I guess the first thing I should do is preclude this post with an explaination. I'm sure the blood pressure of many has risen just reading the title of this thread. This is not about big versus small. It about generating profit.
Doing high quality work is a given. I don't think anyone here will stand up and publicly declare that they do substandard painting. There may be plenty of guys that don't know how to paint but they don't (or shouldn't) own businesses. If a company is asking someone to trade their dollars for a paint job, their work has to be above and beyond what the average novice can perform. So again I say that craftsmanship should be a constant for everyone here. Please consider this though, being the best painter will not neccessarily make you a successful business owner.
I am not trying to preach to anyone, declare your business a failure or compare your goals to mine. I want to parlay that people will pay good money for a positive experience. It is this experience that makes a company successful and able to achieve longevity or growth.
Why Do You Own a Business?
There are many reasons a person will venture out on their own and hang a shingle that says "Painting". They tire of working for a disorganized company. They tire of making someone else rich. Maybe they even want to offer a level of quality that doesn't exist in their market. The bottom line of all of those is.. that person wants to generate more money than he can working for someone else.
Where The Plan Goes South
It's very easy to get single minded and let your ego blind you to your goals. If, "I'm going to offer the highest quality work" was your mantra and you stayed true to that goal, you have realized that quality work is expensive (for the business owner). You need to use high price paints, your prep takes a long time, you have to hire high end employees, the list goes on. If you haven't priced your service as the highest in the market, you have been taking it on the chin. You are probably slaving day in and day out doing estimates at night and strapping on your boots in the morning. Is this what you envisioned when you opened shop? Have your personal finances increased every year since you started this thing or are you in the same place you were five years ago?
But.. My customers get quality work and that's what counts the most.
Okay so.. your paint jobs rock. You do not need to advertise because you are in demand. People line up to get "quality at an affordable price." I don't know who to call but you are a candidate for a Nobel prize for altruism. You bust hump, give people awesome quality, charge a fair price and they love you for it. Meanwhile you pray your truck doesn't break down because your daughter needed braces and your central air just kicked the bucket. You can't afford to put your guys in uniform.. wait there are no guys, you cannot afford to hire someone that paints to your standards.
Are you trapped? Is "enslaved" even more accurate a word? What if you get hurt tommorrow? Will the business operate without you? Even if it stays afloat, are you building wealth? Hourly employees live paycheck to paycheck. Wasn't owning a business your ticket to get away from that stressful lifestyle?
So if not quality, what is it that makes one successful?
John is a decent painter. Most homeowners would call his work "good"
Alan is a craftsman. The cream of the crop when it comes to quality. John couldn't hold Alan's strap when it comes to cutting lines or turning a wall into a canvas.
Alan drives an 8 year old van with a magnet, works by himself and makes $38K a year. He has tried raising his prices but his customers complained. His referral network fell apart when he went up. He cannot close new work at the higher rate because his image does not parlay that he is a successful painter. Alan realized his workload was falling off so he panicked and went back to his old rates. Alan comes on the internet at night and types.. "marketing doesn't work. Selling doesn't work. People in my area won't pay that much for a paint job." Alan can look at photos that other guy's post and immediately see the flaws. Alan is a damn good painter. Alan's wife wishes he would go back to making union wages working for someone else.
John offers a good paint job. His customers are very satisfied with his work. John realized early on he wasn't the best painter in the world so he sought to make customers confident in hiring him. He has professionally designed business cards, brochures, and uses various advertising medium. When someone calls for an estimate, John is on the phone with them within the hour. He schedules appointments, he shows up on time. He speaks well and he knows the painting business. He instills confidence in the homeowner. John carries all the insurance, wears the logo'd gear and has brochures and color charts for the customer to view. John is not so busy that he cannot spend some time with a customer making sure they feel comforable before signing a contract. John isn't knee deep in mud doing texture every day so he can answer his cell phone and talk to a customer that has concerns. John's customers absolutely love the experience in dealing with his company. They feel that their needs are always first. The job is done cleanly, efficiently and in the customer's eyes, is flawless. They know why they paid John twice what that guy Alan wanted to charge them.
Alan thinks John's business is a scam.. smoke and mirrors. Alan's ego makes him believe this his superior quality is all the customer wants or needs. John just put his sixth truck on the road and hired an operations manager. That burns Alan's hide that John is able to con people into using his service.. after all, Alan is the superior painter.
There are many criteria that customers look for in a buying experience. Contrary to what you may have convinced yourself, quality is only one part of the equation and not neccessarily the most important. Ask yourself this. Does Starbucks have the greatest coffee in the world? It has to be right? They open new stores every single day and are the largest retailer of coffee in the world. I can't imagine how they do this since I find the $1.50 large coffee at Dunkin Donuts far superior in smoothness and taste. Starbucks provides a good customer experience.
Look directly into that mirror
Whenever you get the temptation to sit back and post "I don't need to advertise, my work is all referral" put yourself into check and look at what you are doing. Is it your ego that is successful or is it truly your business? Business is measured by profit. I don't want to create a wrong message. Success doesn't mean a hundred crews on the road because that comes with headaches that many don't want, no matter what the profit.
A one man show can be plenty profitable for some and have the right balance of working and having a life. If you are booked for the next four months without doing any type of advertising I am going to venture that you are underpricing your service. Actually, its not a guess, its a certainty. Try raising your prices. As little as a ten percent raise can put an extra ten thousand dollars in your pocket this year. Are you going to lose some bids? Of course, but who cares? So now you will be booked 45 days in advance instead of 120. Maybe you will finish working by two o'clock every day instead of by 5 or 6. A strange things also happens. You find yourself working less and making more money. Is that all that bad? If your work quality is all that you think it is, you'll still get the referrals and be making enough on your jobs to hire that union guy or other craftsmen like yourself to start taking away your burden.
You can only be your company for so long. Its always juggling swords of fire. Eventually, something happens and you can be left burned. Now is a good time to preclude making that mistake.