Interview with Miles Bennett of Actually Handyman

Miles BennettThis interview is with Miles Bennett of Actually Handyman. Enjoy.

Tell us a little background info about yourself and your handyman business. What is the name of it? What city and state do you service? How long have you been in business? How did you start?

I am a former business executive that needed to change my life, in order to save my life. I have worked at many things in my life, and enjoyed things about most of these positions. But I had never loved my career enough, until I retired and went into business for myself. In January 2011, at 53 years of age, I started a business as an artisan contractor, making concrete countertops. Then, 8 months ago, with too much time on my hands, I decided to start a side business as a handyman – I call it ‘Actually Handyman’.

Do you have employees (if so, how many) or do you operate the business entirely on your own?

No, I operate the business entirely on my own. Occasionally, I may call out my brother to help me with something, but mostly I am by myself. In the corporate world I managed up to 175 employees. As you might well understand, I think a sole-proprietor business is the way to go!

What was the toughest part about starting your handyman business and how did you overcome it?

I spent my early career working in trades, or working in the building material industry. I know how to do a lot of stuff – but I would always debate with myself about value of any jobs I bid on. Figuring out the right balance between wage expectation, my ‘Trip’ charges, time estimates on jobs – those sorts of things. I worked pretty cheaply, in the beginning – but only because I wasn’t looking at my labor correctly. Yeah, I could paint a garage for in an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half, but what about the set-up, the masking and so on. I would leave that out of my bid. I had to learn to bid the full scope of work.

How did you get your first few jobs? How long did it take you to realize that you had a business worth pursuing?

I had considered doing handyman work for a while, but I noticed at least six handyman ads in our local weekly newspaper – every week. At first I thought, ‘Maybe the market is saturated.’ I bought some business advertiser postcards and left them door to door in my target area. I got a few call backs, nothing too big, but then a funny thing happened. Around this same time – I got a call from a guy I had given a countertop bid to, the summer before. He didn’t buy my countertops, because he chose tile, instead. He was unhappy with the result of the tile grout, and somehow figured I was the guy to call about it. He wanted me to remove the grout, and install a nicer bed of replacement grout. I took on the challenge, and did a nice job. And since August, this gentleman has thrown more work my way, to the tune of over $5,000. Between this customer and the few call backs I got from my postcards, I haven’t looked back. Word got out to a few real estate firms, as well, and between the realtors and the return customer referrals – I am as busy as I care to be, in only 8 months!

How long did it take you before you started earning a decent living from your handyman business?

First off, I am a bad example here. I am not sure I make a living wage off my handyman business, yet. After 8 months, I guess I take home between $1,500 and 2,500 a month. That’s a lot, or not much, depending on where you live, I guess. I live in California, and that amount won’t get you too far. But, I enjoy the people I meet, and enjoy being helpful to them. Personally, I have gained a sense of purpose becoming a handyman.

What are your best sources of customers? Where do you advertise? What are your top marketing methods?

I don’t market, because I wanted to keep my business hyper-local – Ideally, within 2 miles of my house. I have networked, instead. People I work for give my name to others – This group possibly represents about 30% of my customers. Customers of mine have often turned into repeat customers The rest of my work comes from realtors, mostly by direct referral to their clients. I have also done work directly for these realtors. Handyman businesses can be great problem-solvers for realtors, especially the very successful realtors with high numbers of sales units. They have the potential to provide almost a constant stream of work.

Have you made any mistakes? What were they? If you could go back in time, what would you do different?

Am I human? I fully expected to make mistakes, and I fulfilled my promise! The key is, you are going to make mistakes, but if you pony-up, and fix those mistakes, your customers will trust you even more. You’ll likely lose wages on that job, but you still get called back by the customer because you were honest about your mistake. I am living proof. I usually make mistakes with something new – understandable. But I sometimes didn’t think processes through, well enough. I learned, but I paid for the lesson. I have learned to say no, if – I won’t enjoy the work – at all; or, if I stand to have too much of a learning curve. By-in-large, I have realized it pays to install or replace ‘wheels’, not invent them.

