Glimpsing the tell-tale round sign with the five diagonal slashes flash by at 160 mph while cruising along the speed-limitless German autobahn, Benjamin Kwitek was struck by the thought there might be a consumer market for exotic road signs in the United States.
“I travel a lot for my day job, a product design company. I go to Europe often,” Kwitek said. “I love the no-speed-limit signs. On those trips, I often use an exotic car that goes very fast. I thought auto enthusiasts in America might want the signs to hang in their garages or dens.”
Such was the genesis of Roundabout Signs. The company, which Kwitek launched two months ago with the help of Bruce McGrew and Terry Nowels, sells authentic international road signs.
The no-speed-limit signs are the most popular. The signs are made by the same company that creates them for the German government, Kwitek said. Each comes certified as an original, official road sign.
“We could have done it the cheap, easy way,” he said. “We could have had a company in China make knockoffs. But this has a certain cachet – these are the same exact signs that you see on the roads in Germany.”
It is perhaps that “certain cachet” that has garnered Roundabout Signs national media attention in magazines, such as Forbes and Auto. The company relies on news coverage and word of mouth to promote the products, and has created only a few advertisements for prestige car magazines, such as Porsche Panorama.
“We’re doing really well,” McGrew said. “December was an exceptional month; we’re hoping we can keep up that momentum in the new year.”
The signs sell for $125 to $150. Although the no-speed-limit sign outsells the others two-to-one, other European signs also sell well – the tank-crossing sign; a sign that shows two cars crashing, which is a symbol of a dangerous intersection; and a sign that depicts a car going over a cliff.
There is an Australian sign that is popular as well.
“It’s funny – most of the people who buy the German signs love German cars,” Kwitek said. “But the people who buy the ‘kangaroo crossing’ sign are college kids who want it for their dorm rooms. The signs have a lot of appeal.”
The appeal could be as short-lived as the pet rock, cautions Lex Higgins, professor of marketing at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“It’s an interesting concept,” he said. “It’s a way people can say, ‘I’m cool; I’m in the know.’ But it’s going to take some effort to stay on that cutting edge. What’s cool doesn’t last very long. It’s definitely a niche market. I think it will appeal to those in aspirant groups – people who want to be in certain groups, but just aren’t there yet.”
Higgins said the road signs could remain popular for years to come, although it’s more likely the market will peak at 18 months.
“This is a Generation Y thing,” he said. “And their consumer behavior is interesting. This kind of product can be successful, but the company needs to adjust the product by staying in touch with the target, keeping on the cutting edge, knowing what’s cool. They’ll have to adjust to what people want in order to remain successful.”
Kwitek owns two other companies – Interform, a product development and design business, and a real estate investment firm. McGrew owns a railroad materials company and a bicycle shop, Pro Cycling.
Both men are self-described “car nuts.”
“We’ve both driven in Europe many times, and we love driving in the areas with unrestricted speeds, Kwitek said. “We’re big fan of driving fast, and it’s one of the few places where you can still do that legally. We thought the signs might appeal to others who dream of unlimited speed limits while driving in Utah at 75 miles an hour – a place where you can probably drive 120 safely.”
Other car enthusiasts agree, including celebrities Jay Leno and Ralph Lauren. Leno was so pleased with his sign that he called Kwitek and offered him back-stage passes to “The Tonight Show.”
“That’s what makes business exciting,” said Kwitek, who holds a Ph.D. in management. “That’s what makes it fun – seeing your concept connect with the public and the market reward your hard work. It’s a thing I don’t think you can get in a large organization. You see your idea on the store shelf, or Jay Leno calls to tell you he likes your product. It’s one of the great things about working for yourself.”
Kwitek has five employees working at Interform, a company that designs products such as the “gelly fish” – an attachment that provides comfortable spots for hands on laptops. Some of those employees help with the daily management of Roundabout Signs as well, but most of the work is done by the three partners.
However, the small staff doesn’t translate into a small vision, he said.
“You have to think big,” Kwitek said. “The world is getting so much smaller that there’s no reason the world can’t be your marketplace. You can find products all over the world; you can sell them all over the world. The answer is innovative thinking. You can design a product in Europe, get the intellectual property rights in America and manufacture it in China – all in the course of two, three weeks.”