Insider Secrets for Starting a Successful Business

Starting a Painting Business

Andy Thompson, professional painter and author of Painting for Profits, offers valuable insight into how to start a painting business. He shares tips for getting started, estimating strategies for getting work, generating referrals, and much more. [23 min.]

Talk a little bit about your background and how you got started in the painting business.

Basically I started right out of high school. Took a job with some family friends over the summer and was kind of the grunt, working my way up through being a laborer and into a crew leader. I started my own business about six years ago, and about a year and a half ago I wrote a book and became an author, and now I’m really kind of gearing towards consulting. But I’ve been involved with the painting industry in one way, shape or form for the last 16 years. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of painters in the U.S. and around the world about what it takes to succeed, and now I really get joy out of helping people start their own businesses and use it to be their own boss and call their own shots, and that’s kind of where I am now with it.

Give us an overview of the interior and exterior house painting business.

Whether it’s interior or exterior, you’re looking at the same process. Really it comes down to three things: you have to get the phone ringing on a consistent basis, which comes down to marketing. Then it comes to the bidding and estimating part of it: landing the job and coming up with the right price. Then finally the painting, the labor part of it, and producing a quality product. Interior is probably the best place that people should get started because the jobs are so plentiful. They’re easy to paint, the overhead is low and the profit margins are really high. Exterior involves a little bit more in-depth skill level. You’re dealing with higher elevations with two story houses, materials are clapboard, stucco, you’re dealing with weather. You know, as far as the physical part of each one, they have their own skill set, but as far as bringing the jobs in and bidding the jobs and landing the jobs and producing the quality product, it goes hand in hand with building a business. What I’ve found is customers across the board, whether you’re going to paint interior or exterior for them, they’re looking for three things. They’re looking for a quality paint job done at an affordable price by somebody they trust. What I tell people is, be that person. If they have an exterior job that they’re looking at doing, walk the job and educate them. Take good notes about their concerns, and really focus your energy on what’s in it for them. To me there’s a science to selling a paint job, whether it’s interior or exterior, and that is putting yourself in the position to make the customer know that you’re looking out for their best interests. Like I tell everybody, people skills are more important than painting skills when it comes to owning a painting business. The painting part of it – actually applying the paint – is an important skill and that’s one of the things that people have a grasp of when they start a painting business. “Well, I can paint, so I’m going to go paint and start a painting business.” What they realize is that unless they can get the phone ringing, unless they can estimate the paint job, unless they can get the customer excited about the project that they’re working on, they’re not going to land any job. Whether I’m teaching that to somebody or I’m physically on the job itself, the number one focus has to be on the needs and wants of the customer.

Can you describe some of the benefits of running a successful painting business?

To me, that’s the whole thing. I believe that a painting business is one of the best home-based businesses that anybody can run. The overhead is extremely low, the startup costs are extremely low. The idea that you can own your life doing something, owning a business like that with such low startup and everything. The draw to owning a painting business is phenomenal, it crosses all the borders. Men and women can do it with equal success, young kids, older retired people. I get a lot of people that talk to me about switching industries, they’ve been a professional in sales or whatever and they’re ready to come home and do something that’s going to develop a professional income, but not have the stress of the corporate job and things like that. It really is one of the best businesses that I can imagine that people could start. The skills are very easy to learn, like I said, and people skills go a long way. If you can have the attitude and develop the attitude that you’re going to go deliver a great looking paint job for somebody, you’re going to do it at an affordable price and you’re going to do it with a work ethic that people are going to trust, you’re going to work consistently. Not only that, it’s one of the simplest businesses to build a referral based business, instead of traditional advertising. One of the misconceptions people have is that you have to spend thousands of dollars to bring in jobs. It’s simply not true, especially if you target the right kind of jobs. When I say the right kind of jobs, I mean residential repaints. The reason for that is because they’re so plentiful.

How much experience is needed to start a painting business?

I always tell people, the more experience the better as far as the physical skills. You want to be able to know what a quality product looks like. You want to be able to know the process to deliver that. It’s not saying that you can’t start a painting business with no knowledge of that, because you can always find a painter to go paint a job for you and take a commission off that. But I always tell people, you’re in the field with somebody with a good boss who’s going to develop your skills, who’s going to teach you the process involved, which is always beneficial. Once you have the basic skills down, if you can learn how to get jobs coming in on a consistent basis, and you can develop a system to bid and estimate them that get accepted, then you’re in pretty good shape to start a painting business.

What are some of the costs involved to get started?

