Keeping the Business Growing Shouldn’t Be Done by You Alone

Look at all the options available to you as you grow your plumbing business

Keeping the Business Growing Shouldn’t Be Done by You Alone

Anja Smith

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I spent my early adulthood working in restaurants. In these businesses, there are clear lines of delineation for responsibilities. There’s a front-of-house and a back-of-house staff. The front-of-house staff takes care of the customers and keeps the dining area neat and tidy. They’re the face of the restaurant.

The back-of-house staff is in charge of running the kitchen — cooking and preparing food, cleaning cutlery and plates, designing menus, etc.

You don’t see sit-down restaurants that are one-person shows. You can’t be in both the front of house and back of house at the same time. The food would burn, and the service would be terrible. Yet in plumbing, that is exactly what we’re asked to do.

Contractor service or trade businesses are fantastic entrepreneurial opportunities because they have low barriers to entry. If you know a trade, like plumbing, it doesn’t take much to hang a shingle and start a business of your own. In fact, thousands of people try it every year.

And yet, many of them fail or stay stagnant. The story I see and hear the most is this:

A plumber thinks he can do it better than his boss. He wants the profits for himself, not just a paycheck. So, he goes out on his own. He starts by calling on friends, neighbors and all the customers he knows. He easily picks up enough business to stay busy for a few months. That’s when word-of-mouth begins to work as more folks find out about his business. At this point, he may feel he has made enough money to try a little advertising.

That advertising keeps the phone ringing for a bit longer. Now, he’s really struggling to keep up with all those calls. He’s trying to be in 10 places at once. He’s falling behind on his billing, missing appointments and forgetting about estimates. His reputation becomes spotty, and the phone calls start to slow down.

This is what I call the “commitment moment.”


This moment forces you to decide if you’re a freelance plumber or a business owner. Did you create a job for yourself or start a company? Many would argue that the decision is to grow or die.

It’s not hard to create a job for yourself in this industry, but a job doesn’t grant the same long-term stability as owning a company. You aren’t building value or equity that can provide for you when you’re no longer able or willing to work the same hours. If you want to become a business owner, that’s a different thing. Because a business owner is like a restaurateur. They don’t expect one employee to do everything.

It’s incredible how we expect contractors to do every part of the business. It creates an obscene list of pros and cons. On the one hand, if you know the craft, you can own the business. On the other, you’ll be wearing at least a dozen hats of different sizes and colors.


If you’re serious about building a business, you’ll learn that as business grows, you can’t do it all forever.

If you’re well-funded, you might be able to hire from the beginning. For most plumbing contractors, though, early investments are in equipment and transportation. That puts you in the boat of being the plumber, business owner, bookkeeper, dispatcher, appointment scheduler, marketing director and more.

Once you get to the commitment moment, the first step is to decide which of these hats you can no longer wear. Then you have to find a new person to wear it.


The decision to hire versus outsource is a big one. Your first employee is always the hardest hire because it comes with more administrative work. If you are over this hump, maybe the decision to bring in an office assistant is easier. Having a great office employee requires training. Are you going to be able to take a week off from your business to train them? Probably not.

For this reason, you may have better luck using a firm or service to off-load responsibility to. These will seem expensive at first, but they typically cost less than an employee and provide higher quality talent than you would be able to afford on your own. Not to mention that they should be giving you back time to spend in the field.

If you decide you’re not ready for an employee but want to deal with an individual, you can try contracting a freelance employee. This would be a 1099 option, so tread carefully. These workers have more freedom in their decisions about how, when, and where to work than an employee does. You don’t have to worry about payroll taxes or workers’ compensation, but you do have to understand the basics of employment law. Seek counsel before deciding this route, and make sure it is the right choice for your business.


Most likely, it will be a very long time before you take off all those hats. The plumber who wants to grow a business is going to continue to evolve and change over time. The work you do day to day when you’re making $125,000 per year versus producing $5 million in revenue are as different as night and day.

At some point, it may not hurt to get some business training if you haven’t already. Once you decide to own a plumbing business, you’re not a plumber anymore. You’re a business person. That’s a harsh reality that many plumbers discover they don’t like.

It’s that reality that closes more plumbing startups than anything else in the first two years of business. By the time you’re running a company with a handful of trucks, you have a real company on your hands. You’ll quickly realize there’s no way to do all this different work on your own.


The value of a business partner in the plumbing industry is widely underrated. A business partner who knows the basics of bookkeeping, marketing, sales, administration, and more is worth splitting the profit with. You might be the blood of the company, but they are the heart that keeps you pumping. Blood is useless without a heart. A plumber without business savvy is not going to form a living, breathing company.

Of course, you have to trust this person implicitly and be on the same page about how business should be done. Finding and maintaining this relationship is difficult, so don’t take the task lightly.


It is really hard to do it all. If you are in the trenches and feel stuck on the precipice, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to complementary home services businesses (or competitors, if they will let you) in your area that are ahead of you in their business journey. That might feel intimidating at first, but it will give you ideas and insights as to what resources might be available.

If you can find business training services, either through the Small Business Administration or a Small Business Development Center, use them. There are often free programs available for folks looking to grow small businesses.

The bottom line is that you might be expected to do it all in the beginning, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all forever. Don’t let a short-term growth challenge deter you from pursuing a business that could be a meaningful asset for the rest of your life.
Embrace your commitment moment.


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