Lil billboards mean big business
Many people can't sleep for many reasons. For some it is worry. For others it is anxiety.
But for some, like Kevin Johnson in March of 2012, it was excitement. Excitement about a business idea that he thought could really take off.
His mother, Toni, was worried about him. Once he didn't sleep for 72 hours with this thing, this idea stuck in his head.
Finally, though, he figured it out, and while there are still some sleepless nights, his idea is off the sleepless ground of his mind and running.
It is called LiL Billboards.
Johnson, an entrepreneur major at Utah State University in Logan and a native of Carbon County, began the idea by thinking about what he and his partners could do to promote their small business on 100 North in Price, an enterprise called the Game Hub.
"I was trying to think of a way we could market without spending a lot of money," he said. "I started thinking that maybe if we could put some digital frames around town in various businesses that we had good relationships with that might be a way to do it."
But the idea grew and grew. He started to realize how expensive that would be and he needed to find a way to fund it. He also moved beyond frames to flat television screens. He did some exploration of other companies doing similar things in other places and found that they charged a lot for their service. Coming from a small startup background he wanted to some up with something that any ma and pa or big box store could afford.
He thought community.
"The high costs of some of the companies doing something similar was very high," he said. "I thought we should be a company that would do more than just suck up money, but one that built the economy of an area, especially that of small business."
What he wanted to do was make something available in Carbon and Emery counties that was not offered anywhere else in the country. He made plans to put screens in as many businesses as he could for free and then run ads for various businesses on them, giving the hosting businesses a good percentage of the advertising fees at the same time.
"Someone told me those dreams sounded like I was going to give away the cow," he said. "But I needed this project to be of mutual benefit to me and those that are working with me."
So he had an idea but not much money. His first seed money came from a relative in Utah County who had invented the Cricket Scrap Book Machine. He met his uncle at JCW's in Lehi and over peppermint shakes they agreed that his uncle would give him some start up cash.
For the next year Johnson did research and development on what would work best and on a financial plan to get the business going.
During that time he entered a "Pitch" competition in Logan where inventors and entrepreneurs tried to sell their ideas to a group of successful business men and put his plan on the table.
"I blew it pretty bad because I forgot some of what I was going to say and had to look at a que card," he stated. "But afterward a number of the investors that were judging came up to me and told me what a great idea it was and they were interested. That really inspired me to go ahead."
He also made his pitch to the marketing director for Utah State, trying to talk them into putting some of the screens on campus.
"He told me that he felt like he was in the movie The Social Network," said Johnson. "That lit the fire."
But the thing and the money that put him over the top to actually get the business running was local to Carbon County. It was the Business Expansion and Retention Program, or BEAR as it is known.
"They had never invested in a pre-revenue company before," said Johnson. "I went to see Delynn Fielding and he really grilled me about the idea for about 45 minutes. Then he got me before the BEAR board."
The meeting with the board went very well and they gave him a very substantial amount of money, although it took him about six months to get through all the paperwork and hoops.
This March the money came and he began calling on local businesses.
"We really just got started and we already have 18 screens in 17 locations," he said.
The LiL Billboards are located everywhere from offices to retail outlets to the King Koal Theaters to USU Eastern.
Johnson and his partners in the business, Troy Olson and Brandon Armstrong, have a unique focus on what they are doing. They want advertising to be brought to the masses of small businesses and on the entire ecomomic well being of the community.
"There are three things we want to do that are different," said Johnson. "First we want to focus on the community rather than on industry. Second is our growth method. We want to install screens in as many places as we can while returning a good amount of what we get for the advertising to the businessess that are helping us to grow. And third we want to be able to fit any busineses budget."
Johnson says his goal is to make the process duplicatable, something he can eventually grow to the Wasatch Front. He says that he wants people to go onto the LiL Billboards Facebook page and like them with photos and other items and some of those will be put up on the billboards as fillers.
In May Johnson approached the Sun Advocate about the possibility of a partnership.
"We want more than just advertising on the screens, we want some good solid local information and news," he told the paper at the time.
Now the two are teamed up, with Sun Advocate editor and former television newsman John Serfustini hosting minute long newscasts on screens all over the county. The paper produces a number of the newscasts weekly and uploads them as soon as they are ready.
Johnson also said that Armstrong has been instrumental in building ads for placement on the screens for local businesses.
But again he pointed out he doesn't want the business to go to nuts yet, he still has some to learn and some kinks to work out. But his emphasis remains the same regardless.
"We are trying to create an advertising outlet that will serve everyone that wants in," he said and then added, "Just like we would want at the Game Hub."