ICS Magazine

Get on Track and Off the Truck!

July 21, 2010

The cleaning business is chock full of owner-operators. People who do the work themselves. The one truck operator. The one-man show. Does that describe you? You have probably thought of expanding, but have a lot of fears of taking that step. “Can someone else clean as good as me?” “Will anyone else treat my clients as good as I do?” “Will I be able to afford this person if I don’t have enough business coming in?”

There is nothing wrong with being on the truck if that is what you really want. If your decision is based on planning and focus rather than fear and doubt, that’s great. But my guess is that deep down you dream of owning a business rather than a job.

Many cleaners are chained to the truck forever because, when they attempted to add a second truck, they were faced with a multitude of issues they never imagined:
  • Your employee flaked out on you
  • You couldn’t get organized
  • You couldn’t keep the schedule full
  • You were dealing with headaches instead of the satisfaction of a clean carpet and a happy customer
  • Your customers wondered why you didn’t come to their home
You thought you were just taking the next, natural step in your business, but you did not realized the dynamics of the business changed, your role completely changed, and you were playing a whole new game. These mistakes threatened your reputation, and the stress was overwhelming. In the end, “it’s just easier to do it myself.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. The reason you failed is you didn’t plan your growth. I believe – from hard-won experience – that anyone can expand their business successfully if they learn a few important lessons. As my hero Zig Ziglar says, “You can have everything you want in life if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

The Required Mindset

The first thing to think about is why you want to grow. I know, it may be as simple as being too busy to handle all of the work; you have done a good job selling your services, and people like what you do, so now you are having a hard time keeping up.

This could be the worst reason to grow, and should not be the primary reason that you expand!

Your business exists for one reason and one reason only: To help you achieve your life goals. In other words, what do you really want out of life?

Most entrepreneurs go into business so that they can “work for themselves” or have more “free time.” Yet most show up to work every morning to run the business. There is no real goal. No real mission. No real life plan. Just make the business bigger. That is not the best way to think about your business.

Before expanding your business, list the reasons why you want to do it. Write down how much profit you are anticipating. Write down how many hours you will work. Do your goals require expansion? Or could you increase your price and make more money? How are your add-on sales? Bigger tickets increase profits. So, if you are just looking to make a little more money, there are other ways rather than expanding.

Realize that by getting off the truck, or adding a second truck, you become a manager. Probably the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs is learning how to lead and manage people. Unsuccessful expansion is usually the result of not being skilled at managing others.

To be successful as a two-truck operator, you will be required to learn this much-sought-after skill. The good news is that there is ample material and resources available to help you.

The Cost of Expansion

Plan your next move very carefully. Be realistic. Depending on what model you use to grow, you will spend money on vehicles, personnel, training, mistakes, and possibly office space. It is a big mistake to go into expansion mode without adequate financing.

Create a financial forecast of start up costs, a realistic operating budget, and finally a cushion for cost overruns. Expanding without following the numbers is asking for disaster. Two main areas to keep a keen eye on are advertising and labor. Be sure to carefully plan these two areas.

Will you need a facility? If you are currently working out of your home and you don’t have employees, you will suddenly be faced with the dynamic of mixing your personal life with your employees. It’s a good thing to be personal friends with your employee, but your family needs their own space. If at all possible, get into a commercial space before adding your first employee.

"Systematize" Your Business

Basically, when you expand your company you are duplicating yourself. Some or all of the functions you perform will now be done by someone else.

Before expanding, begin to document how you do things. Create procedures for each function. Write a job description for your new hires. To be phenomenally successful, learn this important discipline.

Try to create as many written procedures as possible on exactly how things are done, step by step, as possible. Write them so that anyone could follow them. Then thoroughly train your employees to follow the written procedures.

Having a documented, systematic process to operate your company will reduce employee mistakes and will save you time. They will learn faster, and you will be able to concentrate on other things.

Eventually, as you learn how to model, train, and mentor your employees, they will become good enough that you don’t have to watch their every move. This is where the reward comes in. Now you can take a day off. Now you can go on vacation. Now, you don’t have to be involved in every little detail to make your business run.

