The Grasshopper and the Ant

Aesop’s Fable:

In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”

“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”

“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food, and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Winter isn’t that far away. Will you be a grasshopper or an ant?

Growing Pains

If you are like most contractors, you dream of growing your business. You may want to get out of the bucket and turn production over to others. You may want to hire a salesman or office manager. You may want to add another crew. Regardless of your own particular goals, growth can be a painful experience if it isn’t managed properly. And the key to properly managing growth is having systems.

Growth necessarily entails delegating tasks and responsibilities to others. If we want to get consistent, desirable results, then we must have systems in place to ensure that our employees are taking the proper actions.

When I first began delegating responsibilities, I often lamented the fact that my employees didn’t do things the way I wanted. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize why—I hadn’t trained them to do things the way I wanted. I assumed that they would somehow know. That erroneous assumption led to a lot of growing pains. Systems won’t eliminate all of the pains associated with growth, but systems will minimize those pains.

With systems in place, we have a process for handling the myriad issues that accompany growth.

For example, if we add another crew, we need to sell more jobs. And to sell more jobs, we need to generate more leads. When we sell more jobs, we have more customers to keep informed. We have more paperwork to keep organized. Without systems, we could easily find ourselves dealing with an endless stream of emergencies, jumping from issue to issue in an effort to put our the latest fire.

But with systems in place, we have a process for generating leads, for selling jobs, for communicating with customers. Fewer things fall between the cracks. We can be proactive and manage the company’s growth, rather than be reactive to the crisis du jour. And that is a lot less painful.

Practicing what I preach

For many years, I have been an avid and vocal advocate for developing systems. I have, on occasion, received considerable criticism for this advocacy. I’ve been told that paint contracting has too many variables to systemize, that markets are different, that I am being simplistic, and much more. I have shrugged off these criticisms, reminding myself of a line Richard Kaller often used, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

In a certain sense, I can understand the criticisms. The concept of systemization, and everything it implies, is absolutely foreign to many people. So, when they hear me offer systems as the solution to their problems, it can come off as simplistic.

But the truth is, many contractors make the process of owning and operating a business far more complex than it needs to be. Sound business principles are sound business principles, no matter the type of business, the geographic location, or anything else. Planning, knowing your numbers, differentiating your company, learning from successful members of your industry—these principles and more are applicable to every business, including paint contracting.

I have previously mentioned my recent foray into the world of real estate investing. Two years ago, when I first seriously considered doing so, real estate was a mystery to me. I had no idea how to locate properties, how to analyze their financial potential, how to estimate repairs, how to locate and screen tenants, or any of the other aspects of rental housing. In addition, I heard about myriad options and approaches: foreclosures, short sales, hard money, conventional financing, single-family, multi-family, and much more. It seemed extremely complex and potentially overwhelming.

And so, I practiced what I preach. I found mentors. I learned the numbers. I planned. I developed systems.

In the process, two interesting things occurred. First, what was once very complex, confusing, and potentially paralyzing became understandable and manageable. Second, I received confirmation that systems truly work in any business.

Consider this: In the past month we have bought 2 properties. We placed a tenant in a third property. We closed on a cash-out mortgage on a fourth property. When I started, this would have been unimaginable. I would have thought that to do this, I would be working ungodly hours and be stressed to the max. But because I followed my own advice, I have probably invested less than 10 hours a week on these activities.

Interestingly, in educating myself about real estate, I have heard the same advice that I have been preaching for years. Experts in the field, almost without exception, suggest learning from successful investors, developing a plan, learning the numbers, and creating systems. In other words, apply sound business principles.

Admittedly, developing a plan, learning the numbers, and creating systems takes a lot of work. But that is how the complex becomes simple. That is how we identify what is important and what is trivial. That is how we learn to take consistent actions so that we achieve consistent results.

Whether you are reading this on a desktop computer, a laptop, or an I-Phone, the device you are using is extremely complex. The technology involved in writing and transmitting this post to thousands of readers was unimaginable just a few years ago. Yet, even those with few computer skills are able to use and benefit from this sophisticated technology.

You have probably never met Steven Jobs, Michael Dell, or Bill Gates. Yet, you can use their creations successfully. They do not need to micro-manage the manufacture of their products, much less visit each end user and supervise the use of those products. Their products are easy to use because they developed systems.

After 25 years as a painting contractor, I can safely say that their products are far more complicated and more variables are involved than in painting a house. If they can make those sophisticated products user-friendly, you can certainly do the same with your business.

If it sounds too good to be true…

…maybe what you consider to be good or true is skewed. Sometimes things are so good and so true that people just don’t want to accept it. They may be weighed down with skepticism or shackled by fear.

For example, what if I told you that you could buy rental real estate for $150 and generate cash flow of $120 to $150 a month? You would probably think that this sounds too good to be true. You’d be right that it’s good. You’d be wrong that it isn’t true. I’ve done it twice in the past 4 months and I’m going to do it again in March. And what if I told you I’m going to buy another property for $0 and it’s going to generate the same type of cash flow?

My point here is not about real estate. My point is about your mindset, and that applies to any business endeavor, including painting. Indeed, it applies to life.

You’ve probably heard all kinds of claims about real estate, internet marketing, selling vitamins, and countless other businesses. And if you are like me, you probably dismissed most or all of them. Certainly there are people making outrageous claims that could never be true. There are also—on occasion—people who make outrageous claims that are true. The “trick” is to identify which is which.

Outrageous success usually requires outrageous claims. For example, the Wright Brothers made an outrageous claim—they could build an airplane. Henry Ford made an outrageous claim—he would build an automobile that the masses could afford. These men, and countless others like them, made claims that were considered outrageous at one time. But their claims were true and they proved it.

So, the fact that something sounds outrageous or too good to be true is not a valid reason to reject it out of hand. And that brings me to the real point of this email.

Growth, in any form, requires pushing boundaries. It means venturing into unchartered territory, doing something new, challenging the status quo. Physically, our growth from a helpless little baby into an adult happens automatically. But our success in business and in life is not automatic. It is a consequence of the choices we make.

If you want to grow your business you must push boundaries. You must try new things—at a minimum things that are new to you. And sometimes this means embracing ideas that seem outrageous or too good to be true.

As an example, years ago the late Richard Kaller was a prodigious poster on various Internet forums, including those for painting contractors. He challenged conventional thinking and often made claims that seemed outrageous, such as claiming that painting contractors could and should sell their services for $50 an hour or more. He was regularly and routinely chastised, called a snake-oil salesman (and worse), and subjected to all forms of verbal abuse.

On the surface many of his claims were indeed outrageous. But when I looked below the surface, when I looked at the full context and the reasons for his claims, they made sense. Increasing your prices from $30 an hour to $50 an hour is preposterous if nothing else changes. However, if you consider the full context the claim makes perfect sense. If you understand that customers buy value, that to command a higher price you must offer more value, that you must communicate that value and its benefits to the customer, then you can see that $50 (or more) is not outrageous.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that every claim is valid and warrants protracted consideration. But to reject ideas out-of-hand simply because they are new and challenge our thinking can be very limiting. Sometimes what seems too good to be true just requires a new perspective.

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