How to Be a Better Contractor – Advice From a Denver Painter: Part 1

“Building systems in your business will help you sleep at night, avoid the no-work periods of the year, keep a consistent paycheck…”

In our industry, the barrier to entry is pretty small.  I recently wrote a blog post on my website titled, “Are All Denver Painters Idiots?”  Now, I know that may be offensive to some, but in reality that is the perception that most people hold about our profession.  To be a great Denver painter (and really any contractor) is no easy feat and to grow into something larger than just one guy, a truck and a few employees, you need to have systems.  

First, a little bit about me… 

I started my Denver painting business like many…in college.  I first worked for a company that “hired” all college students, and “taught” us to paint, sell, manage, and market all in one week.  And of course, since I was 18 years old, I was naive enough to believe that I could, and that that was plenty of training.  Working my way through college, I made good money, but I was simply flying by the seat of my pants. Through it all, my dad would tell me, “Now Nick, remember… you are going to school so you don’t have to paint the rest of your life.”  Well, 26 years later, boy have I shown him.

I did get out of painting for about four years.  After getting my degree in marketing and working for a few different companies, I realized that I was pretty unhappy working for other people. In 1999, I started my Denver painting business.  But this time it was for real.  Up until this point, I had only really known how to paint exteriors. I had done a few interior jobs, but those not go well.  So, I knew the best thing I could do was to hire someone that had interior painting experience.  From there, I just kept hiring people. Today as a Denver painter, I have a staff of 17 painters, two office staff, two sales/project managers and two logistics guys (one of which is part-time). I serve as the CMO or Chief Marketing Officer.  A lot has happened these past 17 years, but it all changed when I started to build systems for my paint contracting business.

Our road to building systems 

I believe what separates the mediocre Denver painting contractors from the truly exceptional ones is systems. Any Denver painter can have the skills it takes to paint a room… we are not talking brain surgery here.  To deliver on a promise of showing up and getting the job done day in and day out, takes systems.  If a painter only has himself to rely on, or even himself and one other guy,  the system will break down.  He will over promise, get sick, or his backup will let him down.

About five years ago, my wife and I were up in Breckenridge, CO for the weekend with friends.  One of the evenings, we were playing cards, and our friend Jaime told us she wanted to start a business building systems for small companies.  She had a background working on logistics and systems for a large company, and thought there might be a need with smaller companies.  I jumped on it, and said, “Well, you can start with me!”  I had read Michael Gerber’s book The E-Myth TWELVE times and still could not figure out how to do it myself.  We had attempted at writing down systems SO many times and even built an employee manual, but when you have to run the business, who has time to write about the business?  Well, today, I have time, but we will get to that.

The process took us about 8 months.  We would meet regularly, but the great part was Jaime writing things down from an outsider’s perspective.  She would sit with me, my painters, my office staff and even some of our customers.  She did not just want to get my ideas on how things should be done, but how things were being done in the field and its impact on the customer.  She helped me identify not only the things that were not working in my painting business, but she also helped me see things and problems that I had never known about or questioned. To this day, we still try to identify problems with our processes and document any new changes we decide to do.  At first it is a bit daunting, but once you start down this road, you’ll soon realize how valuable this is to getting control over your business.

Jaime mainly helped us document and systematize our production procedures, but we were then able to take her process and create systems for most of the other areas of my business.  Here are some of the areas most field service business owners will need to consider:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Project Management
  • Production
  • Office/Administrative Tasks
  • Hiring
  • Communication

How has this changed my business?

From a business owner perspective, it has meant everything.  My wife and I were able to take two weeks off last summer to go to Italy even though my project manager at the time had just quit.  I took three vacations this summer for a total of four weeks and we still had the biggest sales month ever. We also doubled in size this year and will have our biggest sales and production year in company history, and personally, I get to focus on what I love to do and be out of the day-to-day responsibilities.

Now I understand that not everyone aspires to build a company with 20+ staff, but it was always my goal.  In fact, it is my goal to get to a staff of 49 and we may get there within two years.  But even if you do not want to grow an organization that large, building systems in your business will help you sleep at night, avoid the no-work periods of the year, keep a consistent paycheck that comes to you, the owner, and help you provide the best possible service to your customers… because let’s face it, as humans, we get forgetful. If you don’t have systems, you rely on memory and the memory of others, which is not reliable or sustainable. As the business owner, your name is on the line too. And don’t you want your business to be the best it possibly can?

I realize that not everyone will have the opportunity to hire or bring in someone like Jaime who can help them get started, so next week, I’ll continue this article and share specific ways you can do this yourself.

Make sure to come back here next Wednesday, February 15! 
Nick

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Nick May owns Walls by Design, based out of Denver, CO. He started the business in 1999 with one employee, and grew it to be one of the largest residential interior painting businesses in Colorado. May believes in systems, team building, and marketing…not necessarily in that order. When he’s not working with his team, you can find him playing soccer or hosting his successful interior design podcast called The Chaise Lounge where he shares the stories of some of the most successful designers in the industry today.

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Last modified: February 8, 2017

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