Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone, my name is Mitchell and I’m one of the three founders of Patriot Chimney. We sweep, repair, and build chimneys and also service and repair dryer vents around the Roanoke Valley in Virginia.
We created the company in order to provide really, really awesome, transparent, and trustworthy chimney and dryer vent services in our region. You see, chimney companies don’t typically receive a positive reputation and we’re out to change that. In fact, we’ve been fortunate enough to provide our services to more than 350 homes in an area that spans from Lynchburg, VA all the way down to Blacksburg, VA. What’s more is that we’ve also been able to generate more than $212,000 in revenue during our first year, with 8% of that being net profit.
I studied marketing in college, but my experience in the past few years has been a mix between marketing and sales, so my focus is primarily around building the sales and marketing strategy for us. My brother (Matt) and a friend of his (Billy) focus on the operations, actually getting on the roof and doing some real dirty work.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When I was in college, I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities and always working. When I graduated, frankly, I became bored after work. My mom owned a housekeeping company when I was younger and I thought that would be a good idea, so I created a housekeeping company and hired her and my aunt to work it. My brother, Matt, and I would talk about creating different businesses together since he was out of the Marines and we’d go back and forth between things like home health, more housekeeping, or even a landscaping company, but we never really could agree on one.
The most important thing you can do is communicate - who does what, set due dates that you all agree on, hold each other accountable, and create consequences for failures.
During this time, Matt started working for one of our competitors in the Roanoke valley and used his GI Bill to get certified through the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), which is the main chimney/dryer vent education association in the USA. After a while, Matt helped his friend Billy get a job at the same company. They noticed some shady practices, their paychecks bouncing, and their ideas to help grow the business were cast aside by the owner. They made it through the burn season (the busiest time in the industry) but that following summer they were let go.
A few weeks before they were fired, I had actually just moved to Raleigh from Kentucky and I had plenty of free time before I started working again. This was the perfect time to take Matt & Billy’s experience sweeping and my experience already creating and operating a service-based company and create a chimney company from scratch.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Since Matt and Billy worked for the chimney company we knew exactly what we needed to offer as far as the services are concerned and we were familiar with our competitor’s pricing. So the first thing we did was make a list of all of the different services that we would be able to offer and added under each service which tools and equipment we would need in order to do the job safely. Then we made a separate spreadsheet with the equipment and figured out how much each item cost from the distributor and created tiers to categorize the importance of each tool.
Second, beyond the tools, we looked at what we needed as far as licenses, insurance, and certifications are concerned. It turned out that we needed a class B Virginia Contractor’s License, general liability insurance (which is very hard to find as a chimney company), and we needed to transfer our CSIA certifications & National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG) membership over from the competitor company to our company.
Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint; you have to play the long game. Create goals for the next 1, 3, and 5 years and then base your short term goals on those.
Then, to ensure that we were working efficiently and consistently, Matt and Billy worked on building a standard operating procedure (SOP) that we actually still use today. Part of that SOP was developed by working on and being the best at simple things that other chimney companies aren’t very good at. For example, we run a camera down the flue during every inspection, take pictures, and, if we find anything alarming, we explain to the homeowners exactly what it is, what caused it, and what needs to happen in order to fix it. We do this because:
- It’s truly the safest way to do things - we can run the camera and see any deficiencies, whereas most chimney companies just eyeball it.
- It helps the homeowners literally see any deficiencies inside the chimney
- Gives us proof for diagnostics.
Finally, we started to look at different softwares and tools that will help make our lives a lot easier, received pricing, and set revenue & profit goals in order to get the items we want.
Our first Van
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we were getting started, as I mentioned, I was in between jobs, so I had a lot of time. Fortunately, that gave me a lot of time to work on Patriot Chimney’s website. In addition to building the website, I set up the phone system, created the logo, filed the tax paperwork, and ordered uniforms, business cards and door hangers/flyers. All in all, it took about a week or two, working several hours per day.
While I was working on that stuff, Matt & Billy hit the ground canvassing neighborhoods, calling old friends in Roanoke, and trying to have conversations about what we were doing. They were also working on securing memberships with Copperfield and other chimney suppliers so that we would be able to get the partner discounts on material and equipment for jobs.
All three of us were heavily invested in getting the company off the ground and a big part of that was buying the site, phone system, marketing materials, equipment, etc. We pooled our own money that we had, used credit cards, and received about $5,000 from family and friends as a loan. The initial start-up costs, including the van was about $7,500-8,000.
I’ve started a couple of businesses in the past as the sole operator, so it was interesting trying to coordinate different pieces of the puzzle with three people. No one wants to be told what to do as an owner and at the same time, we all respected each other enough to not want to tell anyone what to do either. So managing the project was pretty difficult.
Once we became acquainted with working with one another on something this important, it became clear that we needed to become more organized, assign roles, and get focused on the same goal. My advice to anyone starting out is to set clear expectations, agree on work to be done, and hold everyone accountable. It might be awkward, but trust me - it is worth it in the end.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In order to earn the customer’s business, we do a mix between digital marketing and in-person marketing (not sure if that’s what you actually call it). At first, I was focusing almost exclusively on digital marketing since I am in Raleigh, doing the typical SEO, PPC, and social media and that kept a steady stream of customers. I think that allowed us to grow a lot, but we felt that we could do more.
At that time, Matt and Billy were answering the calls, scheduling the work, and frankly doing a lot of admin work on top of all of the chimney work. This is primarily because I had another job that wasn’t Patriot Chimney that took 8 hours per day. They were getting really close to complete burnout. So to free up their time, we had to hire an administrative assistant, who was actually our first hire. Now she answers all of the calls, returns calls, manages the schedule, and works on projects that I need help with. We were missing a lot of calls throughout the day, so having Kaylin has really been a blessing, and we’ve been able to grow a lot more since she’s been on board. But, still, we felt we could do more.
