What kind of things can I do to help my partner with his business?
May 28, 2016 6:38 AM   Subscribe

My husband just started his own house painting plus remodeling business after several years of working at a local college managing a mostly student-lead paint crew there. He also other years working part-time in the trades. (And after basically remodeling/building our house). I want to help him grow and be successful.

I am semi-stay-at-home mom to an almost 1-year -old (I work part-time, but I won’t this summer, and may not return next year while I figure out my next long-term career steps.)

I’d really like to help him with this business, because if I think he can stay organized, he/we could be very successful.

He’s a fabulous teacher/mentor, as well. Some things he’s learning about/could grow on: business in general, bidding on jobs, juggling all this work, managing money. (he’s not bad at any of this, just learning as he goes.)

We live in Asheville, so there’s a lot of work like this going around especially with the housing market literally going crazy. But also, there’s also a lot of trades-people around…

He is very skilled, likable, and people generally trust him. He’s already being offered a lot of work, and is staying pretty busy just trying to keep up with it all after about a month in.

His biggest challenge is getting a crew together, and then of course, keeping enough work coming in to keep people busy…So he can manage rather than be doing all the “work”.

Things I’m already doing: putting the word out, some social media, lots of emotional & some logistical support, helping generally talk through jobs/timeline/keep track of some things.

I could do a lot more marketing, but also, we are trying to juggle how much work he can take on without burning out right away…

So my questions are:

1) What could I do to help him stay organized/sane/keep on top of everything - (not just “be there for him” but more concrete tasks as well?) Definitely I am thinking of learning Quick books.

2) When you are hiring trades-people, what did you like/not like? What made you hire them over someone else? What makes you give a recommendation to that person? (Example, would you go for the higher bid, if you felt like you really trusted that person?)

Thank you!
posted by Rocket26 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Bidding I think would be the best thing you can have from a secondary person, after bookkeeping. However, it might be good for the company if you acted as a helpdesk so your partner can advertise the ability to do reactive work, which is generally by the hour plus callout fee. All you need is a spare cell phone and hours of operation.
posted by parmanparman at 6:53 AM on May 28, 2016

If you haven't already, start compiling a phone directory/database of his employees or crew members, complete with notes about their availability and the quality of their work.
posted by Soliloquy at 7:06 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

A good way to recruit trades is to have a vetting process. For example, if you wanted to be able to work at schools during school hours you would need people who would pass a criminal background check. I also create toolbox talks, especially in relation to when a number of trades are mobilising to a site at the same time.
posted by parmanparman at 7:09 AM on May 28, 2016

In my experience, successful contracting businesses always have an office manager person (frequently the spouse, as in your case), who takes care of things like invoicing, accounts, tracking charges and invoices from subs, payroll, taxes, and then a whole range of compliance stuff, like tracking permits for each job, keeping vehicles DOT compliant, insurance, bonds, OSHA, etc. Sometimes the office manager does scheduling ("He can be there to look at the job at 10 on Tuesday") and sometimes the contractor handles that directly. There is a lot of negotiation and business decisions that have to happen also, like getting better pricing from suppliers, or deciding whether or not to appeal an employee's work comp claim.

So yes, you will want Quickbooks, but you will also want to have a super organized filing and tracking system for all of the paperwork, job records, and submittals like permits, inspections, etc, and to be able to track costs both over time (did you make money this month?) and per job. If your margins are too low then you can't ride out the slow periods or handle the occasional job where you lose money, but a lot of small businesses never really track that, instead just keeping enough money moving through to keep everything going.

Employees and growth are complicated, and I know three contractors who chose to shrink the size of their businesses because their margins were so much higher at the smaller size. You'll have to do the math as you go along and make sure that you are at the right size.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:12 AM on May 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

I recently hired a person who does the same work as your husband. He was not the lowest bidder, but he was the most transparent bidder. His references, the two I called, said three things about him. His work was good, he showed up when promised, and he was a nice guy. He also honored his bid. There was one window that needed its trim replaced that he had not noticed. When he asked if he should replace the trim, I offered to pay additional, but he was insistent that his bid was his word.

