Specialty Imprinting On The Road
Part III

written by:  Larry Cohn, May 2004


Introduction - So you want to go on the road, huh?

Section 1: Be prepared for everyday emergencies

1) Power provided by event? Don't bet on it

2) Generator(s)

-OSHA requirements
-Noise level
-"Clean" power signal

3) Power backup unit

4) Surge Protectors

5) Emergency Bag of Hardware Goodies

6) Spare computer and press equipment

7) Personal emergency bag

Section 2: Getting organized and set up to go mobile vending

1) Lighting

2) Canopy, Trailer or both


3) Setup

-Physical considerations
-Ventilation and comfort
-Preserving the mystery
-Curb appeal
-Do they "get it" as they hurry by?
-Do you project a "Low-key vibe" or a "Trap-a-customer vibe"?
-The human touch

4) Equipment

Keep your stuff on the leading edge.....
.... But not on the "bleeding edge"

5) Stock

6) Where are we going, anyway?

7) Contacts, Agreements, Politics... What's your gig?

-Expect to get "jerked around"
-Put on your happy face to the powers that be
-The carnival option
-Events with multiple vending options

8) Employees

Section 3: Pulling it all together, and pulling yourself together

1) Paperwork

2) Competitors

-"Battle" scenario
-"Ignoring" scenario:
-"Friendly" scenario:
-Reality check... a competitor is still a competitor

3) "Bad Guys"

-Is your "big mouth" tipping off the "bad guys"?
-Does your routine make you an easy mark for a robbery?
-Are you an easy mark for passing counterfeit money?
-The worst thieves can be the ones you hire
-Things that go bump in the night...
-Being neighborly can pay off
-Check out your motel/hotel surroundings

4) Operating plan

-Perfection or Profit?
-Assembly line operation or "We'll do anything you want, right now"?
-Other options for keeping a difficult or delayed sale

5) Lifestyle decisions

Conclusion: Going on the road... is it for you?


Section 3: Pulling it all together, and pulling yourself together

1) Paperwork

Your adrenalin is all pumped up, you are officially "on the road", you've made some money at your first gig, a little more at your second one, third one was a lost cause but you feel really confident about this forth one coming up...woa, hold on there cowboy! Are you keeping good records of all this?

You know that the real world didn't stop turning. You still need to deal with:

A) Sales tax returns to file...(multiple ones if you are traveling around in different jurisdictions), B) IRS returns and perhaps quarterly estimated returns to file.

C) Sales tax permits for each state you plan to sell in. Are you collecting the proper amount of sales tax for that particular area? Does your signage and your receipts reflect that?

D) Business license for each city or county you do business in (that require it), unless the promoter of the event has made an arrangement to include a temporary business license fee as part of the space rental fee.

E) Keeping all the necessary records, for possible audit.

F) All other necessary permits and licenses. Do you know that you can be shut down by a simple visit to your booth if you don't have the right permits?

G) Employee paperwork and wage reporting. Are you planning on paying your transient employees in cash? And not reporting their wages even if you pay them more than the minimum threshold required for proper reporting.? You'd better make sure you don't have an unhappy employee, or bad luck, or the labor board may wind up on your tail.

It's easy to get caught up in the idea that you are out there free to do what you will, like a cowboy, and there may be some truth to that in some cases. However you need to come up with a plan that you can live with for collecting and reporting taxes and for keeping everything legit on the paperwork side. Otherwise you might have a mess to sort out when you get back home and you might have some legal concerns to haunt you as well. If you are not organized enough to make the trip for the duration and you have to make trips "back home" just to "put out the fires", you are in trouble. You are going to be sapping much of your profit that you made on the road to begin with, as well as much of your energy.

If you are proficient with keeping your finances in order using Intuit's Quickbooks accounting program or similar, and with filing your tax returns using Intuit's TurboTax program or similar, you are half way there, but you still might consider keeping a long distance relationship with an accountant back home so that you can email information and reports to for any further needed forms filing. Then you will pretty much have control of your paperwork. If your method of accounting is to simply fill up shoeboxes with receipts then it's going to be a tougher task to keep up with the various tax reporting requirements involved in interstate on-site commerce.

2) Competitors

There are basically 3 ways to deal with competitors: Go to battle with them, ignore them, or try to get along with them.

"Battle" scenario:

You badmouth each other to your potential customers, making you both look bad. You spy on each other, trying to duplicate the other's "good ideas", for pricing gimmicks, or displays, or hot products, and try to figure out if they are selling more than you are. You might even have constant price wars to the point that neither of you are making much if any money. By the time you put that much energy into these battles you might be suffering on your end. And who says that their pricing gimmicks work better than yours, that their displays are hotter than yours, or that they have hotter products? Jealousy is a dangerous thing, and if the event is large enough to support the two of you, you are probably better off at least ignoring them.