That’s another great thing about painting businesses. The overhead and startup costs are extremely low. The basic tools like a brush, roller, and other stuff like that, you’re looking at being able to get a painting business up and running and making money in seven days or less on a budget as small as $250. You don’t have to go the traditional advertising route. The failure rate for painters is phenomenal, it’s in the high nineties. Within the first nine months most painting businesses go out of business. And the reason is they spend all their money placing ads in the yellow pages and classifieds, and doing all this traditional advertising stuff and the reason that doesn’t work is because most people don’t know how to write sales copy. So they do what everybody else does, and they write, “I’ve got 15 years experience, and free estimates…call now,” kind of stuff. And that’s the same thing everybody else is doing, but the problem with that is, they can’t target the right kind of jobs, so they’re competing with everybody else, and they get an estimate and the job’s too big for them, then their $300 that they placed on the ad is gone, and they’re saying, “well I don’t have any work.” Then a week goes by and they haven’t got any work, and all of a sudden this big job comes up and they get it and they have to do it because they need the money, and that doesn’t go well, and their reputation is ruined. So what I teach people is, instead of competing and trying to guess which houses need or want your painting service, I teach people to build relationships with other tradesmen and tradeswomen who are already doing business with the homeowners who need your service. The guys who are banging holes in people’s walls, you automatically know they need a paint job, so if you can be friends with those people, they can refer your service. You’re going in with a leg up, you’re going in with them pre-selling you, going “I trust this guy or woman,”and you walk in, the homeowner goes, “well, Joe’s dry waller told me about your services, you know he’s worked here before, and I trust him.” There’s a good chance, then, that the homeowner’s going to use you without getting other estimates, which means that you don’t have to compete on price, you can go in and say “this is my price” because the dry waller guy referred you, you get the job. And that’s how I built my business. You know, it’s 100% referral based, and that’s what I teach people to do, and, you know, very little advertising is involved. You target the right people who are already doing business with the people you want to paint for.

How much can you expect to make painting houses if you market your business effectively?

You know, the sky’s the limit. I’ve helped teachers and students build real great summer businesses where they make just as much during three months of the summer as they do on their teaching job all year. Because of the flexibility a painting business offers, you can develop it as a part-time or full-time income, but it is very, very possible in 3-4 days a week to earn $50-60,000 a year targeting the right kinds of jobs.

I’ve heard painters complain that they spend most of their days doing painting estimates instead of painting itself. Should you accept every request for an estimate? Is there a way to judge which ones will be a waste of time, for example?

Typically you want to get an overview of what they’re looking for on the phone before you drive out to the job, just so you have an idea if it fits into your target job. You don’t want to drive out if somebody says “well, it’s a whole house” and you’ve only got two guys on your crew, and it doesn’t fit. I accept, for the most part, all the estimates because it gives me an opportunity to go build a relationship with the people, and number one that’s the most important part. Whether the job’s too big for me doesn’t matter because I can build a relationship with them, and I might not paint that job, but I could paint for them in the future, or paint it for somebody that they know. To me, it’s never a waste of time, because you never know what doors are going to open. And really, it’s about getting your name out there. Again, if it’s thirty minutes away, you kind of have to give it your best call.

Describe the process of estimating a paint job. Is it just a matter of calculating square footage and multiplying by the fee you charge, or how does that work?

Estimating is only one part. I always say it’s a science of selling the paint job. Because really it doesn’t come down to price. That’s another misconception that a lot of people have, that people decide to choose your estimate based on price. You know, that’s just not the case. What you do, it’s the process, when you go you build a relationship, you educate the customer, you measure up the job. Yes, you put it through different formulas: walls, ceilings, trim, they all have different formulas. The price that comes up is one part, but like I said it’s the relationship that you build. And it’s actually the way that you write your estimate that leads the people into the decision to choose your estimate. I believe there’s nine key ingredients that should go in each estimate. It’s written in the professional way. A lot of times the competition out there is going to write an estimate on the back of a business card, or not use a contract, or hand write an estimate that’s chicken scratched, and those aren’t professional. I’m the worst speller in the world, and actually just got an email from a lady that e-mailed me and said, “you spelled the word ‘waste’ wrong on your website,” and I laughed and I sent her back an email. I said, “The beautiful thing about it is you don’t have to be a good speller to have a successful painting business!” Thank God for spell check, but really that’s the important issue. But you can get home and write the estimate on the template in the professional way and present it, and it walks the people through the whole process that you just went through, you know you walked the job together, you take down the special notes or interests that they have or concerns, and you note those on the estimate. You know, once they read it, they realize, boy this guy was really paying attention. This guy has attention to detail and I feel comfortable that he’s going to do a good job and provide me with a quality paint job. And like I said, a quality paint job at an affordable price by somebody you can trust. And that’s really the whole science of selling the paint job, and it doesn’t come down to price. If somebody says “Well, this guy is willing to do it for this price, but I like you better,” sure you can come down a little bit. There’s never really a perfect price, per se. There’s more of a range. And you can read the customer or the homeowner to see what their expectations are, if they’re a little tight on money. You know, to me, I would bid the job $100 less to make somebody happy. There’s a difference between painting for the lower-end income people than there is painting for the super high-end people, but that doesn’t mean that the people in the lower income deserve any less of a job, or any less respect. You know what I mean? And to me, what you’re doing is you look at them as a long term customer. Don’t be a paycheck painter. Don’t go in and say, “Oh this is a job, this is going to pay a bill.” Look at it as your first step in the door, and the relationship that you’re going to build from then on. And that’s where the success comes.

