Sometimes you just need a sign to start a business

Future entrepreneurs might learn a tip or few from this CEO's experience of building his business


Jason Ditkofsky, CEO of McNeill Signs, shares his tips for an entrepreneur starting out and how he built his business using credit cards by establishing good credit.

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Jason Ditkofsky, CEO of McNeill Signs

Some people wait for a sign before changing their lives, while others grab and install it. Jason Ditkofsky did the latter. Originally from Canada, Ditkofsky decided to move to California, eventually landing a job at Sony Pictures. But when his work visa renewal was declined he was forced to return to the Great White North.

Ditkofsky discovered that if he bought a business he could come back to the U.S. without needing an employer to hire him. This eventually led him to buy McNeill Signs, located in Delray Beach, Florida.

“It was 2012 and I thought I was going to live in Toronto for the rest of my life,” says Ditkofsky. “But I hate the cold, and though I loved California, I ended up in South Florida. I was resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t get sponsored for a work visa, but then I thought of the E-2 Visa!”

E-2 Treaty Investor visas help people enter and work in the U.S. if they invest in or start a U.S. business. It’s valid for up to five years and can be extended indefinitely.

“I found it was pretty easy to meet the criteria,” says Ditkofsky. “I started with a Signarama franchise and got the visa approval! I have to say I wasn’t in love with signs, it was a way here, but it really is an interesting business. Now I have McNeill Signs. We design, get the permits, install, do all the inspections – you name it – it’s full service from beginning to end. Today I’m married with kids, am a U.S. citizen, and my company is doing really well. We just signed a second office in Miami!”

So while Ditkofsky’s burning desire to get out of Canada was the start, his talent as a salesman brought him success. “I love putting deals together,” he says. “And I love business and would do anything to live the lifestyle I want.” Credit cards? Well, getting the best and using them in savvy ways was all part of the plan.

What has your journey with McNeill Signs been like?

I’ve been very fortunate. I purchased the company from the son of the original founder, and it was started in 1956. We are doing really well. We’re up 70% year-over-year.

Still, no day is perfect and I’ve found that it’s expensive to scale the company. That’s what I’m trying to do. I see so much opportunity. The market in South Florida is fragmented. It’s one of the few industries that’s dominated by the old school way of thinking. Signs have remained somewhat stagnant. The major difference has been going from neon to LED but there’s a lot more it can offer and no one is going after it. I hope to be that person.

Did any costs catch you off guard?

Oh yeah. I’m paying a lot for the trucks with the cranes that can lift incredibly large and heavy signs. I have three, in all different sizes. They’re all new and cost about $200,000 each. That’s a lot of money! To buy them I used outside financing with their company’s preferred lender, at around 6% interest.

I found that if you have good credit and a strong company history, lenders will work with you. For example, for the first truck I had to put 5% down, but for the others I didn’t have to put any down.

Are credit cards an important tool for your business?

Definitely. My favorites are The Plum Card® from American Express and the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card. You can’t beat the points with the Marriott card (it offers between 2X and to 17X total Bonvoy points on purchases). It’s phenomenal. I love the Plum because it has no preset limit, but also because it has a 60-day cycle option rather than 30 days (business owners can delay payment for up to 60 days, or receive a cash back bonus for paying early).

You have to have good credit for these cards, and I do. I pay my bills in full. I don’t want to let the debt get out of control and I hate paying interest.

I use these cards for pretty much everything, including purchasing supplies, consumables like screws, glue and paper, gas for the trucks (that’s about $100 a day, per truck). Even my landlord allows me to put our building’s rent on the card.

What are you doing with all the points you earn?

Major vacations. I have two young daughters and I prefer not to fly with my kids, so I use the points for the hotels. Bonvoy owns so many brands now. I can book pretty much whatever hotel I want, including the Ritz-Carlton. I get free nights, statement credits for food spent at the hotel, late and early check outs.

It’s great because I would have spent the money anyway. With the cards I always get something in return.

Do you manage your company’s finances by yourself?

I have a part-time bookkeeper and an accountant for tax preparation. Otherwise, I use software like Quickbooks. There’s even software just for the sign industry that I use, such as Square Coil.

I’m very involved on a day-to-day basis with the finances. I know who owes me money and how much, and I’m not above making an accounts receivable call. I’d rather not, but sometimes you have to.

The fact is, no one will be as careful with your money as you are. Someone else may approve a charge or purchase when you wouldn’t. It’s very important to be involved and be on top of it. You have to know how healthy your business is.

Can you talk more about why good credit is so important?

In this – and any business – you have to build trust. Regarding my suppliers, I return phone calls and emails immediately. If a bill is due in 30 days, I pay it. Then, if I ever need more time, I will ask and they’ll give it because I have a good history with them.

Personal credit scores are also super important, but I found that they can be a little too intense. You may owe more than 30 percent of your limit and that can make your credit report look unhealthy, when it’s the opposite. My balances can be extremely high before I pay them off, and it’s for a good reason – we’re busy! So I learned not to obsess over scores. I know I’m a good credit risk.

Any advice to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Credit cards are a no-brainer. Get them. They’re an easy way to track your spending and provide you with financial flexibility. If you end up over your head, you can use the card, make the minimums and hoard cash until you’re out of the problem. They also provide you with purchase protection. You may end up buying a terrible product, and if the company won’t work with you, you can file a dispute.

As I say, though, try not obsess over your credit score. It will change as you use the cards and if the credit scoring company scores you when your balance is high, your score will go down. Obsess over avoiding paying interest, instead.

And don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m guilty of it, but when things go wrong it’s not always because of you. What keeps you up at night is something you’ll forget in a week. Give up control sometimes. Let the experts come in and do their job. You’re hiring them for what they bring to the table, not to be a copy of you.

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