The occupational hazards of sign spinning were on full display at a recent practice session for employees of Aarrow Advertising.
“My hands, my wrists are all chopped up,” one employee said, extending his arm.
Another added: “Man, the helicopter toss — sometimes it slips and hits you in the eye.”
“One time the sign knocked the contacts straight out of my eyes,” someone else said.
Others chimed in with tales of busted lips, dislocated knees and scarred ears.
But the show must go on.
At Aarrow Advertising, 2,000 employees around the world bring in millions of dollars a year twirling plastic signs under their legs, over their heads and while doing handstands.
They spin for luxury apartments and home builders, the Washington Nationals and the Marine Corps Marathon.
“We’ve spun for everyone from small businesses all the way up to the Obama campaign,” said Mike Kenny, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer.
Aarrow Advertising was founded in 2002 by Kenny and Max Durovic, who had just finished his freshman year at Georgetown University and was at home in San Diego for the summer.
“To just stand there holding a sign, that’s the most boring job in the world,” Kenny said. “We wanted to make it fun.”
By 2008, Durovic says the company was bringing in record revenue of $3.8 million. Every Fortune 500 home builder in the country was a client.
Then the housing bubble burst.
“We lost a lot of homebuilders overnight,” Durovic said. “It was sobering to watch 75 percent of our business fall off in three months.”
Aarrow had to reinvent itself. Durovic and Kenny began wooing luxury apartment companies and national brands such as Sprint, Verizon and McDonald’s. They began advertising at concerts, baseball games and other events.
“It really catches peoples’ attention,” said Horatio Moreno, 24. “I get a lot of love from drivers — they smile, they honk, they cheer. Sometimes girls stop to give me their phone numbers.”
Many of Aarrow’s employees are high school students who are recruited through Junior ROTC and athletic programs. Hourly pay begins at $10, and goes up every few months depending in part on the number of tricks employees master, said Mike Patterson, who owns three Aarrow franchises in the Washington area.
“The guys think of this as a sport,” Patterson said, adding that employees often add elements of skateboarding, break dancing or martial arts into their routines. “To them, it’s like going to football practice or twirling a rifle.”
Patterson’s three area franchises employ 97 sign spinners, almost all of them between the ages of 15 and 25.
“That after school job stocking groceries doesn’t exist anymore,” Patterson said. “We pride ourselves in being able to offer flexible employment for students.”
Business has picked up 250 percent since last year, in part because of unseasonably warm weather in the area, Patterson said. Revenue for his Washington area franchises for the first four months of this year totaled $160,000.
Sometimes Moreno, who has been working for the company for four years and is certified in welding and electrical work, thinks about finding a new job.
Once he took a break for three or four months to explore other lines of work, but he said he missed spinning signs. Plus, he started gaining weight from the lack of exercise.
“My mom, she started teasing me, telling me I was getting chubby,” he said.
Moreno returned to Aarrow. He spins signs for about 35 hours a week and works in the company’s office, helping with data entry and scheduling.
“It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made,” Moreno said. “I’m basically getting paid to work out.”