Ask a contractor how they started their business, and a good chunk will say that they had a wealth of experience working under someone else in the HVAC industry, then decided to branch out and start their own company. Here’s what technicians can do now to prepare for being a potential business owner in the future.
Prepare for Working Hard
“Any technician that aspires to become their own boss should get as close to top management and leadership within the company as they can and look for opportunities to help,” said Tye Leishman, president of Tempco Heating & Cooling Specialists, in Powell River, Virginia. He said that he worked with his previous employer for 14 years (before starting his own company), and he always asked how he could help his leaders out at the end of the day.
“You end up building a relationship with them and getting the knowledge that that they have, because they’re going to explain what's actually happening within the business in those conversations,” he said.
Leishman’s journey to owner took a long time. He began his career as an electrical apprentice, followed by a refrigeration apprenticeship. He remembers his employer saying that knowing both electrical and refrigeration knowledge would serve him really well. He formed a close bond with his employer, and the knowledge gained through that relationship set him up for ownership.
“It's all the typical cliché things,” he said. “The reality of owning your own business is just putting in a ton of hard work.”
Leishman said that everybody’s journey to owner is different, but a technician can know it’s time to move to ownership when the excitement of the day-to-day work wanes.
“Every day, I would ask my employer for more, and it just seemed as though he was never able to give me enough,” he said. “Top technicians are the ones in a company that want the tough calls and want to make the big decisions.”
He said that once somebody gets into ownership, they may realize it would be nice to put only 40 hours of work in a week and not have the burden of big decisions. So sometimes it is best for a technician to remain at the company they are working for, rather than branch off and start a new one.
“I would always start with trying to align yourself with the ownership of the company and asking, ‘What more can I do?’” he said. “Maybe you don't have to start your own business if you provide enough value. Maybe that ownership brings you into the company and you have an opportunity to continue growing within that organization. If someone's already built something you can be a part of, there's no reason to build another thing from the ground up.”
For technicians who are confident that they want to own a business, he said that they should be working to learn as much about the industry as they can. Leishman said that with the opportunities the Internet provides (such as YouTube or online university courses), there’s no excuse to not learn something new every day.
“It’s talking to experienced technicians, looking online, and reading books,” he said. “There's really no shortage of where to get your knowledge and information.”
Leishman said that people should not be intimidated by the concept of owning a business. The initial costs of starting an HVAC business are relatively low, especially since most technicians already have their own tools. He started his company with an old, used service van and now has a fleet of 11 wrapped vehicles. However, technicians should not begin a business thinking it will lower the amount of work they have to do.
“Most people go into business thinking they're going to work half as much and make twice the money,” he said. “Every technician that goes down that road always recognizes very quickly how misguided that is.”
He said the possibility of making twice as much with half the work is a possibility, but only in 10 to 15 years. The first 10 years, he said, will involve a lot of hard work. He advised new or aspiring owners to listen to older owners who can offer advice. He remembers his former employer telling him to not work seven days a week and be willing to take a break.
“I said, ‘No, I'm just going to work when I feel like it and run a couple calls a day,” he said. “Very quickly, I was working seven days a week, I had a staff of five people, and I was overwhelmed and stressed out.” He explained that he had wished that he had listened more closely to that advice.
Seeking Mentorship and Software Training
Gregg Swenson, owner of Swenson Heating and Air Conditioning in Princeton, Minnesota, said that technicians interested in ownership should take business classes outside of their tech school.
“I would suggest community college and university accounting and marketing classes, along with doing some private courses on different software applications,” he said. He explained that employers ready to move to ownership might need to learn about new dispatch software, as well as software for calculations like heat loss and heat gain in commercial and residential settings.
Swenson also recommended that employees interested in ownership should seek out mentorship opportunities. He said that distributor classes and training seminars offer opportunities to meet other business owners. Plus, distributors may offer business management classes.
“I think most of those people would be more than willing to get together for lunch, especially if it's not a direct competition,” he said. He explained that he and several other business owners will reach out to each other with questions and ideas, and even occasionally share pricing strategies, since they aren’t in direct competition.
Swenson recommended that a person be financially stable and very well organized before beginning a company.
“If they're just starting out, they should be able to go about 60 days without any sort of income on their end,” he said, saying that they’ll need enough credit to get distributor accounts in line along with a strong business sense. He added that even while working for someone else, they can see a CPA to get a business license and open up distributor accounts to prepare for a new business. Those interested in ownership should meet with an insurance agent and get an idea of what the exact costs of a running the company will be.
“Find a distributor in your area that's really supportive,” he said. “That's probably the most important thing.”
He advised that those starting a business should save absolutely everything and avoid overspending. They should familiarize themselves with social media marketing. Lastly, he said that those beginning a business should always be respectful and never say anything negative.
“Nobody wants to hear negative,” he said.