Longform

Miami street signs that promise to change your life

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He gives me another phone number, his private line, to call him back if I decide to take him up on his apprenticeship offer.

I meet Samuel Pichardo at a table outside the Starbucks on Biscayne Boulevard at NE 135th Street. The 23-year-old North Bay Village resident, with his oval-framed eyeglasses and skinny body, resembles an Xbox champ rather than a shrewd businessman with a plan to conquer the handyman market within the tri-county region one roadside sign at a time. "Road signs have an extremely high return call rate," Pichardo says authoritatively. "It costs me $1.50 per sign, which generates five to ten calls. The key is placing the signs in high-density places."

Pichardo is the mastermind behind the "Fix wut your husband destroyed" sign. His number leads to the handyman referral business he started more than a year ago with his 31-year-old girlfriend, Ena Devi, while they were chilling inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore. She is with Pichardo when we meet at the Starbucks. "Signs work for anything and everything," Devi attests. "I told Sam it would be nice to have one number to get ten handymen to call you back."

They took the idea, got the number, and began putting up signs. Their first office was the back of a hair salon in North Miami Beach. "I met our first customer at a Pollo Tropical," Pichardo recalls. "He gave me $20. From then on, we just kept growing and growing."

Today, Pichardo claims, he has 18 handymen on his rotation. "Ten of them are paying between $300 and $900 a month to let us find them leads. The other eight are on the $80 trial period. We guarantee you at least four leads to start, but we don't promise you will get hired for a job."

After a few minutes, Pichardo and Devi take me to the company office. Earlier this year, they upgraded to a penthouse suite in an office building just a couple of blocks north of the Starbucks, overlooking Biscayne Boulevard. Pichardo employs four people who work strictly on commission. He also has a website that features a Vimeo video of Pichardo sitting at his desk while wearing a hard hat and an unbuttoned dress shirt that shows off part of his bird chest. "It seems I found the magic formula to find that work," Pichardo says in the footage. "I want to extend to you the opportunity to reap the benefits and rewards from what I have to offer."

Pichardo says he places 50 to 100 signs a day at least three times a week from Homestead to West Palm Beach. "Code enforcement officers take down our signs all the time. But the signs are so cheap that we can afford to keep putting up more. So not only are we keeping handymen employed, we are also making sure code enforcement workers still have a job."

(North Miami Code Enforcement director Alan P. Graham, whose city is plastered with road signs, says his department takes down 20 to 30 signs a day. Even though the signs are considered litter, Graham says, the city has no way of enforcing tickets against sign-posters. "The citations are meaningless to them," he says. "We've tried to call people in the past to tell them not to do it, but the next day their signs are back up.")

The son of Dominican and Jamaican parents, Pichardo graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in 2006. His entrepreneurial streak took hold as a kid playing computer civilization and strategy games such as Command & Conquer and Sim City. "Those games teach you how to build and strategize for life and building a business," Pichardo says. "Whether it's a game or running a real company or managing your personal life, you have to know how to pool your resources if you want to get ahead."

He attended Miami Dade College for a couple of semesters but dropped out to work for Nouveau Riche, a multilevel marketing company that teaches people how to buy and sell real estate. "I was 18 years old when I made my first real estate deal," Pichardo recalls. "I made $42,000." The transaction involved a Miami Beach condo at 1226 Marseille Dr. in which Pichardo owned an interest.

His mentors at Nouveau Riche also taught him about road-sign marketing. "That is how we primarily got our clientele," Pichardo says. "Two of my employees now were recruited by me to work for Nouveau Riche." During the first two years with the company, business was good, the aspiring mogul says. "I accrued a lot of cash, so I started giving people hard-money loans up to $40,000. I still do that, as well as buy and sell real estate at wholesale prices."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.