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Build a Badass Business Podcast #44: Interview with Dan Antonelli, insights from 20 years in business

Build a Badass Business Podcast | Diane Sanfilippo

Topics:Build a Badass Business Podcast | Diane Sanfilippo

  1. Introducing Dan Antonelli [2:40]
  2. Hiring his first employee [10:34]
  3. The spirit of a good entrepreneur [22.24]
  4. How Diane started working for Dan [32:14]
  5. What Dan learned from Diane [44:37]

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Build a Badass Business: Episode #44: Interview with Dan Antonelli, insights from 20 years in business

Coming to you from the city by the bay, this is Build a Badass Business with Diane Sanfilippo. Diane is a New York Times bestselling author and serial entrepreneur. She’s here to teach you how to grow and develop a successful business you love, and how to create raving fans along the way. Here she is, your host: Diane Sanfilippo.

Diane Sanfilippo: Alright guys, welcome back to the show. Today I have a very special guest with me. I don’t even know how to introduce him adequately, but Dan Antonelli is the owner, president, founder of; I don’t even know what the name of the company is, still. If you guys changed the name of the company yet. You can tell me in a second. But at the time I worked at the company, it was called Graphic D Signs, and they’re a small business ad agency based in New Jersey. I worked for Dan, with Dan, for 4 years. I believe the first two were in the basement of his home {laughs}, which sounds way shadier than it was.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: In Warren County in New Jersey, and then was it 2 years I worked in California remotely?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: Or was it 3 years, and then 1. Ok, so I worked remotely for 2 years and pretty much other than working for companies where I had Build a Badass Business Podcast | Diane Sanfilippovarying bosses from time to time, like in retail and whatnot, Dan is the person who I worked for, as my direct boss, for the longest. So he knows me pretty well. I know what it was like working for him pretty well. Learned a ton from working with him, and I’m really excited to have you on the show. This is kind of hilarious.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, it’s a little bizarre, but it’s all good. It’s awesome.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: I’m curious if you ever thought that this would be what would come of your first hire besides your mother-in-law who was doing billing at the time when I started working with you?

Dan Antonelli: I mean, it is pretty bizarre to watch, you’ve been this huge juggernaut, and I take full responsibility for where you are today, actually.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} Do you have random people who, out of the blue, it comes up about something related to any of the work that I do, or does it never really come up? Does it ever come up that someone has the book somewhere or something, and you’re like; um, I know her, or…

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, I think I throw your name around that I’ve got a direct line to you.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: So it’s like this crazy celebrity.

Diane Sanfilippo: I don’t know what that means.

Dan Antonelli: I can hey; yeah, I know her, she used to work for me. So definitely.

Diane Sanfilippo: That’s so weird.

Dan Antonelli: I try to leverage; it gets me free coffee and stuff like that.

1. Introducing Dan Antonelli [2{40]

Diane Sanfilippo: So why don’t you tell people who you are, what you do now, and what your background is. A little bit of the evolution of your business from before you really got it to the place; basically, before you hired me. Because that’s a huge shift in anyone’s business, and there’s where a lot of the people listening are. What were you doing leading up to that, and then what was the tipping point of, ok I need to hire someone, and then from there. But give people a little bit of background too of just who you are.

Dan Antonelli: Sure. When I was probably in high school, I got really interested in lettering, and I used to do a lot of lettering for signs, and I used to do a lot of trucks. And then I got my first job working in a sign shop when I was 17, and I absolutely loved it. I was just fascinated with creating lettering. We used to use a brush to do it, at the time, and I thought for sure…

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} What?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, no computers, and it was all done by hand. And I thought for sure that I would be a sign painter. I thought that was my career path. I was definitely passionate enough about it. And I would come home from high school, and I would letter alphabets on the back of an old trunk, actually, is what I used to use. So I was that nerdy kid in high school; all my friends are going out, hanging out. I’m like, eh I’m going to go home and letter some alphabets, and they’re like; huh? {laughs} What are you going to do? {laughs}

So when the time came, when I was about to graduate high school, and my parents were like; listen, you’re not going to be a sign painter. You’ve got to go to college, and do something constructive with your life. So I wound up going, and I got a degree in communications and advertising. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to work in their publications office my senior year, and got exposed to desktop publishing; which I’m dating myself now, because that was back in ’92. But I started doing some desktop publishing, and kind of learning about graphic design.

And I was actually still lettering signs on the side while I was there, so I kind of have that entrepreneurial spirit. I remember even in high school lettering my friend’s textbook covers and getting paid $5 a cover and pin striping their cars later on. So I always kind of had it in the back of my mind maybe doing something entrepreneurial, but no one in my family had ever really gone that route. So when I graduated college, I got a job for a health insurance company in New York City, and I worked in their in-house graphics department, and I did brochures and newsletters and catalogs and stuff for them.

But I would take the train in to the city every day, and I would read this magazine called Sign Craft magazine, and I would see these cool signs and lettering that people were doing; and I was just like, why aren’t I doing this? This is what I love. I should somehow find a way to go back to doing that. So I actually started the business while I was working full time, and I know a lot of people really go that route. They kind of tip their toes into it, and start in a similar fashion. And at the time, my wife was working as a school teacher, so she had good benefits there; but she was like, listen, if you’re going to quit your day job, so to speak, you need to have, and I think the figure that we had at the time was $50,000 in sales. She wanted me to have $50,000 in sales, doing the signs and the truck lettering.

