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Your Trade is Not Your Business

For more than a dozen years now, I’ve studied Chinese martial arts.

For more than a dozen years now, I’ve studied Chinese martial arts. It started with a love of kung-fu movies and one day I just had to sign up for classes.

But the reason it’s gone on for more than a decade is that I was lucky enough to find a great teacher. He studied in China back in the 1980s. A few of his teachers were some of the martial arts masters who survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In his prime he was a fantastic martial artist (he’s just turned 60) and he remains a brilliant instructor.

And he is, by his own confession, a terrible businessman.

His marketing and branding efforts were, at best, sporadic and un-targeted. And this from a man who used to do movie work, stunt work, motion capture performance for popular video games – all these things that gave him access to a wide, diverse audience of potential students.

But more than that, he was bad at the nuts-and-bolts of running a martial arts studio. Simple things like collecting student fees, finding dependable real estate (one summer, we worked out in a nearby park!), cultivating a reliable group of assistant-instructors so he could take time off.

My point is that your trade is not your business. Too many people think that being successful at the one automatically makes you successful at the second.

It’s a story that’s only too familiar to a lot of people in the plumbing and heating trades. Everyone knows that guy. He’s a master plumber who really knows his stuff. Everybody who’s used him recommends him to their friends. And he runs a little one-man shop or a mom-and-pop shop; his eldest kid is usually there in summertime, making supply runs or doing small jobs.

He advertises in the phone book and the number goes right to his cell. And if he hustles he can always find enough work to keep busy and to pay his bills and hey, maybe even spend a little time out at the lake twice a year. But when the time comes to sell the business and retire? No one is interested. Because for all of his skill in his trade, he’s never built a business.

My point is that your trade is not your business. Too many people think that being successful at the one automatically makes you successful at the second, only to realize – for some people late in the game – that it isn’t so. There are a lot of skills that transfer: a good head for numbers, attention to detail, and problem-solving are all important for both the plumbing trade and the plumbing business, but at the end of the day the two are very different animals.

Every issue of CONTRACTOR delivers industry news, tips on how to better do the actual tradework (Mark Eatheron’s series on commissioning hydronic systems is a great example) and finally ways to build and grow your business. And for some people that means franchising is the way to go (check out Kelly Faloon’s article and Contracting Business’ Terry McIver’s).

But whether you go the franchise route or not, there are plenty of resources out there. Publications like this one, but also seminars, classes, associations and teachers who can all help you build a better business.

And speaking of teachers, how is my martial arts instructor doing these days? Well he’s still teaching to a small circle of dedicated students -- but remember how I mentioned he had done movie and video game work? He’s managed to find a second career out on the convention circuit signing autographs and meeting with fans. We should all be so lucky!

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