Small Business Spotlight: Alejandro Escalante

We sat down with Alejandro Escalante, owner of AlphaGraphics Sunnyvale, and talked to him about managing the day-to-day operations of his 10-person team and print shop.
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AlphaGraphics is one of the largest franchise chains in the United States, specializing in graphic design, marketing and print services, and custom signage -- all of the areas you need to develop your company’s unique image and brand. On any given day, owner and operator of  AlphaGraphics Sunnyvale, Alejandro Escalante, and his team are juggling a hundred different responsibilities: collecting customer feedback, reaching out to new customers, finishing orders for the day, checking supplies and materials for the next order, maintaining equipment, and getting ready to do it all again tomorrow.

As any business owner knows, the to-do list never seems to end. So how does Alejandro manage his team of 10, grow his business, check the mail, pay his bills, and still make it home in time for dinner?

Meet our small business owner:

  • Name: Alejandro Escalante
  • Title: Owner & Operator
  • Company: AlphaGraphics Sunnyvale
  • Industry: Print, Marketing, & Graphic Design Services

5 Key Ideas from Alejandro

Don’t have time to read the full article, but want to know how Alejandro grows his business? Here are some of the main points we covered in our interview:

  1. Constantly gather ideas from everyone. Encourage your team to always think, “What could we do better?” Never become complacent with the way things are done! There are always areas any business could improve. Can’t think of any yourself? Ask your employees. Not only will they appreciate being asked for ideas, they’ll be able to see your business from a whole new perspective.
  2. Give a gift to reward your business partners. During his weekly and monthly sales meetings, Alejandro and his team identify the business partners they want to reward with a gift. These aren’t just the largest accounts -- they could be the ones who order most frequently or order once per year in large quantities. By giving a gift, you not only show appreciation towards a customer for choosing you over your competitors, but it also allows you the opportunity to get your foot back in the door for another sale.
  3. Keep your plan consistent. Change your business strategy too many times and you’ll simply confuse your team. Of course it’s always worthwhile to be adaptable and responsive to change around you, but your business plan should account for those inevitable moments of instability.
  4. If you can’t share your plan with your team, it won’t work. You could have the most brilliant plan on the planet, and it will be useless if you’re the only one that can understand it. In order to run his print shop, Alejandro works with a team of 9 other employees -- if they don’t know the plan, how can they help Alejandro achieve his goals? It’s up to you, as the owner of your business, to make sure everybody on the team is on the same page and empowered to make smart decisions for the company. As Alejandro says, “the only idea that’s a bad idea is one you can’t share with your team.”
  5. Reward your employees for their work. A reward doesn’t have to be purely financial -- everybody likes a gift or token of appreciation to recognize their hard work and dedication. You could buy a lunch for your team after a rewarding month, give them all an extra day of vacation, or recognize employees who go above and beyond in your staff meetings; showing you care for your team will motivate them to work harder. After all, if you know you’ll be rewarded for succeeding, wouldn’t you try to do better each and every day?

Want to learn more about Alejandro’s advice for growing your business? Read on to find out what our small business owner has to say...

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

Coming from a long-standing tradition of family entrepreneurs, Alejandro knew that he always wanted to start his own business. “I spent 22+ years in a corporate office environment and have always been drawn to business development and brand building,” says Alejandro, “but my roots are in entrepreneurship.” Eventually, Alejandro found himself between jobs and looking for something different from the day-to-day of office life.

Almost by chance, Alejandro was presented with the unique opportunity to purchase an AlphaGraphics franchise. The previous owner was retiring and looking for somebody to take over the reins -- a perfect chance for Alejandro to begin his entrepreneurial endeavors.

Why AlphaGraphics? Because he wanted to help other businesses succeed. “I see printing as a means to an end,” Alejandro explains. “What we are really trying to accomplish here is to develop great marketing and efficiencies for our customers.” And when his customers succeed, so does he -- more business for them means more business for his center.

