SINCE I WAS 14 YEARS OLD, I have always had a plan. For a while in my youth, I forgot the plan and was temporarily sidetracked. More on that later. After leaving the military, I still had a dream of becoming an HVAC technician, a skill that no one could take away from me. Security.
While I was waiting for my opportunity, I drove a truck, one of the big rigs, and I started a little service company. One warm spring night at a party, a guy I knew from high school, Pat, told me about his business. He had a knack for making money. He was a wheeler-dealer. There is a Pat at every high school. He told me how much money he was making as a chimney sweep. I told him I was interested.
“We should work together,” he said.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
I waited for the call. It never came. Then it dawned on me, how hard could it be? It was glorified janitorial services, complete with top hat and tails!
I went to the library. There were two books on the subject. I read them both several times, learned what I needed to begin and made some calls. Mom? Sis? That was two down.
I was 23 years old, energetic, driven, covered in creosote. I could do this. Find a need and fill it.
I made two big mistakes early on. The first mistake, the name. I had business cards printed up before learning it was a bad name, “Ye Olde English Chimney Sweep!”
Now the clever one-man shops go for names like AAAA Plumbing or AArd Pest Control. Why? The Yellow Pages, man! To be the first company called in the listing. I wasn’t too bright. Half my calls would come from Yellow Pages ads and “Y” is at the end! Hey, I was 23.
The second mistake was starting a wintertime service business in the spring when no one cared about cleaning his or her woodstoves and inserts.
You see, I live in the Northwest where chimney sweeps earn 80% of their annual revenue from September to February. It was mid April.
But nothing could deter me from succeeding. This was MY business and I was having fun. I started knocking on doors, mailing out flyers, asking for referrals.
By my second year, I had more than 250 regular customers. So, over Thanksgiving I had a brainstorm —Christmas postcards. My wife took a picture of me in front of my red Chevy van with the mock chimney on top. In full sartorial splendor, covered in creosote, my Christmas postcard was born. “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Sootfully Yours, Mark Matteson.”
We sent out 250 cards. Just after Christmas, a fellow named John called.
“Come on out, my woodstove needs cleaning,” he said with authority.
According my records, I had just cleaned his woodstove in September. But hey, it’s a loyal customer and repeat business is what it’s all about! So out I went.
He was glad to see me, cheerful and smiling. I did my creosote disappearing act. Afterward, enjoying a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, I noticed my postcard, top hat and all, on his refrigerator.
“Hey, you got my card,” I said.
With a slightly sad but grateful look on his face, he said something I have never forgotten.
“Yes, I did,” he said. “Thanks for the card. It was the only one I received this year.”
Driving home I thought of the song “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles. Never underestimate the power of a holiday postcard or a thank-you note. The true lesson hit me like a 2-by-4 across the forehead. You just never know.