HANOVER – It all started with a sign. Well, two.
When Brian and Melanie O’Neil got married in 2012, they made a pair of custom signs to use as wedding decorations. The signs took weeks to make and were fashioned from whatever materials the couple happened to have lying around. It was a fun thing to do for a few weekends, Melanie said, and they had no idea what would come of it.
Now, almost 10 years later, the same love-struck and DIY-obsessed couple run a massive sign-making operation in Hanover called Rustic Marlin, where their team can easily churn out hundreds of wooden home and event décor signs per day.
“We made those two signs and we thought that was that. Then people we knew wanted them and started asking and even then we were like ‘Oh, OK, we like to be busy. We can do that,'” Melanie said. “There was never a moment that we say downand said, ‘Let’s start a business,” but it just grew and grew and grew.”
Melanie said the couple came back from their honeymoon to requests for signs similar to what they’d made for the wedding. Then, friends of friends starting asking. Realizing they may be onto something, they started selling at the Cohasset Farmers Market. Before they knew it, the entire O’Neil home was converted into an office and warehouse space, there were pallets of product in the yard and they had tables and tools under massive tents in the front yard.
Their signs are, for the most part, paint or print on wood and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are crisp and colorful, others are muted and aged, and almost all of them are able to be customized with a family name, year or special date.
“We’re known for this really unique look and feel, kind of a shabby chic, and I think that’s what people expect and love from us,” Brian said. “There are a lot of companies that make signs, but what we’ve mastered is allowing people to create their own. What we did was make this way to quickly customize signs that was scalable, unbeknownst to us when we were first doing it.”
In 2016, Rustic Marlin moved into a massive warehouse and production space in Hanover and the O’Neils really started to scale the business. The signs can be small and meant for a bookcase or 4 feet long and meant as a focal piece. Raw lumber is delivered to the workshop, then sanded, cut, planed, assembled if needed and painted, printed or silk screened.
In 2019, Rustic Marlin acquired small business Marshes, Fields & Hills and expanded offerings from solely wooden items to a full line of home décor including dish towels, pillows and more.
At the start of the pandemic, the O’Neils said they found the business ground to a halt when retail shops were forced to shutter and gift buying for events like weddings slowed to a trickle.
“We had these signs that people wanted but no place to sell them,” Melanie said.
That’s when they launched what has become an easily recognizable item on the South Shore: Signs of Hope.
The O’Neils built more than a dozen self-serve kiosks across the South Shore last April and started selling four styles of small signs boasting red hearts – meant to show thanks to health care workers during the pandemic – and the word “Hope.” The signs sold for $25 and 100 percent of proceeds went to support struggling small businesses. In the last year, they’ve raised $15,000.
Last month, they launched an initiative that aims to give away a hope sign for every one sold. People have sent in groups they think are worthy of a gift – like nurses on a particular hospital floor or front-line workers at a certain store – and Rustic Marlin team members will choose a group per week to give wooden signs to.
“The idea is that we’ll show up in these ‘Hope Team’ shirts and give out signs,” Brian said. “We’re hoping to give out thousands of signs. It’s really taken off.”
Signs are sold to individuals primarily online, in gift shops or at self-serve shopping structures outside the Columbia Road warehouse. On the bigger side, Rustic Marlin now counts Black Dog and The Paper Store as wholesale clients.
Despite achieving what is largely considered the dream for any small business, the O’Neils are relatively low-key about their success. When they look around their multi-room warehouse and chat with their two dozen employees, all they can do is smile.
“Sometimes to us, the biggest successes are the little things,” Melanie said. “We just got custom boxes with our name on them for the first time, and that was huge for us and our team. When we were first selling at the Cohasset Farmers Market, we’d make enough money to go out to dinner and were so excited.”
Uniquely Local is a series of stories by Mary Whitfill highlighting the South Shore’s farmers, bakers and makers. Have a story idea? Reach Mary at [email protected].