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Rainmaking Innovation

A fresh approach: Success by thinking outside the box

By Jim Molis

holmes stampsThe little rubber stamp company that Bryan Croft recalls growing up in has gone big time.

Holmes Stamp & Sign Co. was already a very successful business that had been built by founder Owen Holmes Jr. and loyal employees like Croft’s father, but it has reached a whole new level since embracing a culture of innovation centered around the Internet about 10 years ago.

The purveyor of workplace necessities, such as rubber stamps, name tags, and signs, has increased its annual revenue by more than 500 percent and expanded its workforce from about 10 employees to 55, all since selling its first order online.

”They’re not very sexy products, but the key part is that they’re in every office in the country and you can build a business if you can get in front of people,” said Croft, the company’s president.

Croft and his team have grown the company by investing time and energy into developing various web properties, proving that innovation can spark in even seemingly staid companies.

Prudent business owners also realize that innovation, like new product development, exploring new technologies, and listening to customers, is needed to survive, much less to thrive, given that customer tastes and trends are constantly evolving.

”What we sell is boring so we have to find creative ways that people will purchase them,” Croft said.

Croft finds inspiration online. After getting his kids to bed at night he will spend time surfing the Web, seeing what the latest buzz is on social media and thinking of ways to capitalize.

“The phone book ad is not working anymore. You have to figure out where the customers are and innovate product lines,” he explained.

For example, Croft recently saw engraved wine glasses on Pinterest and quickly set to devising a way to use the company’s engraving equipment for signs to create a similar product. The result? The company sold 300 engraved wine glasses, at $20 each, in only six weeks.

“That was an innovation in just trying to diversify the product lines that we do,” Croft said. He learned that lesson as a young bartender at an Outback Steakhouse, where employees were encouraged to create new dishes based upon ingredients that were already in stock.

“I don’t want to buy a new engraver because I think we might be able to sell a wine glass,” Croft reasoned. “We do it the other way and see what tools we have in the shed.”

Some of the company’s top-selling products had similar origins, including a rubber stamp emblazoned with the letters “WTF” in red and a rubber stamp with “Like” accompanied by a thumbs-up sign. Holmes Stamp & Sign Co. found interested buyers online who helped take the products viral.

“It was giving that creative ability to our team that allowed them to dig into the market and understand what would sell,” Croft said. The company’s infrastructure also allows it to quickly bring products to market and to gauge ensuing demand.

Selling new products helps generate more sales for traditional products like name tags and signs, as well. Strong website traffic and keywords improve search engine optimization and open channels into clients that could have broader demands, like banks, insurance companies, and other employers.

”Creativity is always going to be a big part of our company,” Croft explained. “If you can come up with additional fun, cool products to sell and you get more people coming to your site for your products it works.”


Carlton Robinson

Innovation is not relegated to new products. It could include finding new ways to deliver a product or service, a new way of using an existing product or service, or developing a new process, noted Carlton Robinson, senior director of the entrepreneurial growth division for JAX Chamber.

Apple exemplifies innovation, Robinson explained. “They found ways to connect with consumers in every aspect of their lives.”

Though other companies also sell products such as MP3 players, mobile phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers, Apple has seamlessly integrated its devices. “No matter where you are Apple supports you,” Robinson said.

Innovation and opportunity recognition are vital to entrepreneurial success, and even if many companies compete in the same market they may not all see the same opportunity, Robinson advised. Nor would they necessarily capitalize on it quickly.

Croft scours social media for online conversations and trends, looking for multiple references to emerging opportunities for products and distribution channels. He searches for the next Facebook or perhaps more appropriately, in the case of Holmes Stamp & Sign, the next Etsy, an online marketplace that has allowed the company to sell more products to a wider audience.

“It’s staying online where the communication is going on with people,” he stated. “I’m not going to find a lot of people talking about rubber stamps. That’s just not going to happen.”

But the little rubber company that could will keep on growing by continuing to innovate new products to sell and by finding new ways to sell them online.

Finding Innovation

Are sales slow-moving? We have some ideas that may help you take a fresh look at your company to find ways to reinvigorate your business and revenue.

“If you feel that your company may have plateaued, examine these three areas for possible innovations,” said Carlton Robinson, senior director of the entrepreneurial growth division for JAX Chamber.