What do you think it takes to be successful as a handyman?

Good customer service, pride in your work, honesty, integrity. Knowledge of fixing things is also a real plus (Ha, Ha!). Mostly, I think people are hoping to find for someone who is handy at a lot of things, does decent work, and someone they can trust. People want to like you – just give them a reason! I find most homeowners will call you out for a first job, almost like it is an audition. If they like the result of the one job you do for them, they will pull out a much longer list of other work they need to have done.

What motivates you?

I love to doing projects! I also want to feel useful. As a handyman, I repair things for people, and they are more than happy to pay me for my work. I am my own boss, make my own schedule, low stress, time off when I want. I am using my collected knowledge to create income with virtually no commute. Why wouldn’t I be motivated?!

What kinds of people do you have difficulty dealing with? Any good stories?

I have a career full of stories in the corporate world – but as a handyman, not so much. I guess I have been lucky.

How do you like to spend your free time? How do you balance your business and personal life?

It can be difficult. I feel a great loyalty to my clients, and if one of them calls me with a problem, and I am not doing anything – I may go see them right then and there. The wife does not like this if it is a Saturday. So I just work case by case to try and strike a balance. I work on my accounting system at night, after she is asleep. But it’s my choice. This is the first time I have ever felt that my job was really integrated into my personal life. I don’t live a personal life that is separate from my business self. It’s all me, 24/7. But then I also sleep until 8 or 9 AM… Because I can. I usually like doing the work for my business, no matter when I do it. It’s not drudgery. The money I make as a handyman is linked to my wife and my favorite hobby – travel. So it’s a means to an end I love. The more I make, the better the trips will be!

Do you have a website for your business that you would like to share?

I have a page on Facebook under the name ‘Stone Fish Design’, which shows examples of my concrete countertop work, and some of my other art. I don’t have a website, I don’t want one to try and grow the business, too much. Once again I say, the spark that lights the world on fire would never be made by my hand. I may be an anomaly in your handyman pool.

A lot of new handymen seem to have problems pricing jobs. Is there any advice you can offer them?

Consider all aspect of your work. You hustle down material – that’s not free! you have a certain amount of prep, actual building or assembling, followed by clean-up.
I charge a $40 trip charge on most every job – this covers my gas, and puts money towards other business expenses. And tack-on some form of Trip Charge. You have gas, insurance, registration fees, business license fees, etc. If you think you are making $25 an hour, but all of those business related charges are coming out of your pocket – you’re making less than you think. After that, I add in the number of hours required to do the work, and multiply that times my hourly rate. Finally, I price out and total all costs for materials I will be required to provide materials, sometimes with 15-20% tacked on for my knowledge of the better materials to purchase. Knowing about good material is of value to your customer. After all, both the customer and I only plan to do this job once.
One final word on estimating – if you are like me, you under-estimate labor hours, as worry about over-pricing. My advice – start adding a half hour, or even an hour to bids, just to allow for the balls of spaghetti we uncover when we are called to perform a simple job. Don’t give away your labor! Lose a job, that’s right – lose a job! Every once and a while, you need to – otherwise you will never discover the market’s ceiling. And just in case you don’t know, that ceiling is a moving target – so you need to check for it, on a regular basis.

What are the most common mistakes you see other handymen make?

I don’t watch other handyman, but a lot of them seem to take what I would call a guerrilla approach. They come in, strike quickly, get paid, and won’t return phone calls if there is a problem. As I said, I haven’t witnessed this, but some clients have related stories like that to me. That is a terrible business approach – and you’ll really limit the field potential if you ditch customers like this, on a regular basis. Like I said before – they are simply looking for a handy, honest person they can call on with they need a handyman. Perform decent work on top of it all, and your name will be listed under ‘Favorites’, in their smart phone.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in the business?

Do your best. Be honest. Listen to your customers, and talk with them like they’re a friend. And get tools, or a truck or van. Don’t skimp on tools, good tools are a good investment in your business. Perform work that is just as good, or better than what you would expect to be done at your own house.

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