. By my standards, we are a success.”

Here are some tips from the Signed & Numbered journey:

How to Make a Profit: Keep It Simple

With 20 staff members and a large shop, the overhead costs for Signed & Numbered have become quite expensive, says Sherburne.

It’s not necessarily an approach he would recommend for everyone interested in getting started in the custom frame business.

“Workers compensation and payroll taxes and everything adds up,” says Sherburne. “We’re still trying to find the right balance of what we can charge (for frames) and finding a way to pay all of our employees well, and have a comfortable work environment.

“It’s not a bad idea to keep it simple,” he says, “which can be done. Perhaps no staff at all, to keep your costs down.”

Having employees, he says, adds another level of complexity to running a business that may not be for everyone.

“We would have had an income for ourselves years ago had we kept it more of a mom-and-pop operation,” Sherburne adds. “But the down side of that would have been that we stayed a mom-and-pop operation.”

Space Requirements

A frame shop does not need a lot of space, at least initially. It can be very small and simply run, says Sherburne, perhaps even less then 500 square feet (the size of their first shop).

The Signed & Numbered space now is quite large, at 6,500 square feet. It includes a 4,000-square-foot woodworking shop and a 2,500-square-foot storefront.

Sourcing Frame Material

All Signed & Numbered frames are made from premium hardwood. That’s an expense to be considered when getting into the custom frame business.

Sherburne gets materials for his company’s frames from a local wholesaler. He opts to primarily use poplar because it’s a sustainable, fast-growing wood.

He also suggests checking with local demolition companies about getting wood. “You can ask for it and usually a company would rather give it to you,” he says. “You just have to convince them you won’t sue them if there are nails in the wood or something.”

Besides poplar, other woods that can be used to make frames include cherry, oak, walnut, and alderwood.

Startup Costs: The Lean Years

Signed & Numbered was started in large part with the $20,000 made from selling Kilby Court. The couple also used some money from the sale of a house.

But be forewarned, says Sherburne. That’s not a great deal of money and it won’t get you very far.

“We thought we were rich. It seemed like a lot of money,” he says. “But that’s not very much at all. And it goes very fast. We didn’t pay ourselves a salary for a couple years. Nothing at all. We were living off the equity in the other house we had, and we went down to fumes after a while. It was desperate and scary.”

In Retrospect

As someone who spent his early career handcrafting furniture, running a complex business did not come natural to Sherburne.

If opening a frame shop interests you, or any sort of business for that matter, consider enrolling in a few business management courses first.

“If there is anything I wish I had more of in my background, it would be some business training,” Sherburne says. “It would definitely be helpful. As a woodworker, I can definitely see my limitations. I’m just trying to learn as I go.

“Going from woodworker to businessperson, that’s been the biggest learning curve,” he adds. “I’m trying to figure out the balance between how to make that profit and just have fun doing what I like doing.”

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