ICS Magazine

How to Grow Beyond A One-Man Show

September 14, 2009


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?

If so, you have probably thought of expanding. You may have dreamed of being off the truck. Maybe you don’t really like the physical work that much. Some dream of having a big business. They want lots of trucks (the cleaner’s term for toys), lots of employees (the naïve entrepreneur’s “yes” men), and lots of money! Wow! The Entrepreneurial Dream!

Some have “opted-out” out and decided to stay on the truck. There is nothing wrong with that – if it is done for the right reason. If it is done because it is part of your vision and goals, not because you don’t believe that you can effectively manage and grow.

Here’s the reason many have chained themselves to the truck for life.

Many cleaners who have added their second truck have struggled with a multitude of issues they never imagined in their worst nightmare. Faced with dealing with employees, organizing the office, maintaining two trucks instead of just one, keeping the schedule full, and wearing all the hats, so to speak, eventually gets the best of them. They finally throw in the towel because they don’t really understand what has happened to them.

The reason they fail is they haven’t planned their growth. They thought they were just taking the next, natural step in their business. What they didn’t realize is that the dynamics of the business changed, their role completely changed, and now everything is very different.

Before, everything was under control. Now, mistakes threaten their reputation, and the stress is overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Why have some expanded their companies successfully while others haven’t? While some are experiencing numerous problems, others are taking multiple vacations per year.

One of my favorite sayings is, “What one man can do, another can do!” I believe (and have experienced) that anyone can expand their business successfully if they learn a few important lessons.

I learned these valuable lessons through trial and error and the good ole school of hard knocks. I started my company from the trunk of my car in 1984. Over time, with some help from others, I was able to expand it to a 10-truck company producing in excess of $2.8 million in mostly residential cleaning. My company employs 33 people.

The tried and true lessons of expanding properly can be learned in advance of making the mistakes that I, and many others, have made. By understanding and applying a few simple steps, you can avoid wasting thousands of dollars and keep yourself from experiencing a multitude of heartache.

The Required Mindset

The first thing to think about is why you want to grow. It may be as simple as being too busy to handle all of the work. It may be that 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.

Maybe you want off the truck. Maybe you want a different lifestyle. Maybe you want to grow a business that’s saleable. Maybe you want to make more money than you are currently making.

Adding another service vehicle may or may not bring in more money, and it may or may not give you a better lifestyle. It depends on how much profit is associated with the extra sales. So ask yourself what you are really after.

I often say in my seminars that 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.”

Most of us 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 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 do less work?

Next, realize that by getting off the truck, or adding a second truck, you will become a manager instead of a cleaner, though you may be required to remain the cleaner as well.

Now you have two roles instead of one. 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 that much-sought-after skill. The good news is that there is ample material and resources available to help you in that area.

The Cost of Expansion

Have a realistic picture of what your expansion will cost. Plan your next move very carefully. 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, what you are doing when you expand your company is duplicating yourself. Some or all of the functions that 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, you must 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 that people have used it 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 truck 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 process and model that I like maximizes the first truck and builds infrastructure before adding the second truck.

If I had it to do all over again, I would use the following model. It calls for an assistant to work on the truck with you. This person 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 (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. Once you maximize the first truck, you now have infrastructure that serves as a foundation for adding your second truck.

It is important to get the single-truck operation with two employees functioning well first. 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 into your business.

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.

You will 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, you will 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.

This 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 lots of capability.

Other models may be easier, but are 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 the excess instead of the 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.

The information in this article may seem overwhelming and discouraging, but can you imagine realizing all of this after buying trucks and hiring people? I can. That’s what happened to me. Thank God for the opportunity to learn how to do it.

Now you have the opportunity to study these dynamics before shedding years of blood, sweat, and tears.