So, after 6 months, I had the $50,000 in sales, and I wound up quitting my day job and starting the business then. I wanted to work at home for a while out of the basement, because I just thought that was the safest way to do it without having too much overhead. I had this vision in my head of doing, not only just the signs and lettering for companies, but also offering them advertising services. And that’s really where the notion of where we evolved into today had originated from. What if there was an advertising agency that could provide a small business with everything that they needed, from their branding, to their stationary, to their brochures; and then certainly at that time web design was really coming into its infancy. We had really started doing a bunch of web design, as well. I had started learning web design.

So that’s really kind of how it evolved. And then my wife got pregnant, and we had twins. I said, this is cool; I could be a stay at home dad for a little while, and that worked out for a few years. And then you came along. {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} So I remember I was looking for a web design job. I was still in school; I was still working at Trader Joe’s part time. I would go there to work; this is stuff that, {laughs} this is the old days. I would go to Trader Joe’s and work 6 a.m. to like 11 a.m.; I would go home, eat lunch, turn around and get in my car at noon and drive out to you and work from 1 to 5 p.m. It would take me an hour to drive there, exactly. I’d work from 1 to 5 or 5:30, and then I’d drive home. So I was working two different part time jobs while I was in school for graphic design.

But what I just wanted to kind of point out; which I think, you had a pretty linear path, and you didn’t really waste a lot of time doing something that you weren’t that passionate about, and you actually didn’t. A lot of people who listen to this show, they do stuff, like they have an office job or a day job that’s really disjointed from the thing that they’re passionate about.

Dan Antonelli: Mm-hmm. Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: You took kind of a side corporate, people understand this job {laughs} kind of approach, right? You worked in design for health care company. It wasn’t such a far cry from the stuff that you wanted to do, but it was obvious what your passion was from a younger age.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, it was in the realm for sure. But what made it harder was what I was getting at my day job in terms of salary and benefits.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mmm.

Dan Antonelli: I had almost 5 weeks’ vacation. I had a boss who didn’t care really what I was doing as long as the work got done.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: So I was almost at a point where I was partially able to work on some of my own stuff while I was there, because the work was getting done.

Diane Sanfilippo: Right.

Dan Antonelli: And they were very flexible about that, and they really tried to do everything in their power to have me not quit. But what really happened was; the 6 months that I was really trying to get the sales that my wife basically wanted at the time, was I was working probably 80-90 hours a week. My job was in the city so I took the train in at 6 a.m., I get home 6 or 7 at night, and then I would work until 2 in the morning or 3 in the morning. And then I worked, of course, the weekends, Saturdays and Sundays.

And I did that for 6 months straight. And it really got to the point where it was wrecking me from a health perspective, but I knew that’s what it would take to make the transition seamless. And I think that’s always an important thing; you’re trying to make sure that when you leave that day job to go out to start your own thing, that you have a plan in place, and you’ve got some infrastructure already built. And I already had; I knew day 1 when I quit my job what I was going to be doing and where the work was coming in from. So I really tried to make sure that that transition was seamless. Because if you don’t set yourself up properly, you’re already working against some pretty big obstacles.

2. Hiring his first employee [10:34]

Diane Sanfilippo: I think, it’s funny because I’m sure I knew a lot of this, but we’ve never talked about it in this way before, and as you tell your story I’m like; we are the same person in that way. We both like to take risks in the sense that we’ll bet on ourselves.

Dan Antonelli: Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: But we’re also not interested in that much risk, where’s it’s like; let me just quit my job. Like, F-you, I don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. I don’t operate that way. I only take risks that are calculated to the point where I know, to some degree, 70-80%, what’s going to happen.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly. And that’s really the philosophy that I’ve used in growing the business. You were the first employee that I had, and certainly that was a new experience for me, but I knew the amount of work that was coming in and what I wanted personally from a quality of life standpoint in terms of the hours I wanted to work, I couldn’t have both. So it’s like, can I pay an employee to come in and help and do some things. First of all, do some things not only to help execute the things that had to be done, but also that could bring something to the table, that had a different perspective and different ideas.

So I think that was a great lesson for me to learn, is that I was always trying to think about, the people that I bring aboard to try to help me; there’s no point in bringing on someone who is not as smart as me, you know.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah, no I know what you mean.

Dan Antonelli: Bringing on someone who can’t help with the things that I suck at, {laughs} you know, I don’t know how else to put it.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I think challenge things that you were doing.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly.

Diane Sanfilippo: At the time, I remember one of the biggest things was like; I remember being on the phone or something, and my mom was like, who are you talking to? And I was like, Dan. She was like, you talk to your boss like that? I was like, well he wanted feedback on the logo, what am I going to just tell him what he wants to hear? I’m going to tell him what I really think {laughs} you know? And I just remember that’s how things were.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. So that whole thing really started in my head that I always hire people who are smarter than me. Always make sure you can bring someone aboard who really knows more about something than you do because there’s no real benefit to bringing in someone who doesn’t add to the equation. That famous saying about building a company of giants is based on the philosophy of just hiring people that are smarter than yourself. And I don’t have an ego about myself when it comes to that, and I think that’s how we’ve gotten to the point we’re at today.

Right now, we’re at 20 employees, we’re building a brand new office.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} That’s crazy!

Dan Antonelli: And I wouldn’t have gotten here if I hadn’t continued to surround myself with people who couldn’t challenge me or couldn’t have me thinking in a different way. There’s just no way that would have happened.

Diane Sanfilippo: I think that point of; I think it also empowers the people who work with you to feel like there are elements. I know that I felt there were things that I did every day that you had no idea how to do.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I felt kind of secure in my job. Because I was like; well, he can’t just get rid of me tomorrow. Not that I ever thought that would happen, but it was like, I have job security because I’m making myself invaluable. I’m making myself irreplaceable to a degree. That’s kind of a mindset I’ve had with almost every job.

