Do you know where you are going?

I started my painting business somewhat unintentionally. At the time I was a free-lance writer, a profession that didn’t pay particularly well or consistently. One day I helped an acquaintance pressure wash a house and concluded that this could be a flexible part-time business. So I printed up some crude fliers and pounded the pavement.

For the first several years I focused almost exclusively on pressure washing. I would clean houses one or two days a week, hand out fliers for a few hours on other days, and had plenty of time for writing. My business served my ends very well–it provided a modest but steady income and allowed me ample time for writing.

Over time customers would ask me about other services, such as minor carpentry, painting, and handy man type tasks. As I expanded my services I found myself unable to keep up and began hiring. I also found myself spending more time thinking about business than writing and realized that I was enjoying the process of building a business.   I will be the first to admit I was pretty clueless about running a business. I couldn’t read an Income Statement or Balance Sheet, I didn’t know how to estimate, and I knew little about painting. But, since my ends were changing–since I now wanted to build a business more than write–I set out to learn about running a business.

This was years before the Internet, and the process was slow and laborious. I spent a lot of time picking the brain of anyone who could offer help. I read books and magazines. I came up with lots of ideas–some of them so silly that I am now embarrassed. I probably made every mistake imaginable, and perhaps a few that can’t be imagined.

Like many contractors I grew increasingly frustrated with my business. No matter how hard I worked or what I tried, things just didn’t go right. I spent lots of my time dealing with emergencies, fixing problems, and baby sitting my crews. I slowly began to realize the source of the problem–me.

My goals for the business were vague. I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it or what I wanted it to provide for me. In other words, I didn’t know what ends my business was supposed to be serving. That began to change when I read the E-Myth.

It was easy for me to say that I wanted to grow my business. For years I had established specific growth rates, written business plans, and constructed elaborate spreadsheets. But there was one question that I failed to ask: Why? Why was I doing this? Why did I want to grow my business?

The implicit answer to these questions was: To make more money. But even that was an insufficient answer. Money doesn’t buy happiness, though as David Lee Roth once said, it can buy you a boat big enough to sail right up next to it. I then asked myself another question: If I could spend my time doing anything I wanted, what would it be? If I didn’t have to work for a paycheck, what would I do? That, I realized, is the ends my business should serve.

As a business owner, you can create a business that serves your ends, whatever they are. But before you can do that you must first identify your ends. First you must identify where you are going. Only then can you figure out how to get there.

Do you have a team?

A few years ago a family member started a new job and he lamented the fact that he is on a team of one. Even though he works for a very large corporation, he was working on an assignment by himself. And that assignment involved a topic with which he had little experience.

My immediate thought was that this is no different from the typical small business owner. Most of us likely started our business as a team of one, and most of us gave ourselves an assignment with which we had little experience–operating a business. This certainly was the case in my situation.

When I started my business, I assumed that common sense and hard work would be sufficient to address the issues that would come up. While both are important, and certainly help, they simply are not sufficient. The result was a continual process of trial and error, which was often costly, stressful, and inefficient.

On occasion I would solicit input from family or friends regarding specific issues. While their advice was often very helpful, they didn’t understand enough about my industry to provide the kind of assistance I sometimes needed. So I continued to plod along, making slow but gradual progress (with occasional pauses to pull out large tufts of hair).

The Internet certainly helped change this. With the advent of chatrooms and forums, I suddenly had access to hundreds of other people who had “been there, done that.” I was no longer dependent on trial and error.

Of course, the quality of the advice offered on the Internet varies considerably. As I identified those individuals or organizations that offered sound advice, I slowly began to include them on my “team.” In addition, I was better able to communicate my vision to my employees and subcontractors. This too improved the quality of my team.

Every painting contractor should have a team, even if he is a one-man shop. Obviously a smaller business will have a smaller team, but getting quality advice and input is important no matter the size of a company. Even a one-man shop will have need for occasional advice concerning legal, accounting, marketing, or other issues. Having competent professionals available–professionals who have some understanding of your industry–can help avoid costly mistakes.

Your team can also consist of others in your industry. While a direct competitor will not be likely to share as much information, general discussions can be beneficial. If you are in a large market, there are likely many in your industry who are not direct competitors.

Running a small business can be a lonely endeavor at times. There are many ups and downs, many issues that must be addressed, and many options. Building a team can be an effective way to avoid the problems of trial and error, and build a better business.

Your painting business is a lot like golf

In an age of prima donna sports stars, one group of professional athletes stands head and shoulders above others. One group of professional athletes embody everything that is good about sports. That group is the men and women who play professional golf. (There are of course, some exceptions.)

Consider a two facts about professional golfers: they keep their own score and they call penalties on themselves. Can you imagine a football player calling a penalty on himself? Or a pitcher calling balls and strikes on his own pitches?

Golf is unique in that the players themselves apply the rules. It isn’t uncommon for a player to disqualify himself from a tournament after learning he had broken an obscure rule. Even more remarkable is that this often occurs the next day!

The essence of sports is the pursuit of a goal within a clearly defined set of rules. It is this pursuit that makes watching sports enjoyable. In most sports this pursuit involves a direct competition with others, and the competitors generally take actions to impose obstacles to fellow competitors.

Again, golf is unique in that the players do not directly compete with one another. The primary competition is against the course—an inanimate object that provides the same obstacles and challenges to each competitor. The secondary competition occurs within each player—he must control his emotions during the inevitable highs and lows that occur within a round.

Indeed, golf is largely a mental game. Players do not have to react quickly. They have time between shots to identify and consider their options.

The same is true of a painting business. We have time to plan our shots. We have options that we must consider. We must make decisions. And then we must execute those decisions. Like golf, business combines the mental and the physical. Unlike golf, business is not a game.

Change can be good

Painting contractors, like most people, do not easily embrace change. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence, most people will hold onto the known even when it is uncomfortable, rather than face the unknown associated with change. But improvement requires change–if we keep doing the same thing we are going to keep getting the same result.

Dan Miller addressed this in a post last year:

Change always presents the good news – bad news options. If you see change as threatening, you will likely see the bad news. If you believe progress always requires change, you will likely see the good news. If you can build your business in a way that embraces change, you will recognize ways to take advantage of change rather than feeling victimized by it. And it doesn’t matter if you are mowing yards, filling teeth, preaching sermons, writing books or building houses.

The fact is, progress does require change. Progress is the process of moving towards a goal, and if we are moving then something is in fact changing.

Business is a dynamic affair. Whether we like it or not, things are constantly changing. I-Pods, Facebook, and Tweeter did not exist just a few years ago. The Internet and email were fantasies when I started my business, and yet today they are a crucial component of many businesses, including painting contractors.

We have three options when it comes to change. We can completely reject it, refusing to do anything differently. The result is that the world will pass us by. We can reluctantly accept it, implementing change only when it becomes absolutely necessary. Or we can embrace it, recognizing that change can be good if it is the right type of change.

Eagerly embracing change may be scary. But if we do not change we cannot improve, we cannot grow our business, we cannot reach our goals. And that is a fact that will not change.

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