Dear Mr. Marentay: I want to start a residential pressure washing business. I have no experience and very little money. What I do have is drive, desire and an excellent work ethic. I have absolutely no business experience but I have had a desire to run my own business for a while now.
1. Should I be specializing in wood restoration or do everything? (parking lots, buildings, etc.)
2. Which brand of pressure washer should I start out with?
3. What is the least expensive way to start? -Jerry C.
I made the same decision to go into this field years ago. I love to clean. I love using power tools. Those were good “foundation” reasons for me to go into this same business, but the smartest part of the decision was the potential for profit. When I owned my pressure wash business, we were averaging over $160 every hour for every man out in the field. By the time I sold my pressure wash business, it was worth a fair mount of money.
Your next two comments (no experience, no money) can be killers. No business experience means that you are going to discover something about yourself. Do you have a “head” for business? I am not talking about being smart. I am talking about understanding investment, tools, costs, overhead, profit, cash management and cash flow, marketing, advertising, and how to read financial statements. I am not trying to scare you away from business, but you probably know that most business ventures fail in the first year or two. These are some of the reasons for that high mortality rate.
Your passion (drive) is the best thing you have going for you.
Without experience, you really don’t know how to get started and what can happen. Let me share some advice with you.
You don’t know what equipment to buy at the start, partially because you don’t know exactly what you are going to clean. In the absence of information, the default decision is often to shop for something used (read “low cost” here). To your credit, you asked for advice. I will try to steer you in the right direction. When you shop for used equipment you sometimes end up buying the same equipment that caused the poor schlub you are buying it from to go under. If some machine is available used, there is often at least one underlying problem – either with the mechanics of the equipment, with the choice of equipment, or with the owner. Why would you take the advice of a guy who failed when he says that the equipment is perfect for going into the business? Here’s the skinny: if the machine was any good for making a profit with, the guy wouldn’t be selling it. He would be out making a profit with it.
Your comment about having very little money does not preclude getting the right equipment. A) You can buy used from a professional who is upgrading in size. Most guys who upgrade keep their old stuff as a backup, but it is possible to find this stuff. B) You can buy used from a dealer who has your success to shoot for. You will pay a little more, but it is often worth the difference. C) You can lease new equipment.
What I am really most concerned about is that you don’t have money to invest in marketing materials, advertising, covering your expenses while you start the business up, getting training, buying supplies, lettering your vehicle, etc. etc. etc. If you don’t start your business out in a professional direction, you will likely be stuck in a downward spiral from Day One. Think about any service you would pay someone to do for you. I don’t care if you are talking about your dentist, your barber, or your dry cleaner. Would you hire any of those people if they didn’t have the right tools, the right credentials, or the right image? Picture going to a barber who wore scruffy clothes and cut your hair on his back porch. Would you go to him? If you did, what would you expect to have to pay for his services? $30? $20? $10? Less? My guess is that your honest answer will be that you wouldn’t go to him or if you did you wouldn’t pay very much.
Now that you realize that there is truth in the saying that it takes money to make money, let’s build your barber shop.
This is the time to admit to yourself what your money situation truly is. If all you have is a couple of hundred dollars, you are the last person who can afford to throw it away on a business that doesn’t stand much of a chance for success. While it is true that some guys have ‘started out with nothing’, in reality they had experience, knowledge, and an aunt that believed in them. Don’t start out by setting boundaries like “I won’t invest more than $1000 and let’s see if I can build a business” because you will be wasting your money and ticking off the guys around you who are trying to make a legitimate living. No one really minds a new competitor, but they hate a person who isn’t serious about being a professional. They really hate Lenny The Low-Baller who prices services low to get the job and often damages the property (and the reputation of all pressure wash guys in the area).
Since you are aiming at the residential market, I want you to think about your customers and your target work for a bit. Your customer is someone who has more money than either free time or talent. That is a clear truth. It doesn’t mean he is rich, but it means that he hires folks because he would rather work or play golf and/or just can’t do the work himself. The economy today makes him reluctant to spend ANY money, and makes him want to get the most for his buck. Since you are starting out with no experience or training, you undoubtedly think this means he is searching for a low, low, low price. In fact, what he really wants is the best possible talent for the fairest price. He might not know that is what he wants, but those are the words he will use when he fires the low-baller he hired in the first place. A talented salesman (you) has to make him see that whole truth before he hires the low-baller.
Your target work (residential) generally involves house washing, driveway washing (flatwork) and possibly wood restoration (decks). Even in driveway cleaning, you need the right tools and knowledge or you can mess the job up or not make money. You can read internet bulletin boards for months and never learn that concrete can be so soft in the first year that you can wash all the cream off the top and ruin the driveway forever, for example.
So you need a mentor that you trust who has done what you are trying to do – successfully. Success in your line means that they have consistently been profitable, taking home some amount of money like $100K annually or more for several years in a row. If you aim lower, what is your definition of success? Aiming much lower than that means that you could make as much money working for someone else – and get health insurance along with your wages!
