Five steps to starting a successful painting business: Introduction

It is said that hindsight is 20-20, that if we knew then what we know now our decisions would be better. This is generally true–experience and new information can certainly impact our decisions. And it would certainly be true if I were to start my painting business today.

Nearly 25 years in this business has taught me that there are 5 key steps to starting a successful painting company. Today I will introduce those steps, and over the next 5 days I will address each in more detail. The steps are:

  1. Planning– Know where you are going and have a road map for getting there.
  2. Systems– Develop and implement procedures in key areas of the business.
  3. Know your numbers– Understand your true cost of doing business.
  4. Estimating– Know how to estimate consistently, accurately, and profitably.
  5. Sales– Know how to sell at the price you need to be profitable.

It is certainly possible to start a painting business with following these 5 steps. Indeed, most of us who have started a painting business did so. But starting a painting business is different from starting a successful painting business. In addition, following these 5 steps will reduce stress and frustrations.

When I started my painting business I did not have the benefit of the many resources available today. The Internet did not exist for the average person. I, like many of my peers, had to learn by trial and error–an expensive, time consuming, and stressful process. So, in addition to the 5 steps, I would also advise you to take advantage of the resources that are available.

Don’t think that you need to re-invent the wheel. Learn from the mistakes, and more importantly, the successes of others. Then, when you have built a successful business, you can begin to invent a better wheel.

Defining your painting business

Contractor forums often turn to the issue of subcontracting as a way to handle labor issues. Many argue that if a sub was any good, he’d have no problem finding work on his own.

I disagree with that thinking. Keeping busy as a painter requires much, much more than being a good painter. It requires marketing, sales, and administration. I have subs who are very good painters– they aren’t good at marketing, sales, or administration.

A successful business requires a division of labor– one person can’t do it all. If he tries to, he finds himself stretched thin, stressed, and not having enough time. What often oftens is tasks are not completed, or are perfomed less than satisfactorily.

A business owner must pull together all the pieces of the puzzle– marketing, sales, administration, production, etc. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the best at any of them, but he does need to be a good manager. He needs to hire/ train/ manage others to do the various tasks within the business.

Many, many years ago I read a book– MegaTrends. One of the points of the book was that how a company defines the business it is in will have a huge impact on how it operates and its eventual success.

I could define my business in a number of ways. For example, I could say that my business is paint contracting. Or I could say that it is coatings applications. Or I could say that my business is sales and marketing. Each carries different implications. Each creates a different view of my business. Each would lead me to take different types of actions. In other words, while all are true, each is essentially a much different type of business.

The beauty is that we get to decide what kind of business we want to own. We get to choose what business we are in, and what that business will do for us.

Death by a thousand cuts

The failure of a painting business seldom occurs in one dramatic event. It typically occurs over a period of time, as a thousand small cuts bleed the business to death.

So what causes those cuts? What inflicts the same small wounds, over and over, until the business can no longer survive? I believe that the answer is partially physical, and partially mental.

Physically, the primary agent is financial. Too many contractors believe that the low price wins the job, and they spend several years going broke. They believe that even if they lose money on each job, they can somehow make it up in volume. Trust me, that doesn’t work. Not on paper and not in practice.

Cash is king in a business. Without cash you can’t adequately market, nor can you expand your business. Without cash you can’t pay yourself a proper salary. Without cash, you are broke. (Of course, to have cash you must be profitable, but profitability won’t insure that you have cash. Try waiting 90 days for payment if you don’t believe me.)

Mentally, the primary agent is—to be blunt—ignorance. I don’t mean that contractors are stupid. Ignorance means that we don’t know. I am ignorant on many subjects, such as astrophysics.

Too many contractors are ignorant of sound business principles. Some believe that high quality work will overcome their inability to read a financial statement. Some believe that what didn’t work for their father will somehow work for them (it could be reasonably argued that that is stupid, not ignorant). Some believe that they should re-invent the wheel, or else they aren’t independent.

Fundamentally, the mental is the essential cause. Our ideas ultimately determine our actions. If we hold the wrong ideas, our actions will be wrong. If don’t know, we can’t act, or we act blindly.

A little pain can be a good thing. It is a warning that something is not right. But a lot of little cuts is not a good thing. It indicates that a lot of things are not right. And in the end, a thousand cuts can be just as deadly as being Al Gored.

Simple steps to start a painting business

If I had to start my painting business all over again, I would take the following 5 steps:

1. Learn about owning a small business. There are many resources, including books, tapes, forums such as Paint Talk, and of course, Out of the Bucket.com.

2. Identify where I want to be in 1 year. For example, what kind of revenue, what kind of profit, what kind of income. And then I’d develop a plan for accomplishing this.

3. Invest in marketing– signs, business cards, web site, and fliers/ door hangers. The bulk of the money would go into fliers/ door hangers and I would hand them out myself. I would invest at least $500, and more if I could afford it.

4. Learn to sell at the right price, which implies that I know what the right price is. I would learn more about the financial side of the business.

5. Develop some simple systems for the basics of the business. Such as, how will I prep an exterior job, how will I prep an interior job, etc. I would include some admin issues as well. And I would put this in writing.

These 5 steps do not exhaust the possibilities, but after 22 years in business I am confident that the above steps would save a tremendous amount of time and money.

There are certainly multiple paths to business success. It is possible to be successful and act in complete defiance of the above suggestions. However, the above steps are proven—they do lead to success. From my perspective, anything that makes the journey easier is certainly worth investigating.

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