Overcoming bottlenecks in your painting business

Every business owner experiences problems and frustrations (bottlenecks) in the operation of his business. A bottleneck is anything that prevents us from achieving the results we desire. It may be jobs that go over budget, shipments that are delivered late, insufficient leads, poor performance, equipment that isn’t maintained, etc. Problems and frustrations seem to go with the territory when you own a small business.

What if you could magically make your 3 biggest bottlenecks go away? What if you suddenly didn’t have to deal with the 3 biggest headaches in your business? How much better would your life, and your business, be? How much more would you enjoy running your business?

I’m not a magician, and I won’t claim that the process is easy. But I suspect it’s a lot easier than you might believe. If you dedicate yourself for 30 days, you can likely eliminate or greatly reduce your 3 biggest bottlenecks.

The key is to have a process. And that process involves several relatively simple steps:

1. Identify the bottleneck—Name the problem or frustration.

2. Identify the cause—This may require some probing. Don’t settle for the first answer that pops into your mind. The real cause may not be obvious.

3. Identify the actions that will eliminate or prevent the bottleneck—What actions will lead to the desired results? This will likely require change.

4. Write a detailed list of the steps involved—Make a step-by-step list of all of the actions involved in achieving the desired results.

5. Train and implement those steps—Train the appropriate employees in the procedure.

We can’t assume that our employees, vendors, or others will do things the way we want or desire. I used to think that they should and then I realized that I had never told them. I’m not a mind reader, so why should I expect anyone else to be? If we want other to act in a particular way, we must tell them. If we want certain results, we must train our employees.

Consistent actions lead to consistent results. If the actions that are being taken are not getting the desired results, those are not the proper actions. If you are not consistently getting the results you want, you must change the actions. Only then can you take control of your business.

We can learn a lot from a mirror

I’ve owned a paint contracting company for more than 24 years. For the first 14 years or so, stress and frustration were constant companions. I began to think that perhaps they were as much a part of the painting industry as Sherwin Williams and Purdy.

I continually wondered (and stressed out over) why my employees wouldn’t do things the same way I would. I wondered why they weren’t responsible and more motivated. I felt like a glorified baby sitter, only a baby sitter probably made more money.

Around 2000 several things occurred that changed my business, and consequently, my life.

First, I read The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. I realized that I needed systems in my business. I realized that if I wanted my employees to do things a certain way, I needed to train them. I couldn’t just assume that they would know.

Second, I joined the Certified Contractors NetWork. I learned the difference between giving estimates and selling. I learned how to sell, but in the noblest sense of the term. And in the process, I learned how to get the right price for my work.

Third, I looked in the mirror. I realized that the biggest problems in my business were staring back at me. I realized that, not only did the buck stop with me, the problems usually started with me. I micro-managed, got in the way, demanded perfection, expected others to read my mind, etc. In other words, I was being unrealistic.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. So I changed what I was doing. It only made sense that if I expected others to change, I should set a good example. I should be the first to change. The results were pretty dramatic.

It’s easy to blame others. It’s easy to say that whatever problems we face are the result of events outside of our control. It’s easy to evade responsibility.

But the fact is, we are each responsible for our decisions and the consequences of those decisions. If we don’t like the results, it is often very productive to look in the mirror before we start pointing fingers. Because if we do so, we will usually be identifying the real cause of our frustration.

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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