So your business plan (you are ready to make a plan, aren’t you?) needs some information to make it viable and your best source for that information is someone who has walked the talk. SBA offers mentors, PWNA offers mentors, or I could be your mentor. No matter who you select to be your mentor, check out their credentials! Don’t take advice from yahoos.
Back to your equipment questions. Don’t settle for less than 4 GPM. The guys with the largest equipment set the pricing, and if you try to ‘just get started’ with a weenie machine you will just go broke slowly.
The least expensive way to start involves a good amount of internet time, about $800 for marketing materials, and about $2000 for new equipment and supplies. For your marketing, I would buy good business cards ($100) and great door hangers ($200) and over-size post cards ($100) and a mailing list ($300). I would use magnetic signs on my truck ($100) just to get started. For equipment, I would buy a direct-drive machine, but far from the cheapest one (even on an austerity budget). The cheapest ones blow up pretty regularly. I would spend around $1000 - $1200 for the machine. I would add an X-Jet for around $130. I would buy a surface cleaner for $400. I would buy a lot of small parts for around $70 such as extra nozzles, o-rings, and the like. I would spend the rest on good detergents, safety items like a face mask, boots, etc. Last, I would buy a ramp for my truck so that I could get the machine up and down (or in and out of a van) without a hernia. I would invest in a cheap GPS.
A smarter way to start up would be with the least expensive 4 GPM belt-drive machine, which goes for around $1250. I would also upgrade the surface cleaner to one that sells for around $600. Adding this little extra amount ($300) takes you into a whole new world of quality.
You might find the same items used for less, but you are not really experienced yet at buying used equipment. I would steer clear of the Craigslist route. Often, an $800 pressure washer that sells for $400 (used, 4 years old) is not a great bargain. If the pump fails, the repair costs often exceed the $400 difference that a new one would cost (even doing the repair yourself). A cheap pressure washer that is four years old is almost used up, no matter how well it runs today.
You might consider buying used from a reputable dealer (who knows to check the orifice of the nozzles on the surface cleaner to make sure they are properly sized for the pressure washer, for example).
The other thing to think about is leasing. Even though you are a start-up, some companies will write a lease for you if your credit is decent. In that scenario, I would wrap all of your equipment and supplies into a lease where you put $500 down and make small monthly payments ($80?) for a couple of years.
You ask about “brands” of equipment. Stick with name brands (and “Honda” is NOT a brand of pressure washer). When you see something advertised as a Honda, that means it is a “no-brand’ machine. Pressure Pro, Landa, Hotsy, Black Knight, and Simpson are a few good brands. (If you want to call and ask about a specific model or brand, call me. I will advise you.) I always suggest aluminum frames (lighter, no chance of rust or hidden frame damage). Avoid any equipment with 22mm fittings. Powder-coated steel frames are heavy and prone to chips and rust. “Heavy” kills you at the end of the day. If you see a lot of rust anywhere on a machine, that means it has been exposed to a lot of bleach, which is highly corrosive. I know that belt-drive machines are intended to last 15 years, while direct-drives aim at 5 years before major pump failure. Look for non-marking hoses and hour-meters if possible. Ask for service records on used equipment, and don’t buy anything that has not had at least two oil changes every year for both the pump and the engine (different oils, BTW). I like General Pump and AR pumps. Everyone in the southeast can service a General Pump. Cat pumps are somewhat more expensive to fix. Comet, HyPro, Udor, and Giant pumps are fine. Mosmatic spinners and surface cleaners are the best. Whisper Wash is second-best. Avoid Chinese-made products for the time being.
What I haven’t spoken of here yet is money to tide you over. November is a tough time to start up – but it is a smart time to get started if you can afford to go slow. It gives you months of time to get a full web site up, list yourself on every internet business search engine and business locator (yellow pages, etc). It gives you a lot of practice time where you wash your own house and driveway (or your mom’s) over and over – literally “getting your feet wet”. It gives you time to read books about guerrilla marketing, sales techniques, and the success stories of business leaders. You will surely sell a job here and a job there, which is the start of gaining a local reputation and ‘word of mouth’ advertising.
Still, how does the rent get paid during this slow start season? Extra money to tide you over (often called ‘seed money’) is important. If you are living with your folks, this may not be a problem. If you have a couple of mouths of your own to feed, this could be a huge factor.
The natural time for customers to want your services is in the spring. Don’t worry, they will buy your services all year long after they get to know you, but for a start-up, spring will be your golden time. Until then, you may have to really tighten your belt.
If you want to talk to me, please call. 770-277-9924 I always enjoy helping someone get started right. I won’t pressure you to buy anything from me, but I expect you to see the wisdom of working with me as a supplier because of my interest in your success. I am someone who will help you understand the business and operational sides of your venture. I hope you found some interesting information here and I look forward to hearing from you.