Air Force Veteran on a mission to revolutionize how art is displayed
Successful entrepreneurs have the grit to push through the doubts of naysayers to fulfill their goals. John Maida, the founder of L’image, has pioneered an innovative way to display wall mounted prints without a traditional wood frame. Maida engineered a unique way to laminate a print on an aluminum, foamboard or wood plaque that offers both washability and UV light protection. After refining his manufacturing process from his home’s basement, he introduced his plaque mount concept to the public from a kiosk in Wichita’s Towne East Mall in the late 1990’s. After a few years of success, Maida incorporated Laminage Products, Inc. with a DBA of L’image in 2001, and began selling his alternative plaque mounts, along with traditional frames, as well as photo printing and canvas gallery wraps from his store front in Wichita’s Delano district.
“My mother was a watercolor artist and restaurateur, I assisted with framing work and restaurant work for her before I was 10 years old,” said Maida. “When I served in the military, I noted how often the movers broke the framed art that had been packed.” Maida experimented for years on an alternative to framed art, by laminating a print image to a durable medium that both accentuates the art and extends the life of the piece.
After high school, Maida wanted to follow in the footsteps of his great grandfather and attend Texas A&M. He tried as a walk-on football player with the hopes of landing a scholarship but needed to drop-out when he started running out of money and wasn’t awarded one. He returned to Houston to work multiple jobs and took classes at a community college. He became a retail manager for the retailer Brookstone, but found that he needed a college degree to move up the corporate ladder. Maida decided to join the Air Force in 1987 and enrolled in their technical school as a mechanic. Stationed in South Dakota, he worked as a crew chief for the Air Force KC-135 R model aircraft.
While in the Air Force, Maida served in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm at bases in Europe. “Everywhere I traveled, I purposely would visit art framing shops to see the products and frames they offered,” said Maida. While visiting his girlfriend (current wife) living in Montreal, Canada, Maida saw the European influence of the artwork and framing styles there. “They had prints mounted on wood with hand painted borders. However, the pieces didn’t have any coating on the print itself to protect it from damage. Maida bought ten pieces of the prints to reverse engineer how the art prints were adhered to the wood backing. By researching, Maida found a contact in Belgium who was familiar with the laminating technology. The contact shared the same vision as Maida and he was willing to relocate to Montreal to develop the concept together.
The Air Force gave me a choice to be stationed in Spokane, Washington, Wichita, Kansas or Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1993, Maida chose to be stationed at McConnell AFB in Wichita that offered a more favorable location and climate. Working out of his home’s basement, Maida hired two aeronautical engineers serving at McConnell to design a machine that would cut wood or metal, bevel and foil the edges, and apply the laminate coating.
Maida started production out of his house in 1995 and sold his plaque mounted prints to other service members on base. In 1997, Maida left the Air Force and used his pay-out compensation to finance a kiosk in Towne East Mall in November 1999. In his first two months, Maida counted over 48,000 visitors and $68,000 in sales in six weeks. L’image was incorporated in 2001 and Maida moved to a warehouse in Wichita for his production operations.
Averaging double-digit annual growth in the early 2000’s, Maida bought a larger 7,500 square foot warehouse in 2012 with a SBA 7(a) loan through INTRUST Bank. When his lease contract at the mall became too expensive, Maida moved in 2017 to the current storefront in Delano.
Creating a novel product was hard but creating a new market for his product proved to be even harder for Maida. The L’image plaque mounted prints cost 20-30% less to make than traditional framing, yet the framing shops did not want to alter their business model with a less expensive alternative product. Customers that normally have prints traditionally framed behind glass were not aware of the L’image plaque mounted alternatives. Word of mouth and targeted mail marketing were the two methods that worked to grow his sales.
His first major commercial sale was with New York Bagel Shop, that was once headquartered in Wichita, to provide laminated print pieces to decorate the interiors of 120 bagel shop locations. When New York Bagel Shop was bought out by a larger competitor, my original contacts there started working for other franchise restaurant firms. Those contacts multiplied the number of proposals Maida could offer to other restaurants and retailers. Currently, wholesale revenues contribute the largest amount to Maida’s bottom line, followed by corporate sales and retail sales.
While the 9/11 shock to the economy increased L’image sales of their lower priced plaque mounted pieces, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the market. SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan helped Maida keep his employees on the payroll. “The SBA Debt Relief program that covered the principal and interest on our 7(a) loan really saved our business. I don’t know if we could have survived the pandemic downturn without the debt relief,” said Maida.
“Our next endeavor at L’image is to revamp our web presence for more online sales. Developing an interactive web presence has proved difficult because digital customers need to see their print on different plaque mounts or traditional frame options,” said Maida.
When asked what advice Maida would give to other entrepreneurs, he emphasized the importance of having the passion and stamina to demonstrate the viability of their concept. “Take advice from others with a grain of salt, ignore the naysayers, and focus on getting your product or service to market,” said Maida. “My staff works with me, not for me. Make your employees feel the business is theirs too. Give them the tools and help, but don’t micromanage,” emphasized Maida. “As a business owner, you need to know a little about everything in the business. No one can be an expert at everything, so know your limits, seek assistance and education from providers like the SBA and universities to keep growing,” concluded Maida.