So, I think your husband is on the right path. As for hiring workers, I have no experience, but I would have a zero tolerance policy in terms of showing up on time, cleaning up the work site, and all the little things that a consumer or customer uses to assess their interactions with the company. The employees have to recognize that while the work speaks for itself, their behavior speaks just as loudly in terms of marketing for the business.
posted by AugustWest at 7:27 AM on May 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Everything Dip Flash said! Even if this stuff is unsexy, it helps your partner focus on what he does best without the worry of these tasks.

I think a CRM system would be invaluable in this type of business. I personally use Zoho CRM to keep track of new business leads and track their progress through a job. It also gives you a handy storage facility for all your customer details as well as contracts or other job-specific documents. When business is slow, it would give your partner a one-stop shop to follow-up on leads that didn't evolve or review previous customers for possible follow-up work.
posted by bkpiano at 7:42 AM on May 28, 2016

Learn as much as you can about the actual work, so that you can answer most questions people will have. That way he's not wasting time on phone calls rather than actually working on job sites.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:20 AM on May 28, 2016

track their progress through a job.

There is a workflow that sounds easy, but many small contractors really struggle with. Leaving out a bunch of steps, it basically goes from promptly providing a bid that meets the client's needs and provides sufficient detail to win the work, to signing a contract, to scheduling the work and dealing with things like permits and inspections, to invoicing the client promptly and correctly. Every step in that process can easily fall apart, and it is incredibly frustrating to deal with contractors who are having issues with this kind of workflow.

What you are asking about on the office side is what will control this workflow and is really key to the business succeeding. I hope your business succeeds, he sounds like a good contractor and you are asking the right questions.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:25 AM on May 28, 2016

I would contact SCORE, an organization dedicated to helping people get their small businesses off the ground. They have chapters all over, offer free mentoring, and could probably help both of you figure out how you can best support him.
posted by FencingGal at 8:39 AM on May 28, 2016

2) When you are hiring trades-people, what did you like/not like? What made you hire them over someone else? What makes you give a recommendation to that person? (Example, would you go for the higher bid, if you felt like you really trusted that person?)

We just had our roof and a couple of small remodel items done by a contractor. We liked him a lot and would hire him again but have a couple of minor "needs improvement" type items.

He was super personable, well-spoken, dressed appropriately, liked our dog, remembered that I was in school and asked me about it on subsequent visits. He came across as put-together and professional and gave us the estimate promptly with all our options laid out clearly. We'd done our research and his information matched ours. As vague as it seems, a fair bit of the decision was mostly a gut feeling about him. If we are confident about the materials and contractor and crew, feel like they are honest and trustworthy, we'd absolutely pay more - buy once and buy right, you know?

The downsides weren't huge. The guy was also new-ish and seemed to be struggling with scheduling jobs. (I figure it takes a while to get good at calculating job length and scheduling.) It took a little longer to get started and a little longer to finish than he originally said. There was a part that was on back order which isn't his fault of course but I'd have liked him to keep us apprised rather than us calling him for updates. The other thing was getting the final inspection done by the county permit person. That took a long time and it seems it was because of the aforementioned scheduling issues. We ended up calling and scheduling the inspection ourselves (telling the contractor "we'll let you know if there's a problem") and it took about 48 hours.

So I'd say get organized and stay in touch with your customers. Good luck with the new business!
posted by Beti at 8:45 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know quite how applicable this is, but what comes to mind for me: I go to a local mechanic, and the owners are a husband-wife team. He is the main mechanic, and she's the office manager/scheduler/receptionist. He does great work at great prices, but one of the things I really appreciate, as a single woman, is knowing that she's doing the business part of it, because I feel less likely to be taken advantage of, since there's a woman involved.

That's all based on stereotyping, of course, and as I've gotten to know the mechanic, I've come to feel that he'd be fair no matter what, because he's an honest trustworthy guy. But her being involved is one of the reasons I felt comfortable at first.

