Three Steps Ahead Sign Co. Update

February 22, 2021

Today is my first day back after my home/workshop lost power for over a week due to the massive ice storm that hit our area of Oregon. I am just transitioning out of survival mode and back into the world of electricity. 

I am often asked about my signs: “why does it take so long?” The answer is long and complicated, but I have done my best to summarize it here.

Since the summer of 2020, I have had all of my made-to-order listings set to 8 to 10 weeks turnaround time before shipping. Even with that amount of lead time, it’s been difficult to keep up with demand.

To begin with, my signs are unique, and take time to create. Three Steps Ahead Sign Co. is just me—a one-person, home-based business. All of my products are made to order, here in Oregon, from USA-made materials. Every order gets the attention it deserves, from the beginning of the process to the end, and that takes a great deal of time and effort behind the scenes.

I have been selling on Etsy for over 15 years, but I pivoted to making laser-cut signs much more recently, at the end of 2018. My sales in 2019 were modest and easy to keep up with. In July of 2020, though, everything changed seemingly overnight: demand went through the roof. Etsy heavily promoted my shop via multiple sales channels, and from that point forward, my sign business has been a full-time job for me (while also balancing my other job as a graphic designer and web developer). In many ways this has been fantastic—I had long hoped that I would find a broad audience for my work, and that certainly happened. But it has also brought a whole new set of problems to solve, quite a lot to manage and adjust to. It is an ongoing challenge to scale up from a hobby-level business to being a “bestseller” on Etsy.

Adjusting to much higher demand would be challenging enough on its own. But all of this started in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chains have been drastically slowed down. I have not been able to hire anyone to help, as my workshop is in my home and I have members of my family that are at high risk. The equipment that I have is not made for production at this scale, and figuring out how to scale up is a complex puzzle (more on that later).

Then, in September of 2020, we lost power to our home and had to evacuate the area due to the wildfires that ravaged Oregon and California. I was unable to fulfill orders during that time, setting things back even further. Fortunately, our home was left intact and I hit the ground running when we returned, getting almost all of my orders shipped out by the promised deadlines.

As fall transitioned into the holiday season, demand kept climbing dramatically. I put most of my life on hold in order to work nonstop from October to December to get signs shipped out—first catching up on orders that were placed during the wildfire season, and then trying to get ahead of orders that were due to arrive before Christmas. Sales continued to climb even into the last week of December, and because of my 10-week turnaround time, most of those were not due to ship until February.

Then: my laser cutter broke down entirely. I had been pushing it well beyond its intended duty cycle, running it literally every waking hour of the day, from when I first got out of bed in the morning until I went back to sleep at night. I was only able to maintain it in its functional state for so long before it stopped working altogether. At this point, I had hundreds of orders in the queue to be cut, and I had managed to catch up to shipping orders out on average at the eight week mark (two weeks ahead of final deadlines). But the lead I built up vanished entirely while I waited for my replacement machine to arrive (again, due to the pandemic, this took far longer than usual). Somehow I still managed to hit the ground running once I had a working laser cutter again, and for the next few weeks I was shipping out orders on time.

And then the ice storm hit. We lost power on the night of Friday, February 12. (Luckily I planned ahead and unplugged my laser cutter a couple of hours earlier, so it was not damaged). We were without power for over a week, keeping warm in below-freezing temperatures and cooking food with our only working appliance: a gas fireplace. We had about a foot of snow and ice blocking us from leaving at all for several days. Mail and other deliveries were suspended. So now, after weathering disaster after disaster throughout 2020, and fighting tooth and nail to keep orders shipping out on time, this storm finally set me back far enough that orders are going out later than promised. I feel absolutely awful about that. But I also know that this has been an extraordinary series of catastrophes and I am only human.

What steps am I taking to improve things?

Back in the summer of 2020, when demand first began to skyrocket, I decided it would be best to upgrade my workshop’s capacity by investing in a much larger and faster industrial-class laser cutter. In order to do that, though, I need to remodel my home. My laser cutter is currently housed in a spare bedroom, but the upgraded model will not fit inside of the house. The only spot that will work will be in what is now an open-to-the-weather carport, which I am working to remodel into an enclosed garage/workshop. That, however, is its own giant (and very expensive) can of worms, again made more difficult by the pandemic and all of the other natural disasters of the past six months. I was hoping to have that done by the summer of 2021, originally. Now, with all of the havoc that the recent storm wreaked, I am hoping it will be done by the end of 2021. Realistically, it may take even longer.

Beyond that: for better or for worse, demand started to settle down to a more sustainable level throughout January and February, and I am hoping that the lull will provide me with a little bit of breathing room to catch up on orders and figure out next steps. Now that the power is back on, I am doing my darndest to minimize the amount of orders that will be shipping out late, and to communicate with customers whose orders are affected.

Throughout the compound nightmare of this last year, your support of my small business means the world to me. I truly cannot express how much I appreciate your patience and understanding.

—Josh