I think when maybe you're an entrepreneur at heart, you can’t help but take on more than someone asks you to take on, just because it’s your way, or whatever. Which it sounds like when you were at a healthcare company, it was kind of the same way where they were like, what can we do to make you stay. Literally, people have said the exact same thing to me at every job I’ve had when I’m like, I’ve got to go, and they’re like, how can we make you stay {laughs}. I’m like, you can’t.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. And I think, when you’re by yourself too, you have to try to be good at everything. That’s just the reality of it; you’re by yourself, you’ve to figure out; well how do I do taxes, how do I do payroll, how do I deal with sales, how do I deal with marketing.

So you’re wearing a million hats; which is fine, you have to do it, but as you're doing all those different tasks; I mean, certainly I realized I sucked at so many of them {laughs}. It’s like, well I’m not too good at that. I definitely need somebody to help me with this. I can remember, even here when we had some employees, when we first got into our new offices when I finally moved out of the basement, and we had 5 employees, I think, or 4 employees, and dealing with payroll. I’m like, I have no idea what I’m doing, you know. And I was screwing up paychecks, and trying to figure out vacations. And I’m like; I can’t do this. And I don’t want to do it, you know. Put me in the area that I’m really good at, which was doing the branding and working on logos and stuff, and then let me get somebody to help do that. Because if I’m doing a task that I’m not passionate about, then it doesn’t put me in a good space to do the things that got us here in the first place, as well.

Diane Sanfilippo: That’s a couple of things too; number one, it’s not the reason why you started a business, to do things you’re passionate about, you start doing too many things you’re not passionate about. But also, and this is a really big one for people listening who are thinking about hiring an accountant or hiring their first assistant or whatever it may be. It’s like, you hit a point when if you’re doing those tasks, not only are you not doing the thing you're passionate about anymore, you’re wasting money by wasting time. Because your time is better spent doing things that will earn money.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly.

Diane Sanfilippo: So even for our company, certain social media or certain things where I’m like; I could either spend; even {laughs} even household things. Even cleaning the house, or doing something; cooking I love to do, so that’s different, I’m not going to outsource that. But even having someone come in and clean the house a couple of times a month or something; those few hours, to pay that person whatever I’m’ going to pay them, I can spend my time doing something that will earn way more than I’m going to end up paying them for that time, and that’s really the thing that I think most new entrepreneurs need to start to learn.

Yeah, at first doing everything yourself is valuable; it’s great because you learn what you want, what you need, what you don’t like to do; but then you have to find that breaking point where you’re like, my time is more valuable if I do the thing I’m great at and hire someone else to do this.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. I think; one of the other things I wanted to talk about too is, if you could recall when you first started working for me and we started doing some websites together, and we started working on some of these things, and we would put out this website, and when it was done we would sit back and look at it and say; oh my god, this site is amazing. We’re never going to be able to do something better than this.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: And then we would come back the next day, and we’d get a new project in and we would say; ok, what can we do better? How can we improve this? And I think you and I both had that philosophy, that anything we did today wasn’t going to be good enough for tomorrow. And I think that whole idea has really helped shaped my agency. I know it’s helped shaped you as well.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: In the sense that, you know the things that you do today; and we’ve won a ton of awards and it’s all great, and you sit back and marvel in the minute when you win those awards, and you look at them and it’s all great; but I know tomorrow we’ve got to go out and do better. And that’s a hard standard to live up to, and I could look at the last hundred logos that I’ve done, and along the way there were many that I thought, “that’s the best one we’ll ever do”. And you know what? A few months later, or the next week, we do something that surpasses that. And that’s a very hard standard to live on; but I also think there is no top that you can ever get to. I think when I first started, I used to think that you could get to the top, and then you’d just hang out there, and it’s cool. {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: But you can’t get there. So you’re constantly trying to do better. I think what happens with a lot of small businesses, is they get very complacent in their own success, and that’s something that frightens me, and I think that’s what drives me.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah.

Dan Antonelli: I don’t want to look back and say our best days are behind us; I want to say our best days are in front of us. Yeah, we did great on this project and it’s awesome today, but we’re going to find a way to make it even better, and that’s the standard I kind of hold everyone here to. Everything we do today is awesome; but you know what, tomorrow is the day that we’re going to tackle, and we’re going to try to do something that’s even better, and figure out a way to do it more efficiently or make it convert into more sales or drive more business. There’s always ways that you can improve something.

Like I said; I’ve probably worked with over 1,000 small businesses in the last 20 years, and you see some of these companies in their lifecycles, and you can see the ones that are on the upswing, and you can see the ones that are really satisfied with the status quo, and I just can’t run an agency that way, where the status quo is going to carry us on for a long period of time.

It may be good for a little while; I may be fine with the status quo for a little while. But if you’re really trying to build something, it’s not how it goes. And it’s also not a place that I think people want to work at.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah, it’s not fun. Well, you know, this is so funny, we never talked about this stuff or put it into words; but as you say it. So, Dan’s like, I think you’re 9 years older than I am, so you have that much extra business, life, experience. The kind of trajectory; I don’t know what I’m going to do with my company, and I actually don’t have any legit employees; everyone is contract. Which, in the very beginning with you I was, and then I was an employee. I don’t know what kind of evolution I’ll have since I don’t have a physical location. But everything you’re saying about wanting to do better every day; that’s totally my nature. And we never had a conversation like; well, we’re doing it great today but we’re going to do it better tomorrow. We never actually put that into words, I think it was just how both of our personalities were.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: And when I look at what I do now, when I work on projects with other people, not everyone is like that. Just naturally; some people there is a good enough. Or there is a point where they feel that’s the top of success, that’s the top level, and I think what kind of occurred to me as you were talking to me about that, where you said that’s not really a place I want to be; you’re not looking ahead. Actually what hit me was, it’s lonely at the top. So it’s like, who wants to be at the top?

