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Grow Your Contracting Business By Just Saying No

Walls by Design | September 22, 2016

*Note: this is a guest post from Nick May at Walls by Design, a Painting Company based in Denver, Colorado.

E MythIf you are anything like me, you read a lot of books, articles, and listen to podcasts that are full of stories about successful companies that have built great organizations.  For a long time, I felt like I could not relate, and that I would never have a successful business like those I read about in Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, or even my local business publication.  I own a paint contracting business in Denver, CO called Walls by Design.  After reading the E-Myth by Michael Gerber about a dozen times, I finally figured out how to take my small painting business and make it bigger than just me and a few guys.

I meet business owners all the time, it is one of the best part of running my own business.  But far too often, I meet people, good people that struggle building their businesses… just like I did. In fact, I just met another small business owner last weekend while camping.  My wife and I talked to him and his wife, heard about how they had been swindled by an ex-business partner, then again by their office manager.  Running a small business is hard work.  You have to figure out who to trust, who to hire, how to run payroll, deal with customers, and oh, keep all those hats spinning while doing the thing you are supposed to be so good at.

Success comes with Saying NO

I worked very hard the first 15 years of my business, but then I learned how to work a bit smarter.  I think the biggest problem we have as business owners is we either believe we have to do it all to make sure it is done right, or we are afraid of not looking like we know what we are doing.  My story is the latter.  I was always afraid that someone would stand up, point at me, and yell: “You’re a fraud!”  I’ve been pretty good at figuring things out, but, I always wanted people to believe I had it all together.  It wasn’t until I hired someone to help me put systems into my business, that I finally started to get things right.

doing-everythingMost service based businesses rely on people.  People do certain tasks, whether that is painting a room, fixing a leak, or washing a window.  But, most small businesses that have a little bit of success, rely on the business owner, and his/her ability to find the customer, communicate with the customer, service the customer, and collect money from the customer.  If they have some help, it is only with the occasional helper, but far too often, that helper has no idea what their real role is within the tiny organization.

To have true success as a business, you need to create systems.  Systems that guide how, when, and why things are done.  This way, you can provide a consistent experience to your customers that is predictable and calculated.  “But MY business is different.” I can hear you saying.  Yep, that is what I thought too.  I’m a painting contractor.  Every house is different, everything we do has a million ways to do it… well at least that was my thinking about 12 years ago.  We did everything under the sun for any customer that asked, and we were always the MOST expensive.  And I still wasn’t making much money.  I had it all wrong.  Then came 2007.  The economy tanked and I had no business.   I experimented with a low cost, low frills painting service that taught me that my customers were not interested in all the extras I liked to provide.  They wanted good value for my main services: painting walls, ceiling, and trim.  Thus began my journey into less is more.

In about 2010, I started to pare down my service offering, and by 2014, we finally found our groove.  We became highly focused on interior painting and discontinued all the rest.  Earlier this year, we decided we would not even stain anything.  We now paint walls, ceiling, trim, cabinets… period.  We do not do drywall.  We do not offer faux finishing.  We do not paint exteriors.  AND we do not paint any new construction.  What I figured out, was there were certain things I was good at, and I did not make money when I strayed from those things.  As a service business owner, it is hard to say no, right?   We work so hard to get the phone to ring, but what I have learned is that if you say NO to the things you are not great at, you then have the ability to say YES to the things you ARE great at, and you can make money at.

We all believe that we have to say yes.  The customer is going to get mad if you say no.  But if you explain that you just aren’t the best at that one thing, and that you have learned to say no, so that customers get a better end result, they understand.  If however they do not, then you don’t want to work for them anyway.

Be the Specialist


When you start to say no to some things, and are able to say yes to what you want, you will then become known as the best option for what you specialize in.  According to Payscale.com, a physician in general practice in the U.S. has a median income of $140,571.  An oncologist (cancer doctor) makes $243K, a plastic surgeon makes $260K, and a cardiac surgeon makes about $340K.  They are all doctors, but which one would you rather be?

You may be thinking that you will not have enough work, and you will make less money.  I will tell you from experience that once we found our specialty, we grew.  In fact, we have doubled in size over the last 12 months.  When you focus like a laser, you become more effective and more attractive.  Which sounds better?  “We can paint whatever you want” or “We are the best cabinet painters in town. We paint more kitchens than anyone.”

I admit, it is a bit counter-intuitive, but it will work for you too.  So I encourage you to start saying no and start building your company to new heights.


Nick owns Walls by Design, based out of Denver, CO. Nick started the business in 1999 with one employee, and has grown it to be one of the largest residential interior painting business in Colorado. Nick believes in systems, team building, and marketing… not necessarily in that order. When Nick is not working with his team, on systems, or marketing, you can find him playing soccer or podcasting. Nick also hosts a successful interior design podcast called The Chaise Lounge where he shares the stories of some of the most successful designers in the industry today.

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