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Last Update: Saturday September 25, 2021

Key Idea: Prepare To Struggle

This story could make you cry. Joe Dannis had the idea that there was something terribly wrong with deaf education and he believed he could fix the problem. With a gift of $1,000 from his father and a day job, Joe worked on his product alone for nine years.   More...

Key Question:


You can do what Joe did.  He invented a new product. 

Q: Why would anyone invest so much time for so long with so little return?

A: He was driven to improve the lives of deaf people and when people have a goal that is very big and meaningful, they can sustain their energy. If he was just trying to make money, he would have quit much sooner. People who suffer from feelings of uselessness and depression are often urged to go out and do something for someone else. They are told by their therapist to stop their whining and spending so much time thinking about themselves and find a way to help those who are less fortunate. The same is true for companies. If you focus all of your attention on yourself and how much money you and each employee is going to make, cynicism sets in. Amazingly, Joe kept his eye on the goal.

We believe most American adults toy with the idea of starting their own business but few do it and make it work as has Joe. Many people dream of having thousands of customers but only a few do the work that must be done to find and win them. In the book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes that great companies pay attention to details and no task is too tedious. Founder of Country Supply, Scott Money, used the good-to-great strategy and didn't even realize it. He wanted to build a mailing list and no task was too small. Hearing him say that he and and his wife went to the library and worked for hours hand-coping the names and phone numbers of people who were selling horses or equipment from newspapers' classified ads. He was only 22 years old when he started the process of building a mailing list and he did what made sense to him at the time. He did what he could afford. Eventually he thought of buying lists from magazines and over time he learned how to find qualified names with less effort. Of course he was naive in 1984 -- but not now. Scott is a perfect example of a person who eventually learns by trial and error and he is perfectly happy with this technique. In fact, he would probably argue it is the only real way to learn. Scott built the list to 450,000 names, was generating $17 million in revenue when we did his story. With more money than he knows what to do with, he outsourced the list management. But it was a struggle to get to the first profitable stage.

Q: What did Joe do that every business owner can do they was key to his survival in the early stages?

A: He kept his overhead at nearly zero until he was confident he was going to be endorsed by the academic community. His start-up capital was intellectual.

Marty Edelston, founder of Boardroom Inc., publisher of the world's more successful subscription-base newsletter had been in the publishing business always working as a sales person. When he envisioned his own print product, he figured he needed $1.2 million dollars, then, spent years looking for investors. Finally, he used his own savings to do a test and it revealed he had a viable product. By keeping his job and working on the publication at night, Marty got the business off the ground.

What Marty did is very common. Banks do not make start-up business loans and so he went looking for private funds. After exhausting all of the prospects among his friends and business associates, he did the only thing he could do: Marty used his savings of $30,000 to jump start his business. By doing everything himself and working so many hours that many times he slept at his office, he set the stage for what has become a triple digit million dollar business. Marty found himself working into the night because he had to do his regular job from 8-5. This is run-of-the-mill for most small business owners. Long hours go hand-in-hand with owning a business. Even when there are employees, the responsibility for hundreds of details fall on the shoulders of the owner.

Q: Why do so many people start a business knowing it will take a tremendous time commitment, especially at the beginning?

A: Many reasons, including: 1) Many find it impossible to work in a job and be satisfied. In fact, most people who start a business don't do it for the money, they do it because they feel their talents have never been used in a single job. 2) Many simply want to be in charge. 3) Some see that no one is filling an obvious need. 4) Many people start a business because they can't find a job. Immigrants face language and cultural problems and often start a business because that's their only choice. 5) Some even start a business, knowing it will take huge amounts of time, because they would rather work than do anything else. Work should bring pleasure and there's nothing wrong with doing what you prefer to do. The newspapers reported that prior to joining the Clinton Administration, Janet Reno kept a sleeping bag in her office for those times when she preferred to work nearly all night. 6) In today's work environment, most key employees of large organizations work long hours. So, if you're going to work 60 hours a week, why not invest your time in your own business?

Think about it

What tedious task needs to be done for you to move your business forward? We guarantee, it is something that no one wants to do. What idea have you not moved along because you thought it would be too hard? Does it excite you to think about it? Is your family willing to struggle with you? Do you have friends and mentors you can go to for encouragement?

Clip from: Dawn Sign Press: The Pain of Starting

Joe Dannis, California's Small Business Person of the Year

San Diego: What are the most commonly used languages in the USA? Answer: English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, French, German, then ASL. Yes, ASL. American Sign Language.

No less than 500,000 and as many as 2.5 million people use ASL every day. In this episode of the show language is subtlety transformed into hand, finger, body and facial combinations.

Take away any one of the basic senses and deep-seated creative power within the human mind is enlivened and focused interiority awakens. With today's micro-technologies, the deaf and blind are teaching us all about subtleties within language and our skills to communicate it. Here we meet extraordinary people in the midst of a revolution.

