Are You Truly "Over The Hump"?

November 19, 2007
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Ah yes, success, that elusive concept. Just like that tantalizing carrot dangling on a string in front of the balky donkey, it is always there…but just out of reach. Even more frustrating, if and when you do grab it – poof! The “carrot of success” – or at least your definition of it – has changed into something totally different!

Think about it. When I started out in this industry almost 40 years ago (has it really been that long?) I just wanted to make my car payment. Then, in 1976 when Sioux and I married and moved to Colorado, we wanted to make the car payment, work part time and ski full time! (Actually this scenario still appeals to me!) Children came, the business grew, the headache called “employees” entered my life and of course that hard-to-pin-down idea of “success” just kept evolving and morphing into yet another elusive goal, so tantalizingly close and yet so far away!

So how about you? If you are a long-time ICS reader, chances are you are not a “newbie.” In fact, if you have been an owner-operator for even a few years, my guess is you are making more money than you ever thought you would, and relishing your entrepreneurial freedom. In other words, you hopefully are “Over The Hump.”

But in today’s business climate, just surviving isn’t enough, and what may pass as success today will often bring problems down the road. Remember that, to the casual eye, the OTH cleaner already owns a thriving company. He or she is making good money, the phone rings more or less consistently and this apparently successful carpet cleaner has all the toys (boat, SUV, new home, jet ski, sport car, golf clubs, motorcycle, etc.). Does this scenario describe your life? Sounds great, doesn’t it? But before the twin evils of complacency and arrogance set in, you need to examine how you are doing with these OTH Success Strategies:

OTH Step No. 1: Go left or right, but don’t just stand there!
Make a conscious, informed and deliberate decision to either stay small - owner/operator doing high-end, high-profit work – or get big – a large multi-truck operation with full-time professional management. You can be extremely successful with either of these strategies. The problem is, most carpet cleaners wind up somewhere in between. Their company grows too large to comfortably run it by the seat of their pants but never achieves the critical mass needed to function without the owner’s constant presence. The result? A marginal operation, staffed by short-term, demoralized employees that just limps along year after year! And speaking of employees…

OTH Step No. 2: Set your sights higher when hiring
Assuming you opt for the “getting big” scenario, nothing will be more important than finding quality employees to help you grow your company. With the right person, business is a joy; hire the wrong individual and your company will become hell on earth. The trap here is typical: OTH carpet cleaners suffer from both lack of cash flow and lack of self-esteem. So they hire warm bodies who will never aspire to do more than push a scrub wand (or buy their next 12-pack).

Instead, even if you are interviewing for a carpet-cleaning technician, hire for the “ghost position.” Ask yourself, “Is this individual capable of running a truck on his own? Does he or she have the potential to manage other employees?” Sure, you will still occasionally make bad hiring decisions, even after aiming higher. But hire low on the totem pole and you will condemn your company to a revolving door parade of slimy, low-life creeps. Of course, to hire better employees you must first attract them. To do this you must …

OTH Step No. 3: Pay more
Maybe L.L. Bean of Maine mail-order fame said it best: “I always felt that if I paid my people twenty percent more than they could make anywhere else, I would have forty percent better employees.” Remember, you are competing for employees in a supply-and-demand marketplace: quality people are in short supply and high demand. Therefore, a smart employee (I assume you don’t want a stupid dummy working for you) will expect premium wages to start and, more importantly, to stay working for you. Your goal is to make the position a very desirable one financially and emotionally, as you are going to …

OTH Step No. 4: Introduce individual accountability
Why shouldn’t each one of your employees be held accountable for their actions? After all, you are accountable to your banker, to the IRS and to your spouse! I’m not talking a “reign of terror” here. But you should insist on dependability and maturity from each and every employee. Inevitably, you will need to weed out nonperforming individuals that refuse to follow your code of conduct. Most carpet cleaners won’t fire their marginal workers because they are held hostage by them. How? Because they dread having to hire new and possibly even worse employees! Fight this paralyzing employee fear by…

OTH Step No. 5: Always be hiring
Nothing is more liberating for you as a manager of people than knowing you have two, three or more quality applicants vying for every staff position in your company (it is also very motivating to your employees when you subtly make them aware of applicant’s interest in their job. Employees who are just a little bit nervous will always perform at their peak!). So constantly encourage applicants: you never know when you may need to fill a position quickly, and you always want to hire the best.

OTH Step No. 6: Make it easier to do it right than to do it wrong
This central precept of the Strategies for Success seminar is based on the recognition that you will be hiring more and more employees with limited capacity. [Note: I am not advocating here hiring marginal, low-life pond scum as technicians. But there are many good, solid, moral individuals out there who will make excellent employees but have limited learning abilities.] Make your business procedures around the capacity of these folks and they will reward you with loyalty and dedicated long-term service.

OTH Step No. 7: Every number tells a story
Listen to what your books tell you. Running solo, the stakes are much lower and you can get away with “running things out of your hip pocket.” But an OTH operation has greater overhead, and financial miscalculations carry much greater consequences. So don’t just glance once a month at the final number on your profit-and-loss sheet, shrug your shoulders and mutter, “I wonder where it all went?” Your financial reports will tell you exactly where it went, but you need to make the time to dig!

OTH Step No. 8: Get a handle on your marketing costs
It is easier to waste money on advertising than any other area of your business. Purchase the wrong equipment and at least you still have something! But make a bad buying decision on advertising and you have completely wasted your money. Even worse, you will have burned up a far more valuable resource, the time invested in this futile effort to attract customers. What amazes me is how long carpet cleaners will stay with a marketing medium that doesn’t work. Why? Because they do not test the ad before going full bore with it, and then they do not track the response after the first full-scale rollout. Don’t let this “apathy and inertia management” happen to you.

OTH Step No. 9: Don’t wait too long to move your business out of your home
Working out of your house is a huge benefit – in the beginning. But part of your initial decision on big vs. small is to recognize that you should not “get big” from your home. Especially when you have multiple employees, your business will get more respect from your employees, your customers and even from your family with a dedicated location.

OTH Step No. 10: When you delegate responsibility, you must also give the needed authority
Remember that the very obsessive, compulsive and controlling personality traits that spell success in a start-up venture may stunt your company’s growth once you become an OTH manager. Allowing your employees to flourish under a protective ceiling of authority with clearly defined, written expectations is incredibly motivating for them. Even better, you can bask in the enjoyment of watching your employees grow into mature, fulfilled individuals while at the same time they are making you wealthy. Now I call that an OTH business!

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