"Ignoring" scenario:

You go about your business as if the competition was not even there. You wave hello to each other but that's about as far as it goes. Listen to any customer comments comparing you to your competition, but don't get defensive. You might pick up a good pointer or two that might help you at the next show. But don't be too quick to react because you've put alot of thought and experience into your setup and more than likely the good outweighs the bad. If you start changing things without much forethought, there can be unintended negative consequences to other parts of your operation.

"Friendly" scenario:

It's great to be able to get along with a competitor, to help each other out if you run low on supplies, and to possibly swap leads back and forth for items that the other specializes in that you don't , and vice versa. Lots of useful information can be shared without compromising each of your competitive advantages to the other, however... once you get into the "sharing mood", there is a great danger that you will go too far before you even realize what you've said.

Reality check... a competitor is still a competitor

In any case you need to keep one simple truth in mind at all times: no matter how friendly your competitors are, they are still your competitors, and therefore, information exchanges should always be guarded. The information line you don't want to cross should be fairly well thought out ahead of time. On the internet forums, it's kind of easy to want to share information since there is no immediate threat of competition, but if you are on the road, even one competitor running the same circuit as you are can spell serious trouble, and you have to keep your good information to yourself. For example, if you happen to let it slip that your next stop is going to be the PoDunct County Fair, and that you just got a space last week for it, you might have opened up their eyes to the possibility of getting into that fair and competing with you once again. Maybe they had tried 2 months ago to get into that fair and it was all filled up at that time, and they were not aware of recent last minute openings.

Just remember that you don't have any obligation to share information. Information can be one of the biggest competitive advantages that you possess! That is, an advantage only if you keep it to yourself. The problem is, once you've lowered your guard and have a friendly relationship with a competitor, it's hard to stop cold on a given question and say, "Sorry, but I can not tell you that". Kind of sends a chill in the air, which makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere from then on. Lying, changing the subject, telling part but not all of the answer, asking a question in return... there are many ways to "deal" with it, but none of them pleasant. Handling it with a dose of humor mixed with respect is probably the best approach, but it's still better to avoid the problem altogether by being a little less open to begin with, so that hopefully the more prying questions don't come up in the first place. At least try and put some thought into this issue before you find yourself getting cornered.

3. "Bad Guys"

Is your "big mouth" tipping off the "bad guys"?

This doesn't only apply to some of your potential competitors, by the way. It goes without saying that you don't want to innocently tip people off that might hurt you later. If you are staying in motels you don't want just anyone and everyone you meet to get the idea that you have valuable stuff in your vehicle (and trailer?). An innocent conversation at a local diner with supposedly nice folks could lead to you finding yourself stripped of your livelihood, by them or by someone overhearing your conversation. I'm not saying that you should live your life in a paranoid manner, but... well, closer to it than not, if you want to increase your chances of staying safe and sound.

Sometimes you have to learn to tell a white lie or two, such as if a single person is traveling alone and wants it to stay that way. Occasional mentions of "My husband/wife/business partner is waiting for me", things like that, are important conversational gambits of an on-the-road person. Never admit you are alone, at least not until you are relatively comfortable with that person. I'll leave it to you to decide how much further you take the idea of personal protection. Are you going to carry mace spray? Or something more serious? You might want to investigate just what you can bring legally to help protect yourself if needed, and then get trained to use it safely and properly.

Some people seem able to get orders everywhere they go, by simply wearing samples of their work and talking up a storm to anyone who expresses an interest. That's a great thing, an exciting thing, but at least in my mind, on the road, a potentially dangerous thing to do unless you are careful with whom you deal with.

Does your routine make you an easy mark for a robbery?

How do you plan to pull, carry, and deposit your daily cash? Just as in a retail store situation, there are always going to be "bad guys" trying to figure out your vulnerabilities... they are going to try and distract you while their buddy cleans out your register...or they will try and hold you up as you are walking with your daily cash in your pocket or pouch, as you are trying to deposit it or hide it. You can't be too careful, or too suspicious, when you are dealing with your cash. All the same rules apply and more, such as have an unpredictable routine for making deposits, or keeping any significant amounts of cash pulled from the register and put in a drop-safe that is bolted or welded to the frame of your vehicle or trailer.

Are you an easy mark for passing counterfeit money?

