Building a Business: Color Theory

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.

Recently, I talked with Torlando Hakes about his business, Color Theory - a residential painting company in Indiana that focuses mainly on color consultation, interior, and exterior repainting.

What were you doing before you started your business?

I've been a painter my entire professional career. I started on a painting crew right out of high school, in 2003. Then, I served a two-year mission for my church, and when I came back, I went to school at Indiana University. I studied digital art and started taking on paint contracts in between semesters. In 2008, while still in college, I started as an independent contractor - right in the thick of the recession.

I think it was a wise decision because at that time a lot of folks were starting to hang up their hats and that brought an opportunity for a young college guy like me, who at the time didn't need a whole lot of jobs coming in to pay bills, and actually couldn’t work a whole lot because of my school schedule.

What made you decide to start a business?

The fact that I was studying art was always interesting to my customers. One asked if I could help them with color and I said “Absolutely, I'll give it a shot.” We picked out a really nice color scheme and they told me “You should think about charging for this, because I think people would pay for it.”

At the time I didn't know that there was anything called a Color Consultant, but that's what I called myself and lo and behold, it actually exists. I started doing that in college and by the time I graduated with my BFA in 2011, I had a nice little company on my hands. I had a crew of a couple guys and realized I really love the painting industry. I wasn’t really sure how to make money being an artist, so color consulting would be my new art, what I threw my passion behind, and how I would provide for my family.

Color consultation has really become our unique selling proposition. When people want to know what separates us from the competition, they have confidence that the colors are professionally selected. If you're able to demonstrate that professionalism during the estimate, it makes the rest of the sales process and the job go more smoothly.

What are the most difficult parts of running your own business?

I think the biggest challenge is wearing so many hats, especially early on. I started as a painter, not a salesperson. So, for many years I was doing the paint work myself, and as the business grew I was being called to more and more estimates, having to do those during the day and leave my crew behind to do the work.

That first year, I didn’t have the right systems in place to get my people to paint houses proficiently on their own. I wasn’t really willing and didn't know enough to delegate properly, so we’d have issues with very basic things. Maybe the caulking on some trim was put in poorly and I’d wonder “Why can't you do this? You've been with me for two and a half years. Why does it look like this?” And they’d say “Well, you're the one that always did the caulking.”

Once you start to systematize and delegate, you're open to a lot of other things that you’ve been neglecting and you have no system for. So, now you've got to try to develop a system for the things that may be outside of your comfort zone. I had to do a lot of reading and implementation of different ideas until I got to the point where I felt like I could wrap my mind around running a business.

Now, I don’t use a lot of those original skills because I'm completely focused on the business side. People ask me if I'm sad about that or if I’d like to go back to doing what I was doing before, and the answer is not really. I did love art and being a painter, but I've found a lot of joy and excitement in learning the business side of things. With each new area, though, the task is “How do I create a system for selling jobs? How do I create a system for marketing so that leads are continually coming in so I'm not having to constantly monitor and invent new ways of finding business?”

What are the most rewarding parts?

I really like the autonomy that comes with it. I'm the kind of person that really needs to have some control over my day. I’m naturally a hard worker so it's not uncommon for me to put in a lot of hours, but I also have the flexibility to take off when I need to. I can arrange more fun activities like networking with someone over lunch. I can also go on vacation when I want to, and, from a financial perspective, there are advantages to it that I’d probably have a hard time trading in.

How do you handle seasonal shifts in business?

We’re in Indiana, so we kind of have accordion staffing - in the Winter we shrink down to 7 or 8 people, and in the Summer we try to expand to 15 or 16. Obviously, we're not able to paint outside in the Midwest year-round, so there goes a significant portion of our business. I think that the key to handling that is just knowing what those high and low points are. Really take advantage of the peak seasons and spackle that money through the slow seasons (that’s a paint joke!)

In terms of revenue - how much do you need to stay stable? How much do you need to pay your bills and pay your people? When you’re in peak seasons, don't spend above that amount. Stash it in the bank and then, when you’re in a valley you can use that extra money to spackle over the valley. That makes a difference when you go into an estimate. People can smell desperation, and if you're not desperate to get the work, then you're actually more likely to close the sale.

What advice would you give to someone starting a similar business today?

My first recommendation would be to recognize there’s nothing wrong with subcontracting. A lot of people give subcontracting a bad name, because many of us have experienced really bad subcontractors, but starting as a subcontractor is a great idea because you're going to attach yourself to somebody who already has a client base, already has the ability to sell, already has jobs lined up, and already has decent pricing. Over time, as you start to establish your own client base, you'll take in your own jobs and mix those with the ones you're getting from your contractor. Until you’ve accumulated the business knowledge and expertise to go out and start attracting those clients and marketing yourself, it's a smart way to transition into full-on business ownership.

My second recommendation is not to focus too much on growth. If you grow too fast, your systems will start to burst at the seams and you'll get nuts and bolts just flying off of your machine and eventually you'll stall out. I've had years of 100% growth - my first five years were at about that level and I was pulling my hair out trying to keep it together. After that, I said “Let's rein it in. Let's be a little more pragmatic and set modest goals that we know our systems can handle.” I have a decent size company, I'm not by any means the largest company out there, but I focus on the quality of people that we have and on steady growth - somewhere between 20 and 40 % growth year over year.

Where do you see yourself and Color Theory in the next 10 years?

I think that we're on a steady course. Finding customers isn’t as difficult as it used to be, but finding quality painters is harder. The people that I look for are subcontractors who have an entrepreneurial spirit, an ownership mentality, who want to take it to the next step but aren’t far along. My goal is to be that marketing leg for them so they can focus on the painting and managing their crew.

I think software like Estimate Rocket allows my sales program to be more scalable. In the old days, I’d have to take a notebook and scratch down a bunch of numbers, and it just took forever. I'd stay up all night trying to put together a bid and have several that were backed up - five or ten people waiting on estimates. I couldn't keep track of the estimates or the jobs that I had.

Now, I don't have to remember any jobs because it’s all in the system. So, the scalability of tech and the paint industry, that's going to do a lot for us. We're going to keep growing slow and steady to win the race, and in the long run and we’ll keep bringing joy through painting and helping people with their homes.

Thanks so much for talking with me about Color Theory, Torlando!

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