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Thirty-Five Years of Serving a Targeted Market: DawnSign’s Success Story

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Linda Carlson writes for IBPA’s Independent magazine from Seattle. She can be reached at linda@ibpa-online.org.

dawnLike the people who left home to build America, the 22 employees at DawnSignPress think of themselves as pioneers, always seeking new ways to deliver content. Appropriately, their informal motto is “Think big, start small.”

Founder Joe Dannis attributes that strategy to the late Jan Nathan, IBPA’s first and long-time executive director, and it’s a strategy that’s worked well for this San Diego publisher of materials for the deaf and hearing-impaired market since its beginning in 1979.

Nathan offered advice when Dannis expressed concern about competing with mainstream publishers. “Find a back door,” he remembers her insisting.

Today, all DawnSign’s original titles are still in print, and virtually none of its sales are direct to traditional bookstores; 95 percent are to wholesalers and the other 5 percent are to end users through its Website. “Our highest B2B sales are to university-level bookstores, and we also sell to educational programs, school districts, libraries, deaf service organizations, and even federal and state level government groups,” says Joe Harrison, a marketing staffer.

Signs for MeThe company now offers 83 of its own titles and 16 that it distributes for other publishers. Its products range from the expected—titles like Signs for Me: Basic Vocabulary for Children, Parents & Teachers, co-authored by Dannis; and Interpreting in Medical Settings, which is approved for interpreter continuing education units; to such professional resources as Listen with the Heart: Relationships and Hearing Loss, by clinical psychologist Michael Harvey; and Part of the Group: Games That Increase Social Understanding, by researchers at the University of California Center on Deafness.

“Look for a model that will point you in the right direction,” says Becky Ryan, vice president of production and marketing, talking about how the company develops its products. The model isn’t necessarily a printed and bound book, she points out. “We’ve explored lots of different things, including wallpaper borders and flash cards. You can always find a model when planning a new project.”

Acting Ahead of the Pack

One huge challenge has been providing high-quality ASL teaching materials economically. “Lots of bigger publishing companies took a stab at an American Sign Language instruction book, but balked at the expense and complications that video caused. While a video component makes perfect sense for ASL, it certainly did not fit a typical publishing model for textbooks,” Ryan adds, explaining, “We’re deaf-owned, and because we’re part of the community we serve, we know what our audience likes or needs. For a visual language, video is a must. DawnSign forged ahead with VHS in the ’80s, and DVDs in the late ’90s before everyone had a DVD drive in their computers.”

That commitment to video-based content also created a packaging challenge. “Over the years we’ve used many ways to deliver books and videos together, including a custom-made box that fit all of our book/VHS combos,” Ryan says. “DVDs have made it easier. Soon our content will move online, which will offer a whole new set of challenges.”

Her comment was echoed by the marketing staff, with Harrison one of those citing the work necessitated by frequent changes in media. It’s been especially time-consuming with some older publications, he says.

Blessings Technology Brought

However much work evolving technology creates, it’s among the reasons that DawnSign has been successful. And the pursuit of new technology is part of Dannis’s pioneering attitude. “We have to always be on the lookout for the next wave of new ideas,” he said when participating in a PBS Small Business School episode a few years ago.

“Technology is a blessing for us, as it opened many opportunities for deaf people to work in parity with hearing counterparts,” says Dannis, who was honored as California’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2006. “Technology has allowed us to contribute to society together, and that’s heightened the cultural/language awareness in both the deaf and hearing worlds.”

One result of that awareness has been the increasing popularity of ASL among the hearing population in the last two decades. “Educating hearing people has positively changed their attitudes and their respect for deaf people, the deaf culture and language,” he explains.

As Tina Jo Breindel, who handles community relations, notes, “Census Bureau data shows that ASL is the leading minority language in the U.S. after Spanish, Italian, German, and French.” Between half a million and two million Americans use ASL, she says, and there’s also a sizeable market in Canada. This has led to more opportunities in ASL-related fields for both the deaf and the hearing. “And more deaf children learn language early because families have the materials to teach ASL at home,” she adds.

DawnSign has business challenges identical to those that face most other publishing companies of its size, as well as challenges specific to serving a niche market.

Tom Schlegel, vice president of operations, says, “Besides adapting to changes in technology for our products, we’ve converted from paper and film to electronic layout for our books, and from catalog to Website sales.”

There have been the real disasters, including the earthquake that destroyed the publisher’s Los Angeles book manufacturer—and the films on file there. “We had no duplicates, no backup,” says Dannis. “We had returned original photographs to the individuals and archives that owned them, and we couldn’t retrieve them. In the end, we had to put a title out of print.”

Another early problem was growing pains. “It was difficult moving to a new space every few years when we were growing rapidly,” he says. Schlegel and Dannis also cite the continuing headache of retail sales and returns, but like other publishers, DawnSign sells shopworn copies at a discount or donates them to charities.

The Bi- Requirements

The publisher’s most unusual challenge may be hiring and developing employees who are bilingual/bicultural—people who can both sign and speak and are comfortable in both the deaf and hearing communities. Staff members, 13 of whom are deaf, have to be able to represent the company, and sell to both the deaf target markets and the mainstream business environment, Dannis emphasizes. All employees use ASL.

“Given our unique environment, our employees do tend to have longer tenure,” he reports. “Almost all our managers have worked their way up to their current positions, and approximately half of our current employees have held various job titles.” Ryan, for example, joined the company in 1996. Schlegal, who had been a consultant since the beginning, came on board full-time in 1999.

This decades-long commitment to the DawnSign mission truly is reminiscent of America’s pioneers, many of whom persevered year after year despite obstacles that were different—but perhaps no less daunting—than the challenges this company has overcome.

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