When I first opened my doors to the international operating headquarters of Dan Knight Construction & Plumbing in 2006 I had a 1985 F-250 diesel pickup truck full of tools and an attitude that I was going to be building the Hoover Dam the following year. I had half of a full-time employee in my guard dog named Red. Luckily my payroll was low—only $52 a month for dog food and rabies shots. I had made it, after working for my father’s construction company I was on my own and going to show the old-timers how it was done and how my new ideas and methods were going to revolutionize the building industry. So I thought.
I soon found that there were limits and had to make some changes. Below are four causes and ways to avoid small business burnout in the construction industry.
1) Being everything to everyone
When a call came in I almost did a backflip. I would drop everything I was doing to go bid the job and would work all night to put together quotes. I bid like a wild man and did any trade I thought I could do. If I didn’t know how to do something I would read books, read online articles and forums, and watch YouTube videos about how to do the thing; then I’d bid a job doing it. Little did I know I was leaving large amounts of money on the table with my bids and I was often working for free after I added in all the time bidding and looking for clients.
I was convinced that I could make something happen for every client that called. I would be able to find a solution to every construction project that came my way. What I didn’t know was that I was doing it at the cost of my home life, my professional reputation, and my billable hours.
I am a general contractor specializing in residential projects. I have found that this is my niche. Not only is it my niche, it is where my passion lies. I like the idea that I am building something or servicing something that will house people and make people’s lives better each time they walk in the door after work. I have found I have a knack for managing projects and doing the financing and legal work to bring the project together. I have also found the things I don’t like to do. I don’t want to roof and I don’t do framing, really I just want to do the plumbing and project manage from the anchor bolts up.
I shouldn’t be doing drywall on one job, plumbing on another, and managing a project on another. Being able to focus on a few key areas has allowed me to know my scope, where I need help, and when I need to say no.
This brings up another point. When I say no to work, I have found I often get more. People don’t want someone that will do anything. They want someone who is competent in the area they are looking for. It is OK to be a generalist but, within reason. I am a generalist from the anchor bolts down. I am generalist in project management for the whole project; this is my “broad narrow scope.” It would be impossible for me to be everything to everyone and my margins and sanity prove it.
2) Trying to make it on volume.
I still crack a smile when I listen to the newer contractors I meet talk about how many jobs they have going, how they just bought a new truck and box trailer and it has only been one year in business. I hold back from telling them about how we are in another boom time and to save for a rainy day. It is the same thing my mentors told me and I ignored. Doing a volume of work is important, but there is nothing more frustrating than doing a million dollars in work and only being able to keep $40K at the end of the year. It is the most common misconception among contractors that causes heartbreak and disillusionment. I can remember sitting at my computer trying to figure out how the heck I billed so much and had nothing to show for it. It is what drove me back to school to study accounting. It is where I came up with my personal axiom in business “It is easy to make money in construction; it is really hard to keep it.”
It is like anything. Take the time to find the low hanging fruit. I am not saying focus on the thing that makes the most money only. I am saying focus on the things you can make the most money doing, enjoy, and feel passion in doing. Forcing anything isn’t sustainable. The feeling I get from excavating a trench that slopes just right for a sewer lateral, or when I am finishing concrete for a driveway approach reminds me exactly what I love about the trades and why I am in business.
I know where I make money and at what volume. I now bid my jobs and take on projects according to what brings me “construction joy” and my profit margins have never been higher. You may not want to take the path I did and get degrees in accounting, but lucky for you there are nerds like me that cater specifically to contractors and entrepreneurs. Get the advice you need, a small amount spent now can save you heartache for decades.
3) Forgetting the passion for the trade.
I started Dan Knight Construction & Plumbing because I love to build. I mean, I LOVE to build. There is something about being able to take material and apply skill and turn it into something. It is a favorite pastime for me (that drives my family nuts) to drive by projects I have done and tell my wife and kids about them. I started a construction business because I am a tradesman. However, the rigors of running a business slowly started to erode my love of the trades as the tax man always had his hand out wanting some, employee problems, local regulation, OSHA, the building inspectors, truck problems, bidding problems, non-payments from clients. It all started to add up to the point I hated going to work in the morning.
I had to make a choice, was I going to let the realities of business rob me of the pure JOY of building? No. The world is full of people just punching the clock. I chose to run my business and do the day-to-day tasks of business in order that I may more fully enjoy being a tradesman. I changed my perception of the situation. When I do get to go work in the field I am able to truly appreciate the sheer JOY of building. I get to remember what I got into business to do.
By changing my perception, I am able to remember why I love building so much.
4) Letting the regulators get you down.
This is the one I have the most trouble with. It seems like every time I open up the requirements for a project there is another regulation or requirement of the project that places the responsibility on the contractor to comply. When I try to build I often have to check the project with four to ten people before I can get the permits and start working. I can’t help but wonder how it got this bad.
Here is my solution; I chose to not to be the problem anymore. I go to local community events on zoning regulation, city council meetings on permitting requirements for contractors, and write my representatives and meet them for coffee to talk about my problems with the system.
It’s amazing what this has done. Whether or not my opinion is taken into account I am able to say in my little way that I am no longer being ruled over by the government. I take part in it and do my best to guide it to be the thing that I would want for my children. As a contractor, I must be engaged in the bodies that impact my industry and the governments that meddle with it.
I have to change my perspective in order to have JOY in my work. But what about those that want to do the right thing but don’t want to be directly involved? Again, there are nerds like me that will be your voice. Let me know what it is you’d like to see in society and the industry and I can be your voice to governments and the associations. Don’t stay silent though, whether through your voice or your hired voice, make sure you are a part of the change so you too can change your perspective on the trades.
If you do these few things and try your best to frame all things in business as a means to get you back to the pure joy of building. I bet you’ll no longer feel like you are always giving and never being met with gratitude or “Construction Joy.” Build for JOY and you will never want for work!
DISCLAIMER: Let me stop here to give you the boilerplate disclaimer. Every situation in law and building is different. Do not rely on this article to make decisions on your specific situation. Every matter is different and requires that you talk to a professional. If you want to talk to me about your matter see my contact below. Nothing in this article shall be construed to create an attorney client relationship or partnership.