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Niche Markets Help Keep the Recession in Check

Doug CarltonNothing, and I mean nothing, keeps a person up at night like worry over finding the next job or project. Running a business has become more like a chess game, trying to maneuver yourself into the best position to keep the cash flow moving forward. No longer can a contractor simply wait for a builder or architect to call with the next project. These days are over for now. The residential market of new construction has slowed to a crawl and the commercial sector is playing the same game. So where does this leave you, after you've worked hard to develop decorative concrete skills and master the trade?

Let's break down two markets that continue to supply new opportunities for you to get decorative concrete work. Look over each type and see which is the best fit for your business.

Jobs for homeowners
This sector consists of projects where you deal directly with a homeowner. I personally have found this niche to be a honey hole in times like this. These projects are passed over in a growth market like the one we have experienced over the last few years, but they are valuable in today's cycle. A decorative job for a homeowner is completely different from, say, a new construction project that contains decorative concrete as part of an overall job. Many times the homeowner's improvements will be limited to your scope of work. These projects must be handled differently in order to sell, educate, and install to the owner's satisfaction. The phrase that keeps popping into my head is "front-end work" - going without it spells trouble. Success in this market type means not skipping steps when explaining the decorative process. Meeting expectations is the most difficult part of these projects. I have noticed that homeowners have become much more educated about decorative concrete as of late, but don't assume that your client understands, and educate them along every step of the process.

Why is this market still growing? Buying and selling real estate is gridlocked for a number of reasons and this has created a niche market of folks improving existing properties. My company has tracked this market closely over the last year and we work hard to squeeze every ounce of new business from it. Today's homeowner market is spending real dollars and not borrowed money. This has changed the dynamics of the game because all costs are watched closely. I would look hard at this market if I were you.

The best way to tap into this market is to connect with landscapers and remodel contractors. These companies commonly deal directly with homeowners and will pass your name along even if a home improvement project doesn't require their services. You should do the same for them. This type of networking can create a referral approach that rolls from one job to the next. One interesting fact about homeowner projects we have found is that the job often grows after the improvement starts. It is always much easier to grow an existing project than to try to sell a new one.

Public works projects
It's no secret that this sector is still pumping out new work. State and federal money is spurring these projects in an attempt to kick-start the overall economy. City parks, streetscapes and public buildings are only a few of these types of projects. Many contractors that have never bid public work have found themselves with little choice but to test this market. Unlike homeowner projects that can be negotiated directly with the end user, public works projects generally are awarded to the lowest bidder.

The benefit is that these projects can be bid one after the other if you find yourself with the time. Your phase of the project is usually well spelled out, so meeting expectations is as simple as meeting specifications. Landing one of these projects can provide weeks or months of work for your crew and give a business owner a little breathing room to find the next project.

The challenge of these projects is landing one when so many contractors are looking for work. As bad as it may sound, it sometimes comes down to who makes a mistake with the bid. Nevertheless, this market is hot right now and many decorative companies are tapping into public works projects to keep crews busy.

Closely look over specs on public works projects, and don't assume that your supplier will substitute for the one specified. Submittals are required on these jobs, and job-site samples are almost always required. Make sure you are comfortable with every detail of the project before jumping in. It usually takes months to get paid, so be sure the day-to-day cost of doing business can be covered in the meantime.

Tapping into this type of work can be as simple as joining a local or state builders exchange that tracks new public works jobs as they come up for bid. Dues are usually reasonable, and those who are computer-savvy can estimate most projects online.

The last word
This spring has found many decorative contractors fielding reseal projects to help make ends meet. This market should never be overlooked because it creates good-looking projects while putting a few dollars into the business account.

However, we are noticing an increasing number of failures on the resealed projects. You may be seeing the same problem, so look for an in-depth article on resealing decorative concrete coming soon.

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