Last year, my wife and I started the process of running our own painting business.
It’s been exciting, stressful, fun, not-so-fun at times… basically a complete roller coaster. And you know what? That’s okay. If running a business was easy, everyone would do it.
What has helped us, though, is asking a lot of questions and learning from other businesses, whether they are a good example or bad.
We are in the construction industry, one that is saturated with small businesses. We, in turn, have been employees of many of these small businesses.
We talked with the owners of these businesses on a daily basis. We saw how they interacted with employees and customers. We had an inside scoop on how they handled the challenges they faced.
This has been a priceless education I would not find in any school in the country. In this article I will share the 5 most important things I learned from past employers about how to run a successful business.
1) Growing your business is a slow and steady process
Don’t you love hearing stories of businesses that make it big in their first year?
In the tech industry, it’s not uncommon to hear of companies transitioning from being garage-dwelling computer geeks to selling their business for millions of dollars the next year.
These companies won a lottery.
I’m not trying to take anything away from their success. They had the knowledge and expertise to succeed, for sure.
But every one of them will tell you that they hit the market at just the right time, with a perfect idea, that somehow no one had ever thought of before. (that we know of)
If you are reading this, you did not win that lottery, and you won’t. Stop dreaming about it because it will not happen.
The truth is that starting a business is a very slow and steady process. And being real with yourself will push you to keep working hard, and constantly improve. Only then will your business start to take off. Setting reasonable goals is very important.
For instance, did you know that on average it takes up to 6 months for Google to start showing results for your website on its top pages? Did you know that growing your business by only 5% annually is considered successful? How about the fact that just breaking even in your first year is a sign of a good business?
When you set realistic goals for your business, you will be able to stick it out longer, and maintain that progress until your retirement.
If your goals aren’t realistic, you will give up on your business too soon.
I learned this from one of my past painting bosses. (Like Cake Boss, but with less diabetes.)
A few years before I started working for him, his family had to move in with his in-laws because his business was not doing great.
Did he give up and get a steady job that payed him less than he deserves? No.
He knew that it was going to take time for people to find out about his business. He kept picking up jobs when they came around, did a great job on them, and over the course of a couple of years things began to pick up steam.
He now owns a home, has a new work van, employs plenty of his own painters, and in the process tapped into a high paying market that is the envy of all painters.
Had he been impatient, he would’ve completely missed out on what his business is today; a very successful one.
2) Don’t low ball your price to get customers
When first starting out, you are looking for any edge on your competition. But don’t let that edge be your price. It will set your business up for failure.
For one thing, there will always be someone who is willing to do it for cheaper. You will never be the cheapest option.
Second, while making less money on a job than you’d like, you will have to win over more customers to make a living. But, remember, you have a problem getting clients because you are a new company.
This starts a terrible cycle that won’t work. “I need more customers because I don’t make enough, but struggle to get customers because I’m new.”
On top of all this, once you get the reputation for being cheap, those are the type of customers you will attract; cheap ones.
I learned this from a carpentry business I worked for. It always seemed like we were getting less and less quality jobs.
Why? Because they hired too many employees, and then needed to get the work to keep those employees working. This led them to bid lower and lower on jobs until the point that, no matter how much we were working, it was never enough to pay the bills.
The owners were always stressed out, and ended up folding the company at the first opportunity. It was sad because they were very skilled and had a lot of potential. Had they let customer service and a small work force be their edge, they might still be in business today.
3) Have a good Work/ Life balance
You’ve got a lot on your mind when you’re starting your own business.
“How do I keep things legal? Is my insurance adequate? Is my website as good as it can be? How can I stand out in such a competitive market? Should I hire/fire an employee?”
The questions are endless. The time you could spend improving your business is endless. If you let your business consume all your thoughts and time, you will not last.
I personally have experienced this in the last few months. I love running a business and find every aspect of it fascinating.
But if I allow my business to consume all my time and energy, not only will I ruin my personal life, but I’ll destroy my business as well.
I need to always keep in mind that, in the end, this is a job. Nothing more.
That means I can devote certain hours per day to working on the business. For me it’s 8am-5pm. After 5pm, I need to chill, not think about work, and spend time with my wife on non-work related things.
If I didn’t set this time aside, our marriage would suffer, my personal stress would rise, and running my own business would be a lot less desirable.
So be sure to balance your work with actually living. It will give you the best odds at success in your business venture.
4) Customers are not always right, but they usually are
In business, you are going to run into a lot of different people, many of whom do not communicate well. And when you mix poor communication with money exchanges, things are bound to go wrong.
Customers feel ripped off, you get short-changed, you take on more work than you expected, or sometimes you just plain screw up.
The big caveat here is that these scenarios can all be avoided. When meeting with potential customers, ask a lot of questions.
I would recommend having some questions you ask all customers before performing any work or giving a quote. Then, during the working relationship, check in with them to make sure all is well. This will put your customers at ease, and can save you a lot of headaches.
I learned this from a situation that occurred while helping a painter refinish some kitchen cabinets.
We worked the weekend to get it done on her schedule, and everything went perfect. We were thrilled with how they looked.
The problem? The customer didn’t realize that the paint would still show the wood grain marks on all the cabinets. She assumed the paint would make all the doors look like a factory finish flat panel. This led to a refusal to pay for the work completed.
Thankfully, after some time, she came to her senses and agreed to pay. But this could have been avoided if we had asked her what her goal was from the start of the project. We also should have explained in detail how the cabinets would look after we were done.
We learned fast that good communication is key when you are running your own business.
5) Find ways to have fun during the grind
Starting a business from scratch is the hardest part of building a business, and naturally is where most people give up. There are going to be slow months. There are going to be mistakes made. And you will no doubt work harder than you ever have to earn a weekly pay check.
But things will not always be like this. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
By spending the time and energy needed to start your business, you are already ahead of the curve, and setting up your business for success in the future.
Things will get easier over time. Your business will grow, and you’ll find yourself where you first pictured you wanted to be when you started this venture.
So have fun during “the grind”. One day you will look back at these times and be grateful that you put your blood and sweat into this thing.
I learned this from every employer I have ever worked for.
When they talk about the early days of their business, it always consists of funny stories about how crazy they were. Stories of how far they had to go to market their business on a tight budget, and how they nabbed their first big customers.
They always have a smile on their face and, even though they shake their heads sometimes thinking about “the grind”, they all had to go through it.
It’s a rite of passage. So enjoy it while it lasts. Before you know it, that grind will turn into an oiled up, finely-tuned machine. And it will be all yours.
*cough* And your wife’s, of course. *cough*