29 Things I Should Have Learned in Contractor Kindergarten
Rather than write a lengthy column this month, I merely created a checklist of some of the little mistakes that I see contractors make. If I list something you should do, well, just do it. The things you get done never come back to haunt you.
1. Embezzlement: I have known very few contractors whose shop or office has burned down but lots who have had embezzlement. Make sure you are insured for embezzlement, as it is not very expensive coverage, and should be a part of any standard business insurance package.
2. Wills: Regardless of your business's size or sophistication, you should have a will. Better yet, meet with a financial planner and do some basic financial and estate planning.
3. Computer Back-up: It is not a matter of if your system will fail, but when. You should back up your system every day and have a back-up copy off site. Also, remember, a fireproof safe will not protect a computer disc from heat damage.
4. Terminate Difficult Employees: The employee you fire never keeps you up at night. If you have a person who complains, drinks, misses time or whatever, let him. In a few weeks, you will ask yourself why you did not fire him years ago.
5. Seatbelts. Make sure your employees wear seatbelts and don't let workers ride in the back of vans or truck bodies. Severe injuries or death in vehicle accidents is much more likely than you might think.
6. Drug testing. Want better employees and fewer attendance issue? Start a drug-testing program. Would you want a "druggie" working at your house? Neither do your customers.
7. One job at a time. Don't start several jobs at once in an attempt to keep customers happy and end up with no one happy. Do one job until it is finished and then move on to the next one.
8. Accounting. Don't understand your books or look at them monthly? Have your accountant or bookkeeper put the information into a format that makes sense and use that information accordingly. Conduct a monthly financial meeting and ask questions until you do understand it.
9. Cash needs. Cash flow has little or nothing to do with income. If you do not have enough cash in the business to fund receivables, equipment, etc., work on a plan to help fix your cash flow.
10. Collections. Have a collection policy and stick to it. Make one person in the office in charge of collections. Follow a written procedure that includes filing a lien for past due jobs.
11. Insurance. We all hate paying insurance premiums, but make sure you are adequately covered. Buy insurance from a professional who handles business insurance, not a buddy or friend. You have no friends when you have a major insurance claim. Remember that insurance is for disasters, not day-to-day mishaps.
12. Customer lists. Don't wait for past customers to call you but rather mail or phone them. Your present customers are always your lowest-cost lead source.
13. Take cash discounts. With the current cost of money, failure to take supplier discounts is much more expensive than borrowing money to do so.
14. Keep a time card on yourself. If you want to make a six-figure income, then you have to perform tasks that are worth six figures. Keep a time card on yourself in 30-minute intervals and then put an hourly rate by every task you perform. Delegate or eliminate tasks that do not generate income.
15. Pay yourself a salary. Don't mix your business and personal finances. Pay yourself a salary each month. Write a check and put it in a desk drawer, even if you cannot afford to cash it.
16. Accrual vs. cash statements. If your accountant says it is OK to pay your taxes with a cash statement that is fine but for monthly financial analysis, use accrual accounting methods. You must know what you owe others and what people owe you to know where you are financially.
17. Don't build your own office or house. Many contractors dream of building their own office or home. We find this costs the average contractor $100,000 in lost income. Most simply do not have the time to undertake such a project.
18. Subs vs. employees. Don't cheat; it is not worth the risk. You know whether someone is really an employee. If it smells like fish and looks like fish, well it's fish.
19. Bill change orders separately. When dealing with consumers, don't wait until the end of the job to bill change orders, issue them as they occur and bill for them separately. This helps everyone avoid surprises.
20. Pay taxes on time. Whether personal or payroll taxes, pay your tax bills on time and avoid a penalty. The government is a very expensive banker.
21. Hire work ethic, teach skill. Hire people who will show up and you can turn into employees. If people have a work ethic problem, you probably cannot change their ethics. But you can teach skills to a dependable, hard worker.
22. Avoid Risky Jobs. If the job is too large or if it's a customer you do not know and if you cannot take the risk of nonpayment, don't do it. The jobs you never did, never bankrupt you.
23. Talking Promises. Never mention to an employee that he might own or run the business unless you are ready for it to happen right now. Employees tend to forget the price of behavior change but remember the rewards.
24. Family Members. Pay and position family members like any other key employee. Be realistic about how many family members the business will actually support. Remember if the business goes broke, everyone loses.
25. References. Check all employee references and do background checks. Don't unknowingly put a rapist or child molester into someone's home.
26. Return phone calls. Return all calls; it is easy to say "no thank you." Someone may want to tell you something important. On two occasions we found theft in one contractor that lead to another, but the other contractor would not return our calls.
27. Check out big decisions. Prior to constructing a building, expanding, hiring a salesperson, or any other move, ask someone who will offer an unbiased opinion. "What if" is always a lot cheaper than "oh no" advice.
28. Set job targets. It is hard to win or run a race when you do not know how far you are going to run and how fast you need to get there. Set job targets and milestones so employees can use them as a production guideline.
29. Have a safety consultant. Institute some type of safety plan and have access to a safety consultant. If you have a death in the workplace, it may be too late to find someone. You need guidance from an expert.
Business is a never-ending challenge. I hope some of these tips will help you through.