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Men In Kilts on the 'Challenging' Startup Journey The CEO of the window-washing franchise talks candidly about obstacles -- and provides tips for perseverance.

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Hard work, traditional Scottish garb and a squeegee can take a business far, but ramping up a fast-growing franchise like Men In Kilts is not without challenges.

In a piece last May, we introduced you to the Vancouver business, known for work crews who wear kilts as they climb ladders to wash windows and clean gutters.

A 24-year-old Nicholas Brand started the business back in 2002, finding that he attracted customers and attention when he wore a hand-sewn kilt on the job. He and a partner franchised it in 2006, and in 2009, Tressa Wood, a veteran of successful Vancouver-based franchisor 1-800-Got-Junk, came on board as CEO.

The business has ambitious plans to be in every major metro market in the U.S. and Canada by 2017 – although so far it's got just six franchises underway. The company, though, recently joined forces with one of Canada's largest window-washers, which will now convert to the Men In Kilts brand, and expects a 300 percent increase in system-wide revenue this year.

But all that said, the journey so far has been "extremely challenging," according to Wood. "Our internal motto for the past 2 years has been: "Men In Kilts will be a huge North American success. Failure is not an option.'"

So, what sort of challenges has Men In Kilts encountered so far? Wood didn't mind acknowledging them.

"We've had cash problems, we've had partnership conflicts, we've had doubters call us a joke, we've had partners get scared, spouses get scared, we've gone months without paychecks, we've had deals come close then fall apart at the last minute, we had six months with no office to work from, we've had operational challenges around our expansion into colder markets, and the list goes on and on," she says.

On days when she would be in the "holy crap what did I get myself into" stage, she says she would remind herself: "There is a solution. Figure it out." She'd then laser-focus on the most critical issue, and make that a priority. "It's daunting, but you have to focus on the right thing at the right time or you're on your way down."

It helps, she adds, to "only do business with people with integrity and who… have aligned goals and aren't in it for their own self-interest to the detriment of others."

And it's important to be that way as a company too, she says. Men In Kilts recently had a deal fall apart with a franchisee who had paid his fees and was in his first start-up week. But devastating personal medical issues arose, and the franchisee could no longer finance the business, she said.

"He didn't ask for his fees back and -- in spite of the fact we could have really used the money and had already invested a ton of time and money -- I decided [to] refund his money," she says. "Simply because it was the right thing to do, not because I had to."

For other early-stage franchises, Wood (via email) offered a few tips:

  • "Keep your eye every single dollar that goes in and goes out. You have to micromanage the &%$# out of your budget."
  • "Find the right partner if you need to bring someone else in as an investor; not just people with money, but people who bring franchising experience or the network you need. "
  • "Get creative, stay focused, try not to take on debt for the first year or two. That's a key. Keep your debt to an absolute minimum for the first few years until you figure things out or you'll invest in the wrong areas."

Men In Kilts says it now has an infrastructure in place in terms of a centralized sales center, technology and training programs. "It's been tough getting to where we are, no doubt," Wood says. But, "we're ready to go big. Phew!"

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has covered business, politics, healthcare and general news for wire services, newspapers, blogs and other publications.

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