Building a Business: Paper Moon Painting

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.

This time, I talked with Lisa Moon, owner of Paper Moon Painting - a residential painting company in Texas that also specializes in wallpapering, specialty finishes, cabinetry, and exteriors.

What were you doing before you started your business?

When my husband Peter and I met, we were each full proprietors working in the field. Peter was a wallpaper hanger and installer and I was a faux finisher and decorative painter.

What made you decide to start a business?

8 years ago, when we got together and got married we realised that the overlap of our two fields was painting. This was the first time either of us could envision building a business that was beyond just the two of us. We were in our mid-forties and kind of burnt out on doing everything ourselves. It was very daunting, almost impossible, to hire another artist who could do what I do or was as skilled in wallpaper installation as Peter was, but the painting was scalable.

In the beginning, we hired a few painters that we knew from our connections. This gave us the ability to expand - now we have around twenty painters. We just opened a second branch in Austin and we’d like to open a third branch elsewhere in Texas this year or next year. That wouldn't have been possible with us still in the field or ‘on the ladder’ as they might say.

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

There are two sides to this. One is the difficulty of being a married couple and doing this. Each of us feels that Paper Moon is our baby, and each of us has very different approaches to building the business. We have skill-sets that work great together but are very different. I tend to be the visionary, creative thinker, and strategist. Peter is the person that keeps everyone happy, keeps the trains running on time, and keeps things running smoothly. So, that means I am constantly on a quest to improve and grow and he's constantly saying, "Hang on. We're doing great. Everyone's happy. Let's not go too fast unless there’s really a need." Those are opposing dynamics, but when we agree on something we move with lightning speed.

The other difficult part has been realising that you have to be realistic in your expectations. When each of us was doing everything ourselves, we would produce A+ work constantly. Now, with twenty painters, not every painter is going to be an A+ painter. That's just reality. We’re very selective in who we hire, but the fact is we can hire an A- painter and they'll still satisfy the customers.

What are the most rewarding parts?

It's been fantastic. It sounds corny, but what we love to do is beautify spaces - that's our thing. We’ve painted and wallpapered friends’ houses for free, because we want to make it pretty. If we do a large or really transformative project, I’ll go and photograph it. That end result is very satisfying for both of us. But it’s different as business owners. I was more of an artist before, doing decorative painting. I was also a mural artist. For me, this is really another form of creativity. It's visualising what this business can look like, what it can function like, and then bringing it to fruition. I love that. Peter’s really got a heart for developing people. This is kind of his extended family. He gets to watch people rise up from an apprentice to crew leader, to providing a solid living for their family that they didn't necessarily think they could do. He loves that part. So, it’s satisfying for both of us in different ways.

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

Two things really come to mind. One is be super selective when hiring. Take your time. The classic saying is "Hire slow, fire fast." Now we're very selective about who we hire. It's almost like you're married to this person for the next five, ten, or fifteen years. So it's not just a matter of if they can paint. It's presumed you’re going to hire someone who can paint, or you’ll train them to. But, how do they handle conflict? What motivates them? You’re hiring a person, not just a painter.

The other advice is kind of borrowing from the “E-Myth” book, which I recommend to everyone. The book talks about the fact that a lot of us get into business because we're a great clockmaker, but then you become a victim of your own success and you grow and now everybody wants to buy your clocks and you can't handle all their business, and you’re overwhelmed, and quality suffers, and you hire people and they’re half trained, and the wheels start to come off the bus. The key is this: if you're not going to grow, you can make clocks your whole life. But if your plan is to grow, you’re no longer in the clock business - you’re in the systems business. The systems happen to produce clocks, but you have to create those systems. You've got to have a system for everything - how to hire someone, how to train them, how to produce jobs, how to invoice clients, how to order paint. All of this has to be streamlined and systemised. Painting the house is the by-product. Starting to think of it that way has been huge for us.

Everyone just starting off knows that when you're in business for yourself it's sixty-hour work weeks - and that just comes with the territory. As you start growing, it's still sixty-hour work weeks but now the nature of the work is different. It's not you out there doing the work anymore. You’re managing others doing the work. You have to go in with your eyes open, knowing that the nature of the work will change. You’ll be more in management as opposed to going to the project, greeting the client with a smile, beautifying their home, and hearing "Thank you, we love it!” at the end. It's past that now. So, just realise that and embrace it.

Where do you see yourself and Paper Moon in the next 10 years?

I think we've all agreed we'd love to have five branches. That seems to be the magic number right now. Once we have five, will we go to ten? We'll see. Right now, we’re satisfied with Austin. We'd like to have one more in Texas, and then, I'm originally from Southern California, so I'd like to open some branches there. That puts us in two different states and we know that that's two different markets and two different regulatory bylaws and two different working environments. Having two or three branches in Texas is like a slam dunk, but then moving to a different state will be a whole other challenge.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about Paper Moon Painting, Lisa!

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