Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Generous Help of friends, family and employees lead to shoestring plumbing company success

Name of your company and URL?

Atlanta Plumbing Plus (atlantaplumbingplus.com)

What is the name of your company and what is your product or service?

Atlanta Plumbing Plus is not glamorous, hip, or high tech and it is not a business that is typically run by a woman. It’s a plumbing company specializing in quality residential repair, maintenance and remodel work with an unusually high level of customer service.

Why did you start your company?

The main reason I started this company was that I thought plumbing was a business that could really benefit from an improved image. People are tired of contractors showing up at their homes driving beaten up old trucks and wearing torn t-shirts and jeans. After all, if that is how they take care of themselves, how are they going to treat the customer’s homes? My plumbers are professionals who dress in crisp white shirts, drive clean, good-looking vans, make minimal disruptions to the customer’s home, and clean up the work when finished.

Before I made that decision, however, I went through some personal soul-searching. It all started when I volunteered at a call center immediately after the 9/11 attacks. My job was to take information from callers about their missing loved ones and forward that information to New York City search and rescue personnel. It was a brief and heartbreakingly futile task that caused me to re-evaluate my priorities.

I still wasn’t ready to leave the corporate world though. My employer was paying for my MBA and I wanted to finish the program. After I graduated, I didn’t really have the opportunity to use the skills I’d learned in grad school; but, the “golden handcuffs” of corporate life kept me in place. Finally, the company was going through a merger and was offering early retirement “buy-out” packages to some individuals. I made sure I was in a position to take one.

I immediately began looking at different business opportunities based on my interests and hobbies. None seemed to provide the income or the challenges I was accustomed to. So, I began looking for companies where I could really make a difference in areas like customer service and quality assurance, which are very important to me. And, I looked at companies that fit my lifestyle goal of working from home with my dogs under my desk. Looking at it this way, the product or service offered was no longer the priority.

Eventually, I found Atlanta Plumbing Plus, a small struggling company with lots of room for improvement. Understandably, it shocked friends and colleagues when I left my corporate job to run a small, struggling business in an unglamorous industry that usually requires deep pockets and traditional back-office tools. I don’t think anyone believed me when I said I was going to grow it and make it self-funding almost immediately.

Date started and how was it financed?

Atlanta Plumbing Plus was started in March 2006. I purchased it on July 28th, 2006 using my “buy-out” funds and a small inheritance my husband had recently received. Beyond that, the only investment was hard work and the help of generous and smart friends and family.

What free online or offline tools do you use?

I immediately moved the office from a rented facility into my home where my son set me up a wi-fi enabled network; Google Calendar and Maps for scheduling and dispatch; Google e-mail for communications; WordPress for building a website which he hosts; and MailChimp for e-mail marketing. The only software we purchased was Quick Books for billing.

As money came in, it was quickly invested in our image, not back office equipment. We developed a new logo; purchased new vans to replace the dilapidated ones that came with the business; bought sharp-looking uniforms for the plumbers; and, once we had the right personnel in place we invested in professional customer-service training for the plumbers to supplement my own efforts in this area. (The plumbers actually told me they could learn their new behaviors better from another man than from a woman!)

Do you use Social Media tools like Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn or ?

Twitter name AtlPlumbingPlus or @AtlPlumbingPlus.

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AtlantaPlumbingPlus

How many people are currently working, including employees (freelancers or independent contractors for specific projects)?

Initially, I was the only office employee, handling all functions except the actual plumbing, and payroll preparation which was outsourced. Soon my husband was persuaded to leave his electrical engineering position to take over scheduling, dispatch, inventory control, and fleet maintenance. Recently, a good friend became our part-time bookkeeper. All other non-plumbing help still comes from the great people who helped me get started. A dear friend who runs a QA/Customer Satisfaction consulting company and also teaches marketing at a local college provides ongoing guidance on Marketing and Customer Satisfaction. An intern from one of my friend’s classes provided the initial graphics design and photography for the website and still helps out occasionally on a freelance basis. My son, Thomas still provides tech support. He recently set me up with Facebook and Twitter accounts for the business and is teaching me to use them. Because of these good people, there are still only 6 actual employees, though I am interviewing for an additional plumber at this time.

Of course, I can’t overlook the tremendous help I got from the plumbers themselves, both the talented licensed plumbers I hired and those I interviewed but passed over. They all taught me something about the plumbing business. I can diagnose a lot of plumbing issues over the phone now and I know an awful lot about how NOT to run a plumbing company. Some of the stories the plumbers told me about common practices in other plumbing companies made my hair curl!

