Mithcell is a 25-years-old entrepreneur running a chimney company in Virginia while working remotely from North Carolina. Through a combination of offline (leaflets, postcards, and hangers) and online (content marketing, SEO and social networks), the company has grown to 5 employees and earned +$220k.
Hi Mitchell! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hi Rich, thanks for having me. As you mentioned, my name is Mitchell. I am 25 and the owner of Patriot Chimney, a chimney company in Roanoke, Virginia, while I actually work remote in Raleigh, NC.
Patriot Chimney provides chimney and dryer cleaning, repair, and builds for residential and commercial clients. The chimney industry gets a bad wrap because a history of poor service, “professionals” selling unnecessary services, and a few other things that lead to distrust. So we are really trying to innovate and disrupt the status quo to make a better experience for our clients.
In this whole thing, I focus on building business strategy, marketing, and sales. My brother, Matt, and his friend, Billy, are the other two owners and they focus on the operations side, actually going out to the homes and performing services.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I have been what many people call a “serial entrepreneur” for a few years now and I think it stemmed from a few different sources. When I was in college I was very involved in a lot of different extracurriculars and always had a full day of class, studying, internships, and meetings. Naturally, when I graduated, I had a lot of free time, even with a full time job. So I decided to start a housekeeping company in Asheville, where I grew up.
For a while, my brother and I talked about starting a business in Roanoke, where he lives. He was in the Marine Corps for 7 or 8 years and I guess he was sick of people telling him what to do. We tossed out ideas like another housekeeping company, a home health business, and even a landscaping company, but none of those stuck.
In 2017, Matt started working for a chimney company in Roanoke and began thinking this is a great industry to be in. It’s very profitable and you’re doing good work making homes safer. He really liked the company he worked for, but he noticed some inefficiencies and nobody listened to his ideas on how to improve the business. During this time, Matt and I would go back and forth about what he should do - either starting our business or continue waiting his turn to speak up about growing the company he worked for.
Eventually, a few of his paychecks bounced, so we decided it was a great time to start Patriot Chimney, so he got Billy, who also worked for the chimney company and served in the Marines with Matt, on board. They started doing a few jobs on the side and the company they worked for eventually caught wind and fired both Matt and Billy a couple of weeks after we started. Truthfully, the plan was to go slow and do work on the side until the other company went belly up. I think Matt and Billy getting fired was the right kick we needed.
How did you build Patriot Chimney?
When we got started, I was in between jobs after moving from Kentucky back to North Carolina. I was applying for jobs but still had a ton of free time. During that period, I built our current website and designed the logo. I also designed all of our condition reports that we fill out during each inspection for chimney and dryer vent services. I set up all of our email services, set up the phone system.
Meanwhile, Matt and Billy figured out how and where to buy the van and equipment. We made a list of everything we’d need for every job that we’d eventually have and figured out what we needed to buy now versus what we could hold off until later. We utilized our connections to see what kind of discounts we could get, especially considering all three of us were out of jobs at this point and we really needed to be lean.
For pricing, we had a pretty good idea what our competitors priced, since both Matt and Billy worked for the competitor for a while. We didn’t want it to be exactly the same as their former employer, but we did want competitive pricing so we called all of the other chimney companies and simply asked their price for their most basic services, like a chimney sweep or inspection. With that information, we had an idea for how we needed to price our services.
The largest obstacles that we ran into during this whole process was that we didn’t have enough money and I was in Raleigh while the company was starting in Roanoke. We borrowed a lot of money from family and used our credit cards to buy most of the equipment and the van. We would also buy only what we needed when we needed it. This means that we didn’t buy all of the items on our list of must-haves at once; we waited until a job required a specific tool before we bought it. Being in Raleigh was very difficult, but we stayed in touch and spoke every single day while we launched. We created tasks and used Monday to keep up with tasks and hold each other accountable.
