I was a dropout.
I was not a college dropout, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, mind you. Nor was I a high school dropout like Albert Einstein or Princess Diana. No…my “liability” occurred in the 9th grade.
And I never looked back.
I’m not bragging about this, mind you. My kids will most definitely finish high school. And yes, education is important. However, my education came from the famous, but less organized, “School of Hard Knocks.”
It’s a continuing education program.
As nearly all successful people do, I had to turn my liability into an asset. I moved out of my house at age 17 and by 19, I had started my own “company”, Burnett Painting. I worked incredibly hard to build this business from 1996 and by 2001, things were picking up. My lack of formal education was becoming less important with each passing day.
Then, 9-11-01 happened.
The economy took its toll on everyone. Michigan, and the fragile auto industry was hit especially hard. Like most businesses, I struggled to stay afloat.
A few years later, in 2004, Hurricane Charlie smashed through Punta Gorda, FL. While never hearing about this town before, I did hear many stories about a shortage of trades to service the homes and many of the ones that were there were not operating honestly.
It smelled like opportunity.
I had loaded up one of our vans and my buddy Mike and I decided to drive down to Florida. I planned on helping out, earn some good money for three weeks, rebuild this ravaged area, then head home.
God had other plans.
After 2 weeks, I had fallen in love with the area. It was beautiful. 75 degrees, palm trees and beaches. Back in Michigan is was a “balmy” 4 degrees with 8 inches of snow in the ground. In addition, the economy had not improved at all.
I was positive, hopeful and cautiously excited. With an area recently hammered by hurricanes, it should be easy to get business, I surmised. I was young, eager and hopeful.
I was also quite naïve.
Not only had I not bothered with college or even high school, I had no, I mean absolutely zero, marketing or sales experience. My “method” was to go door-to-door and ask people if they needed their property painted.
At this point in my life, I’m not sure if I even knew how to spell the word marketing, let alone execute a plan. All I knew was that I was ready and eager to work; to do whatever it took to make my dreams become my reality.
I had never been to Florida before. My only knowledge of the area, people or culture was watching Miami Vice on television or what I had seen on postcards from neighbors.
I worked—boy, did I work! I took jobs wherever I could. Distance was not an obstacle. I was hungry to make my mark and create a living. At the time, I believed determination was the only key to success. It wasn’t terribly difficult to get work when you showed up, were clean cut and did what you said you were going to do. I thought, “This business is easy.”
I decided to make Florida my home. I was now divorced and a single father of two wonderful children, a 7 year old boy and a 5 year old girl.
After the hurricane relief work tapered off, so did my business. Dur- ing the reconstruction period, going door-to-door was easy. You’d see a battered home and you asked if you could help. After two weeks, busi- ness was not as easy to come by. In fact, it was quite challenging.
I was a bit lost.
What was once easy became difficult…very difficult. Business took a dive and I was beginning to question everything. During this time, I was fortunate enough to meet Rob Mann, who would soon become a lifelong friend. Rob introduced me to books. Having flunked out of the 9th grade and not being a passionate student, I was not inclined to read…especially if I didn’t have to! Somehow, Rob got me to open up a business book.
And the lights finally came on.
I devoured Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, anything by Tony Robbins, and dozens of others. Rob gave me some motivational programs from a guy named “Zig Ziglar” (With a name like that, I assume his parents had a sense of humor!).
Listening to motivational tapes by Zig Ziglar on my Sony Walkman in between getting doors slammed in my face, kept my spirits up and kept my feet moving.
“No thanks,” most of them said.
Click. The door would close in my face. Not once, not twice, but 30 or 40 times in a row.
What kind of person looks forward to that kind of rejection?
While I never enjoyed getting a “no,” Zig and his friends on that trusty old CD player kept me focused on the 31st or 40th door…the one that said “yes.” In Southwest Florida’s 95 degree heat and oppressive summer humidity, going door to door would probably be considered borderline insane. Through the many “no’s” I was offered an occasional bottle of water on my way to a “yes.”
Going door-to-door is not for the faint of heart and by today’s stan- dards, is the biggest time waster imaginable.
But it also worked.
Within a year or so, I had a few people working with me and we were able to grow a little. We ended up painting in eight different cities in South Florida. Multiple cities, multiple venues. Interior, exterior, residential, commercial.
“Sure, we do it all!” We told all of our customers. Our to-do list was full of industrial water towers and bridges, sand blasting—even commercial projects, like Starbucks.
Being a raving fan of Starbucks coffee, I couldn’t let somebody else paint my Starbucks now, could I?
We started to cover everything from department stores, gas stations, office spaces, interiors, exteriors, decks, docks, etc. At the time, this felt like we could take over the world. However, as we soon learned, trying to please everyone results in serving no one. Each process could either go through new construction or a repaint, which amounted to…
8 cities x 6 service areas x 2 phases = 96 different niches
“What’s a niche?” Sammy asked.
“Ah…a niche can be anything that narrows down your audience, like serving lemonade only to a particular age of people or only people in a certain area. It’s not only impossible to appeal to everyone, it also makes it harder to serve anyone,” said Grandpa.
“But Grandpa, I want to sell lemonade to everyone. Are you joking right now?” Sammy challenged. “I’ll know if you are!”
“He he…It’s important to have fun, Sammy. But no…this was no joke. While it may appear to be good to serve 96 different areas, the reality is much different. When you try to serve too many people, you spread your- self too thin. I’m glad we figured out the lesson of focus,” Grandpa said.
“Lessons? Awww, Grandpa. I don’t want this to be like school. I hate math homework,” Sammy replied.
“Oh, yes. The dreaded long division,” Grandpa chuckled. “Funny, but your long division actually has something in common with the lesson of focus and selling more lemonade, Sammy.”