Another game you have to be aware of is that fairs, carnivals, street events and shows are favorite places for passing counterfeit money. You need to be just as careful as you would anywhere else, keep up-to-date on the latest ways to spot fakes, and keep your detection pens and any other devices on hand. The crooks are waiting on you to be busy, in a less-than-ideal setting such as lighting, crowds, noise, and other distractions. They are hoping you have your guard down, or that your employee at the register is not very well trained. You might consider not accepting any bill over $20, and posting a sign next to your register to that effect. Some people may walk away but the serious and honest ones usually come back with change.

The worst thieves can be the ones you hire

Don't underestimate the power of transient employees to rob you blind by pilferage, (personally or by using friends as a decoy customer and then under-ringing them), embezzlement, (either by pocketing a sale without going through the register or by under-ringing and pocketing the difference), or even tipping off their friends as to your vulnerabilities in order to rob you later.

Anything you can do to minimize the opportunities for being a victim of employee theft is potentially a good investment of time and expense, such as:

A) Take a daily inventory count.

B) Have a set daily procedure for closing out the register and balancing it with your receipts and your cash.

C) Watch your employees when they think they are alone.

D) Make use of the management reports available in most cash registers that give you valuable information not available to employees. Study and learn what your cash register can do for you; most people greatly under-utilize this feature.

E) Avoid if possible letting your employees handle the money. That may be tough, especially if you are the one doing the production work.

Things that go bump in the night...

If a carnival is part of the event you are involved with, then keep an extra careful eye on security at night. The event organizers may not allow you to sleep on the property but guess what? The carnies are. And although most carnies I've met are honest enough, there will be some that will be tempted to break into your booth if it is easy pickin's. Most night security at events is pretty minimal; you certainly can't assume that a few rent-a-cops are going to be able to fully protect hundreds or even thousands of booths when a determined thief is spending the night there as a carney. You will have to use your imagination on how best to safeguard your booth from break-ins at night since you are typically pretty vulnerable. A typical booth is protected only by canvas or poly sheeting, something that can be defeated in one second with a good knife and a rough idea of the booth's layout. It's not only the occasional rouge carney that you have to worry about. In many fairs, the vendor booths might close up 2 or 3 hours prior to the carnival shutting down. Any customer hanging around the carnival can potentially have an easy access to breaking into your booth during those last few hours. This is even more true if your event involves a late night concert with people wandering around getting drunk and doing drugs. For these reasons and more, I know people who choose to keep a low profile and sleep in their booths at night with a weapon by their side, even if sleeping in the booth is prohibited by the event rules.

Being neighborly can pay off

The best chance you might have for keeping things under control in the daytime is to befriend one or more of your immediate neighbors at an event. It might be a bit of a bias on my part but I believe that in general, you are going to be able to trust a vendor next to you (who is not directly selling the same things you are), more than you would some other stranger. The two of you are kind of in the same boat. If you agree to keep an eye on each other's booths then you can extend both of your security options ten-fold.

Check out your motel/hotel surroundings

If you are planning to check into a particular motel, give it a couple spins around the entire complex, slowly, and try to observe the area.

A) Are the lots well lighted?

B) Are there undesirable types of people hanging around?

C) Are most of the vehicles well-kept and valuable?

D) Does the surrounding neighborhood look nice or does it look like more of a slum?

E) Does it look like the kind of place that prostitutes and drug dealers might be frequenting?

F) Does your room have a deadbolt lock on it?

4) Operating plan

Perfection or Profit?

If your operating goal is to produce perfect products every time for everyone at every event, then I don't have much advice for you except to say that I don't believe it's a commercially viable goal.

Here's my advice: Don't go for perfection, just go for "GOOD ENOUGH".

Obviously this cuts a raw cord for many of us. We all like to think we are the best at what we do, and would never compromise our quality. Well, be forewarned, there are many factors that possibly may be beyond your control at an event. Due to that, you should just brace yourself for the idea that "good enough" is good enough. If you can't deal with that (and it's hard), then maybe you should reconsider doing events. Maybe it would negatively affect your business reputation, or maybe just your own self esteem. Maybe you should just plan to take orders for your better or more involved work.

Even if you've figured out how to get fairly good quality at an event, you have to be QUICK to make a profit. You have to seriously analyze every time consuming step of your process, and cut out unnecessary steps. 2 minutes on color corrections? Maybe in your slow, leisure times. How about 10 seconds max on color corrections when you've got a line. Macro programs can help tremendously in this area, where you just set a general correction profile(s) that suits those event conditions, and then just hit a couple keys to get dialed in close enough. And a macro can do most of your other repetitive keystroke and mouse work as well. If you give into the urge of second guessing your macros and still manually touching up every image, you've probably set yourself up for failure.