After researching a handful of franchises, Alejandro realized he needed the flexibility to develop his own business model. He didn’t want to run his business the way some corporate office told him to run it, but he also didn’t want to be a lone agent without any support. AlphaGraphics, with a strong support system for its franchisees and the flexibility to develop your own brand and marketing strategy, seemed like the perfect fit for Alejandro. “The people and the technology vary a lot at each center that they’re all so different,” he explains, “but [AlphaGraphics] provides a strong support at the core; they’re a strong franchise with a well-defined core business. They have a very good track record in franchising -- in the past 45 years, only a handful didn’t make it.”

Tie that to helping other businesses succeed and building his own unique brand and Alejandro couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to start a new career. Fast forward six months, and Alejandro is now the new owner of AlphaGraphics Sunnyvale and looking to open as many doors as possible.

Running a business for growth

"No business has everything resolved, big or small, that’s for sure. Every business has room for improvement, that’s what I’ve always learned."

As Alejandro aptly notes, no business has everything resolved -- something can always be changed or tweaked to increase efficiency. The previous owner of AlphaGraphics Sunnyvale ran the center for lifestyle, but Alejandro wants more than that: he wants to show growth. From his first day as owner, Alejandro emphasized the need for continuous development in his center, however small or large it may be. According to Alejandro, existing customers are lost at a rate of 20% per year in the print industry, leaving no room for stagnation.

Fighting against losses that steep, Alejandro knew that things needed to change around the office in order to facilitate the growth he wanted to see. As the new owner & operator, all of his employees turned to him for guidance. How can he break up the status quo and prevent customers from walking away?

“What I bring to the party is the hunger to learn, how to scour environments and see what there is for us to leverage -- whether that’s our suppliers, our customers, or sometimes our competition. I’ve been instigating curiosity in everybody to see if we can do things, what we call, ‘Easier, Faster, Better.’” That motto -- “Easier, Faster, Better” -- is the driving force behind everything Alejandro and his team do at the shop.

Easier: Keep it simple, stupid

The first step of this mantra is all about simplicity. From the overall business plan to daily operations and logistics, Alejandro emphasizes the need to keep everyone in-the-loop and informed. As a result, Alejandro holds meetings on a regular basis to get everybody on the same page.

For example, Alejandro calls a work-in-process meeting with his entire staff every morning. They take thirty minutes -- no more, no less -- and go over all of the jobs in production for the day and solve any problems that arise. Perhaps they’ve accepted a rush order they couldn’t complete; or maybe they ran out of toner for the printer, and don’t have any in stock.

So what do they do? Alejandro encourages his employees to look for a solution -- how do we take what we have and make it better. The meeting is a chance to brainstorm solutions, and Alejandro encourages his team to be proactive about identifying, solving, and preventing these types of problems in the office. He lets them make the decisions about how to fix it, and then figure out how to make sure it never happens again.

But why doesn’t Alejandro just take over these duties himself to prevent any problems from coming up? It’s simple math: there’s a never-ending stream of work, and only one of him. Alejandro succeeds when his employees succeed -- sure, there may be some bumps along the way, but no manager can run an entire business alone. “What needs to get done in this business is done through the other 9 [employees],” says Alejandro, “so they need to understand, very clearly, ‘What is the plan? What direction are we headed?’ And through that, I let them know that they are empowered to make decisions. That's part of the plan.”

"I have to do things through others, absolutely. We are an office of 10 people -- at the most I should be doing 10% of the work. In reality, I probably do even less than that."

Alejandro is, of course, referring to his business plan. And for any business plan to be successful, you need the support of your team. They need to understand the plan and -- this is the important part -- be able to remember it, so that they can, in turn, make decisions that align with the business strategy you’ve developed. Part of Alejandro’s advice to other small business owners is to keep the plan simple, something you can repeat over and over, something you can share with just about anybody. According to Alejandro, “sharing your plan is so important. A brilliant plan that sits in somebody’s head that can’t be shared because it’s too complicated won’t get executed.”