“Grandpa, if it’s OK with you, I’d prefer to learn how to make a million dollars. Long division is boring.”“I know,” Grandpa winked. “But long divi- sion actually makes sense here. Instead of looking at the entire number, we break it down. In fact, focusing on one number at a time makes this quite easy…”
It’s natural to want business from as many places and people as possi- ble. But if you don’t establish a niche and narrow your search down by geography, type of work, or type of client, you’ll end up generalizing.
When you generalize, it not only dilutes your efforts, resources and manpower, but your image, brand, and message as well. . Telling every- one you do “X” is well…boring. Boring never gets attention and a generalist always earns less than a specialist. If you want to double your business, you’ll have to focus. Your focus must not only be on what you do, but with whom you do it.
After we narrowed our focus, it allowed us to stand out amongst the competition. When we stated clearly and enthusiastically, “We’ll only work in this city,” it positioned us in a more influential light.
Focus made us more money.
On the surface, creating a niche appears counter-intuitive. How can looking for less customers make one more money? The answer comes from the presumption of scarcity. If you live in a town of 100 people, with no surrounding towns, you’ll be hard-pressed to market a single product and make a living.
However, for most business owners, geography, access and the inter- net make scarcity an obsolete consideration.
Focus does not have to be just a geographic or market-centric con- cern. You may focus on a particular psychographic (a person’s thinking) or have a narrow product line and be product-centric (A cupcake spe- cialist as opposed to a full bakery).
Once you embrace the power of focus, you may combine a geo- graphic focus with a psychographic focus. Imagine what it would do for you if your company ONLY served attorneys within a 100-mile radius. Your marketing, messaging and the networking events you at- tended would allow you to stand out.
Focusing on what you do also spells out what you do not do. How many times have you taken on work for work’s sake? When you focus, you’ll be less likely to become distracted by clients you can’t serve as well.
When light is focused through a magnifying glass, it can burn a leaf, and the focus you place upon your market, clients or geographic area will give you more power, influence and revenue.
If changing your thinking in this area is a challenge, consider the following:
1. What types of customers do you most enjoy servicing? serving?
2. Which service niches have the greatest profit margins?
3. Where are your greatest profit margins and easiest customers to work with?
For our painting business, we found that retirees living near golf courses and in gated communities valued our service the most. When we positioned our marketing and interest with this demographic, we discovered they were the easiest to work for.
As an added bonus, we soon discovered they were also the easiest to schedule. We ended up choosing Venice as our geographic niche and seniors in gated commu- nities as our client niche.
Cracking down on what and whom your company is aiming for will clarify your priorities and establish your company for equally strong strategic allegiances.
Settling in one geographic area gives your company a great founda- tion. A rock, a home base–your headquarters. Knowing you have your foot firmly planted in one spot gives reassurance to your employees, clients and to the community.
You are not a vendor, you become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. You can be trusted. You can be relied upon.
You become known.
When you try to serve everyone and everywhere, you end up dilut- ing your message, your resources, your marketing, your branding…the works.
Divided attention equals divided results.
Once we focused all of our networking and marketing efforts to the narrow niches of geography and people, we didn’t simply become the magnifying glass of quality painting for our community, our focus re- sembled a laser.
As humbly as I can state it, we were the only game in town.
“Grandpa, I want to sell lemonade to everyone. Isn’t that focused? Can I do that?” Sammy asked.
“Think of business niche and focus the same as speaking to a single person, Sammy. Focus equals attention. When you care about someone, don’t you give them your full attention?” Grandpa asked.
“Yeah, but sometimes Mommy pays more attention to stuff like the chicken on the stove,” Sammy pouted. “She doesn’t always give me her full attention…”
“Good point, Sammy.” Grandpa said gently. Sammy blinked, letting the thought settle in. “This applies to chicken or young men…You can’t put your all into something if you don’t have your all to give.”
He picked up Sammy’s makeshift table and moved it to the front of the porch. “Now, shall we start selling lemonade?”
“But there’s nobody here yet…” Sammy observed.
“Yet,” Grandpa emphasized. “There will be!”
Sammy scratched his head and looked around the neighborhood. In a little bit, parents would be coming out to enjoy the cooler evening hours. Kids who didn’t care about the heat were rollerblading or playing hacky sack, and none of them had noticed the lemonade stand had been set up.
“None of them can see us,” Sammy said.
“We just have to catch their eye,” Grandpa’s eyes twinkled.
“We need an eyeball catcher too…?” Sammy muttered to himself.
“What was that? I can’t hear you when you’re so far away,” Grandpa was only a couple steps away from the porch.
“Nothing!” Sammy shouted, making sure he could hear.“What are you doing?”
He stood back and looked at Sammy standing behind a plain table. Grand- pa leaned back on one leg, raised his hands and created a rectangle with his thumbs and index finger. As he squinted with one eye, he asked, “You may be missing one crucial thing to complete your eyeball catcher, Sammy.”
Sammy, quick to catch on, smiled, nodded and ran into the house.
Sammy came out of the house, paint in one hand and poster board in the other. Grandpa trailed behind with some paper and pencils. Not a grandfather and his grandkid—just two boys excited to get their lemonade business going.
“Fifty cents per cup!” Sammy decided proudly.
“What a generous businessman you are,” Grandpa said.
For a while, Sammy was torn between using blue, his favorite color, and yellow, which would be good for lemonade. He stood for a good five minutes, debating between the two colors.
“What’s the problem?” Grandpa asked.
“I want to use blue, but I also want to use yellow,” Sammy shared. “Daddy told me not to be wasteful.”
“How thoughtful of you,” Grandpa said. “But it won’t be a waste if you think they will look good together. Why can’t we use… both?” Grandpa held up the two cans. Sammy’s eyes went wild with excitement. “In fact, it may be even better if you do!”