So if you do end up running most of the business side of things, or even just a substantial portion of it, it may be worth thinking about whether that might be a selling point in itself to emphasize in your marketing. Or maybe even accompanying him on bids? Especially if you're getting a lot of calls from women, single or not.
posted by lazuli at 8:56 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would recommend Freshbooks over Quickbooks for its agility, light CRM and light project management, expense tracking, credit card processing, accessibility, and prettier invoicing.

QuickBooks is fine, I move multi-million-dollar-revenue companies off QB onto more robust ERP software and QB will get acquired rather than ever go out of business, but I find it a pain in the ass to use.

You don't have to have much accounting savvy to use either of those products, but you can teach yourself basic accounting online (don't forget youtube) and you can probably find some good recorded talks and blogs on small business management and cash flow management.

It will never hurt to have two sets of eyes on all the project timelines, since your business thrives or fails on that stuff. You can probably start with a paper or Excel-based tracking system (or the project tracking in Freshbooks may be enough) before moving on to something more robust.

Find out what the local convention is for giving a discount for putting up a yard sign, and get at least a half dozen of those made. Put one in your own yard full-time.

I could do a lot more marketing, but also, we are trying to juggle how much work he can take on without burning out right away…

You're not supposed to say yes to every call! You should be marketing to the point that he's cherry-picking the best work that comes in. Also, every inquiry you get for a job "right now" is potentially a project that doesn't actually get underway and start billing for months - for good or for bad, so it may be that the number one way for you to help is for you to handle all the freakin' faffing around with customers who think they need a 2700sf house painted tomorrow except it turns out by tomorrow they actually mean August at the earliest.

The only work you ever really have is what's on actual signed work agreements. That requires the art of calendar management, and I have found as a billable-hours professional that if I treat The Calendar as a holy sacred document, the customers do too. The most important thing about The Calendar is that I can't put you on it until you sign the work order. I'm sorry, it's out of my hands, it's just how it works. I can't save the date, can't pencil you in, certainly not saying no to other work for you until you put your pen to paper and pay your deposit. Then, and only then, will The Calendar turn its shining face upon you.

To that end, though, one of the most important skills your business needs is boundary management. Learn to say no. Resist the temptation to shoehorn in last-minute/"emergency" work you don't have time to do just because it's too spooky to say no, because you'll end up with a low-quality customer base that's all emergencies and little jobs when you run off your good customers whose time/materials/attention/planning you gave away. And on those occasions you say yes anyway because you are 100% sure it'll generate future work, you charge extra for doing it at the last minute and you say sorry and don't take the work if they can't deal.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:50 AM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

To answer question 2, I rely heavily on word of mouth. I ask local friends for recommendations, and check them out on Yelp before contacting them for a quote. For big work, I always get 3 quotes. I do not necessarily choose the cheapest quote. Often the cheapest quote - particularly if it's significantly cheaper - makes me wonder "what are they skimping on? Are they paying their employees properly? Have they underestimated the work involved?"

I prefer tradespeople that have a website (doesn't have to be flashy, but it shows that they are a legitimate company), and that lists professional qualifications / membership of professional associations, and documents the fact that they have insurance. I prefer local tradespeople over national companies who are effectively "franchise" operations. I expect a quote in writing rather than a verbal estimate - preferably emailed later rather than provided at the time - that shows that they've thought about the work involved and have had the opportunity to look up pricing of parts and materials.

And then there are the indefinable questions - "will I feel comfortable having this person - and his/her team - in my house when I'm not here?", and "do I trust this person to treat me fairly and not try and rip me off because I don't know about this stuff?". If the person coming around to quote is polite, professional and friendly, that's a good start (it's the little things, like asking if they should take their shoes off when they come in - no, you don't need to, but thank you for asking!). And if they answer my questions using plain English rather than technical jargon, and treats me as someone who lacks knowledge rather than someone who is stupid, then I'm more likely to trust them (the "don't worry your pretty little head about it, I'm the expert" approach immediately loses my business). Oh, and the other reason I like local businesses is that the person who is giving me the quote is going to be the person doing the job, he/she is not going to send a couple of callow 18 year olds to do the work in his/her place.

