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Signs of a growing business model: Hex Head Art takes wall art to the next level

Jan 18, 2024

Serial entrepreneur Jaime Watts of Hex Head Art believes accessibility to him and the Hex Head Art team as part of the company's brand. Odds are if you have a question and make a phone call or leave a message on social media, Watts is likely to respond himself.

Got a waterjet and some plate? Looking for something to do? Cut out the logo of a sports team for a friend and make that person's day.

That's something that small shops and even garage-based fabricators have done over the years. Some use a small plasma table. Some actually make a little bit of money from selling the logos, which more than likely aren't officially licensed goods of the team whose logo has been freshly cut.

More than a decade ago, Jamie Watts thought about cutting metal logos as a potential idea for a business. At the time, he had a waterjet and some time to figure out what he wanted to do next after selling the granite business he owned for 20 years. The new business owners weren't interested in using the waterjet, so Watts entered a leaseback agreement with them for some space. He said he used the time to "play around" and treat the manufacturing space as a sort of entrepreneurial lab as he pondered his next business foray.

One of the things he did was cut some logos, and he noticed that plenty of other shops offered something similar. But they were all fairly rudimentary. That's where Watts saw an opportunity.

He sought out a couple of licenses at first, but the sellers were pretty honest with him.

"They didn't give us any chance to be successful with it. They pretty much just told me that you don't stand a good chance," Watts recalled.

The main competitive disadvantage for a seller of licensed goods in the U.S. is that the model, for the most part, is based on imported goods. The license requires a decent investment, and the inexpensive imported goods provide enough of a margin where the seller still can be aggressive—and profitable—if discounting is required to sell the goods.

Watts said he recognized that, but he also knew that he wanted to make something in the U.S., which required a product that could demand higher margins than simple imported goods. That meant that he needed to sell directly to consumers. Luckily, the age of internet-based commerce was just starting to flourish, and consumers were growing more comfortable with the idea of doing business with online retailers.

"We sort of leaned into that, and then it just kind of developed into what you see today," Watts said about Hex Head Art, his online-based business, which sells 3D metal wall art, most of which are sports-related logos, but some custom work as well. Business has grown by more than 30% annually over the last three years, and the company employs 22 people. It ships about 200 art pieces per day and it installed a fiber laser cutting machine in 2021 to keep up with the orders.

Early on, Watts said he needed to develop artwork that would stand out and not look like something that could be bought at a discount store. The target audience would demand such quality.

A lot of metal fabricating shops mess around and cut out basic sports team logos. Hex Head Art has taken that basic fabricating activity and turned it into a prospering business model that takes its fabricating, painting, and packaging details very seriously as it aims to deliver high-quality wall art for hardcore fans. Images: Hex Head Art

"They’re putting $30,000 to $50,000 into their fan caves," he said. "They’re not going to hang a flag down there. They want a nice jersey. They want a football helmet that's signed. That's our customer."

The product today reflects that original mission. It's made of 0.040- and 0.050-in. marine-grade aluminum, which stands up well to those owners that hang their Hex Head Art pieces outside. Most of the laser-cut pieces have tabs, which are hand -broken before painting is done. All pieces are hand -painted and include different fades and finishes to match the original art inspiration as close as possible. Different laser-cut and painted parts are then stacked in such a way that a 3D effect is created.

The aluminum also makes the pieces much lighter than they would be if they were made of steel. For example, a nine-layer logo made from steel could prove extremely difficult to handle and ship.

From a manufacturing perspective, the aluminum also is easier to work with. Hand tools are frequently used to provide the right finish on the laser-cut edges, and Watts said that the aluminum material doesn't create the dust when finished that might be associated with finishing steel. The manual parts finisher simply has to score the material, and there's not a lot of worry about tending to clean up after the job is done.

Early on, Watts knew that he couldn't rely on the waterjet to take the business where he wanted it to go. It was slow and expensive to run. Plasma didn't make much sense to Watts because he didn't think the technology could deliver the cut edges that he was looking for.

Laser cutting, he later learned, would be productive and deliver edges that didn't need a lot of post-cut finishing. That's when the company purchased two "rudimentary" fiber laser machines, as Watts called them.

They did the job for the most part, but he was still looking for something to handle the aluminum more effectively. His two basic laser cutting machines couldn't handle the day-in, day-out aluminum cutting. Watts said he needed something more robust.

That's what led to the purchase of the Fibermak Raptor from Ermaksan and its dealer Mac-Tech. The machine represented a big upgrade from the other two fiber laser cutting machines not only because it performed as expected with the aluminum material, but also because it opened the door to more production efficiency. The machine has a two-table system attached to it.

"So now we’ve doubled our production just because of the material handling," Watts said. "You can be cutting one while you’re unloading and then loading the other table."

From laser cutting, the parts go to material preparation and painting. A traveler providing detailed surface finishing and painting instructions accompanies the parts.

The company's Fibermak Raptor from Ermaksan has enabled it to keep up with increasing orders for its aluminum wall art.

"This wall art has to look the same way every time, and it has to look like it was on the website," Watts said. "So everything we do on the front end is setting those guys up for speed and success. You have to be efficient and effective on the back end. By looking at the detailed work orders, the team is able to produce that product the same way that it needs to be produced—every time."

The painting department at Hex Head Art is not a basic operation. The 500-sq.-ft. paint lab is equipped with a computer system that can mix portions of hundreds of toner samples to deliver PMS colors that reflect the official team colors featured in the wall art.

The paint lab also is where the special effects are applied to the paint. Some finishes get color shading, and others might receive a vintage hammered look.

Hex Head Art also just invested in a wide-format printing system, which Watts described as a device that can deliver "museum-quality printing." The machine allows it to print highly detailed imagery in the background of a logo.

"If you look at the University of Georgia national championship logo, we put the team's stadium in the background with some very fine details. Without this machine, we wouldn't have been able to do that," he said. "Now we can do parts with high-resolution imagery along with hand-painted finishes. It really makes for a phenomenal piece of art."

To maintain the fast-paced processing of orders, packaging has to be streamlined as well. That's why packaging is designed at the same time that a piece of wall art is created. With at least 850 designs in the Hex Head Art portfolio, packaging options have to be limited in scope, beefy enough to protect the art, and project a high-end look that matches the brand profile.

Most of this production activity is done in batches because a majority of the art pieces are placed into inventory. After the parts are painted and assembled, they are shrink-wrapped, put in a tray, and placed on shelves.

"Our entire world revolves around the fourth quarter," Watts said. "We stay profitable through the year, but the fourth quarter is when we really slay it. We’ll do almost 50% of our sales then."

That's not the fourth quarter of a game, obviously, but rather the fourth quarter of a financial calendar year. But it's still crunch time for Hex Head Art.

From the last game of the World Series until the close of the college football playoffs, people are highly energized to purchase team-focused wall art. It could be championship-related, or it could be a holiday gift.

To keep up with the huge increase in orders, everyone gets involved. Designers and customer service representatives all start packaging.

"It's a pretty intense time," Watts said.

Hex Head Art has made the investments necessary for it to produce high-end wall art that it can deliver next day. As word grows and its social media audience eclipses 100,000 followers, expectations grow as well. Watts said he wants to deliver a memento that others can't find easily somewhere else.

"I’ve owned a lot of businesses in my life, and I’ve been in business for myself for more than 30 years now," he said. "This is definitely a cool one. I definitely appreciate what we’ve built."