This is probably the most difficult process you will ever go through. It will be painful. But, by being diligent in this area, you will increase your chances of successful growth.

How Much Staff Will You Need?

There are several business models for a two-truck company. One model is to simply add another truck with another cleaner while staying on the original truck themselves.

In my opinion, this model has major drawbacks. If you are just trying to add revenue, and you have someone that doesn’t need any support, it may work well. But trying to manage another truck while you are working on the original is difficult at best.

There are some cases in which cleaners find the perfect guy to run that second truck. He’s almost like a second owner. This is a rare occurrence.

You also need to think about whether you plan to expand beyond the second truck. If so, this would not be a good model to build your infrastructure on. If you lose your superstar, you have an empty truck sitting in the driveway. Now you are on a search for the next hard-to-find “co-owner.”

The model I like maximizes the first truck and builds infrastructure before adding the second truck. This calls for an assistant to work on the truck with you. He becomes your protégé. He will be your next technician. He will be trained by you. He will clean the carpet just like you.

The next step is to add an office assistant to handle the paperwork and office duties. Your cleaning assistant cleans and stocks the truck, pulls the hose, pushes the wand, and does all the dirty work (even have him drive between jobs so that you can plan and organize). Your office assistant enters the job tickets, makes the bank deposit, does the filing, etc.

It is important to get the single-truck operation with two employees functioning well before moving on. This gives you an opportunity to learn how to lead employees while they are under your direct supervision. This will help prepare you for when you have unsupervised field employees. It also offers you the opportunity to get your office organized and develop systems.

Once you maximize the first truck, you have an infrastructure to serve as a foundation for adding your second truck.

Now that your cleaning assistant is trained as a lead technician, hire an assistant to work with your technician. Train this person to be a lead technician (your original technician will be helpful in modeling what you have already taught him.)

Purchase your second truck and use it as your vehicle. You will spend your time supervising the jobs, providing on-site training as well as communicating with your clients, doing spotting jobs, and supporting larger jobs with the second vehicle.

Resist the temptation to run the second vehicle full time at this point. You need to build infrastructure!

When your technician’s assistant is fully trained as a lead tech, launch your second truck with him as the technician. Next, hire an assistant for each of your technicians and immediately begin to train them as co-technicians.

The end result is that you have two trucks with two technicians. If someone calls in sick or quits, the schedule still runs. If you have to fire someone, the schedule still runs. When you get ready to expand to three trucks, you have a technician-in-waiting. Having four technicians helps on big jobs as well. Four wands can make a big difference on a large commercial job.

This will be the most challenging time of your career. The process will require lots of hard work, organization, and much trial and error. Hiring and training a net of three people (you will likely go through many more than that to net three) while continuing to run your business is no easy feat. But, if you will make the investment in building it right, you will end up with a strong two-truck company with lots of depth and capability.

Other models may be easier, but are too fragile and undependable. At any moment they can turn into disaster. With this model, you will be able to grow your company as big as you want.

The Marketing System

Getting enough business to survive is one thing. Producing a predictable amount of revenue to support five employees, your salary and a profit margin is something else. Know exactly how you will produce the income. No guessing allowed here. Develop a plan that will drive more business than you need. Duplicate and systematize what you have done in the past. Make sure you have more than enough business coming in before expanding.

If I had it all to do over again, I would operate out of excess instead of desperate need. If you do not organize your marketing system ahead of time, you will get so busy training people and putting out fires that your marketing will run out of steam. Take a serious look at what it will take to bring in the amount of revenue you need and work it into your overall plan.

This may seem overwhelming and discouraging, but can you imagine realizing all of this after buying trucks and hiring people? That’s what happened to me. Thank God for the opportunity to learn how to do it right. Now you have the opportunity to study these dynamics before shedding years of blood, sweat, and tears.

Trust me, it’s worth the trip.

The rewards of a predictable, profitable, turn-key operation are awesome. After a while you forget about the pain you went through, and you enjoy your life. So, if you are not happy cleaning cat pee out of a carpet, and have the desire to be the business owner instead of the technician, know that you can do it, and you can feel the joy of accomplishing something that many never do!