  • Market Segmentation: Are sales heavy in one area but not in another? For example, could you grow a product’s sales from 7 percent of your revenue to 15 percent? If so, how?
  • Distribution Channels: Is there a more efficient means for distributing your product or service? Look for strategic fits as well as savings. Perhaps you could increase sales by buying a distributor, for example.
  • Value Proposition: A business requires more than an idea and a revenue generator. Ask yourself: “What problem am I solving? What issue am I addressing in a unique way?”


Grown From the Garage: A Small Business Success Story

Holmes Stamp & Sign Co. started as a hobby that founder Owen Holmes Jr. grew from his garage into a business in 1954.

Bob Croft joined the company as a delivery driver when he was 19 years old, thinking, “I’ll do that until I can get a real job because nobody can make a living off rubber stamps,” recalled his son, Bryan Croft.

But Bob Croft stuck around for decades and became a partial owner in 1985, when Holmes retired and his son assumed majority ownership of the company. When the younger Holmes, who is known as Skeets, retired in 1998, he sold his share of the company to the Crofts.

Thus, Bryan Croft, a newly minted graduate of the University of North Florida and an Outback Steakhouse bartender, joined Holmes Stamp & Sign Co. on June 2, 1998, three days after the last day of work for the founder’s son.

Surrounded by long-time employees, some of who had worked for the business for 15 to 25 years, the young Croft intuited that he had to help the company grow or layoff loyal workers whose families depended upon the business.

Croft spent his first year in the production department, making rubber stamps and name badges. He soon noticed that the Internet was poised to grow and set about using his sales and marketing education from UNF to see if the company could grow nationally.

He spent his workdays making stamps from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then he dialed in to America Online on his modem once he got home. He eventually figured out how to build a website, but it didn’t seem to matter – until over a year had passed.

“Then all of a sudden it happened,” he remembered. Orders began coming in from New York, Colorado, and other far flung locations.

Soon the son, who at one time couldn’t convince his father to spend $5,000 on a website because he thought the phone book ad looked fine, had more resources to build upon. Today, the company has about 10 different websites focused on niche products.

And, whereas once almost 100 percent of the company’s sales were to customers in Jacksonville, now about 90 percent are to out-of-town customers, many of whom buy online.

“One of my passions is small business,” Croft said. “I enjoy talking it, I enjoy living it, and I’ve enjoyed growing it over the last 10 years of my life.”

Though the journey to this point has been arduous at times, Croft has grown to greater appreciate hard work and loyalty through the trials he has encountered along the way, such as hiring vendors who did not perform as promised.

“If it’s anything worth doing you might as well put some work into it and ignore the shortcuts because they end up costing you more in the long run.”



Grow Your Business: The Importance of a Thriving Ecosystem

It’s sometimes said that people are products of their environments. The same could be said for companies.

Innovation centers like Silicon Valley and Boston provide resource-rich environments where entrepreneurs can access the people, capital, and know-how that they need to start and grow businesses.

Far from being mentioned in the same conservation with such heavyweights, much less in the same breath, the greater Jacksonville area is making progress, as measured by Innovate Northeast Florida (, a regional economic development initiative.

Participants in the initiative, now in its second year, report numerous accomplishments in many key areas such as:

  • Entrepreneurship & Innovation
  • Regional Talent
  • Business Climate
  • Marketing
  • Physical Infrastructure
  • Development of Targeted Industries

But there is still work to be done.

“We’re seeing that the innovation is here, but we don’t see the administrative aspects [needed to take companies to the next level, like accounting and marketing expertise],” said Pat Mulvihill, a partner at Jacksonville-based professional services firm AXIOUN Strategic Planning, LLC.

For example, companies often forego audits from CPA firms to save fees. The reality is, they may actually be able to increase their valuations by completing an audit, thereby securing more money from investors or acquirers.

Companies must better position themselves to act on opportunities, and not wait for an opportunity to emerge, to start acquiring the financial capability or resources needed to capitalize, Mulvihill explained. More training and support is needed to prepare local companies for investors, he said.

A strong ecosystem is a key ingredient in entrepreneurial success, along with an entrepreneur’s abilities to recognize opportunities and to innovate, said Carlton Robinson, senior director of the entrepreneurial growth division for JAX Chamber. “We have lots of resources but availability and awareness of the resources is where we have the biggest opportunity to improve,” he noted.

Resource providers like the chamber can encourage innovation, for example, through means such as hosting forums, networking events, and presentations by elite speakers, Robinson said. “We have lots of activities that are stimulating the region. From there, we have to do a better job of cultivating, education, and assisting,”


JimMolisJim Molis

Jim is an contributing writer for Advantage Business Magazine. He can be contacted at




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