Ask Steve

Ask Steve: As an Owner-Operator, What Should I do Now to Retire in the Future?

It's much better to be reflecting on retirement questions at 37 than to start thinking about this stuff at 57

CleanerHi Steve,

I’ve been an owner/operator carpet cleaner for over 15 years now and I really enjoy what I do. I make more money than I did working as a fast food manager and have much more freedom. But now I’m starting to look down the road.

So I was wondering - should I hire someone to run my business and just leave them alone? Or do I hire someone and work with them? Or should I just call it quits eventually, retire and not risk someone ruining what I started? (My friends all tell me to hire employees and grow the business, but I’m unsure about this idea.)

I am 37 years young but even so am starting to feel some wear and tear on my body. I just want to know what to do now so that I can still enjoy life if and when I retire.

-Pondering in Portland


First, Pondering, congratulations on at least asking questions like this. Many don't and live to regret it. It's much better to be reflecting on retirement questions at 37 than to start thinking about this stuff at 57!

Now above all else remember this essential principle: Never let anyone else define your vision of success. (Including your well-meaning friends!)

It sounds to me as if you want to stay in your comfort zone that you have created without employees. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with staying small as an owner-operator if you do it right! (So let me serve as a counter-balance to your friends’ very sincere advice that “you have to get big!”)

Here are a few thoughts on how to “do it right” while enjoying the (more or less) simpler life of being a solo owner-operator in the cleaning industry:

1. Charge super high prices: If you go to a fancy hair salon and the owner himself styles your hair, you expect to pay more. If you go to the best cancer specialist in the country and he personally takes your case, you expect to pay more. So why shouldn't the homeowner expect to pay more for your specialized services if you present yourself this way?

2. Start a personal investment program (PIP) now: Take this big money that you are going to charge and don't blow it. (Literally you should be adding enough value to your services that you can and should be charging double what your competitors do. I did!) Then you should be plowing 15 to 30% of your gross sales into your PIP.

How you diversify your PIP investments is up to you. If you wish, dollar cost average into a mix of low expenses stock market index funds. (Study after study has shown that this boring approach yields better results than trying to time the market.) I am a huge believer in rental real estate if you are willing to deal with the hassles of being a landlord. (Always fund your IRA's and any other tax-deferred programs too.)

Please don’t ignore this very important need to consistently save and invest by sweeping funds off the top as they come in. Remember, if you are going to stay small, you won't be selling your business for a lot of money. And I assume you don’t want to depend on Social Security for your golden years!

3. Take care of your body: Eat and sleep right, work out and buy good (labor saving) equipment. (Many owner-operators have dramatically extended their working years by investing in a powered rotary extraction cleaning head instead of continuing to stroke that wand.)

4. Learn how to say “no” to customers: One more time let me remind you to charge high enough prices so that you don't have to work killer hours. Spend time with your family, enjoy the journey. Sounds like a good life to me!

5. Get a helper(s): I know this hiring suggestion appears to be a contradiction since we’ve been talking about staying solo. But Pondering, as your body ages a helper will make all the difference in the world. And your increased production will more than pay for the extra cost of an assistant. One option is to keep two or three part time people available to help you while they keep their regular job. This takes the financial (and emotional) burden off of you of keeping just one helper employed full time.  

For lots more tips on being successful long term as a solo owner-operator write me at for my “Are You a Lone Wolf?” special report.  Just put the words “ICS Lone Wolf” in the subject line and I’ll e-mail you a copy free!

Best wishes and let me know how I can help.

P.S. If after reflecting on your future you decide that you have the desire, ability and most importantly, the “fire in the belly,” to grow your business into a critical mass operation, then write me again and we’ll talk! (“Critical mass” is what I call a company that will run with you or without you, which of course brings the owner that elusive and oh-so-very-valuable personal freedom!)

 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! A new “Ask Steve” will debut in the ICS eNews each Thursday. Register to receive it by clicking here.  

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