Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I want to start a pressure washing business...

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.


Take my part-time pressure wash business to a full-time operation

Hey, Pete: I lost my job recently and the only chance I have is to take my part-time residential pressure wash business to a full time operation. The weather is turning and I just can’t make the phone ring. Any ideas that might help? – Steve J.

Steve, you are really up against the odds here. My first thought for a guy with your kind of budget restraints is networking. Meet as many people as possible and tell them who you are and what you do. Here are some off the cuff ideas:

• Advertise in community newsletters ($30 - $50 each)

• Make sure you are listed WITH ANY CREDENTIALS you have on EVERY business locater web site. It means, local yellow pages, yelp, kudzu, etc. That also means Facebook and Twitter, too.
• Join BMI and CC
• Find out who acts as Welcome Wagon for new home owners in the best subdivisions. Do work for that person (for free?) so he or she can see your quality. Get that person to include your “welcome” gift in the package
• Speak to a Homeowners Association meeting/ Garden Club/ Home Improvement Committee. Hand out calendars or pens or business cards. DO NOT buy cheap business cards!
• Write “How To” articles for the same newsletters you advertise in. If you are a lousy writer, get your mother or sister to clean up what you write. Try to be seen as the expert.
• Every job you do, you have to sell to the twelve houses around that customer. (3 on the right, 3 on the left, six across the street) Put something in the mailbox saying “I just did a great job on the driveway at XXX, and I would like to do a great job on yours too”. That will work!
• Is your truck lettered, or do you just use a magnetic sign – or worse, no sign? Image is everything, so at least buy some logo golf shirts to wear to do an estimate.
• Do your estimates with the customer present and ask for the work on the spot. Never just leave an estimate in the mailbox or tucked in the screen
• This is not the best advice to give, but you need to think “outside the box” as they say. Stand in the pressure wash area of a home improvement warehouse store and offer advice with your logo shirt on from about 5-7 in the evening Wednesday through Friday. Shoppers are just off work and thinking about buying stuff for their weekend projects. These stores have way too few employees and customers are always looking for free advice. You might get the chance to give one a price.
• Hand out business cards for gutter cleaning outside one of those same home improvement stores on Saturday morning. It is a job no homeowner wants to do. (The store will boot you out once they discover you are there, but not before you get 50 handed out to potential customers. Don’t stand right in the doorway where you can be seen.)
• Order the marketing manual for more ideas.

No guarantee that any of these things will work for you. The important thing is to try everything possible. The worst thing that will happen is that you will sharpen your people skills pretty quickly doing this stuff.

Your first challenge is to get some jobs. After that, we need to go to work on making you fast and good at doing those jobs. From that point, success will come.

Joining any association will eventually lead to contact with other contractors who will share good information. Not all information you get will be of equal value, however, so you have to be selective. The guy who readily shares his “secrets” with you could really be on the verge of going under, and you would not know it. You should limit your sources to folks you know (or can easily see) have reached sales in the millions (or at least hundreds of thousands) and model your behavior and thinking to be like them. Politely ignore the guy who is doing $60K a year in sales.

The internet can be a source for information, too, but be warned that it is full of misinformation at the same time. It seems like everybody has something to sell to guys in your shoes. There is no magic potion you can buy for $1000 that will fix your situation. On the other hand, thinking more like successful business owners will almost always solve your problems in time.

Again, be selective. The most successful people you have ever heard of aren’t openly sharing their formulas. You will never see Warren Buffet popping up on web sites bragging about what he knows and what stock he is buying next. That man is too busy making money to waste his time like that. People on the internet sometimes claim credentials and results that are completely fabricated. I know guys who modestly and quietly do millions of dollars in profitable sales, and I also know a guy who loudly claims to be a marketing guru and cannot afford gas for his truck.

As far as joining organizations, they are excellent networking opportunities. You should attend their functions (i.e. Columbus PWNA Convention last month). Joining will get you listed on the associations’ “Find A Contractor” pages, but I cannot honestly say that will get you enough work anytime soon that would justify spending $300 or $400 today. Instead, I would rather see you spend that amount on marketing your services and improving your image and/or professional level at this stage of the game. Join next spring when you can breathe a little easier.

There have been a number of industry Round Table events over this last year, including one at our shop in Georgia. It was a two-day meet, with equipment demonstrations, speakers, new products, etc. It was FREE, which fits your budget to a “T”. If you read my newsletter you will always know when events like this are happening. We are planning to put on a Round Table again next April in Georgia.

You may or may not be doing any reading these days, particularly with the stress of making your business work. If not, though, I think you have to change your habits right now. Reading will make all the difference in your success. We will start easy with a couple of key concepts for you.

Here is your first ‘homework assignment: Check out a book on Guerrilla Marketing by Levinson at the library. Once you have read one or more (it is a whole series) then read these articles as supplemental inspiration. The idea is to change how you think, so that you become an automatic “marketing machine” even though your budget is limited.

