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the challenge

Allison Moz and partner Jake Ethridge own Eyecandy Signs in Halifax.PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

As sign-making technology has transformed over the past decade, so, too, has Eyecandy Signs Inc., based in Halifax.

Its employees no longer hand-chisel displays from scratch; instead, they build on machine-carved designs with their hands and tools. And when the owners picked up a new laser engraver a year ago, they tested its limits, etching logos and designs on everything from beans to wine glasses.

That's because time, rather than money, is the most important investment to these entrepreneurs, whose shop is in Halifax's rapidly redeveloping North End. In the digital age, anyone can make a sign with a computer and printer. What sets Eyecandy apart is a dedication to craft – what sign making was when hand-carving was usually the only option.

Their approach has won them clients across Atlantic Canada. Now, though, Eyecandy wants to carve a name for itself on a national scale. They believe that customers across Canada could fall for their Maritime charm and work ethic.

The company's eight employees approach designs collaboratively, says Allison Moz, who co-owns the company with partner Jake Ethridge. "We'll take the time to brainstorm, to really push out what needs to be emphasized, or add what qualities may be missing."

This agility stems from Eyecandy's dedication to "free play" time. Each employee has a few hours, at least once a week, to mess around with the company's machines, to test their limits and discover new designs without working on a specific project.

Free play lets them think outside of the box. When a client contacted Eyecandy just before Christmas with a rush order for 400 engraved cups, for instance, one employee had just spent time mastering wine-glass engraving; the company was able to fill the order before the holiday.

And when the owners of a new Halifax bar built in and old auction house asked for a sign, the team set out to find a way to convey the bar's history and logo. They mixed a variety of compounds, eventually settling on a two-layer paint system to create the effect of an aged, cracking finish on the Argyle Street tavern's sign.

"I hope to never lose sight of the importance of the culture that we've created here," Ms. Moz says.

Eyecandy dates back to 1997, when Mr. Ethridge, a carpenter who had been making signs for a decade, started the business with a partner who has since left. Their first job? A sign system for the fabled Bedford, N.S., grocer Pete's Frootique. Ms. Moz, whose background is in pottery, joined the company in 2004.

Though Eyecandy today uses digital-print technology for their bread-and-butter work, their priority, as they take on more clients, is the complex, custom signs they are known for. The staff believes their personal touch is something other markets would gobble up.

Well enough, in fact, that a Halifax sign system they built for the Pete's ToGoGo stand at Dalhousie University won Sign Media Canada's 2013 National Sign Competition. They've also received international acclaim for projects at ST Media Group's International Sign Contest.

Getting there, though, means taking Eyecandy's penchant for personal connections to places where they – and their creative processes – are less known.

"We're trying to stand on a national soapbox and say, 'We're here, this is what we can do,'" Mr. Ethridge says. "But it's hard to make those kinds of inroads."

THE CHALLENGE: How can a local business that prides itself on handcrafted care and personal connections expand to a larger market where their work is less known?


W. Glenn Rowe, associate professor and Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership, Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

I think they have to have people in new markets selling their particular product who are as passionate about it as they are. They also have to develop in the minds of customers that the product they're marketing is different from anything else that those customers can get.

That can be done through the product itself, it can be done through branding, and it can be done through customer service. Customer service goes back to finding people who are passionate about the product and getting it to customers.

Their differentiation has got to be such that their customers are also willing to pay a premium price – and they've got to go into it with the idea that they're not going to compromise on pricing. They have to really get inside the minds of customers and create those signs in a way that customers see it's something no one else can do.

Michael Denham, managing director for Accenture Canada, Toronto

When you're a small company faced with a huge geographic area, it's all about efficiency. Find relevant trade shows – go where your customers are going to be, and you're going to have a high density and high yield for your sales and marketing efforts. The Sign Association of Canada has a convention. So does the Retail Council of Canada.

Eyecandy should also grow with its clients. There are a lot of national brands they are doing work for; through word of mouth they can extend their reputation.

For folks who can't afford to spend a lot on bricks and mortar to set up elsewhere, using social media is a cost-effective way to get word out. LinkedIn is a good way get specific advertisements in front of people who are in a business that needs what Eyecandy does.

Bruce Alcock, creative director and owner of Global Mechanic, a creative filmmaking and branding company, Vancouver

It's an old problem, keeping craft quality and aesthetic when scaling up operations. It's a matter of clarifying and demonstrating their identity so prospective clients get it right away. Mr. Ethridge and Ms. Moz's origins in carpentry and pottery speak to their care about the creative end of their business. That information should be central to Eyecandy's identity.

At Global Mechanic, our roots are also in craft. In our case, that's handmade animation and design. Our challenge is always to present the company as it is – a boutique shop with thoughtful, attentive care from the principals on every job.

We put that out there primarily on our website and blog, in a few ways. First, in the variety of work to date – the portfolio leads to fun projects rather than basic work wherever possible, so we feature all sorts of work in the gamut from Coca-Cola commercials to art installations. Then we position ourselves by our company philosophy more than by individual projects, so we're selling our thinking more than our tool kit.


Find people with passion

Target a specific regional market for expansion, and find a passionate salesperson to spread the gospel of Eyecandy.

Market through existing customers

Contact the national brands they work with in Atlantic Canada and ask to connect with their colleagues across the country.

Tell your story

Consider making Eyecandy's creative philosophy and handcrafted quality even more front-and-centre on their website, using this as the launching point for a nationwide digital marketing strategy.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.