While the process of getting it started was definitely stressful - unemployed and starting a business - I have to admit that I loved every minute of it. I mentioned that I’m sort of a serial entrepreneur and I really love planning and executing a business idea from scratch and seeing it through to completion. I’m a very type A and thrive under stress (most of the time, at least).
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
The first thing that we did was make simple door hangers with a $25 discount for all services. We also offered free inspections to help get us business in the beginning. We posted on Porch and Thumbtack, which surprisingly was being underutilized by other chimney companies in our market, but used by a lot of customers in the area. We also made a huge effort to make our Yelp, Facebook, and Google Business page at least better than everyone else in the area and began paying for the Yelp ads pretty much right off the bat so we could be ranked higher on their pages.
Since Porch and Thumbtack wasn’t used by our competitors that often, it honestly wasn’t that long after we started until we actually picked up traction. In fact, in our first month, August 2018, we earned just shy of $12,000. This felt incredible since we built something from scratch that earned that much in its first month. I think our timing was just right for us as well since we got started just before the burn season, which is the busiest time for all chimney companies. There’s a good possibility that our customers called us last and went with our service since we could put them on the schedule sooner than our competitors. Now we’re already booked through January and have February closing up as well.
Currently, we don’t offer free inspections or post on Porch or Thumbtack as much anymore (we’re more selective), but we still use door hangers, Yelp, Facebook, and Google like the beginning. We do focus a lot on Facebook and Adwords PPC ads, but a lot of our business comes organically - SEO, referrals, and word of mouth. I work with a company called Godot Media to help create blogs for our website but also work to get backlinks and listings on directories to help bump us up on Google. Godot Media is a company in India that provides different “levels” of content for a pretty decent price. I provide the topics, send it over, and each month I get two 1500 word blogs for about $60. Honestly, the quality isn’t the greatest at the lowest level, which I pay for, but it gets a lot of the work out of the way. I simply go back through, change some words around to fit the southern Virginia tone, and publish. For companies with a lower budget, I definitely recommend doing it how I’ve done it.
We also have a “customer packet” that we share with each of our customers that includes the condition report, referral cards, a list of our other services, and then a postcard where we ask for a review on Facebook, Google, or Yelp.
We’ve also recently hired a door to door salesman, Kyle, who goes through neighborhoods in our market, knocking on doors and leaving newer door hangers. We’ve also implemented a sales cadence that allows for us to consistently reach out to our prospects in a more organized manner. It utilizes a mix of door hangers and mailers, plus targeting homes located in the area with PPC ads to try to boost brand awareness and hopefully taking advantage of the Rule of Seven, which basically says that prospects need to come across your brand at least seven times before they really notice it and start to take action. I’ve heard it’s sometimes up to 12 times, but seven is a good place to start.
Finally, another huge tactic that we use is calling past clients to remind them that the NFPA recommends their chimney be inspected annually by a CSIA trained professional. We also make sure to call all open quotes within 2 days of submitting the proposal and again 2 days after that to try and win the deal. This has helped increase our close rate for open quotes and helped contribute to a strong return rate for our past customers.
What are your goals for the future?
We are very goal-oriented and we have several goals for the future. This fiscal year, which began August 1, we are hoping to reach $350K. Currently, we are a little more than 35% to our goal and right on track to hit that. We are really ramping up our busy season right now. As far as profit is concerned, our goal is to stay at about the same 8% as last year since we are still in growth mode and bootstrapping the whole thing.
Beyond revenue and profit, we’re also looking at expanding our services to the tri-city area of Bristol-Kingsport-Johnson City. The reason is that it’s pretty close to us, there are a lot of people that live in the area, and there aren’t that many CSIA certified chimney pros in the area. So we think it’s the perfect place to set up shop.
Also, we are looking at doing a lot more work within the commercial kitchen exhaust space. We did it a few months ago but realized that we weren’t in any position to add that service because Matt and Billy would work all day servicing chimneys, then go to a restaurant after closing hours to service the kitchen exhaust. They would get a couple of hours of sleep (if that…) then go back out for the chimney work. It was insane and not sustainable at all. So we scrapped the whole idea. This year, 2020, we are going to hire some more people to handle that side of the business.
