A while back, I was at the pub listening to a guy unload his business woes. He was a drywaller and had recently gone out on his own. He seemed to know his business. (You’d be surprised how many people around here call themselves drywallers but have never heard the term Level Five). The photos of arched ceilings on his phone revealed he was capable of more than just talking a good game; he was good. But despite his obvious skill, he was in a slump.
He stepped outside for a smoke and returned a few minutes later to find a gal had taken his seat at the booth. Seated across from me, she flirted and offered to buy me a drink. I pointed to the gold band on my finger and politely said, “Sorry, but I’m spoken for.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” she said. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Drywall Guy chuckling. After a few minutes of watching her twirl her hair and sip her fruity drink, I managed to send her on her way. Drywall Guy sat down and looked at the napkin on which she’d written her name and number.
“Women like that don’t care about wedding rings,” he noted. “Makes ’em want you even more.” He steered the conversation back to work woes and I offered him four pieces of advice from my forthcoming book.
1. Get Out of Bed
“Wake early if you want another man’s life or land.” No lamb for the lazy wolf. No battle’s won in bed.
Which great thinker said it: Oscar Wilde or Friedrich Nietzsche? Trick question. It was the Norse god Odin, but that bit of profound wisdom is really just common sense. You can have a lot of fun laying in bed (I’m thinking greasy pizza and a Hogan’s Heroes marathon) but it doesn’t land you a lot of work.
Drywall Guy’s woes stemmed from making the same mistake a lot of people are prone to making when they wake up one morning and decide to go into business for themselves: they order 500 business cards from Vista-print and then wait for the phone to ring. Having trade cards is a great idea but it doesn’t net you work. Getting the cards is just the beginning—the next logical step is getting them into the hands of prospective clients.
When I first went out on my own, I was blessed to have a built-in client base in my one-horse—er, one-painter town. Sounds good, right? I was able to make ends meet, but I missed out on growth I desperately needed when my company was in its infancy.
Word-of-mouth gave me more work than I could handle, and while I felt like I hit the ground running, I was only trudging along. I was busy, but I should have been out introducing myself to contractors and attending home shows. I should have been finding work instead of letting it find me. I should have taken make-or-break chances and overextended myself, and then used the critical situation as the impetus for hiring on more painters and watching my profit margin explode.
2. Be Industrious
America has had some incredible businesspeople, but Benjamin Franklin still sets the bar for all comers. Franklin is one of my American heroes. He was a legend in his own time and I feel a certain affinity for him. He enjoyed the occasional drink. He was charismatic with women. He was exceedingly brilliant. “Doctor” Franklin’s honorary degree carried the same weight my doctorates do (i.e. not much) and he found humor in flatulence. He was the rockstar of Colonial America.
When Franklin was starting out as a printer, he was conscious of appearing industrious. Instead of sitting at home with a box of business cards waiting for a caller, he walked all through town with a wheelbarrow full of paper…that didn’t need moving. He knew appearing busy was half the recipe for success. Townsfolk noted how busy he was…or seemed to be.
Like Franklin, I believe that a large part of early success is appearing successful. I think the good doctor would tell you to keep ye olde truck loaded with ladders and travel like gas is two pence a gallon. Let the locals see you always on the move. I once had a lady flag me down during one of my rare slow periods. “I always see you on the road. I know you’re super busy, but is there a chance you could find the time to look at my house?”
“We’re right out straight, but I’ll make it a point to swing by next week,” I told her with a wink.
She was ecstatic. The truth was I barely had enough work to keep going, and my afternoon trips were usually to grab a cold drink—but by appearing so inaccessible, she felt she hit the jackpot when the “super busy” industrious painter promised to make time for her. It’s calculated deception but it’s not malicious. Think of it as playing hard to get…and hoping like heck to be got.
3. Advertise Tirelessly
Becoming a household name is a natural precursor to great success, but maintaining that universally-known status requires regular advertising. Those commercials with jingles and slogans everyone remembers? They work. I’m not sure what a structured settlement is but I know if I ever have one and need cash now, I’ll call J.G. Wentworth and say the singing Viking referred me. If I need an attorney to tell someone I mean business, I’ll call Joe Bornstein. The next time I hear Chet Atkins’ “Jam Man” I’ll undoubtedly be reminded that I should talk to Esurance about combining my home and auto insurance. And I know Mike Lindell is the guy to call for the best night’s sleep in the whole wide world.
I’m arrogant enough to want to be a household name because my business depends on it. Word of mouth keeps me busiest, but I’ve learned from my missed opportunities, so I endeavor to keep my company in the back of people’s minds. We advertise. We have an online presence. We’re members of the local Chamber of Commerce. We perform charitable work. We’re currently looking into shooting a commercial with an irritating but catchy jingle. (If you’d make a good singing Viking and will work for scale, let’s talk.) Folks out there may be tired of seeing my name…but mine will be the first they think of when they need a painter.
The same goes for manufacturers. Sure, you’re the biggest brushmaker in the country now…but like history, prospective customers are made every day. While you’re resting on your laurels, up-and-coming companies are trying to put themselves on the map by advertising and “cutting in” to your key demographic.
How will new-to-the-trade painters know you’re the best when your competitor is taking out full-page ads in every trade magazine, particulary this one? Reaching the top isn’t the time to stop for a breather, it’s the time to buckle down and bury your competition!
4. Wear a (Figurative) Wedding Band
The flip side is that the overexposure can lead to an imbalance of supply and demand, creating a lengthy waiting list…but most homeowners will be okay with that. (The same can’t be said for contractors or commercial jobs.)
As Drywall Guy observed: “A wedding band ain’t a deterrent—it’s an invitation. It adds to the allure.”It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. People naturally covet what they think they can’t have. As wearing a wedding ring to a bar is a surefire way to attract the attention of would-be short-term love interests, being seen as hard to get makes prospective clients want you even more. They understand a simple truth: there’s a reason you’re so sought after. You’re the best. You’re reliable. You’re solid. You’re professional. You’re obviously husband material…or at least painter material.
You probably like puppies and children and James Taylor and long evening walks through the paint store.
So keep that figurative gold band on. You may currently be spoken for by Mrs. Johnson, but the neighbors know you’ll be on the market again as soon as her barn is done…and I’ve never met a homeowner that minds catching the painter on the rebound.
Now, Burn Incriminating Evidence
If you think you’re the best around, make sure people know. You may be the hottest thing since Rembrandt, but tomorrow is a new day full of new trends and new painters. Brand yourself. Advertise endlessly. Self-promote shamelessly. Hire a Viking to sing your jingle.
Speaking of ads—Mrs. Gatcomb must have found that bar napkin because she’s taking out a full-page ad in the local paper with my face pasted on a certain barnyard animal’s posterior. It’s not exactly the type of advertising I shoot for, but you know the old saying: any publicity is good publicity. And being the shameless brander that I am, I’m always happy to see my name in print.
Erick Gatcomb is owner of Gatcomb Painting & Design in Hancock, ME.