If you create a place that is the “top”, and you get there and you’re like; “I’m amazing!” well, you’re isolating yourself and you're not part of a fun, creative growth process anymore. It’s like you’ve just removed yourself from all of that. But if you stay in that mindset of; there’s always something better. And it’s not like a bigger, better chasing, it’s just more like, we can either do it more efficiently, or little things like that that can make it better. Right?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. And you just said in a great point as well, as far as; once you start pushing out work and you look at it and say, well that’s good enough, just let it go, then that’s the moment in time you’re business is on the decline. Because there is no good enough. Good enough for us doesn’t fly. I’m not going to put something that has our name on it, and have that go out the door, and just sit back and say; oh, you know what? It’s good enough, just let it go. We don’t; you and I, we’re the same way. We didn’t let stuff go out the door that wasn’t at the standard we needed it to be. There’s just no way.

3. The spirit of a good entrepreneur [22.24]

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah. Do you think that part of that is just, you’re either born with it or you're not, to be that way or to have that spirit? And do you think that’s a little bit critical to being a good entrepreneur? This is the thing I struggle with right now and talking to people who come into this work that I’m doing, teaching them about entrepreneurship and marketing and all that, where I’m like; is everyone really cut out to be an entrepreneur or not? I don’t know if everyone is.

Dan Antonelli: Well, yeah. I mean, clearly some people I think are not, especially the ones that are very risk adverse; because you do have to take some leaps, and you’ve got to trust in yourself that you’ve got to get to where you need to go. But I think that’s really sometimes the difference between good and great companies, is that philosophy as far as the work that gets put out and what it represents and what it says about that company.

But going back to your earlier point about what you do today not being good enough for tomorrow; I think you and I both share, even just outside of work in terms of what we do in far as, I race bicycles and you do obviously a ton of working out, and I know for me when it comes to my training that I do on my bicycle, I’m not satisfied again saying, I can’t be better or I can’t race faster or I can’t be better in my next race. So from a personal as well as a business perspective, I’m always looking at ways that I can be better and do better, because I don’t believe that there is a point where I’m going to be on the decline.

When it comes to health and fitness, at a certain point in time, I mean laws of nature do apply, but I’m not at that point where I’m ready to accept that yet as a possibility. {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} Yeah, I think there’s basically at the root of it, I think we’re talking about a level of comfort with risk. There’s an inherent or an innate confidence, I think, that comes with all of this, and I think; I’ve been trying to consider how do we develop confidence, and I think it’s just doing this thing, whatever it is that you’re passionate about and excited about; doing it so much that’ you’re like, no I know I’m awesome at it. You just do it that much; it’s time and experience and effort put into it.

Dan Antonelli: Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: I feel like there are a lot of people who are new at their business, and they’re on shaky ground. And I’m like, well you haven’t done this long enough yet. If you’re that shaky, keep doing it. Because at a point; people are like, how do you talk about this nutrition stuff so easily with such confidence? I’m like, I’ve been doing it for so long, you guys all ask the same questions every time. It’s not like I’m stepping into a room of 200 people and I don’t know what to expect, because I’ve never been here before. I’ve been here before, you know what I mean.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly.

Diane Sanfilippo: So I think that kind of listening to the evolution of your story; you had that same thing happen, where it was like, you knew what to build on.

So, here’s another thing that just kind of a random thing I know I learned from you; that was just back in the day, I just won’t forget it. The company that you worked for that you left, you ended up taking an account and doing some work for them.

Dan Antonelli: That’s right, yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: When you were in the early stages of the business. And it was like, if you were to put that into the pie chart of all of the sales for the company, I want to say, what was it, somewhere between 20-25% of sales, or 30 even?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: It was like a huge chunk of total sales.

Dan Antonelli: It was definitely a big help for me when I started that my former employer was just like, listen we loved what you did so much working for us, can you do it for us on the outside when you leave, and I was like, yeah of course. You know.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah.

Dan Antonelli: So that was a big help for me the first couple of years, and I wound up keeping that account for the first 10 years or so that we had it. And then as the company grew, that represented a smaller and smaller part of our overall sales, which was good, because that was the other part that always frightened me from anyone that ran an agency, as you would see a lot of agencies have 40-50% of revenue tied to one specific client, and I never wanted to be dependent on one particular client for the success or failure of my company. So I was always very cognizant about trying to spread the amount of where the sales were coming from.

And I think it’s interesting now, even today, our agency I think is sort of this weird anomaly in that we don’t have really any one client that represents more than 3% of revenue.

So if I have a client that perhaps we just can’t get along with or maybe even isn’t treating my employees right, I never have to really worry that; oh, if I have to fire the client then I’m going to screw the company. So I like have that position, because it provides a much more stable environment for all my employees, as well, so they don’t have to worry; oh man.

Diane Sanfilippo: Right.

Dan Antonelli: If we lost this client, we’re all screwed.