While you are at it, check out the book “e-Myth Revisited” at the library. It is a fast read, but go slow anyway. It teaches experienced business owners not to bake the pies (you will understand after you read) but it teaches new business owners to start on Day One with systems. Required reading for EVERY business owner because it changes how you think about setting up and running your business.

The next step will be books on sales techniques. You need this information, but you shouldn’t go there until you have these other things (systems and marketing) planted firmly in your thought processes.

My philosophy is that you have to think and act like the owner of a successful business in order to achieve that goal. From the very first day, behave the same as you would behave if you were the President of Ford or Apple. Read the thoughts of industry leaders in order to think like they think, and your business will feel the difference immediately.

Sorry for rambling here, as I am taking calls in between sentences and new thoughts just kind of pop in all the time.

You can do this, my friend, and you haven’t spent a nickel so far learning how. Just do what I am suggesting and we will grow your business together.

Good luck with all of this! Thank you for being a customer of Sun Brite Supply, too.


Pressure Wash Productivity Estimates

Pete, can you tell me what kind of productivity I should expect when cleaning sidewalks with just my pressure washer and a wand? I am just getting started and need a little advice. - Nick T.

Nick, this is the kind of question that I love to dive deep in to.

First, there are a lot of variables to consider, such as the amount of soil and the type of soil, the GPM of the machine, which nozzle you are using, the PSI of the machine, etc. It makes a difference if the operator is an employee or a business owner, as you also might guess. The edge of the sidewalk makes a difference too (such as whether or not soil will be washed up onto the concrete when cleaning near the edge).

I will give you my opinion of production rates with an 11 – 13 HP pressure washer used by an employee, since that is the largest size where someone might be tempted to use a wand instead of a surface cleaner. Please keep in mind that these numbers are “guess-timates” based on the productivity I observed with my own crews. Keep in mind that sidewalk cleaning takes a little more time that most flatwork (even most driveways) in part because you are moving your equipment a lot.

• Cleaning with wand alone, cold water: 600 (500-700 sq ft per hour) - You tend to do a lot of “re-washing”…
• Cleaning with wand alone, hot water: 700 (600-800 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with wand and concrete cleaner, cold water: 750 (650-850 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with wand and concrete cleaner, hot water: 850 (750-950 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with surface cleaner alone, cold water: 800 (700-900 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with surface cleaner alone, hot water: 1000 (900-1100 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with surface cleaner and concrete cleaner, cold water: 1000 (900-1100 sq ft per hour)
• Cleaning with surface cleaner and concrete cleaner, hot water: 1150 (1000-1300 sq ft per hour)

Obviously a larger GPM would produce faster speeds.

The difference that hot water, concrete cleaner, and a surface cleaner make can be huge. Each one alone affects the speed by around 30% in most manufacturers’ estimates. The overall increase in productivity can be pretty dramatic.

I have often been quoted saying that the guy with the biggest equipment sets the price. The guy who can clean 1200 square feet of sidewalk (4’ x 300’) in an hour with his equipment and wants to make $120 per hour and sets the price at 10 cents per sq ft. The guy using cold water, no soap, and just using a wand takes 2 hours to get the job done, so he earns $60 per hour. The $60 difference in earnings per hour is how the second guy would pay for upgrading his entire process over time to match the first guy’s stuff.

Adding hot water increases your speed by 17% to 25% in the numbers above. Your earnings would go up from $60 per hour to an average of $72.50 per hour. If adding a hot box were to cost you $2000, the extra $12.50 per hour that you would be earning would pay for that hot box in about 160 hours – probably a couple of months.

Adding a cleaner might cost $73 plus freight for enough cleaner to do 12000 sq ft of sidewalk (our Concrete Cleaner). Roughly, that breaks down to well under a penny per sq ft to use. You spend less than $10 for cleaner on this 1200 sq ft job (including the cost of freight) and you save 24 minutes overall. Your earnings therefore jump from $60 to $75 per hour. In other words, using $10 worth of cleaner made you an extra $15 per hour or about $24 on this job. The entire jug of soap would take 4 jobs to pay for itself, leaving you 6 jobs where you make extra profit with what is left in the jug.

The right soap is a good investment that pays you back from the very first time you use it. Using soap speeds you up by adding “lift” to the soil, causing it to flow away with the wash water and minimizing the need to rinse. Guys who don’t use soap often have to go back to rinse the area after they wash it, as the soil tends to settle right back down on the surface rather than flow away.

Finally, adding a surface cleaner increases your productivity in the numbers I have used above by between 25% and 50%. Using a 30% average improvement, your average productivity could climb from $60 to almost $86 per hour. Spending $700 on a surface cleaner alone could pay you back in as little as 27 hours of flatwork – as little as a week or two.

Going on these numbers, assuming I owned a cold water machine like the one I described here, my first investment would be adding cleaners. Their payback is immediate. The second improvement I would make is a surface cleaner, as that pays for itself in a couple of weeks. The third investment I would make is to add hot water. Little by little, I would be working towards getting my earnings up to a level over $100 per hour.