I work on "the quote is the quote" approach, UNLESS there is something that comes up that couldn't have been foreseen in advance (and if I've got 3 quotes from contractors recommended by friends, and none of them have identified the problem in advance, then yeah, it's going to be extra work and that's okay).

Do ask satisfied customers if they would be willing to provide reviews on Yelp and other relevant websites. It makes a difference!

Best of luck with your new business!
posted by finding.perdita at 12:33 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

'Nthing the need for a CRM, but after having used Zoho, I'd recommend Hubspot to start. Big advantage is that it is free, and you can have unlimited custom fields. Use the email tracking so that you know when people have gotten your email.
posted by Sophont at 1:08 PM on May 29, 2016

For more than 10 years now I've been doing piecemeal renovations on an older home in an island community and it has been an educational experience (and sometimes an ordeal.)

Have you ever watched one of those nature documentaries about the eccentric, flamboyant, and sometimes even bizarre lifeforms that often develop on islands thanks to geographical isolation sheltering them from the competition that has winnowed out all but the more streamlined creatures on the competitive mainland? Well those evolutionary pressures (and their lack) apply to contracting businesses as well.

Many of the tradespeople and contractors around here may be excellent at the trade parts of their jobs but I will probably never know, as I have been able to find only a handful who understand and can meet my needs from before the job begins to the point when it is finished. My requirements are not elaborate -- I need someone who can:
  1. respond with a yes or no when asked if they want to take on a new job
  2. provide an intelligible bid/estimate so that I know how much I must expect to budget and a manifest of required materials for anything which is not going to be supplied by the contractor
  3. give some indication as to scheduling so that I know when I must have materials on hand and when and how long my house will be torn up
  4. perform the actual work required
  5. provide me with timely billing at an amount that bears some relationship to the estimate furnished in step 2.
It is simply astonishing to me how many tradespeople who are (presumably) competent at step 4 on that list utterly suck at 1, 2, 3, and 5.

Apart from those who simply don't answer phone calls (or worse, answer, indicate an enthusiastic interest in your job and then never show or contact you ever again, which is amazingly common around here..) the biggest stumbling block, by far, is bad bidding.

I've actually received a bit which was handwritten on a sheet of paper jaggedly torn from a yellow pad where the only thing on the bid was:
Replace windows and siding: $22,000
I'm sure the man who gave it to me, who had just finished replacing the windows and siding on a neighbor's house and done an acceptable-appearing job, thought that that was all that needed to be said, but as the recipient of the bid I want to know: does that figure include materials or only labor? what windows will I be getting? what siding? what about the trim around the windows? what about flashing? what if we find problems that need to be corrected during the process, how will additional billing be figured out?

As recently as a week ago I received another underspecified bid and declined to accept it, even though I really would like to get the particular projects in question finished. But the amount of the bid was much higher than I was expecting and even after I sat down, priced out all the materials I knew I would need, and estimated how long I thought the job would take, I couldn't come even close to the amount in the bid, which unfortunately had no itemization or justification to say how it was arrived at. I may well be badly underestimating the job requirements but because I can't tell how the estimate was arrived at, I can't tell whether I am really bad at estimating the amount of work required for the two small tile projects I requested or whether, as I half suspect, the person who prepared the bid basically marked up their subcontractor's bid 100% and passed it along to me. Maybe the bid genuinely reflects their costs and the amount of work to be done but I can't tell that from the bid document I received and all of my research seems to support my own estimate, so I won't be going with them.

Anyway, I could rant about this for hours (maybe weeks if you really got me going..) but my point is: as a customer there are a lot of tradespeople I would like to hire who just aren't organized enough to give me confidence that they understand the job and can get it done. I suspect that this is pretty common, especially with beginning business operators. That's where I'd advise you to focus your efforts to help.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:52 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you!! I read these aloud to my husband in the car on the way home from a weekend get away, & we both found them super helpful (and sometimes laugh out loud funny. Yes, trades people are sometimes a strange mix of brilliant and the least together people ever....)
posted by Rocket26 at 6:18 AM on May 31, 2016

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