Here's the most effective gambit to survive the "good enough" game. Display "crap"! (Crap to you... beauty is in the eye of the beholder.) If people still decide to buy your product after perusing your display of "less than perfect" samples, then your job is easy. Just make the product equal or better than your displays and you've got instant happy campers. Once you've been to a few events, this is easier to do, since you will have a better idea of the quality level to safely display. Believe me, the opposite approach spells disaster! How many times do you want to hear a customer complain "But...how come MY product doesn't look as good as your sample?"

Assembly line operation or "We'll do anything you want, right now"?

Do you want to instantly cater to every whim of every customer, regardless of how many potential sales you may lose behind him or her? If you are on the road, I seriously doubt it.

If you're like me, you'll want to plan your operation to be as SIMPLE as possible, like an assembly line. The typical event will have a 20% or 30% "sweet spot" as far as the times of operation. Plan to sit there and be bored for 70% or 80% of the time, and then plan to crank it out as fast as you can when the good moments come your way. If you offer too many choices, or offer items that require too much time or skill to produce, you lose. People generally will not stand in a stagnant line. You've got to keep it moving, regardless of the few you have to disappoint. The big picture is that you will make 20 people happy for every 1 person who wants more out of you. Learn how to say "No, I'm sorry" or "Yes, but later". Those can be three of the most profitable words you can utter.

Other options for keeping a difficult or delayed sale

Of course, you never want to say no to a customer if you can help it. Offer to make the more difficult jobs during your slow times, for pickup the following day, or if it's even more involved, or you are too busy to even offer that, then maybe you can offer to ship it to them after the show.

You can also try and get re-orders by having a website where they can log on, enter their customer or picture # which you provide to them at the event, and then they can instantly re-order whatever it is they want with the image they had taken at the show. It is very easy nowadays to record every image you have ever taken onto CD's or DVD's every night and to have those pictures keyed to a receipt number or a combination of date and customer name.

5) Lifestyle decisions

Living on the road can be pretty tough, unless you have way too much money to burn and you can therefore make yourself comfortable no matter what. For the rest of us, you have to love the life on the road, the traveling, seeing new places and meeting new people, in order for it to be worth making the sacrifices that it entails. For some people that is a tradeoff well worth making and they can stay on the road for decades, for others, one or two shows is it for them. It's a shame to see people making big plans and spending lots of money getting ready to go on the road only to find out after a short period of time that they want to go back to their normal lifestyle.

The smart move is to take some baby steps, do a few local shows investing only small amounts of money in a canopy and lightweight tables, things like that, then move up to a couple of longer distance shows without getting seriously involved with investments or commitments. Once you've had more of a taste of being on the road and then return to your normal lifestyle, you'll have a more clear picture of whether you really want to be on the road for weeks or months at a time. Think about all the stuff in your "normal life" that you'll possibly have to put on hold:

A) Friendships

B) Parties

C) Birthdays

D) Weddings

E) Holiday get-togethers

F) Your usual contact with your kids, or your parents, or other family members.

All the while, the bills, the rent or mortgage back home, and the various other responsibilities keep ticking away, whether you are there or not.

Instead, you'll be living either in tents, in a trailer, in a motorhome, in motels, or any combination of the above, depending on how you plan to travel. Cooking can turn out to be a chore, shopping may or may not be possible, keeping clean can be a challenge, and unless you've got yourself set up with a portable satellite link or something, internet service may turn out to be an occasional luxury. Buying more supplies can be cumbersome since you might have to pick up your supplies at the will call desk of the UPS in the next town, and plan your travels to coincide with your purchases. If you have a mechanical breakdown it can cost you a show and your income for the next week, on top of the repair costs. And what happens if you or someone with you gets sick?

The plus side for many is the feeling of freedom, the sheer joy of not being stuck in the same place doing the same thing with or for the same people day in and day out. For others, it can be the money, since doing shows, if done right, can be lucrative enough to be able to only work for half the year and then play for the other half. On the downside, there are plenty of people who just barely scrape by from one show to the next. Poverty, hard life, hard work, loneliness... it can turn out that way.

Conclusion: Going on the road... is it for you?

There are many people who have much more experience than I do with being on the road, for subbing or other specialty imprinting. I certainly don't have all the answers. I only hope that I have given you some taste of what the experience is really like if you should decide to try it. And as a rule, the ones that are out there making good money are generally not going to talk about it. Would you? You and only you can make this kind of "should I go on the road?" decision, since you won't find much support either way from a businesses standpoint. Your competitors, in general, won't want to encourage you to join them, and your family and friends won't want you to leave them. Whichever decision you make, I wish you well.

Larry Cohn

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