In addition to hiring folks for kitchen exhaust work, we’ll start to hire more chimney technicians, but focus on hiring people that are skilled in other areas, such as masonry.
My personal goal is to quit my job and finally come on full time. I have been working on this, skipping out on getting paid (except on a few occasions), and putting all of my money back into Patriot Chimney. If everything works out as planned, I’ll only have a few more months with a separate 9-5 job.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
There have been a ton of challenges and obstacles along the way. For starters, it’s never easy to have multiple owners, let alone 3, all of whom are pretty stubborn. This causes some issues where no one really wants to be told what to do and no one wants to tell any of the other owners what to do. Sometimes that creates some bottlenecks in communication, but the best way that we found was to just communicate. You have to talk to each other because you are going through this with several people. What we’ve done to sort of curb this is to have regular meetings, where we talk about upcoming projects, assign different action items, and hold each other accountable for the work. This helps keep us on track and continue to grow.
Another huge challenge that we face and continue to face is the fact that I have another job and I live in a whole other state. I put a lot of focus on Patriot Chimney, even when I’m at my job because I have a goal to eventually work for my company, but there are a lot of items on my docket and a to-do list that has to be placed on the back burner since I simply don’t have time. It’s also very difficult managing this company, a full-time job, a gym schedule, and my personal relationships, but I do it with a very well kept calendar. I use Trello for larger picture items and Asana for daily to do (and groceries). I have my time blocked so I know what I’m working on and when I’m working on it.
Which are your greatest disadvantages? What were your worst mistakes?
One disadvantage to our company that I mentioned earlier is that I’m in North Carolina, while the rest of the company is in Virginia. The problem with this is that there can be sort of a disconnect between me and the rest of the team since I don’t see what goes on every day. I try to make recommendations that, in my head seem to make sense, but don’t make sense at all for those actually doing the work. For example, when we were getting started, I wanted to get rid of paper condition reports, so we bought iPads and an app that would allow upload the condition reports, write on them with a stylus, upload to our Dropbox account, and then email them to the client. The issue with this is that it is very difficult to carry an iPad around when you’re climbing ladders and walking around on a steep roof.
What we do now is if I have an idea, I run it by Matt and Billy to see what they think. Lucky for me, both of them are ex-Marines (or once a Marine, always a Marine?) and they really don’t mind telling me that my idea doesn’t make sense. In all seriousness, they are both very strong critical thinkers and have a great way of analyzing these ideas and thinking of situations that I hadn’t even thought of.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
If we could do things differently, I would probably say that I would’ve gotten our operations software, Jobber sooner and we would’ve hired Kaylin sooner. When we first got started, Matt and Billy were working with pen and paper, answering calls, scheduling clients. I was working my job, filling out PDF proposals to add to Zoho Sign, then sending it off to the clients. Poor Matt and Billy, both of whom have small children, were working hours upon hours well after the jobs during the day were over just to call people back, submit the proposal info over to me, and prepare for the next day. Having something to organize all of that and Kaylin to send the quotes and answer phones, have been absolutely instrumental in our success. If it weren’t for those two pieces, I literally do not think our company would be where it is today.
What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
Reddit - I love reading about different businesses here and their path to success. Even though there aren’t that many chimney companies on there, it’s nice to get different perspectives on the different businesses and strategies. Here are some of my favorites.
SEO Blogs - SEO is one of the top marketing strategies you could focus on when growing your business. And this especially rings true to local service businesses, since, in my experience, most local businesses aren’t putting anything into their website. Here are the top resources that I like to use to learn:
And some other links:
- LinkedIn - Follow business leaders around Raleigh and the USA that post inspirational content.
- Youtube - Tons of videos around marketing. Too many to count.
- Factfulness - Look at data in a very different way.
- Hillbilly Elegy - Understand my roots, personal agency will allow me to overcome.
- Fanatical Prospecting - Always be prospecting. You need to be a salesperson to run a business.