Diane Sanfilippo: But I remember at the time the one thing you always said though is you didn’t actually really count that, each year, when I was there I remember you would total up the sales and be like; this is just icing, because this could go away kind of at any moment.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly, yeah. Just pretend it wasn’t there, because I didn’t want to count on it.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah. And also; a lot of the people who listen to this podcast have internet based businesses or they have something where they’re working remotely, and they have multiple streams of income, and one of the things that I try and encourage people around, and this is really similar to that situation, is that if you’re going to have multiple income streams from different products, or you’re an affiliate for something, or you just have different accounts, whatever the case may be, maybe you have consulting clients and then you have a product; you have all this different stuff. If a huge percentage or a very large percentage is coming from something that, at its core you do not have control over, then that’s a problem.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: So we see this with people; that’s kind of the example that you have here. It’s an account, and yeah they could hire someone in-house to just take care of it. In our little internet world, a lot of folks might be involved with an MLM, a multilevel marketing product that they love and believe in, it could be a great product. But I’m just like, hey you guys; you never know if tomorrow that company could go out of business, and you don’t have control of that. And if that’s 40 or 50% or more of the money that you have coming in, then you’ve got a problem. You know what I mean?

Dan Antonelli: Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: You’ve invested all your time and energy; imagine if you had to focus so much on that one account, give it so much attention and not nurture this other part of the business, and then it goes away. So that’s something that I always like to encourage people to make sure that the base of your business is built on something that you really do have control over in some way.

Dan Antonelli: Exactly. And it could be, like you just said, it could be nothing at all that you’ve done wrong.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah, totally.

Dan Antonelli: And not having that control. Now, I want to tell just a real quick; when you talked before about passion, I think when I started the business, I kind of made the mistake of thinking as long as I was doing what I loved, that that would be enough to carry me. And certainly having passion for what you do is usually important. But what happened to me was, after I had quit my job, a year or two later my wife was pregnant with twins, and we were going to be off the health insurance, and suddenly the whole concept of loving what I do and that being enough to sustain us wasn’t a practical reality. And I said, you know what, it’s ok to still love what you do, but you’ve got to look at this as a business first and deal with the business aspect of things. And then you could still do what you love, but don’t use that almost as an excuse to be good enough.

Don’t say; well, as long as I’m doing what I love I’ll be happy and that will be good enough. Really treat it like it’s an actual business first, and then all the other things will still fall into place. But I think because it was kind of an artistic background that I came from that so much was tied to this art component and not enough was tied to the business component. And once I was faced with the economic reality of, twins on the way and health insurance that I had to cover, it changed me a little bit to say; first of all, it’s ok to make money doing what you love. There’s no down side to that. And this passionate venture that I’m involved in; I can still be passionate about it, but I need to be cognizant of the business part of things as well. And it really kind of changed my focus at the time to really start thinking about this; as well as from an artistic standpoint, but also now from a business standpoint.

Saying; well how do I really make money doing what I love, as opposed to saying; well, you make a few dollars and I’m out doing this stuff that I really enjoy being enough. I was like, you know what; I can do both. I can make a good living as well as still loving what I do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And I think I kind of needed that little push to really change my focus a little bit.

4. How Diane started working for Dan [32:14]

Diane Sanfilippo: So, I don’t know if I clarified this up front; when you first brought someone on to help you with the business, back in the day. And we’re talking about a lot of the back in the day stuff, because where you are at now, with 20 people working on the team, that’s pretty far from where a lot of folks listening are, so I like to kind of dig back on how things were. And I know that when I came to work with you, your mother-in-law was doing some billing to help out.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: So it was actually the three of us in the basement most of the time, which.

Dan Antonelli: How did you get a job working for me in my basement? How did that even happen?

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} I Googled New Jersey web design, and you came up in probably the top few, right?

Dan Antonelli: I think; yeah. I think I didn’t even know I was hiring anyone, and you sent something unsolicited, I think is what happened, right?

Diane Sanfilippo: Which is pretty much how I’ve hired half of my team, so I think it’s really funny.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: I don’t know that you knew. I think you, maybe in the back of your mind, were like, I should hire someone. And I was in design school at the time, and I was like; maybe I should find an internship. So I did, I emailed you, and I was like, hey do you have any openings or a possibility for an internship. I was offering to work for free; and I remember day one you were like, you're not going to work for free. And I was like, ok. I think you paid me $8 or $9 an hour, something. I don’t know. Whatever someone starting.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. To this day, we pay interns. I don’t take free labor; I don’t believe in that. But that’s a different thing.

Diane Sanfilippo: I did the same thing. I had a designer do a couple of things for free just to, almost an audition in a sense, just because she didn’t really have much of a portfolio, to see how she would work. And it was the same; I was like, I don’t want you to work for free.

Dan Antonelli: Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: Otherwise; also, I can’t have big expectations. You know {laughs}. If someone is working for free, then who knows? I really always want to pay people to. But what was that like? Ok, I’ll tell you what it was like from my end. I remember we set up a call, and basically you talked, and I was like, that was the interview? You were like; here’s what I need, and it was just kind of like Dan was going on and on, and you were like; so when can you start? {laughs} And I was like, ok. I think I came in with a portfolio that, looking back was not that great, but I don’t know. I don’t even remember what it was like when I came in for the interview. I was in the basement, and I was like; I don’t know, I guess this will be ok. Some people were like, do you think that’s safe? {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. You probably felt safe because my mother-in-law was going to be there.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} She was so awesome. But yeah, you obviously get to that point, but what was that really like, and also what was it like; I’m going to ask this too, just for selfish reasons. What was it like having me as your first employee, and then what was that like kind of moving forward as a lesson for the kind of person you wanted to hire; good or bad?

Dan Antonelli: Well, the first part of it is scary. Any time you take someone on as an employee; being the employer, it’s a responsibility. And to this day, it’s something that I take so seriously any time we hire someone, that decision to hire that person it is a lot of ripple effects. I don’t run a business where it’s easy for me where if things got slow, and fortunately that hasn’t happened, to just say; oh well, you know what, good luck, we don’t need you anymore.

