The EstiMate Story – or, why we’re so passionate about all this pricing stuff.

Ivan in my basement sign shop, Ampersand SignsYou may or may not know that EstiMate was born out of my own frustration when I was running my basement sign shop from 1993-1999. I had grown up in the sign industry, in my mother’s own basement sign shop, and throughout the late 70s and all of the 80s I watched her struggle to price her work. The phone would ring, she would answer and listen to the customer’s description of the sign they wanted made, and then she would say: “just a moment, let me go figure that.”

She would drum her fingers on the desk for a while, all the while staring at her “calculator on the ceiling,” and then she would get back on the phone and say, “that’ll be $500.”

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 1993. I just left my job at the newspaper designing advertising, and got my hands on my mom’s old Gerber IVB. I had two fonts: Helvetica and Brush Script. I read everything I could get my hands on about marketing, and went around town putting flyers on car windows advertising magnetic signs for $49.95 per pair. Orders started coming in and all of a sudden I had cash in hand and my business was born.

Little did I know, I was losing money on every pair that I sold.

For a couple of years, I continued on selling my work based on what my mom would charge, or by asking around on the Letterville BullBoard (the primary online forum at the time for signmakers) to see what other people were charging for similar work. After a couple of years, even though I had built a customer base and had steady work, it seemed like I was just barely keeping my head above water.

Then I got lucky and got my hands on a stack of old SignCraft magazines.  In the May/June 1989 issue they published an article called “An Accurate Hourly Rate Is The Basis For Effective Pricing,” written by Jeff Cahill.  I can still remember exactly where I was when I read that article, and how I sat up straight and realized that I had just found the answer to my problems.

I followed his instructions to the letter, and then set about reworking my entire business around the philosophy of profitability over quick cash. The result? Within a year, I had a viable business running and was not just making ends meet, but was actually able to take a family vacation! I knew I had turned a very important corner.

EstiMate Was Born

Since I was 12 years old, one of my passions had always been programming. It was my favorite thing to do when I would procrastinate. ;-)

So it occurred to me, why not write a software tool that would allow me to price my work quickly and get quotes out the door that I knew would make the amount of money they needed to, and automate that whole side of my business? I had just read Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth and was inspired to automate things.  As a result, I set about writing EstiMate, and over the course of three years got it running in my shop. I started talking on the Letterville website about my new program, and found out that a lot of people in the sign industry needed the same thing.

As a result, in December 1998 I started a website and began offering pre-orders to my Letterville friends for an April 1999 release. Amazingly, in those four months, I received 16 pre-orders for software sight unseen. On April 15, I shipped the 16 pre-orders and EstiMate was born.

The Tradeshow Circuit, Or: Making It Fly

Myra in our tradeshow boothWithin two years I closed my sign shop in favor of selling EstiMate as my primary line of work. I probably held onto the shop about six months longer than I needed to, because I was so afraid of losing my “back up plan.” To this day, I very much miss making signs, and maybe someday it is something I will do again. For now, however, my focus remains on leveling the playing field for the sign industry and continuing to bring this fantastic product to market.

It’s been a long haul. We went to over 50 tradeshows over the course of the next seven years until the Internet usurped tradeshows as the place to learn about new products and information. We sold EstiMate hand over fist and I got to meet thousands of amazing people who were all excited about his fantastic industry.

To The Future… And Beyond!

I’d just like to say thank you to the thousands of people I’ve met so far that have been so supportive of this project both with their words and their dollars. We couldn’t have gotten here without you!

I’d also like to say thank you to the incredible team members that I have been able to work with over the years: Nancy Peterson, EstiMate’s current vice president and all around right hand woman; Phillip Komar, our technical support magician; Jacqui Ackerman, who for many years ran the customer service desk; Johnathon Bakan, who did technical support for many years and had the uncanny ability to make you feel as if he’d handed you a nice hot cup of tea when you called for support; Scott Cutcher, who helped me widen my mind to new marketing possibilities; my mother Myra, of course, who came with us to show after show after show; and many others who have graced the EstiMate office.

Finally, to my son Ivan, who EstiMate helped raise and who is now pursuing an education as an illustrator and graphic designer – my hat is off to you!

Who knows what the future holds? We have a lot of very exciting ideas for expanding EstiMate and our product line, and look forward to bringing you new products such as our DiamondMine™ business analysis tool among others.

Thanks for reading, and as always, Happy Pricing!


  • Graham Parsons says:

    Great story, Mark! You probably don’t remember me but I was a beta tester for you way back in the early days when I lived in England, and we spoke a couple of times on the phone. Sounds like it all worked out for you!

    • Mark says:

      Hi Graham, I most certainly do remember you! I appreciate you being there then and most assuredly appreciate your taking the time to comment here. Cheers!

  • Brian Divere says:

    Your remembering all of us is just incredible Mark. I remember when I purchased my copy at a show in Fort Worth back in the 2001 time frame and every show I attend you still remember my name. I’m so happy for you, your family and what a wonderful service you’ve done for all of us.

  • Mark Smith says:

    … and I see your face now, Brian! I remember bumping into you at the bottom of the escalator in the (Long Beach?) convention center once and having a great conversation. Thanks for dropping by and for your kind comments!

  • Myra says:

    This is a nice way to go down memory lane, I’m glad you wrote it down. It’s fun to remember the day you said to me: “I decided to write pricing software for Sign Shops”.
    You were so serious, that I remember the spot on the bottom of my shop steps where you told me.
    I could tell it was a momentous occasion, I knew you well enough to know you could do it if you chose to, and that is exactly how it turned out to be.

  • Mark Smith says:

    Yeah! We’ve had a lot of fun together, it’s been quite the ride. I especially like the picture of you in the booth :-) do you remember what show that was? It was very early on, I know that was our first backdrop.

  • myra says:

    No idea which show, so many show floors, so much blending together, yet so many memories!

    The floor covering tells a bit of the story.

    It was not the first show in Orlando, where we could not afford the carpet, and our backs took forever to recover from the concrete floors, and my ankles swelled up.

    And it’s not one of the first ones where we carried the carpet squares on the truck.

    It’s a show after the first few years, the carpet is part of the show package, and we must have flown in.

    I hope we get to do a show again soon.

  • Rick Sacks says:

    Mark, great story! Designing, creating and effectively marketing such a needed product at such a perfect time is awesome. Someone once defined luck as a place where preparation and opportunity meet. Neither works without the other. Best of continuing luck to you.

  • Mark Smith says:

    Myra – I still don’t remember which show it was, but I do remember that we arrived and they didn’t have our carpet in the booth.

    Rick – thanks for visiting! Great to hear from you. I’ve often thought of that quote over the years, and I don’t remember where it’s from either, but it is certainly apropos.

  • Greg Gulliford says:

    Great Story! I remember pre-ordering my copy of Estimate!!! I was a bit concerned on what I was going to get but a few months later when it arrived I was very impressed and happy and still am!

  • Mark Smith says:

    Hi Greg – yes, you were there!! I appreciate your stopping by and I’m glad you are still trucking with EstiMate. Have a great one –