What kind of painting job should you be focusing on, and which ones aren’t worth the trouble?

If you’re just getting started, I always tell people that residential repaints. Interior repaints, that are very simple like I said, they’re plentiful, low overhead and high profit margin. The ones really to stay away from depending on the area of the country – I’m up in Michigan, so it rains quite a bit up here – is large exterior stuff that’s really outside your area of expertise. You want to structure your painting business into your comfort zone, and into the bread and butter type stuff when you’re getting started. The stuff that you can keep jobs coming in on a consistent basis. Do them in one or two days and move onto the next. Because there are so many of those jobs and the profit margin is so high, it doesn’t make any sense to try to grow faster than you need to. For example, trying to hire five guys because you want to take on these big huge houses, because once you have all that overhead and all those people that you have to keep paid, it becomes a monster, as opposed to a vocation.

Talk about painting referrals. What are some of the ways to get happy customers and other contractors to send business your way?

Boy, I’ve got a ton of them. First of all, referrals are the ticket. You go in with the mindset that “I’m going to have another satisfied customer.” Personally, I do a no down payment policy. If it’s a big job and I need seed money to get started, it’s a very small down payment. But for the most part, an interior work is a no down payment policy, and that’s a way to land the job. People don’t like to give out money before they get some work, but the idea would be to go in, do the job, and build the relationship while you’re doing the job. “This is where I’m at, this is where I want to go.” Once they’re satisfied at the end of the job, I always ask them to sign a letter of recommendation for me. That way I can use the success of one job for the next job. When I get done with the job I send a thank-you letter the next day that outlines a referral program, and you can build your referral program any way you want, but the way that I do it is I send a thank-you letter and tell them if they have friends and family that they can feel comfortable with the fact that I’m going to provide the same quality service, I’m going to treat them with the same respect that I treated them with, and anytime that they refer me to a job that I get paid on, let’s say over $250, that I’ll send them a check for $25. As long as you keep in touch with these people and make periodic phone calls or e-mails or whatever you have to do to stay in touch with them, and they were happy with it. You know, everybody says they’ll refer your business, “I’ll tell everybody about you,” but unless you’re really on them about it and making the effort, they typically don’t. But if you build a strong enough relationship and you offer money, they absolutely will.

What are some effective ways to market a painting business? Should you place classified ads in your local newspaper?

That’s one of the least expensive ways to do it, and the answer to that is yes and no. Putting a classified ad in is a great idea just to get exposure and it’s cheap enough, but you need to write it different than everybody else’s. For example, everybody else is saying “15 years experience, free estimates,” this and that, and there are all these generic ads. If you try thinking a little creatively about it, maybe placing an ad that says, “I can paint your house just like your husband and I’ll do it now!” That stands out a little bit, and really the main reason you want to place an ad is to have the people pick up the phone and call you. There’s no sense in writing free estimates in there or anything like that, because the first thing they’re going to do is call you and ask you, “Do you do free estimates,” and you say “yes”, and you’re there, you know what I mean? The idea is to get your phone ringing, and to think as creatively about your painting business as possible. It’s one of those businesses that lends itself to really going left on the traditional route of most people who think to place ads and do this kind of stuff. But if you just think creatively about how to get involved with the people who need your service, like I said going directly to other tradespeople. Another great way to market is to do volunteer work around your community. Get noticed that way. Be involved with your homeowners’ association. They do newsletters and things like that. Fliers do work, direct mail works, postcards and thing like that.

What about yellow pages?

