There is nothing more stressful than deciding on the best path for your business. Making the right decision at the right time is very important in growing and in perfecting the decorative craft. I had to answer each of the questions below at some point in my decorative journey and I’m guessing so will you.
Why can’t I find and keep good help?
We all know the secret to good work is good help. Your team will make your life heaven or completely frustrating depending on who shows up and when. Finding good help may be easier than you think, but let’s get one thing straight — good help most likely will not be your brother, brother-in-law, nephew or cousin. These guys may be the most accessible but may not necessarily be the most qualified. The best type of decorative worker is the same person that works hard in general — he or she just hasn’t been trained in decorative concrete yet. Not one of my employees had ever worked in concrete before I hired them. Look for hard workers wherever and whenever possible. They are all around you, and the key is to find the ones that are looking for improvements in their careers. It may be money-motivated, but not always. Some people love the challenge and reward that comes with the artistic side of what we do. It never hurts to ask, so always be on the lookout for hard workers.
The next step is very important in keeping and motivating good help. Be sure to establish what is expected from your new help concerning how they represent your company. I’m not talking about showing up on time because that is a given. We are talking about things like procedure and expectations of when you leave the job for an hour or two. Discuss quality and how this always comes first. It’s your company and they work for you, your way. Establish this and hold everyone accountable from the start.
Why do my lead men end up starting their own businesses, and what do I do about it?
This is nearly impossible to completely stop, but here is how I feel about it. Your business should always be out in front of the competition regardless of who it is. If you establish a loyal and happy client base, this will make it difficult for a lead man to take clients away. Most lead men split only when they feel they have the work to sustain their new venture. It is bad enough to lose a lead man, but to lose clients as well is certainly taking a step back. My opinion is to be sure to hire honorable lead men and make them aware of how hard you have worked to build your business. It is much more likely that this type of person will stay with a company that is respectful and doesn’t mind sharing the profits.
Why can’t I make a profit in decorative concrete?
This one is easy to answer. You are either too low on pricing or not efficient. Price is easy enough to establish by finding out how much it costs you to be in business. This should include all overhead, labor, benefits and material costs. My bet is that the problem is efficiency or the lack of it. Efficiency in this case is basically a constant and consistent organization of time, crew and materials, things like making sure all materials and tools are loaded the evening before, completing a job layout prior to the workforce stepping onto the job, or dividing your crew at the right time as one project finishes and another starts.
I have noticed that most contractors are good at what they do but short on the business side. Do it or delegate it.
Please don’t fall into the price trap. Someone will always be cheaper. This type of business is not built on volume. Seek out value-driven clients that realize quality is the key to long-term improvements. For what it is worth, about 80 percent to 90 percent of my clients are self-employed and seem to realize we get what we pay for.
Why can’t I take good pictures of my work?
Taking good pictures of top-notch decorative jobs can be challenging. It can be a little unnerving to see pictures that don’t justify your work. I have hired pilots, climbed ladders, and even gotten onto the neighbor’s roof and still not have been happy with an outcome. My answer is to hire a photographer. Line up four projects and have your photographer shoot them the same day if possible. Let them know which way the house faces so they can decide on which light (morning or evening) will show the work best. Money well spent.
Why do I have problems with my sealer?
Boy, is this a tough question. With so many sealer types and manufacturers, it’s nearly impossible to say why your particular sealer gets squirrelly. My opinion is that all of them get a little sideways from time to time. The best answer may be to make sure we disclose this to our clients and let them understand that adverse reactions to the sealer are sometimes out of our control. Let them know, up front, that they are dealing with a contractor that is willing to make every effort possible to correct the issue. We highlight this part of our contract and let all parties know the value and risk of sealing concrete. The bottom line is that sealing concrete comes with some risk and you most likely have no control of this.
What is the best way to enter into the decorative business?
I get asked this quite often and it is a good question. In fact, I thought long and hard about how and when to get started — things like how to find the right training and which products to use. My advice is to transition into the type of decorative concrete that is closest to your area of expertise. If you are currently in the floor coverings business, it makes perfect sense to enter the stain and overlay business. If you have a crew and pour concrete, entering the stamping side makes sense. If it is all new to you, enter the type of decorative concrete business that requires the least manpower and startup cost. Types like outside staining or interior staining are a consideration. They also may be the most competitive. Your local market should also be a consideration and how weather plays into it.
How much should I charge?
Your market will clearly define your pricing, but if you can justify your price, you should be able to get your price. Let me ask you this — if you are using the best products and providing the best service, then why not charge the most? I personally float my pricing 100 percent according to my workload. When we are carrying 40 or 50 jobs on our waiting list, it will be highly unlikely we will discount pricing. Compare this to the off-season or holes in our schedule when we are more likely to be competitive.
When should I hire a salesperson?
Yesterday. The only question is full-time or part-time. It is impossible to be selling and running your business at the same time. You are most needed on the job or running the business, so I recommend hiring someone qualified to sell your work. You may be asking yourself how you will be able to afford this new salesperson. The fact is, this position will be self-sustaining if set up right. I recommend a salary plus commission. This person must be respectful, friendly, outgoing and willing to work. Decorative experience is not mandatory. Remember, you are hiring a salesperson, not another installer.
How do you pick the best manufacturers and products?
There are so many products to choose from that it can be difficult to know if you are picking the right one. Many will provide training (for a price). This may be a good thing, but should not be the only reason for picking a manufacturer. I will say that after years of being in the decorative trade it is very important to create a working relationship with a local distributor. This distributor should stock plenty of product in order to keep jobs flowing. Remember, clients like to add square footage, and this will be profitable as long as your supplier is close by. Don’t get caught up in cross-country distribution if at all possible. Your material savings will quickly vanish by way of shipping costs. Pick a manufacturer and become familiar with the products that fit your business. Learn them inside and out to simplify complications that are sure to arise from time to time. Confidence comes with experience.
The chosen manufacturer should be generous with samples, color charts and other sales aids. You would be surprised at how many aren’t, and this has always concerned me. Move to another supplier if charts and samples become difficult to generate.
What is the future of decorative concrete?
Let me start by saying that decorative concrete is all my company does. I believe in this industry and have complete faith it will continue to be in demand. I also know that housing in general is in a slump like never before. The best way to survive this slump is to track the types of clients calling for decorative work and put marketing efforts into this market. It will most likely be commercial or homeowner projects. Try to focus on timeless looks and steer clear of trendy styles and colors. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
Doug Carlton is president of Carlton Concrete Inc., located in Visalia, Calif. His firm has completed more than 2 million square feet of decorative concrete. He can be reached at email@example.com.