Joe Dannis is an advocate for American Sign Language. The Small Business Person of the Year from the State of California, Joe Dannis started DawnSignPress in 1979. He has always been out on the edge... being the first to advocate something new. Joe and his team publish materials to teach sign language for the deaf. Although he publishes videos and books for both children and adults, his biggest customers are schools and universities that offer courses in American Sign Language (ASL).

Today you'll meet Joe Dannis. He is one tough businessman, but he remembers nine very lonely years in the beginning. If he had to do it all over again, he probably would not. Learn from someone who has been over the hot coals and whose wisdom runs deep.

Go to all the key ideas and videos...

Dawn Sign Press

Joe Dannis, Founder

6130 Nancy Ridge Drive
San Diego, CA 92121

Visit our web site:

Office: 8586250600

Business Classification:

Year Founded: 1979

Prepare To Struggle

HATTIE: Hi. I'm Hattie Bryant, and welcome to SMALL BUSINESS SCHOOL . If you want to grow the business you have, or if you want to start a business, stay with us for the next 30 minutes. In addition to meeting the Small Businessperson of the Year from the state of California, you'll hear from our viewers, and an expert in direct marketing will be here with money-saving tips for reaching your customers.

Every week on SMALL BUSINESS SCHOOL, we offer a Master Class. This is not a traditional class with a teacher, textbook and tests, this is an experience. You'll learn from listening to a veteran small-business owner who has already done what you want to do. Why was Joe Dannis named Small Business Person of the Year from the State of California? You'll see for yourself.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) This business is full of energy -- animated conversations, employees sharing ideas, but what's so unusual is that business is conducted in silence.

(Footage of employees speaking to each other using sign language)

HATTIE: DawnSignPress has 23 employees. Most of them are deaf, as is the owner and founder, Joe Dannis.

DawnSign. What does it mean?

JOE DANNIS (Owner, DawnSignPress): Dawn--many people thought I named it after a woman, but actually, it's related to the sun, the sun coming up. It dawned on me; it's a new idea.

NOTE: Joe speaks through signing and his assistant translates for us. For broadcast, we revoiced Joe with our director's voice.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) DawnSign publishes educational materials for the deaf. Joe started right out of college working to bring DawnSignPress to life.

JOE: I started in 1979, right after I graduated from Gallaudet University. And I moved the business to California from Washington, DC, and I moved to Berkeley, California. There, I was running a bookstore in 1980, and we were distributing publications for three years. And I studied it. And my partner worked at the Salk Institute at the time, and we learned how we could apply what we learned at Salk to developing our own new products. Then, in the '80s, sign language was a dirty word in deaf education.

HATTIE: Why? Why?

JOE: For a long time, many teachers thought you could teach children oralism, lipreading, signing exact English. I call it artificial language, because their natural language, the language of the deaf Americans, is American Sign Language. And they were looking at it only as broken English. Only in the '60s did Stokey--he was a linguist--announce that American Sign Language is a language of its own. Only in the '60s did people begin to realize that. Before that, they just thought it was broken English. So I think many teachers had the misconception.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Today, he is on his way to $3 million in sales and his products are loved by thousands of teachers and students.

Unidentified Teacher: They're quality products and they've been helpful--as--as a teacher in the classroom, there's been a lot of support from DawnSignPress.

HATTIE: American Sign Language is not English.

Teacher: It's not English. It's its own language, completely.

HATTIE: If I say `Where's the restaurant?'

Teacher: Mm-hmm.

HATTIE: That's `Where's the restaurant?'.

Teacher: Yes.

HATTIE: It's three words.

Teacher: Right.

HATTIE: What does that look like in sign language?

Teacher: Well, it's one sign, `restaurant,' and then you might do `where,' or you just--a quisitive look on your face.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Joe struggled for years to bring the right products to deaf educators.

JOE: I really don't want to remember those days because it was such a struggle, working all alone, every day. Can you imagine working by yourself every day for years and years? I was really lonely. It was a very lonely world. I felt depressed and negative. It's a hard struggle. But with good friends and a family, they told me to keep going: `Be stubborn. You'll get there.' It was like, `I'm trying, I'm still trying.' I was single at the time. If I was married and had a family, I could not have done it. I couldn't have done what I did. I would have had to have gotten a job to earn money, just for food. But I was single, and I think that made a difference. It's being at the right place, at the right time, with a little bit of luck, and that's what made the business take off.

HATTIE: Where did the money come from at the very beginning? Did you have a little savings?

JOE:When I graduated from college, my father gave me $1,000. It was my graduation gift, and I used that money to invest in the business. All of the profits since, and still today, we reinvest back in our business. And now we're starting to do projects we couldn't do before--video editing, working in production, using creativity and ideas. To me, that's more fun than signing checks and deciding what bills to pay, supervising. That's not fun, but I'm stuck with it. The buck stops at my desk.

HATTIE: 'Cause you're the president.

JOE: Right.

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