So that responsibility; I look at the people that work here as being part of my family and their families are dependent on the decisions that we make here. For any employer, that decision is obviously a huge decision, but I wanted to make sure, first of all, that you got something out of the job. Making sure that you were going to be able to take this opportunity and make something of it, and I think certainly look beyond what your portfolio had indicated, and say, what else can she do for us here, and how can she help us get to the next point?

And we’ve been just very strategic, even from that day 1 when you first came on board, every hire that we made after that. And you remember the second employee, when we hired Sarah to help out with our web design work.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: You and I both had reached a point where we couldn’t probably get to the next level in terms of web design, and I think it was; I don’t know if it was you or me that found Sarah when we first started working with her. But we hired her as a sub, and then we hired her as a full time employee. And she worked for me up until like 2 years ago, I think.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm. Wow. Yeah, I think we’re still in touch somewhere on the interweb.

Dan Antonelli: So that was, what, 2005 probably, or 2004 I think? And I think we’ve just very slowly grown to where we are today. So it’s not like all of a sudden it just happened where we got to where we are, but it was one or two employees per year. I would say within the last 3 years we’ve kind of accelerated the growth a little bit. But you know, every employee is very strategic, very well thought out, and do it in a way to minimize risk, like we spoke about, and see what they can do to add to the equation and obviously fill a need.

It’s also trying to anticipate where the market is going and where the needs will be, is also obviously a part of it.

Diane Sanfilippo: Now, you guys are breaking ground on a building. You’re actually building an office. But we were two, or three of us in the basement, just literally.

Dan Antonelli: Of my house, yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: Sitting, practically sharing a desk.

Dan Antonelli: {laughs} And it’s still there, it’s really hilarious. I took all the employees that work for me now, and we had a picnic at my house a couple of weeks ago, and I took everyone down to the basement.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs}

Dan Antonelli: And Jen, who works for me now, and she came in after you left for San Francisco, and now she still works for me.

Diane Sanfilippo: I know her pretty well.

Dan Antonelli: {laughs} it was kind of bizarre, but it was, I think, pretty interesting for everyone to see kind of the beginnings of where we are today and really kind of started.

Diane Sanfilippo: Humble beginnings.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. We just broke down, so that was really cool to see that. That we’ve outgrown the space we’re in and now we’re actually going to have our own space.

Diane Sanfilippo: It’s crazy.

Dan Antonelli: It’s cool. It’s exciting. Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: So I remember we would sit so closely together that first of all; {laughs} first of all, music selection was a very important part of the job.

Dan Antonelli: It was.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} I remember basically whenever Phyllis would leave, it would be Beastie Boys hour.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: The fact that we could find music that was something we could agree on. It was a very important part of the job. We had to keep things interesting.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, we had that parasail CD player, it was before the iPod.

Diane Sanfilippo: Oh my god. And when we didn’t have calls at least, right.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: We’d be working an extra hour, couple of hours, and weren’t doing sales calls or taking telemarketer calls with whatever switchboard answering it was a switchboard of prank responses. But I remember to be serious; I remember learning a lot from you. Just literally, because I learn so much through listening, and this is probably not something that everyone does. But it happened to work really well for me. For some people, to sit that close to someone else, and have to hear them all day would just be frustrating and annoying. To me, it was like a podcast before there were podcasts for me to listen; how to talk to a client, how to basically pitch without pitching, how to close a sale without a hard sale. You’re whole thing was you were never into the hard sale. You were basically like, here’s what we have to offer, here’s what it’s going to cost; almost like a take it or leave it in a sense.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: There was this element of confidence that was just like, if you don’t see the value of this, and you don’t see our work and see something that you want to spend your money on, it’s ok, don’t hire us, kind of deal. You were never in a place where there was this element of desperation; we really need this client. We never had that feeling.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I think that was a really important thing and a really critical thing for me to absorb, you know?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: Was that a conscious thing; where does that, were you like; I don’t want clients who we have to hard sell, or what was your…

Dan Antonelli: You certainly know what happens on the other side of the equation. Meaning, I know if we take on a client and they ask us to help them grow their business and handle their marketing, I know what’s going to happen on the other side. So I think that confidence comes from the experience that we’ve had. And I can see; I don’t want to say I can predict the future, but I’ve done it enough to know what’s on the other side. So I can speak very confidently to a client and say this is what’s going to happen. Of course, this is what it costs to make it happen. But I know if you let us do this, we’ll crush it.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: That’s kind of the attitude I think we all have here. We just love rolling up our sleeves and helping our clients crush it. {laughs} And they get excited about hearing our enthusiasm towards the project. But being in the position that we don’t need to take every single client that knocks on our door; not every client is a good match for us. I think a lot of problems arise when you take on clients that you almost know in your heart aren’t a good match, but you’re just like, hey you know what, the numbers are bad this month, we’ve got to take this client. Nothing good is going to come out of it. You know it’s not going to be a good fit for the team, it’s not going to be a good fit for what they need to have done, and it’s just never a good thing.

I always try to be very honest with clients; if I think I can help them, I certainly am going to advise them as to how we’re going to get there and what we’re going to do with it. But you know how many people would call us, and we’d talk to 15 people and maybe 2 could afford us.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: And that’s ok. But you can’t also be all things to everyone, and I think that’s definitely a lesson that we learned early on. Certain clients and certain genres are very well suited for what we do.

Diane Sanfilippo: I remember there would be some different clients, and you were like; I don’t think we should try and keep this business. And I was like, well, I think I can do that project. I remember a couple really picky clients.

