Finding Success Against All Odds

November 8, 2005
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Find the right path to success in your business.

"The key to success isn't much good until one discovers the right lock to insert it in."
-Tehyi Hsieh

I've never been instinctively brilliant at business. You name it, and over my 20-year entrepreneurial career I very probably messed it up.

And yet, somehow, against all odds, I cashed out of my cleaning and restoration company and retired at the tender age of 38. How did I do it? More importantly, how can you find success in the cleaning industry?

Let me share with you "Steve's Top Ten List of Things He Did Right" (mercifully I won't take three issues to cover the topic). Many of these concepts I stumbled onto by accident, and some I did not recognize till many years later. I hope they will help you.

Keep your "living overhead" low. I'm not talking here about business expenses, even though keeping your business overhead down is incredibly important. The simple fact is, most Americans live higher on the hog than their salary allows. This may work if you have a stable job with great benefits and guaranteed salary increases to bail you out in the future. But high living will doom you due to the uncertain sales of your own small business, especially when just starting out. Sioux and I never (and I do mean never) used installment credit to buy consumer goods. We avoided the "instant gratification" message so popular today, and used the old-fashioned method of actually saving up for the new TV or refrigerator. When, after 16 years of marriage, we sold our business, much of our house was still furnished with garage sale finds (Shh. Don't tell anybody!).

Always be selling. It didn't matter where I was: restaurant, hardware store, neighbor's home or day care center. I would hand people my card and ask if I could give them a proposal for regular carpet care. In addition, I religiously dedicated one morning per week to calling on new commercial prospects.

Develop a commercial route. Sure, nobody likes the bad hours or the boring work (that's why, as soon as possible, you should hire employees for your night route. Some people actually enjoy this work.). But a regular contract commercial route gives your business a profitable financial base with regular cash flow that you can count on, especially if it is made up of lots of little regular accounts instead of one or two big ones (we cleaned the carpets in more than 80 bars, restaurants and other accounts every month).

Work insanely hard. This is not a business for the faint of heart or lazy of spirit. Carpet cleaning is hard, physical and at times brutal work. Add to it the mental uncertainty and emotional stress of owning your own business, and the workload can be crushing. Far too many carpet cleaners zone out and fall into the deadly trap of just "owning a job," which keeps you from being able to...

View yourself as more than "just a rug sucker." In other words, never be satisfied. Maybe Michael Gerber of E-Myth fame put it best, "Successful entrepreneurs are not distinguished by what they know. Instead, they are set apart by their burning hunger to know more." The deadly trap of the cleaning industry is our self-limiting beliefs, as in "I'm just a carpet cleaner." A fanatical desire for constant improvement, measured against your previous efforts, will propel you out of this negative quagmire.

Another big help is to associate with top quality people in our business, either through trade associations or on industry bulletin boards. (Go to for one great example of a group of professionals all supporting each other on a bulletin board.)

Never know that "it can't be done." I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a well-respected carpet cleaner at an ASCR convention way back in the late 1970s. He said, "I sure would like to buy a truckmount, but everyone knows you need at least a 100,000 population base to support one." I didn't have the heart to tell him that we had just ordered our second truckmount due to not being able to keep up with our booming business...with a total market base of 30,000 people.

Diversify financially. Almost by accident, I bought a home many years ago. Then I bought another one without selling the first one. Then I bought a warehouse, etc. Now our rental income from our paid-off properties provides Sioux and I with a comfortable retirement. You may not choose to invest in real estate. That's OK. But never keep all your eggs in the one basket that is your business. Always pay yourself first by investing a percentage of your sales - off the top - outside of the business.

Try to make a Cheerleader out of each and every customer. Our entire advertising, marketing and promotional budget for the last year I was in business was 2.8 percent of sales. It could have been zero and I'm not sure that we would have seen any fall off in sales. Why? We made Cheerleaders (customers who were so delighted they constantly promoted our company to everyone they knew) on a consistent basis through the actions and the attitudes of our employees.

Just stubbornly hang on. As I look back over the years much of my success was just because I was too stubborn (stupid?) to know I was beat. So I just plowed on and outlasted the bait-and-switch operators, the demanding, cheap customers and the unethical adjusters. These folks usually just move on, due to their own life problems, and you're still plugging away! Of course, to hang in there over the years, you must...

Get the support of your family. Being successful does entail sacrifices, some of which inevitably fall on your family. Your family may choose not to work in the business. That's OK. But you can't handle the constant emotional drain of a complaining and/or overspending spouse (on the few occasions when Sioux would grumble about the demands of the business, I would gently remind her, "Honey, wasn't it nice to go to the grocery store and not have to make sure of the balance before you wrote the check?). On the other hand, this is a two-way street.

You need to own the business, not the other way around. Yes, I know I said this was a Top Ten List. But No.11 is too important not to be included. I have to confess that, especially in my early years, I had limited success with this concept of being balanced in business. And, certainly, owning a business is much more than a 9-to-5 job. But do try and set limits on how much the business intrudes into your private family life. Focus on your life goals and how your company can help you achieve them. Far too often we compromise on our personal and family commitments due to the demands of our business. Just say no!

Treasure the time you have with your loved ones. For me, the challenge was not so much the physical time away as the constant emotional burden of waiting for the phone to ring with the next business disaster! Maybe the best philosophy is to follow the advice an old doctor once shared with me: "Live life with a vengeance." My guess is that would include not fretting about your business 24-7.

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