All the while I would be recording my productivity in earnings-per-hour in my daily business diary.

It is calculations like this that should guide anyone when purchasing equipment. You should never buy something unless you understand how quick the payback is. My theory is that any tool that pays for itself within 6-12 months is a good investment, and tools that pay for themselves in less than two months are an absolute MUST for any contractor who wants to compete and survive.

I love putting the numbers down on paper for a customer trying to make a solid decision about investing in equipment. I hope this helps you.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Man-Lift Training

Sunbelt Rentals will bring a Boom Truck and a Scissor lift to Sun Brite Supply (Lawrenceville, GA) at 8 AM Friday, March 19 as a part of our power wash Roundtable. Some Contractors will be able to operate the equipment. All who attend will be able to earn a Certificate of Participation from Sunbelt. You can't rent this equipment unless you have been checked out on it by Sunbelt, so this is a great opportunity to get the experience and recognition from the professionals. It will never be easier than this! See you there!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Free pressure wash training

Free class - $199 Value - to introduce new contractors to the field of pressure washing/exterior cleaning. Full day class in Lawrenceville GA, starting at 10 AM on March 20th. We cover a full range of topics including establishing the business, buying equipment, the chemistry of cleaning, cleaning with the environment in mind, house washing, and deck cleaning.

The class is free to attend because Sun Brite Supply is sponsoring it. Check out the details here

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lots Of Upcoming Pressure Wash Events!

Well, I have tons of news to tell you about. First of all, we are going to have a Grand Opening celebration for our new store in Lawrenceville on March 19 & 20. We’re proud of our new digs and would love to have you all come and see them.

We have incorporated a Roundtable theme to this event, and have some great speakers lined up. Our focus for these speakers is Building Sales, and I think every contractor will get something solid to help him grow his company.

We will feed you and we have a lot of outdoor demos and some incredible sale prices to offer. These deals will be the best prices of the year, so if you are in the market for anything bring your Visa card. If the speakers and the sale prices and the warmer weather aren’t enough to get you to drive to Georgia, how about a 50” Panasonic plasma HDTV or a new Wii console? Those are the prizes we will be giving away on Saturday. You will get an entry to the drawing for every part of the event that you participate in, so if you start out Friday morning with us your chances of winning will be outstanding!

We will also be offering a new one-day class for contractors. The class will cover everything from starting up a company to environmental cleaning techniques, along with outlines of residential and small commercial specialties like house washing, roof washing, and deck restoration. Here’s the best part: this class is being sponsored by Sun Brite, so instead of the normal $199 tuition, the class will be FREE.

That’s far from all of the news. We will also be in New Orleans for the great NOLA Roundtable in February and offering the same class there. Sign up SOON for this one! We will try to be at most of the National Cleaning Expo events this year to hang with our friends and meet some new ones.

On top of all that, we are giving away a brand new hot water skid again in September as part of the NCE Roundtable in SC. We had so much fun doing that last year that we just couldn’t help doing it again! Rumor has it that we are going to top last year’s prize, but we’ll leave that as a rumor for the time being.

When you attend any NCE Roundtable you are entered into the drawing for this skid, so try your best to go to as many Roundtables this year as possible. To sign up for any NCE event, click here. To sign up for our Grand Openeing stuff, click here. I’ll see you!


Friday, January 22, 2010

What Performance Should You Expect From Your Vacuum Surface Cleaner?

It seems that most contractors who make the investment in a waste water capture system expect perfection from their equipment. One area they often complain about is their vacuuming surface cleaner.

Contractors would like nothing less than a completely dry surface after they are done passing over it and cleaning. While a 100% pickup rate is the expectation (and a miserable 95% rate might be acceptable) no one ever actually achieves that kind of performance. Real-world results are often a lot closer to the 80% range.

Could these tools be better? I don't think that is possible with today's technology - with one exception I will tell you about in a minute. In order to achieve 100% capture of the water used, a surface cleaner would have to achieve a perfect seal between the brush skirt and the pavement being cleaned. In that event, you would not be able to move the surface cleaner without incredible force. Considering that every paved surface is by nature uneven, this perfect seal is simply not physically possible.

In fact, in order to move the surface cleaner easily without dragging the brush skirt we adjust the height of the surface cleaner upwards (leaving a small gap). That gap and the uneven pavement is why we must accept performance around 80% efficiency in capturing wash water. This means we will capture about 4 out of 5 gallons used with most surface cleaners.

Most of that last gallon will likely flow to our low point where we have set up a second capture point with oil socks & berms and a second vacuum hose. The rest will evaporate.

The one important exception I promised to tell you about is the Lubova we carry. That particular piece of equipment includes a plastic "wiper" on the inside of the brush skirt. That wiper forms a better seal even if the brush skirt is slightly raised. We have found that we can move the cleaner around with little friction and still achieve much better vacuuming. I am reluctant to over-promise, but I think we pick up as much as 90% of the water used with this tool.