Dan Antonelli: You were good at that. We had a couple of challenging ones, and you managed them a lot better than I did, I can tell you that for sure. {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: Because I feel like, yeah, there is some element of my personality where I just didn’t take things personally, and I was also like, I’m going to tell them what they need to hear and not what they want to hear.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: I think clients that I could suss out as the types who needed someone who was kind of like that.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I would just kind of be that way. Part of it is just some psychology and being really in tune with emotional intelligence and reading people, you know.

Dan Antonelli: Mm-hmm. Yeah, you could lay things out in a way that was, not that it was matter of fact, but it was like, this is the deal and this is what we need from you. I definitely picked up a lot more from you in terms of that communication style, because that’s something I probably struggled a little bit more than you did. You were a lot better at that than I was.

5. What Dan learned from Diane [44:37]

Diane Sanfilippo: Alright, so tell me something that you learned from me; either just as an employee, or as a person while we were working together. I mean, it was 2 years; well the first however many months, I don’t know I was part time just there a few days a week, and then it was a lot more hours. And then I actually worked in the office 2 days and from home 2 days, I remember that as well.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: You trusted me enough, and I worked. I worked a lot. {laughs} I worked a lot.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah you definitely put it in. No doubt. I think it was great also because even in terms of the time you put in, you were never one to punch a clock. It’s wasn’t like; ok Dan, I’m here at 9; and oh, it’s 5:01, let me get out of here. We didn’t have that kind of relationship, so we had a lot of give and take as far as that was concerned and a lot of flexibility because I knew you were going above and beyond what you were being asked to do at all times. So if you needed a solid from me, and you needed to take some extra time off or whatever, I think we had that.

But as far as what things, I can remember you being a little bit better able to forecast and think about different verticals that maybe we should go after. Like once we started doing a couple heating and air guys, you were like, well that could be a really good vertical to go after, why don’t we do a little bit more. Or we had done a couple of retro logos, and I remember you saying; and you knew I really loved the retro logos, but why aren’t we doing more to go after doing more retro based logos. That really changed the course of our company, I think, in the sense that we’ve done so much retro branding that we became known for that.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: You had that kind of ability to kind of see around the corner and say, you know what Dan, let’s kind of do this and steer it a little bit more towards this way and develop a couple more marketing materials based on that vertical. You had kind of, I think a little bit more foresight to see some of the things happening.

Even online, I think you were a bit more in touch with what was happening at the time online, and so much of that stuff was in its infancy, but you were able, I think, to better forecast some of that stuff. I think you really helped shape some of those early years, especially, what we were evolving into, I think you played a huge roll in that.

Diane Sanfilippo: I don’t even remember a lot of that, except I do remember when I first moved to California, Yelp was super new, and it was really popular here in San Francisco and I remember; you know, looking back I’m like, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. But I remember writing a review for one of our clients. They were honest; I remember the Pork Store, I remember writing a review of the products on Yelp. I was like, well I was eating the products, I knew what they were like.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I saw that as an opportunity to start getting them to get their clients or customers to write reviews. But it is funny, though, I don’t really remember a lot of that. I feel like that is a lot of how I am. I have my ear to the ground all the time.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: I’m always very attentive to everything that’s going on. Sometimes I lack focus for that reason, but I’m very hyper aware of things other people are doing, not in a weird sense, just in a, I just like to be aware of it.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, definitely.

Diane Sanfilippo: I remember looking forward; to your point about looking forward, I remember even when I started, it had to be the first week or two, that I was like; have you considered changing the logo? {Laughs}

Dan Antonelli: Yeah. I remember that.

Diane Sanfilippo: You were like, we’re a design company, I can’t believe this girl just asked me to change the logo.

Dan Antonelli: That was a tough call to make, but we made that and that’s the logo we still have today. We’re actually rebranding ourselves, and probably renaming ourselves to coincide with the new building that we’re getting, but I remember that because yeah, you had just started and you were kind of like; we really need to change our logo. And I was like, what the hell? {laughs} We just started, and you’re already changing everything.

Diane Sanfilippo: I just wonder what that’s like, too.

Dan Antonelli: But we did it, you know.

Diane Sanfilippo: Yeah, we did.

Dan Antonelli: It was the right move, and it’s funny because even the employees have been on me a little bit about our name and changing our name, and it took a little while for me to come around, but I said, I can’t preach to clients about how important their own brand and their own names are, and then have a name that doesn’t really communicate what we do and who we are and how it represents us. So it took me a little while to come around, but again, just saying hey, you know what I guess we’ve been doing all along isn’t good enough for where we need to go, and accepting that reality.

But one of the things I was going to say is, remember you helped me with my first book. So the first book that I wrote was on…

Diane Sanfilippo: Oh my god.

Dan Antonelli: It was actually the second book; you helped with the logo design for small business, which was the second book I published. So you helped lay out that book, if you remember getting the logo files.

Diane Sanfilippo: I do. Oh my god.

Dan Antonelli: So that was a little taste of book publishing for you very early on; it’s just ironic how you would get so heavily involved in that.

Diane Sanfilippo: You could say I’m involved with that now, yeah.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, just a little bit.

Diane Sanfilippo: And I hired you guys to design the first 3 books; Practical Paleo and both 21-Day Sugar Detox books.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: Graphic D-signs did the layout and design for those. So it was just like; who do I trust, who do I think will do a good job.

Dan Antonelli: And of course all the help you gave me with publishing the last book, the building a big small business brand. I mean, just talking to you about all the stuff with publishers. So much of that has changed since the last time I did it.

Diane Sanfilippo: Mm-hmm.