What is the best advice you never got? And, what almost killed your business in the start?

The one thing I wish I knew before I got in to the business was how difficult it is to find plumbers who meet our high-standards. This was a massive blind spot. I didn’t expect plumbers to be the corporate executive types I had worked with in my past life, but I wasn’t expecting them to be drug addicts and criminals either. It turns out that it is extremely hard to find good plumbers. At least 70% of the people who call themselves plumbers are not actually licensed. Of the rest, most can’t pass the drug test and background check or have bad driving records. And, the few who make it through the screening process still have to make it through my personal “Would I send this person in to my mother’s home” test.

We had to replace all existing plumbing personnel and we had a continuing high-turnover rate in the first years as I struggled to find really good people. If we hadn’t found the right guys, it would have killed our entire business model of “growth through customer service.” Finding really good, honest, clean-living plumbers and training them well on customer service has saved us though. Now most of our business is repeat or referral business, keeping advertising costs low as planned.

What is the one thing that you did right?

Making the commitment to treat the plumbers well was the best thing I could do. They get good pay and benefits, a profit-sharing bonuses, and regular hours instead of the crazy burn-out hours typical in the industry. I love to say, “I treat them like princes because I kissed a lot of frogs before I found them.” By treating them well, I make sure they want to keep their jobs and will therefore follow the customer service rules we have established. Go to www.atlantaplumbingplus.com to read more about our customer service rules, Customer Bill of Rights, and 100% Satisfaction Guarantee.

What was the biggest transition you had to make (i.e. new skill set, habits, abilities, focus)?

The hardest thing for me is making the effort to get out and network to build the company. I know I should do it, but I’m pretty much set in my reclusive ways and the whole “meet and greet in 30 seconds or less” networking environment just exhausts me. At the same time, I’m too much of a control freak to assign the task to anyone else. I’m really working on this.

The second hardest thing for me was settling in to a routine once all the kinks were worked out. I’d always been involved in the manic activity of start-ups. I have to remind myself that we still haven’t reached all of our original goals and there is still plenty more work to do beyond the day-to-day routine.

Are you currently in the black or red?

We were profitable the first year and have remained so. We grew 25% a year the two years before the recession hit. Then, we cut back on plumbers as revenue dropped 17%. Thanks to our low overhead, pay-as-you-go philosophy, we still fared better than many bigger, older companies in our market that closed their doors.

What do you think your projected annual revenue will be and how long do you think it will take you to get to your projected annual revenue?

The original goal was $1 million in revenue per year. Anymore than that and the company would out grow our low overhead business model which allows us to keep our prices low and our standards high. With too many employees and will not be the tightly-knit, closely-run, quality-focused company that I want it to continue to be. We got stuck at $750K when the economy tanked. This was still enough to make a living for our plumbers and ourselves, so it wasn’t the end of the world.

We could grow faster with a bigger investment on our part, but the goal is still to be completely self-funding and profitable, so there isn’t really much more money to invest at this time. Luckily, the economy is improving and we are back on track to meet our original goal within 12 – 18 months, which means more dollars will be available for further improvements and an increased advertising budget, as well as more training for the plumbers on my new passion: Green plumbing and solar hot water.

What would make your business more “Successful”?

I need to develop a stronger focus on Marketing and Sales or hire someone to do that for me. This requires two things: for me to let go of control a little; and, a willingness to take money that is currently going to us and our plumbers and invest that money in the the marketing program.

Would you want to be acquired by a bigger company, run it yourself or sell in a couple of years?

I never want to retire, I love the business of being in business; but, my husband does want to retire eventually, so there has to be a compromise. I’m grooming one of our Master Plumbers so that he can take over my husband’s responsibilities in a couple of years. After that, I will need to train someone to help me out in the office more so that I can be more available to do things with my husband from time to time once he retires.

Both of my sons work in the IT world. Neither of them wants to run a plumbing company; but, they have said they will oversee it on part time basis if I get a good management structure set up for day-to-day activities. I’m not sure how that would work, so the jury is still out on the long-term plans for the company; but for the foreseeable future, I plan to run it, and grow it, and provide a unique experience for customers who have grown tired of the typical plumbing company and want to work with a company that does the job right and treats them well.

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