I don’t remember how I got the interview. I met with a recruiter in my college's library.
Instead of interviewing me, he pitched me on the opportunity: Running a College Pro franchise was a great way for college kids to learn to run their own business over the summer, painting houses and earning tons of money.
I remember my College Pro training fondly. There were PowerPoint presentations about the positive and negative qualities of oil and latex paints and role-playing exercises about pitching house-painting services and answering homeowner objections.
The training culminated in having to paint an actual house. It rained, however, and all I remember doing was eating pizza with the sales manager while he talked about paint-sprayer pricing.
Summer began. I started my own little mini enterprise under the umbrella brand of College Pro. I put an ad in the paper declaring “Hiring Painters Now” and I was in business. The folks at College Pro weren’t kidding when they said a person would learn a lot about business. It was trial by fire with pretty high stakes for a college kid.
Here are some of the lessons that I learned that might be useful to anyone running a business or looking to start one:
1. Marketing works.
One of the first things I did was buy a ton of lawn signs with my number. I enlisted my sister to help me blanket the town. It turns that it was illegal to post in half the places the signs went, and I received a notice from the city to cease and desist my guerrilla-marketing tactics. What did I know?
But in any case, the calls started coming in. Marketing is powerful.
2. Well-developed brands deliver.
After pitching my company's services to homeowners, my success rate was pretty high, I was surprised to find. I didn’t know anything about painting, my prices weren’t the lowest around and I’m sure that I was up against very experienced local pros.
But I wore a nice clean shirt with a logo, gave prospects solid marketing materials, a well-documented quote and had the right insurance. Having all the branding done correctly counts for a lot.
3. Fire fast.
I hired people from newspaper ads after meeting them in the local strip mall. I hired some people who had never picked up a paint brush -- basically folks who were motivated to try a new job.
Some employees just weren’t going to work out. One man spent the entire day smoking. Another person painted around a bicycle that was leaning against a house, instead of moving it.
I learned that it's better to let go of people quickly and not let them drag down the whole team.
4. Don’t overextend resources.
About halfway through the summer, my business ran away from me. I had multiple teams working on multiple houses at the same time. I started losing money that I didn’t have to lose.
So I downsized the operation, keeping my best employees, and from then on, I only took on one project at a time. It was a better fit for my level of experience and helped me avoid any major disasters.
Make sure the size of your company fits the opportunities and challenges that you take on.
5. Fight back.
For one project, a crew member dripped paint all over someone’s roof, and some other problems emerged. The homeowners were furious: They sent a letter threatening legal action for the damage. They still owed the last deposit, which was for thousands of dollars.
Instead of immediately caving in and offering to pay for the damage, I sent them a bill. They were incensed, but it changed the conversation. They started arguing, “We don’t owe you any money” instead of “You owe us a fortune.” I ended up canceling their last deposit that was due, the homeowners had their house painted for cheap, and I didn’t end up in court -- a happy ending.
It goes to show you don't be afraid to negotiate and play a little hardball. That can go a long way.
6. Finish the job.
When you finish painting a house, it’s easy to call it a day after the last brushstroke. But you’re not really done until you’ve touched up every little corner, cleaned up your mess, vacuumed up the paint chips and received a final sign-off and a completed customer-service questionnaire.
You’re really only done when you’re driving away with the final deposit in your hand, paid by a happy customer who will give you referrals. Finishing the job is something much more than covering a house with paint.
What was great for me about running this painting business was the perfect antidote to my philosophy major. In the end, to be successful, you don’t need to think much. You need to pick up the brush and climb ladders. You need to paint a lot of houses. You need to get the job done.
You need to make more bucks than you lose. You need to not get sued. I ended up coming out a bit ahead that summer, probably with about as much in my pocket as I would have had after running a large paper route. But as I remember, at the time that was more than alright with me.
What I learned that was so crucial was that victories and setbacks are both equally important parts of an entrepreneur's journey in business. Looking back on it, the things that were the most challenging were really the most valuable. If you recognize this and make the most of each day, you'll come out ahead every time and have some fun along the way.