Even if your plan is simple, there’s one other factor to consider when implementing a business plan: consistency. Is your plan for the next 6 months or for the next 6 years? Are you in it for the long haul, or just coming up with something to make it until next quarter? Even if a plan is simple, you need to be consistent in your goals. Otherwise, how do you get buy-in from your team?

Put yourself in the shoes of your employee -- you have a plan, but you know it’s going to change sooner or later. What’s the motivation to do your work effectively if everything else is going to change in a few weeks and all of your effort will (seemingly) be for naught? Sure, not every employee will feel this way (and that’s a whole other article to write), but Alejandro says he’s seen it before at his previous jobs. Keep it consistent, keep it simple, share your plan -- make your job easier.

Faster: Repetition and reward (and repetition)

We’ve all been up against deadlines at work before, scrambling to finish a project at the last minute and wishing we hadn’t procrastinated. Although we empathize if you’re in that position currently (stop reading this and finish your project!), Alejandro’s advice here isn’t really about individual productivity. Sure, it’s a component of the motto, but what he’s really about is making the entire workflow process faster.

How does Alejandro do this? Repetition and reward. As mentioned earlier, he is a big proponent of meetings -- in fact, a large part of his job is meeting with employees on a regular basis. Oftentimes, these kinds of meetings are dreaded by employee and employer alike. In a high pace job like sales, it can be seen as a complete waste of time to reps who feel like their time is better spent on the phone with a customer or new lead (and they aren’t entirely wrong). The key here is short, repetitive meetings -- and then recognizing your employees for their hard work.

So, Alejandro holds a 30 minute work-in-process meeting every day with the entire staff. He has a short meeting with all of his sales reps and center manager every single week. He also has one-on-one meetings with his sales reps individually once per week. And then there’s the monthly meeting with all staff at the end of the month to review performance. Seems like a lot of meetings, right? In reality, every single meeting increases efficiency at the shop.

Interested in how Alejandro prepares for his sales meetings using Less Annoying CRM? Here’s a quick tutorial for different reports you can pull from the CRM to help focus your agenda during a staff meeting.

Alejandro describes his print center as a “mass custom manufacturer” -- every job is unique, whether it’s the type of paper, the technology being used to print, the design of the job, the quantity being printed, etc. The short, daily work-in-process meetings puts every single member of the team (from sales to production) on the same page, and encourages everyone to understand how the shop functions.

If a problem arises, not only is everyone on deck to brainstorm a solution, but it allows production to communicate with sales -- was this a rush order that shouldn’t have been accepted? Were the correct materials not ordered on time? It’s not a chance to point fingers at the other departments (after all, the blame game helps no one), but rather an opportunity for your team to learn from the mistakes that were made.

Why does this matter? The next time a problem arises, your team will be able to respond faster than before. Experience leads to confidence, and employees who feel confident can solve a problem faster than ones who need your approval or input on every decision.

In addition to his work-in-process meetings, Alejandro holds weekly sales meetings to assess the results from previous weeks, and adjust the plan for the coming week. Here, Alejandro repeatedly asks his sales reps to critically examine what is and is not working, and to adjust accordingly. They develop account strategies together, and Alejandro feeds information about clients and important events to his reps so they can get their foot back in the door for a follow-up sale. But it’s not just about giving them the information they need to sell -- it’s about giving them the skills they need to become better at sales.

Eventually, Alejandro will take a smaller role in each of the meetings. As his reps learn to do this on their own, the meetings will be led by their expertise and knowledge, not his. In the end, Alejandro is teaching his sales reps how to be more effective at their jobs, and how to make everyone’s work easier and faster all around.