Dan Antonelli: But yeah, we were in the basement and you were working on the logos, and we got that second book published. So you know what, I take full responsibility for you getting these other books done.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughing} That’s crazy. I remember some of my first tasks were scanning photos.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: But dude, the landscape before and after, the very first ones I did were literally brown grass and then actually landscaped. We eventually got into a lot of really amazing stuff and pavers and really landscape architecture and all that cool stuff, but the first ones I did were like; it’s dirt, and now there’s grass. {laughs} That was the before and after.

Dan Antonelli: {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: And I was scanning it. You would send me home with a stack of, no joke, 3×5 inch printed photos, and be like, here take these home and scan these. And I was like, ok. {laughs} I don’t know. And then I would pull them into Photoshop. That was kind of the beginning of the digital sort of digitizing of everything. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. Pre-Facebook, pre-all that stuff. So really wild. We were just on the other side of frame based websites, right? You were just stopping building frame based websites when I started.

Dan Antonelli: Yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: Fireworks and Dreamweaver. There was no CSF, and when we first did CSF, it was just for the text. I remember there was a consulting company in New York that wanted to change the font on the whole website, and we were like; oh hell no! You can’t do that! {laughing}

Dan Antonelli: {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: Do you remember that? And I was going to have to highlight and change all the text on every page. It was probably a 20-page website, whatever that means now. But now everything is so different, but back in the day, it was a lot of nitty gritty work. It was pretty crazy.

Dan Antonelli: yeah.

Diane Sanfilippo: Oh man. But you really also taught me to be very detail oriented; finding the one pixel that’s off somewhere. And to this day, my designers are like, oh em gee I cannot believe she just noticed that color is not the correct CMYK; other people don’t see. I think some of that is inherent, and some of that is definitely learned along the way to. You can’t slice this one pixel off or it’s not going to work, kind of deal.

Dan Antonelli: Right.

Diane Sanfilippo: Crazy.

Dan Antonelli: It’s not good enough, that’s why.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} Oh man, well this was fun. What else; what other inspirational, motivational parting words do you want to give to folks who are out there. Some of them starting service based businesses with a location, some of them have products that they’re getting out there. A lot of them are doing coaching and consulting, and have internet based business, but you know, any other thoughts for them? And also how they can find out more about you and the company.

Dan Antonelli: I think never underestimate how important your brand is. And I can’t stress that enough. Seeing the success of the clients that we’ve branded, and what happens after we are able to give them a brand that represents what they do and how they deliver an amazing product or service is just so important, and so many businesses make the mistake of not investing at the startup time with a great brand, and then they have to wind up redoing it years later, and changing everything that they’ve already invested in previously. So if you can invest in a great brand right off the bat, it’s something that usually pays huge dividends. The sad reality is that most small businesses; I’d say probably 95% of every small business, has a poor brand. And if you can be part of that 5% right off the bat, you’re standing out in a way that they can’t even touch. So I like to encourage businesses to really think about how important it is to deliver a consistent brand message, and what I call a brand promise.

A brand promise, just in a nutshell, is really what would somebody say about their company if they judged you on your branding alone? What would they feel about your company? What would they expect you to deliver in terms of a product or a service, if they knew nothing else about you except what that brand communicated? So if you can control that first impression, and you can control what that expectation is and give them an indication as to what you can deliver that’s different from your competitors, then that’s really the way to go.

And that’s really all the things that last book I just had published, which is called Building a Big Small Business Brand. That book really talks about the concept of a brand promise, and how important it is for a small business and really why it’s their most important asset.

Diane Sanfilippo: Cool. Well thank you so much.

Dan Antonelli: {laughs}

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} Thank you for the time. What is your URL, the website right now? I’m sure it’s going to change in the coming months, but to learn more about you and the company? As if I don’t know.

Dan Antonelli: It’s GraphicD-Signs.com.

Diane Sanfilippo: {laughs} I can’t wait for you guys to get a new one, because I can’t tell you how many times I was like; let me spell it for you, to the client who would be like, wait, graphic designs?

Dan Antonelli: Yeah, I know, it’s really annoying.

Diane Sanfilippo: You just said the words, what’s the name of your company. And I’m like, that is the company. But people don’t know that D-Signs, because your name is Dan, and you were painting signs, and that was the core of that. But that doesn’t really matter to the customer.

Dan Antonelli: Yep.

Diane Sanfilippo: They don’t know. Alright, cool. Well have a great day. Thank you so much.

Dan Antonelli: Thanks for having me.

Diane Sanfilippo: And that’s it, that’s all we have for you guys today.

Dan Antonelli: Alright, take care.

Diane Sanfilippo: Bye-bye.

Hey guys, I’m so glad you’re loving the show. Let me ask you to do me a favor; come follow me on Periscope. You can find me; I believe you can search Diane Sanfilippo, or you can search @BalancedBites, which is my Twitter handle, which is the account name over on Periscope. I am going to start doing live sessions, really quick thoughts for the day. I’m not sure if it I will be every day, but it will be pretty often, and some Q&A on business topics and motivation, inspiration, etc. So make sure you’re following me over on Periscope. Download the app in the app store, and I will see you there.

That’s all I’ve got for you guys today. Don’t forget to subscribe in iTunes so you don’t miss an episode. And drop me a review to let me know what’s speaking to you from the show. If you want to get in on the conversation and you haven’t yet joined the group already on Facebook, head on over there and join the Build a Badass Business group. I share insights and tips regularly, as well as answer your questions right there on the page. Do work that you love, and hustle to make your business grow like your life depends on it, because it does. Thanks for listening, and I’ll catch you on the next episode.

Comments 2

  1. Great Article. writing – I learned a lot from the analysis , Does
    someone know if my assistant could find a blank a form copy to work with
    ?

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