I recently had the opportunity to speak with some Estimate Rocket users about their businesses. It was a wonderful chance to get to know our customers and learn about how they got to where they are today. In this series, we’ll share stories about what they did before, how they got started, and their experiences along the way.
First, I spoke with Pam Stephens about Chesapeake Concrete Raising, owned by Pam and her husband, Mike.
What were you doing before you started your business?
Mike was working full-time as a project manager and co-owner of a concrete restoration company, where he spent 25 years. We were married in 2006 and had a son in 2009. That’s when I stopped working as a full-time software developer and started raising our son.
What made you decide to start a business?
About a year and a half ago, Mike had some health issues. Really, it was a result of the doctor saying that he had to stop working in that construction environment. So Mike sold his share of that company at the end of 2015.
We didn't really know what was going to happen for those first few months. Mike was in the midst of a job search, and when that wasn't working out, we started thinking about what we could do ourselves. It was in April of last year that we decided it was probably better if we started looking for something we could do separate from any company or working for anybody else.
My parents had their own company. My dad was a self-employed locksmith and my mom acted as his bookkeeper. They had their business for over 30 years, and now my brother runs it, so I wanted to see if there was anything like that that Mike and I could do together.
We sort of stumbled on the concrete raising idea. I had seen an advertisement on Craigslist for old mudjacking equipment and that made me ask Mike what mudjacking was. After that, he went online and found HMI who does concrete raising. They do it 2 ways: mudjacking and polyurethane foam. Mike had heard of HMI in his own line of work. He didn't have any contacts there, but he kind of knew what they did.
After digging a little further, he made a call and that's how it unfolded. He established a very good relationship with those guys in Wisconsin (HMI). Mike is a Midwesterner too, he's from Chicago, so it was an automatic kind of friendship. We had a good feeling from the start, after talking with HMI. The timing was amazing. It had been 4 months since Mike stopped working and he was getting fidgety and needed to do something purposeful, and this fit the bill perfectly.
What are the most difficult parts of running your own business?
Getting familiar with what it means to be a small business can be hard. We're lucky in that regard, because our neighbors are also small business owners, so I can ask a question anytime. I also have a friend who is an accountant, so I can work with her to overcome problems I'm having with QuickBooks or understanding small business taxes.
Having the capital to start a company is probably the biggest hurdle, though. We were a bit lucky up front because we had the finances to start. We had the capital to go ahead and make the big purchases because right off the bat we knew we needed a truck, and that's going to cost money. It was hard for me to spend money for this purpose because you don’t know if taking this plunge is going to work out or not, but we had to buy a truck that was custom fitted with a pump for the foam and a generator, and wrapped with our company name and logo.
The capital that somebody needs to get started is obviously more than the truck. You need to be able to market the company with a website, advertising, company shirts, business forms and cards, so there's cost there. There's cost with business licensing fees, like the home improvement license, and with technology, as we had to buy an iPad with software including Estimate Rocket, and a laptop for QuickBooks. Mike also orders multiple drums of the chemicals that make up the foam, very costly up front, but the cost of materials is worked into the cost of the job and, if priced correctly, a small profit can be made. These are some expenses that are must-haves in order to be successful in a concrete raising business.
We also had to think of our process for doing business with customers. Because Estimate Rocket had worked with HMI to produce a customizable estimating software package, we could prepare proposals right away. We didn’t have to search for a solution for providing accurate estimates to our customers and tracking the data effectively. Customers receive, from the estimate to the receipt, customized professional looking documents that convey experience and organization.
What are the most rewarding parts about running your own business?
Mike loves going out there and meeting people and helping them overcome these sunken concrete issues. He thrives on helping people fix a problem they thought would cost thousands of dollars. People think that they're stuck with a situation or they're going to have to spend a lot of money to replace the concrete. Customers are always pleased with the results and thankful it was inexpensive to do it.
He gets a lot of pleasure from seeing people's reactions, because out here most folks don't know what concrete raising is, especially with foam. They might have heard of mudjacking but they don't necessarily understand that there's another solution to raise concrete.
We have met a lot of nice people doing this. From the customers, to the people at the home shows, to meeting the person who might see our logo on a shirt and ask about it. Mike loves to interact with them and explain it and so do I. I was just at my gym this morning trying to market our services to somebody there.
How else do you market your business?
We're finding that educating people is key to this. We try to include a description of our raising process in our ads, which are currently running in small publications in our area. We tried direct mail targeting neighborhoods but we didn’t receive much business from that effort. Yesterday, we met with marketing reps from a local radio station! We’re exploring the cost-benefit of radio commercials.
We didn't know exactly where to market first, but someone approached us from Coffee News - it’s 2-sided piece of paper with ads going along it and trivia in the middle. It sits in restaurant foyers and people read it while they're waiting for tables. We have a 3 by 2 inch ad there. It was the very first place that we had and ad and it's actually paid off.
This year, we attended 2 home and garden shows, where we explained concrete raising to folks approaching our booth. One show was a very big one that draws people from central Maryland. The other one was much smaller and it was more county folks that were going. That's why our schedule is booked out 2 weeks. These folks are starting to call after having met us at the home and garden shows. We were kind of a draw there because of the fact that they've never heard of concrete raising. Those shows included another business expense, because we had to buy one of those 10 by 10 displays to look professional.
This is just our first year, so we're still kind of shaking things out, but Mike's booked out 2 weeks solid already and I have a feeling that as soon as the weather starts really getting warmer more people will be calling.
What advice would you give to someone starting a similar business today?
To start off strong like we did, it helps to be well-rounded, or have good friends who are willing to help out. I have IT experience that’s very useful when trying to develop software solutions like building a website. I also took a college course in QuickBooks. Mike has concrete construction experience, and he’s also familiar with state and USDOT requirements for owning and operating a truck. I can't imagine what it would be like for somebody to try to do what we did who didn’t have the skills that we have, because it’s easily overwhelming.
Also, it helps to have a bit of knowledge of concrete and its behavior. We have that going for us, but somebody who hasn't worked with concrete the way Mike has might be in for a few surprises. Mike's even had a few near-disasters, but he’s been able to remedy them because he relies on his concrete knowledge and skills. So I wouldn’t assume, if I were just starting out, that you can just drill a few holes and squirt some foam and expect to see perfection, because it doesn't always work like that.
Where do you see yourself and Chesapeake Concrete Raising in the next 10 years?
Mike said that he thinks he's going to be retired, but I don't think he's going to be retiring ever! I think he loves it too much. He's very good at what he does and he can apply 25 years of working in the concrete business to it.
Before that 10-year mark, we don’t expect to grow any. That's not our goal. We just want to stay “Mom and Pop”. Even though I think there's a good potential for growing, we're not interested. Mike loves doing the work himself and the idea of having employees- I don't know if I could be responsible for that. We just want to keep it “Mom and Pop” as much as we can.
Thanks so much to Pam for taking the time to talk with me about Chesapeake Concrete Raising!