Better: Striving for continuous improvement

To make things better at the shop, Alejandro regularly asks his team to think of new ideas and approaches -- in fact, he believes the only bad idea is the one you can’t share with your team. “We collect ideas from everyone, constantly,” he explains. “and every idea is a good idea.” Sure, he and his manager won’t implement every single idea they come up with, but Alejandro seriously considers each and every single suggestion. How does he evaluate these ideas? By asking the following questions:

  • Will it improve the quality of the product?
  • Will it ensure the quality of the product?
  • Will it reduce costs?
  • Does it improve internal operations, either in sales or production?
  • Does it improve how we move products through the shop, from pre-sale to follow-up?
  • Does it improve the customer experience?

At the end of each month, Alejandro sits down with his team and goes over the running list of ideas. “Right now, we have 100-something ideas, and we’ve implemented 50+ of them so far. I share the benefits we see with the team to show them we’re not throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks -- to show them we are continuously improving,” he explains. Asking your team for input, taking action on those ideas, and then reviewing the benefits ensures that your employees consider themselves a valuable part of the organization. They’ll want to contribute if you allow them the opportunity to succeed.

So what can we learn here? It’s not enough just to brainstorm ideas or collect feedback, nor should you implement every single idea you generate. You have to examine each and every one, evaluate which will help your business improve, and then measure the results. How you measure is up to you -- it could be increase in revenue or greater customer satisfaction; it could be larger volume or repeat orders. In the end, you need to know what defines success for your business to then set goals and assess your performance against them.

Learning from your customers

Besides his employees, Alejandro turns to one other source for feedback: his customers. After every sale, Alejandro sends out a survey asking for comments on their completed project: were they satisfied with the final product? Did they experience any problems along the way? Taking this feedback, Alejandro then incorporates it into the next sale -- what can they learn from one customer that can be applied to others? This type of cyclical feedback enables Alejandro and his team to produce higher-quality goods, but also improve the process of converting a lead into a customer. Customers, on the other hand, appreciate the option to provide feedback about their experiences and see that incorporated into future interactions.

Beyond collecting feedback, Alejandro also asks his customers to identify any other products they might be interested in learning more about in the future. He then takes this information and puts it into Less Annoying CRM using a specially designed pipeline for customer feedback. After attaching the pipeline to the customer in the CRM, he will send an email to the customer and his sales rep thanking them for the feedback and offering more information about the requested products.

Why? To get his foot back in the door. Repeat customers are the backbone of the print industry, and Alejandro and his team can’t afford to lose any opportunity to sell (remember that nasty 20% churn rate Alejandro mentioned earlier?). By CC’ing his sales reps on the email to the customer, Alejandro is informing them of a few things: a) this customer needs a follow-up email; b) there is a pipeline attached to their record in the CRM; and, c) they should try to sell the products the customer identified. For the customer, it’s a response to their feedback; for the team, it’s an opportunity to create a return customer.

Want to incorporate customer feedback into your sales process? Click here to see how you can set up a pipeline like Alejandro’s in Less Annoying CRM!

The final component to all of this is showing your customers some appreciation. In his individual sales meetings, Alejandro asks his sales reps to identify the customers that need to be thanked for their support -- these can be large accounts, repeat customers, or hot leads that could become long-term customers. In any case, sending a small thank you note or holiday card is a great way to show these customers that you appreciate their support. In the long run, this can develop a relationship with your customer to ensure they remain loyal to your business.

How will you remember to send that card? Here’s a quick tip for making sure you don’t forget to send a thank you to any important clients!

Putting it all together

At the end of the day, no business owner can do it all on their own. Running a business is a never-ending task, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of day-to-day operations. But with a clear business plan and employees who understand and share your vision, you’ll find it easier to grow and cultivate clients. Utilizing feedback from your customers, brainstorming ideas (both good and not-so-good) with your employees, and -- most importantly -- assessing how that feedback and those ideas can integrate with the direction of your company are a surefire recipe for success. In the end, you’ll make it easier to do your job, your employees will become faster at what they do, and you’ll better the overall experience for your customers, as well as your team.

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