By Peter Saunders
Founded in 1999, Saskatoon-based Kota Graphics has grown alongside the local economy, expanding from semi-truck fleet decals to retail graphics, interior decor transformations, resurfacing films and many other applications. Paul Vass, owner (pictured), explains the company’s evolution has been gradual and organic, meeting the needs of customers drawn to it through word of mouth.
Working from home
Vass studied visual arts when he was in high school in Medicine Hat, Alta. Halfway through Grade 12, he decided he wanted to work in creative advertising, so he began applying for jobs—but then a friend who was working at a sign shop in Saskatoon asked him for help.
“They needed someone to cut wood for signs in the summer,” Vass says. “After I joined, I also learned how to run plotters, design and produce stickers and install signs, so they kept me on.”
He spent the next seven years working for several local sign shops before he saw an opportunity in 1999, when he was 25, to get his own business off the ground. He started off catering to the trucking industry, producing and installing fleet graphics from a home-based office, and named his business after the shortened nickname for his dog, Dakota.
“It happened quickly, after I realized all of the other names I could think of were already taken,” he says. “I started the company in January and spent those cold first few months grinding out work for whatever new clients I could find. Every room was filled with weeding tables and boxes of premask. Whenever we wanted to eat, we had to move everything around in the kitchen.”
The situation quickly proved unsustainable—not just for the house, but for the entire neighbourhood.
“Our customers were driving their semi-trucks down our tiny street,” says Vass. “Within about six months, we received notice from the city we weren’t in compliance with the zoning rules!”
So, he sold the house that summer and moved the business to an approximately 93-m2 (1,000-sf) office, with a garage for wrapping. To help save money, Vass set up his own apartment in the same premises.
“I didn’t want any unnecessary financial burden on myself or the company,” he says. “I’ve always taken cautious steps along the way. Of course, back then, my ambitions were pretty humble. If I made $100 in a given day, I would just stop working and go sit in a pool!”