Ask Steve

Ask Steve: I’m 44 and Still the Owner-Operator – What Should I do?

Far too many cleaners sort of bumble along in-between the big company versus owner-operator route

(Editor's Note: While Steve covers how to make it as an owner-operator here, he answers this question differently in a separate Ask Steve. Click here to see what he has to say about growing into a critical mass business and click here to see how to grow into a critical mass business.)

Hi Steve, 

I know you were successful in this game. After 18 years pushing the wand, I find myself still struggling. I make a fair living but the pressure is always there and somehow it seems like every day/ week/month contains a crisis of some sort. 

I’m still alone on the truck (I hire occasional helpers for big jobs) and am finding working alone seriously cuts into time for family and other obligations and personal opportunities. I’ve tried hiring employees and expanding. But it always seemed like between marginal employees and uneven cash flow my expansion plans never have worked out well. 

So here is my big problem. At 44 years old I find my body is not “cooperating” sometimes and of course, I doubt this situation is going to improve. So if you were starting over what would you do differently? Or more accurately, if you were 44 years old and stuck in the owner-operator rut what would you do? 

Feeling a Bit Beat Up On in Omaha


Dear Feeling, 

Hey, there is nothing wrong with choosing a career as an owner-operator if you do it right! So don’t you go dissing this life! (Trust me - there were many times when I longed for the “simple life” as I went through the inevitable growing pains of building a large company!) 

The key, once again, is to “do it right” if you make the choice to stay small. Have you noticed how often I mention that word “choice?” The problem is far too many cleaners sort of bumble along in-between the big company versus owner-operator route. The key is to choose and choose wisely. 

(NOTE: For an in-depth discussion of these “staying small vs. getting big” options, please read my free special report: “Avoiding the Road In-Between.” Just write me at and put the word “In-Between” in the subject line and I’ll email you a copy - no charge!) 

Now the question is what should you do right now. If you choose to stay small as an owner-operator here are a few thoughts: 

  1. Raise your prices: You simply can’t compete on price with the economies of scale that that the big boys have. If it is just you on the truck then you need to charge premium prices. I call it “boutique cleaning” and yes, boutiques charge premium prices! So change your attitude, dump your fear and realize that customers will pay for the privilege of having the owner on each job if you charge for it! Now what will you do with all this extra money? Hmmm…
  2. Seriously look at hiring a helper:I think you will be amazed at how much easier the day is on your body when a trained assistant can do the tough stuff (cleaning stairs, running out to the truck, setting up, etc.) for you. This arrangement will also let you schmooze the customer more which will give you more referrals, which in turn means more money so you can pay for your assistant, yada, yada, yada! Now of course you mentioned the uneven cash flow challenge so let’s focus on that…
  3. Can you convert some of your residential customers over to a pre-paid maintenance plan?Develop a “Stay Beautiful” type of program where the customer pays you every month (through an automatic deduction from their checking account or credit card) for a cleaning every six months. We charged 10% per month off their normal cleaning cost and our customers loved this service. (Or of course you could also target regular commercial accounts but that is a whole different subject.)
  4. Can you “re-plow” your existing fields?You don’t mention what your current marketing efforts are. But I assume over 18 years you have worked for a lot of people. So have you been staying in regular contact with these customers? (Typically many owner-operators neglect this essential part of their marketing.) Starting now, why don’t you reach out to these folks? Maybe offer them a “loyal customer” sale such as 40% off on a carpet protector application or your pet deodorizing services. And speaking of pets…
  5. Look at carving out a niche.As a small operator you normally shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. If you are in a larger market, think about developing a niche market. One area Bill Yeadon loves is “pet deodorization.” Americans spend over $50 billion a year on Fluffy and Rover. You might as well get your share! (Market these pet services through vets and pet spas.)

Please focus on these five points if you want to be a successful (and wealthy) owner-operator. 

P.S. Or on the other hand, you may decide to “get big’ and build a business that has critical mass where is runs with you or without you. If this fits your goals, personality and capabilities, this is an excellent way to go, Feeling. But it is also a totally different type of business and deserves its very own “Ask Steve” column! So let me reflect on it and I’ll answer in next week’s “Ask Steve.”

NOTE: Steve and ICS want to consult for you! For a personal reply write Steve HERE with your questions, problems, struggles and challenges!  Your help is on the way!

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