Sean Starr started out with nothing but his motorcycle, some paint, and a few brushes. But over the years, this green entrepreneur has developed a unique and thriving sustainable signage business, Starr Studios. Working in a niche market, Sean is on a journey to discovering the ins and outs of marketing a small green business in a wide open marketplace – and helping others turn everyday marketing into green marketing, literally.
What’s the story behind Starr Studios?
Starr Studios is a continuation of my father’s company, Starr Custom Paint which was started in Texas in the mid 1980’s. My father and I ran the company together until his death almost 15 years ago. I then worked at several sign companies in the Seattle area before moving to San Francisco in 2006 and reestablishing the family business as Starr Studios with my wife Kayleigh.
The business also sponsored a variety of art projects I completed throughout California and the United States including painting at 11 wineries in Napa Valley. The years spent in San Francisco really changed my approach and thinking about sustainable issues. In 2008 Starr Studios was hired by Subculture Books to design the book cover and interior of the book Envisioning Sustainability by environmental icon Peter Berg.
Here is some background on Berg: Urban sustainability became the focus of Berg’s thinking in the late 80’s and he organized a series of symposia with SF Bay area inhabitants to design a truly sustainable future. The result of these symposia was the book A Green City Program for the San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond which Peter edited with Beryl Magilavy and Seth Zuckerman.
Working for months with Berg (he’s a very persuasive individual) made me rethink our entire business model and led us to the decision to move to the mountains of southern California in 2010 to combine our business with a more sustainable lifestyle.
In addition to running our shop (and home) with solar power, we also operate with the use of wind power which allows us to work and live with naturally generated power in addition to our water being provided by a well. We also recently broke ground on a Community Garden located next door to our shop which starts its first planting this spring and involves over a dozen local families.
What’s your business model?
Our model is pretty simple: we are a micro sized business that is focused on craftsmanship and sustainability and intend to stay that way. It has allowed us to inch out of the red, but not much. We are still fairly new. We didn’t really start getting things rolling and get any focus to speak of until 2009 since I was traveling so much with art projects, so we have made rapid progress.
How is Starr Studios different from other wooden sign making operations?
Unfortunately the sign industry has been fueled by petroleum based vinyls and plastics since the late 1980’s, so sustainable options are slow in coming. We have tried to keep traditional sign making alive, and fortunately much of that is a more sustainable choice.
There are products like Sierra Pine’s Medex, which is a sign substrate that we offer that is 100% recycled, formaldehyde free, FSC/EPP/SCS Certified and provides 6 LEED Credits.
We also offer things like Milk Paints which are no VOC, non-toxic, 100% biodegradable, zero HAP’s (Hazardous Air Pollutants), and low VOC and no VOC paints like One Shot Lettering Enamels and Matthews Paints. We work quite a bit with traditional plywoods like Birch and overlaid Plywoods, which still contain levels of formaldehyde unfortunately, but those manufacturers are making strides to change that in the near future.
We are working more now with off the shelf lumber like pine planks as well as reclaimed and recycled barn wood lumber and old windows that we locate through some of our old connections in San Francisco. It really provides a one of a kind look for our clients and allows them to keep something out of a landfill, and they get to own a piece of San Francisco or some farm’s history, so it’s a neat option. We have a growing number of organic grocery stores and small specialty shops across the country calling us for signs like these.
Do clients have to pay a premium for your green products?
We have been able to keep our pricing up to par with any other traditional signmaker’s pricing. Someone will pay a little more than, say, vinyl letters on a plastic panel, but they will pay the same for one of our sustainable signs as they would for any other hand crafted quality signage.
What methods do you use for marketing your green business?
This has been a tough one really. We have tried a variety of ways to communicate what we do, but by far the best marketing for us has been our website. We have put a lot into search engine optimization and are just now trying to network with other eco friendly businesses and its starting to pay off.
We have customers like Barb Shadomy who owns the Atlanta Bed & Breakfast Stonehurst Place (See http://www.stonehurstplace.com/green.htm). Barb renovated a historic building built in 1896 and transformed the whole place into a sustainable B&B. She is a loyal customer and fan of ours and has spread the word about us in addition to many other customers who have really gone to bat for us.
Word of mouth has also been a really big help in getting the message out. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with companies like Sony Music, Ocean Spray and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham and his wife Kristen, all because we have made a commitment to sustainability and are uncompromising on quality.
We are about to do our first email newsletter and we are hopeful that this is going to be our most successful marketing yet. Like most creative business owners, I tend to get wrapped up in the project and let the business side of things like marketing slide a little. We are trying to change that in 2011.
Have you used social media for marketing your business?
Have you ever sought or received outside funding for your green business?
We are the epitome of boot-strappers. When my wife and I first started the business in San Francisco, all we owned was a motorcycle and a paint kit with some brushes and paints. Our first job was for an organic grocery store in The Haight called Fresh Organics. I rode to that job in the rain, on my motorcycle and hand lettered a window they had replaced with their logo. We have reinvested every penny back into the business and now have a fully stocked shop and a restored old Chevy shop truck that we hope to convert to run on propane fuel later this year.
What mistakes have you made along your green entrepreneur journey?
Probably the biggest mistake has been assuming people would understand what we were trying to do as regards sustainability. We understood early on about issues like transparency in our claims, but the average business owner has had difficulty understanding what is driving us and why we are doing this. A lot of them just want a great sign made and don’t care about the rest of it. That has not been the case with the larger clients, they want two things from us: a great sign, and they want it made sustainably. That tells me that its just going to take time until the average business owner is looking for both as well. My advice would be to advertise that you are sustainable, explain why and leave it at that. “If you build it, they will come” kind of a thing.
You can connect with Sean on Yelp.