You know, that’s a tricky one. That’s one of the biggest lies that people fall for in their first year in the painting business, and it costs them dearly. Those ads are expensive, and you pay month after month whether you stay in business or go out of business. To me, that’s a second year marketing strategy. Once you’ve developed your system to keep jobs coming on a consistent basis, and your estimate system is going, and you’re landing jobs and stuff like that. But they’re expensive, and like I said, the people who try to sell you the yellow page ads really don’t know that much about writing sales copy either. So they suggest you look like everybody else. To do it in the least expensive way would be just word of mouth. Get out there, shake hands, meet the right people who are already doing business with the people you want to paint for. Really concentrate your efforts. There’s so much that you can do wrong as far as starting a painting business, there’s so much that just doesn’t work, and there’s so few things that do work, and if you do those few things on a consistent enough basis, you’re going to be like clockwork.

Describe the differences between painters who just get by, and those who are really successful and in high demand and charge top dollar for their work.

The guys who just get by, I always try to relate that to, like, the town drunk. Not really, but the image that homeowners have in their mind if you say “house painter,” that image of, they come in hung over, smelling like smoke and that kind of stuff. That’s really the image that the majority of homeowners in the country have about house painters. And the reason is because a lot of people start their business and go in and don’t know anything about writing an estimate or doing anything like that, so they work on time and materials. “Just pay me $25 an hour and I’ll work till it’s done and you pay for the materials, and I can make my money,” and that kind of stuff. But that’s really the poor man’s way to do it. You’re selling your services way too cheaply. People who are thriving know how to educate the homeowner about the professional skills that are involved with the actual application of the paint. There’s a lot of knowledge that goes into our trade, and it is a skilled trade. And people who are thriving get paid because they know how to educate the people about what it takes to paint. They educate them on the process involved, the materials involved, the type of paint, and that kind of stuff. The more the homeowner can feel like, “Oh, this is way outside my area of expertise,” the more perceived value you can put on your services the better. And people, like I said, are willing to pay for a professional job. A lot of times there’s not many professionals in an area, so they have to figure out which one of the seedy little painters around town they trust to have them in their house. You know, it really is true. Because people think it’s such a simple thing to do, everybody’s a painter, you know. You’ve heard “painters are a dime a dozen, a good ones hard to find.” Well, I believe that painters are a dime a dozen, but good ones make themselves easy to find. The ones who are thriving know how to market their business in a creative way, inexpensively and cost-effectively. They know how to get on a job, do an estimate. Their formulas work where they can come up with a good price range, and they know how to write the estimate that educates their customer and leads them into the decision to choose their estimate. And then they go in, they provide the quality paint job, they have a satisfied customer, and then they back-end them and stay in touch with them to build that referral base. And those are the people who are thriving. There are so many painters across the country that I’ve talked to who are flying under the radar. They have small painting businesses run out of their home, and they’re making tons of money, I mean doctor’s salaries, you know, six figure incomes. And they’re still working under forty hours a week, and there’s plenty of those people. And what I’ve realized is that they’ve all built their businesses on what I call the painting business hierarchy. Which is first and foremost marketing, you have to get the phone ringing. Second you have to have a bidding and estimating system that works. And third you have to provide a quality paint job. And lastly you have to follow up with them and keep that relationship built.

What are some of the most common mistakes people who start a painting business make, and how can they avoid them?

Tons of them. First and foremost, the information gathering phase is the number one thing. A lot of people think because painting is such a simple skill to learn, or that they have those skills that they can just go out and they’re a shoe-in for success. But like I said, unless you know how to market cost effectively, get the phone ringing on a consistent basis. Unless you know how to bid and estimate a paint job, you’re pretty much dead in the water. If all you have are the painting skills, which granted is a very important part of the process, but if that’s all you have, then it’s going to be a hard row to hoe. People spend too much money on traditional advertising because they don’t know about the tons of creative ways to get your name out there in the community. They waste a lot of money on buying tools they don’t need, as far as big extension ladders or sprayers. They go out and spend thousands of dollars on this stuff, when the job may not even come in that they’re going to need that for a month. They should go out and rent the stuff that they need early on, until their business is up and running and bringing in those types of jobs and they can justify buying it. The initial educating themselves on what it takes to actually run a business. I like to teach people to be professional business owners. My whole idea of why I wrote my book, actually, is to take more professionalism into the industry. To teach people and give people the best foundation of knowledge possible for them to succeed, profit quickly, what jobs to go after and that kind of stuff.

Andy Thompson is the author of Painting for Profits.