Getting Down to Business: Think Business
The entire product packaging and sales process was managed. All of the product research, fancy showrooms, elaborate displays and that pushy salesperson all paid off on the day of your installation. And you know what? They all deserved it too. They invested, leveraged their position and get to cash the big check. They earned it by handling business.
Stop! You handled business by installing that dazzling new floor, didn't you? Where is your fat paycheck? You left it on the table because you confused being a good craftsman with being a good businessperson. The backbone of the installation community is owner operators. Two or three person companies subcontracting from the corner retailer, big box monopoly, or regional storefront chains. Underpaid and undervalued. Wage increases come with busting hump to get in more yards. You are at a disadvantage, and so what! The onus is on you to break the cycle.
Hey, it's not all bad, because the first step is realizing you have an opportunity to break free and rise above the situation. You have to be realistic and understand success can be obtained, but it is measured in multiple small advances, not giant knee jerk leaps. Your business must be managed. What can be done, where is your plan of action? Wanting and doing are different things. That is my first point.
#1 - You want to succeed, but where do you see yourself going? Do you want to be a larger installation contractor? What about owning your own retail store? Maybe being a small subcontractor suits you, but you want to be more profitable. No matter what path appeals to you, define that goal. Some savvy business advisors want you to write business plans covering three months, six months, one year, and five years. If following that type of structure suits you, do it. I like setting goals rather than time frames. Pick three short-term goals that can be accomplished in three to six months, and three long-term goals for the nine to twelve month range. Certainly these goals should be directed because they are the action to get you where you want to be.
#2 - Once you step out to take ownership of your direction, you cannot afford to suffer every negative business lesson that is out there. A simple example is ‘paid when paid' or ‘paid if paid' contracts. Find a mentor or seek an industry expert who has blazed the trail before you and succeeded. This is not necessarily your competitor across town or the other subcontractors who work for the same accounts you do, but someone a little more isolated from your potential business growth threat. You can find this person at almost any industry association. They are there attending annual meetings of the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association, National Wood Flooring Association, World Flooring Association, Certified Floorcovering Installers and about a dozen other places. Joining industry associations is good, but attending those meetings is always money well spent. Seek guidance; ask questions; model yourself after their lead.
#3 - You need to take stock of your current business operation costs. What do you spend everyday just to be an independent contractor? Many installers set up office right out of their home, while others have a storage unit or small building somewhere. These fixed expenses are items like rent, utilities, insurance, phone, accountant fees, association dues, and vehicle payments. Some purchases, like fuel, can be averaged out, but do not underestimate. This is your base overhead, and if you figure twenty working days a month, do the division for a daily cost. Not understanding expenses can give you a false sense of security about what your company really needs to stay solvent.
#4 - Start tracking your installation costs on a per job basis. Develop a form or spreadsheet to itemize materials used and hours spent. This takes research to figure out how to account for items like seam sealer, blades, staples, and nails. You may want to throw in a couple of bucks here and there for small expendables. Figure tackstrip by the foot, adhesive by the gallon and floor patch by the pound. Be sure to track work hours, including those spent as picking up materials. As a working owner, you should calculate your time at the rate it would be to hire a journeyman replacement. Don't forget to include taxes. With this information, you will soon develop a database and be able to understand what it costs you to install any particular type of flooring. You will also know what type of installation earns the best money. That's good, but better yet, you will know what type of work to avoid.
#5 - While you are tallying up numbers for your costs, review your installation material purchases. Installers typically seek profit by raising the prices of their services, but lowering costs can also make profit gains. It is the middle ground between what you get and you spend that is the profit. Buying in volume reduces the cost per unit. A case of seam tape is cheaper per roll compared to buying a roll or two at a time. The same can be said for staples and blades. But don't overextend yourself past what you can use in a three to six month period. Besides getting a better price, you can compound that by taking cash discounts when you pay the invoice in a timely fashion. It's also wise to shop overhead expenses like insurance policies annually.
#6 - Now that you're getting savvy, do not think that tomorrow all your work resources will suddenly throw money at you because you have figured out that you must drive your business toward improved profitability. By the way, I am assuming that if you are progressive, it takes funds to drive you towards your goals. You certainly cannot pitch your steady accounts out by raising prices above their level overnight or turning away unprofitable projects. You will want to spread your wings, but still play it safe and secure in doing so. Start soliciting the work you want from other sources. Set your prices where you want them to be. Over time, those new accounts will displace the old ones. Do not overlook direct work opportunities for individuals. These customers are willing to spent more money for your services. It is more of a personal relationship because they selected you. Do a good job and they will call you again, plus they will refer their friends your way. Building your own customer base provides greater independence for you.
#7 - Get off square one and start some marketing. Get your company name out there and get noticed. You need to separate your company from the rest by creating a positive identity. One of the simplest ways is to create your own tri-fold brochure. You can tell your story by listing your certifications, what products you install, workmanship warranty, the area you serve and your experience in the trade. Add a few pictures. Look at other company's brochures for ideas. Having ten cartons of brochures stacked on your office floor will not help. You need to get them in potential customer's hands. Pass them out at the grocery store, stick them on cars or hang them on doorknobs. If you drive a van, it is like a rolling billboard. Get some signage on it. Think of the number of people that see your name simply because you are driving around. You might even want to consider a box advertisement in the phone book or weekly newspaper. What about a website? Investing a portion of profits into telling the world how great your product or service is, is a fundamental business practice.
#8 - Unless you are in a very small market, chances are you do not know all the dealers to solicit work from. You can get out there and beat the streets handing out cards and brochures. An alternative is to meet the manufacturer and distributor representatives, especially the ones involved with the products you want to install. I can assure you they know just about every area retailer. They can be an excellent source for referrals and can help steer you towards retailers in need of quality installers.
#9 - You are going to have to do some self-examination regarding your appearance in the customer's eyes. I mean that new sign on a wreck of a van is not going to scream professionalism and value. Projecting a professional image gains customer acceptance. A uniform or company shirt is a good investment. There is diversity in today's workplace, so this is not about who has long hair, a shaved head, or an earring. Being unkempt, having holey jean knees and whacked off shirt sleeves will not get you where you want to be. This goes for the entire crew, not just the lead man. If you look the part, you earn the benefit of any customer doubt that may arise. Think of the retailer's view, with all things being equal, which crew appearance do you think they want on their job. Doesn't it make sense they will pay more for an image conscience subcontractor?
#10 - Seek some professional help in areas that you need. If you the lack the creative touch to design a brochure, hire a graphic artist for help. There are lots of small PR firms that can help you with a marketing strategy without a big investment. An accountant or business adviser can help you analyze all the cost data you are collecting. You may want some advice on setting your profit margins. Are you doing well, or well, are you being done under? One of the best people to put on your team is a tax expert. Buying the knowledge of how to push the money numbers around at the end of the year can help you keep more of it. You may even want to pick up a book or two about business practices. A little education can sure go a long way.
My wish is for you to get that fat check for your work, but you will only earn that by taking control of your business destiny.