ICS Magazine

Are You a Lone Wolf?

December 10, 2002


I remember the day quite well. My operations manager came into my office, sagged into a chair, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Steve, I’m not running a business here. I’m in charge of a kindergarten!” And so it is for almost all carpet cleaners who have chosen to go the “employee route.”

Check with any large cleaning firm and they will tell you, without exception, that employees are their biggest problem. So it’s no wonder that many cleaners in the industry have chosen to go the “lone wolf” route.

After having endured the agonies of employees, it’s no wonder that many enjoy the freedom and peace of mind that going solo brings. But along with that big sigh of relief come more than a few problems. What happens when you get sick? Go on vacation? When you want to make more than just a “good living”? How about when it comes time to retire?

So can you be successful without enduring the inevitable agonies of hiring employees? Absolutely. But if you fly solo, you must make a few changes.

Don’t let anyone else define success for you
A business entrepreneur without employees is viewed as a failure by many people. Yet I know quite a few lone wolf carpet cleaners that are extremely successful, if you define success as being a happy, fulfilled individual with the freedom to do whatever he or she wants.

Have fun along the way
I find far too many solo operators have the worst of both worlds: They aren’t making the money of a big operation, and they don’t have true freedom either. Why not? These miserable folks are facing two big problems of their own making:

  • Problem: Lone wolves can’t afford to take time off.
  • Solution: Charge more. A lot more. It’s called supply and demand. I assume that, as the business owner, you are giving great, personalized customer service. But there is a very small supply of “you” as a solo operator. If your clients demand the security of having the owner working in their house they will pay more, if you ask them. People expect to pay more for the boss, but you must give them the opportunity to do so. Trust me on this one. Raise your prices a lot, and raise them now.
  • Problem: When lone wolves do, grudgingly, take time off, all they do is fret, worry and obsess about the amount of money they are losing by not being on the truck.
  • Solution: This requires an attitude change (and a healthy bank account). Recognize that freedom always exacts a price. Your freedom is not fretting about what your employees are screwing up while you are gone. Enjoy it.

    Get some backup
    Things happen. Sickness, a sprained back, a broken truckmount or a long-delayed vacation will all affect your business. And even the most loyal customers’ fingers will keep on walking through the Yellow Pages if you can’t give them the prompt service they are used to.

    Look at setting up a “strategic partnership.” You cover for other carpet cleaners when they are sick or on vacation, and they in turn do the same for you. Or, if you carefully set things up legally, you can use sub-contractors. And examine disability policies that will pay off if you can’t work. Remember, the best backup you have is working safely and efficiently. Take care of your body.

    Don’t live in a “fool’s paradise”
    You can be a success working alone. But chances are your business, without the volume and profits that come with having employees, will not sell for much over liquidation value. Many owner-operators make the mistake of thinking that just because they have always made a “really good living,” the sale of their business will fund their retirement.

    Don’t base your success on finding a “sugar daddy” with a burning desire to own a one-man carpet cleaning business. Few things are sadder than watching a carpet cleaner growing old on the wand because he can’t afford to retire

    Pay yourself first
    All business owners should have an aggressive personal savings and investing program. You should have a “savings net” of six months living expenses in easily available liquid funds. After that, set aside a percentage of your business income to fund your personal investment program before you pay anything else, including your personal salary. Few people realize that just $100 per week invested with an average return of 8 percent will give them over $255,000 in 20 years!

    This calculation ignores taxes, but still shows the incredible power of regular savings combined with compound interest. Honestly, can’t you put aside $100 each week out of your combined household income? And, more importantly, will you, starting today?

    The biggest challenge you will find as a successful lone wolf will be the unremitting pressure from friends and family to “make something of yourself” and hire employees. This well-meaning group can quickly start affecting your ego and self-image, as in, “Well, I thought I was happy. Maybe I’m not such a success after all.”

    As a successful lone wolf, you will get your ego satisfaction from things other than building and running a big business. Instead, you will focus on your family, your friends, your faith and just plain having fun out of life. The freedom to enjoy all four sure sounds like success to me.