Updated: Mar 8
Nancy Stokes, owner of Stokes Sign Company in Austin, tells us about her journey in the male dominated sign industry.
Almost thirty years ago, Nancy Stokes started her own sign business and she hasn't looked back. If you know Nancy, you know she could talk shop for hours and explain every screw and print head that makes up her state of the art machines. Unlike most CEO’s and company owners, you can find Nancy working hard in the shop alongside her 20 employee team. Whether it is weeding a vinyl graphic, hand painting a sign, or helping wrap a 37 foot RV, she is instrumental in the Stokes company culture and keeping the machines running. We sat down with her to discuss the backstory behind this Austin company and her road to success as a woman owner and founder in a male dominated niche sign industry.
What prompted you to start your business?
I was working at a sign company when I was around 23 years old and knew I wanted to have my own company one day. I wanted to pursue a living that was based around something I enjoyed and that brought an artistic element to the table, while still working for myself. I grew up in a small family business that was supported by the local community. That experience taught me about work ethic and that people want to work with someone they know and trust.
Honestly, after working for other sign companies for a couple of years, I realized I could start my own sign company. I really wanted to focus on the design area of sign making which I thought was lacking sometimes at the companies I worked for in the past. I think people really appreciate a good design and a sign that looks good!
What is your start up story?
The truth? I used to wait tables at night and use my tips to buy materials for the next day. I was my only employee for the first few years - taking the orders, making the designs, producing and installing. I would get orders I didn’t want to lose but couldn’t afford the material to make them. I even put up my Volkswagen as collateral for a loan once.
I also would wear the kids, in a front pack or on my back, while I made signs. A lot of times, in the early years, my clients would entertain my kids while I finished their signs. That actually happened. Most often with the Lakeway police department!
I would not be here today without my family. They have each helped my business in their own ways. My husband helped make this possible by supporting me in the early
days and helping me figure out how to finance things like new equipment.
Each of my kids have worked in the shop from time to time during summer breaks from school especially.
What is one of your biggest accomplishments as a woman business?
When I started out in 1994, I only knew one other woman owned sign company. I was in business for around 7 years before I even had a woman apply for a job with me. Now I have 12 outstanding women on my team! So I would say it is seeing women in my office now. Watching the women I have working for me succeed and seeing their drive is a big source of pride.
How does your business serve the surrounding Austin area?
To me, every sign starts from the base with the art and design elements. I try to make the most creative signs that work for that particular business and what they really want to achieve. I always tell my sales team ‘Don’t sell someone what we want to sell, make them what will make them look good."
What is your favorite part of running your own business?
That is a difficult question because I like so many aspects. This business is always so exciting because it is never the same day twice. Being able to create is probably my favorite part of the job. Any time I can put a paintbrush in my hand is a great day!
I would have to say seeing how far the sign business has come, I used to dream of machines that exist now. Thirty years ago, I was having to make everything by hand and now I get to incorporate all of this technology into daily sign production. Discovering new ways to make signs is a favorite part of this business for sure.
When someone says it can’t be done a certain way or won’t work, I always see it as a challenge, it makes me really want to try harder to figure it out. I really love being able to have an open shop so I can show people how sign making happens. A lot of people have no idea how it all comes together or what the process is.
How do you stand out from the competition?
Our passion for creating the most dynamic designs and making it happen is how we differ from other corporate companies. Also, our ability to stand behind everything we do. I was taught young that in a family business, your name is your word. I think that sets us apart in today’s day and age where you never even meet who you are buying things from anymore.
Our company culture is so important in what we do too. To create, you have to have a certain environment, it can’t just be about cranking out numbers it has to be about working together.
We are artists and our goal is to give the customer something they are proud of. We give the customer what they want and work with them to achieve their goals by paying attention to detail and really listening to them.