Originally published in May 2017
What started as a therapeutic side project has ballooned into a multi-platform sign-making bonanza for Sara Bickler, owner of Sara’s Signs.
About six years ago, the 41-year-old Woodland resident started painting messages on wooden signs as a distraction from her battle with thyroid cancer.
Bickler’s creations were sought after from the start, and she eventually needed to open a production facility and hire some help.
Now she’s doing about $1.5 million in annual sales and wants to keep the business growing.
But with the high cost of doing business along Interstate 5 — and the fact that a good portion of her sales are done online — Bickler set her sights eastward, to a place she used to visit often during her childhood.
“I have family over here and I remember coming over as a kid to pick cherries,” said Bickler, who just last month opened a brand-new production facility for Sara’s Signs in Terrace Heights.
“I fell in love with the area, and thought this would be the perfect place for an expansion. There are actually places to build over here, and we can do things here that we couldn’t do on the west side.”
The weather and the potential labor force also contributed to Bickler’s decision to build the 7,200-square-foot metal warehouse at 3804 W. Birchfield Road.
It also helped that her parents retired here a few years ago and live near Naches.
She plans to keep running the Woodland facility for the foreseeable future. But the bulk of Sara’s Signs production and operations is moving to Yakima this summer.
That means a possibility for more local jobs as soon as this fall.
“We’re right in the middle of our busy sales season right now and we’re on the road a lot,” Bickler said. “But once things settle down, we’re going to be contributing a lot to the local economy. We’re very committed to Yakima and this is where our home base is going to be.”
The company is still securing the building signage, so some people still aren’t sure what to make of the new structure across the way from the Terrace Heights Grange.
Bickler says curious residents have been stopping by the warehouse, wondering what the place is all about.
“The response has been amazing. People are so interested in what we’re doing,” she said. “On the west side, that kind of attention can be intimidating. But around here, it’s just nice, welcoming curiosity. That’s one of the things we love about living in a small town.”
The Sign Story
Bickler grew up in Buckley and attended Central Washington University, where she studied business.
For the first 15 years of her career, she worked as a fire prevention engineer on behalf of insurance companies, assessing fire risk at lumber mills around the country.
She married Rob Van Beek in 2011 and they settled in Woodland. But just two weeks after their honeymoon, Bickler was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
The treatments and recovery time forced her to quit her insurance industry career. Little did she know that her ample down time would turn into a totally different kind of full-time job.
“I told myself that if I made it through, I would do something fun,” Bickler said. “I found painting to be very therapeutic during my cancer recovery, and I came up with a few designs. My friend encouraged me to sell a few at the antique mall, and before I knew it they were flying off the shelves.”
She started out selling five signs one week, 10 the next and 20 the week after that. That led to her opening the Woodland facility in 2012 and bringing on a small staff.
Now Sara’s Signs has 15 employees and is making 750 signs a day, all hand-painted and featuring (mostly) original messages.
With the popularity of her products on websites like Home Goods and Zulily, that number is likely to grow.
“This really was a longshot, and I had no idea my love of painting would lead to this,” Bickler said. “The growth is exciting, and the feedback we’ve received along the way has been very rewarding.”
One of her biggest supporters is her dad, Chris Bickler, the same guy who said she’d never sell a single sign.
Over time, he’s been forced to change his tune. But Sara Bickler says her dad now has an active role in the business, building displays for trade shows and pushing her to create new designs.
“Hard work is all my family knows and we all work together to make this business better,” she said. “For us, there’s no such thing as weekends and holidays. We know we need to be out there selling because that’s when people want to buy stuff.”
What Sets Them Apart
Above all, Sara’s Signs believes in quality and originality.
They take their time with each sign, hand-painting them with 100 percent recycled paint out of Portland. All of their materials are American made.
By focusing on the small details, Bickler believes her company is standing out in a crowded marketplace.
“A lot of our competitors use imported supplies or mass produce their signs,” she said. “Here, we do it all by hand. Each sign we make is unique, and they are all hand-painted. Our products have character, and that’s a big part of who we are.”
That focus on quality and originality hasn’t been lost on their customers.
Due to that increasing demand, Sara’s Signs products have become more popular every year at trade shows, craft bazaars and the like.
But what’s really driving the business’ growth these days are online consumers.
“Zulily has pretty much built us to where we are today,” Bickler said. “We went from $300,000 a year to $1.5 million because of them.”
In the same way Bickler tried to stand out at trade shows, she tried a slightly different approach to e-commerce.
Instead of offering castoffs or second-tier products — common on some retail websites — Sara’s Signs allows Zulily buyers to dictate what items get purchased and passed on to shoppers.
“We want to give people what they need and want, not just some busted-up old stuff that someone’s trying to get rid of,” she said. “They tell us what their customers are looking for and we send them exactly those items, specially made for them. That approach has helped raise our brand profile, and it’s opened up new doors for the future.”