So once we had Kaylin answering calls, Matt and Billy doing their thing, we decided it was time to hire a salesperson. A lot of blogs actually advised against this, but with my background in sales, I thought that I could build out a door-to-door sales program, build a sales playbook, create revenue and sales goals, and create a sales engine for our company that would help bring in more business. This definitely turned out to be a much bigger job than I originally anticipated, but we are earning dozens of new clients each month so far, our salesperson is breaking his own records weekly and having conversations about our service with hundreds of customers.
Our salesperson works out of a sales cadence, which is typically more for inside sales, but this way he staying organized and we have methodical follow up for the prospects. For example, the first day he knocks, if they don’t answer he leaves a door hanger without a discount. Two weeks later, he goes back at a different time; if they don’t answer he leaves a door hanger with a discount that has an expiration date of 7 days after. Finally, after another two weeks, he leaves a third door hanger that’s a “sorry we missed you” type thing. All the while, I am exporting his list of neighborhoods and sending mailers to those people he left hangers for. This way we are targeting people who may not have otherwise looked up Patriot Chimney and touching them up to 6 times that we know of (they could look us up or see an ad on Facebook or something like that). This is definitely very inspiring for all of us because he is putting himself out there each day and I know that we are going to get a great ROI out of this sales program.
Thank you card that we leave behind each chimney service
Online, I work pretty hard to always have some decent content published for our neighbors in Roanoke. I work with a content group out of India called Godot Media to have blog posts written twice per month. Admittedly, I pay for the cheapest option and because of that, I have to go back through and update it so that it sounds more conversational in the southeastern Virginia style. I also try pretty hard to make some decent graphics to share. What I do when I share the content requires the prospect to go back to a landing page that I built on the website, where they sign up. Once they've signed up they receive an email with the piece attached. Then, automated through Aweber, I send follow up emails with more content, eventually asking for their business.
This is generally our style through Facebook ads. For Google ads, I send the clients to a landing page that is a bit more direct when asking for the sale, because I think the folks on Google are clearly further along in the sales cycle, especially when they’re searching for things like “chimney sweep in Roanoke.”
To retain customers, we work hard to provide a really good service, to begin with. Matt and Billy always share the diagnosis with the client, show pictures, and try to explain everything in a simple way so that the customer knows exactly what’s going on. Following service, Kaylin always calls them back within 48 hours of their last job to see how everything went and emails them a survey to fill out that we use to evaluate operations. Then, we send them postcards or thank you cards with a handwritten note to simply say “thanks for your business.” We’re only in our second year, but to get the customers back for round 2, we call and remind them that NFPA and all local fire codes recommend having their system checked by a professional each year. I don’t have any exact numbers, but so far this year our win rate on past clients has been extraordinary.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are profitable and we are growing. In our first year, we earned over $212,000 in gross revenue, but our net profit was only 8%. This is because we had to buy everything to get started and upgrade some of the cheaper equipment. We spend anywhere between $300-500 per month on both digital and in-person marketing. That’s to pay for blogs, ad spend, mailers, and door hangers.
Listen to your clients. One of the best things that we did was figure out what our competitors sucked at; we looked at poor Yelp reviews and made a note of what the customers want that our competitors didn’t deliver on.
Since we’ve gotten started, no one has had to miss a paycheck so that’s something to be very thankful for. We are still operating out of my brother’s house, though we did expand to get a storage unit off-site to house a lot of our equipment and materials. I am still working in Raleigh and still have a separate job and still have not received a steady paycheck. My goal has been to put my payback into the business so that we can grow it before I came on full time. At the time of writing, in October, our goal is to have me in full time by January.
Listen to your clients.
We are always looking for new ways to expand. In fact, we have been looking into moving into Bristol, VA and eventually out to Asheville, NC, where I grew up, within the next 5 years. We are looking at opening an online store to sell hearth accessories to our clients and beyond. We have also already created a non-profit called Combat Boots to Top Hats, which is designed to connect combat veterans to work opportunities in the chimney industry. This is a very special cause for us since 4 out of the 5 (I’m the only one…) employees are veterans, and 3 are combat veterans.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As I’ve mentioned, I have started a couple of businesses by myself. Through that, it’s really just working through the list of things you need to get done. It’s not as fun or as stressful as starting a business with your brother and a friend. The most important thing you can do is communicate - who does what, set due dates that you all agree on, hold each other accountable, and create consequences for failures. It’s very awkward at first, but it’s extremely useful. You can use a tool like Trello, which is a nice project management tool that you can use the cards to create jobs, due dates, and assignments.
Timing is very important too. The fact that Matt & Billy got fired at the same time that I was in between jobs was the perfect storm that led to the creation of our business. I never really thought about it until this interview, but if we didn’t have all the free time to dedicate to this company and Matt & Billy didn’t have the fire under their seats to still support their family, we may not have had the pressure to get going. We were all scared, throwing a lot of money out there when we didn’t have jobs was a huge risk, but we believed in ourselves and the mission and worked very hard to get the word out there that Patriot Chimney exists.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Jobber - field operations management system. There is a lot that we do with Jobber and I’m pretty sure we’re still not using it to its full capabilities. Customers can schedule, request/approve/deny quotes; we can route jobs, time different work, track travel, track expenses, send quotes, send invoices, and a lot more.
- SalesRabbit - door to door sales management system. We pay for an extra feature that provides a lot of stats about the households that Kyle is targeting. This way he can utilize his time in the most efficient manner possible. There’s also a module that helps with training for d2d sales.
- Zoho Mail - Free professional mail system. I can’t stand when companies have emails from Gmail ([email protected]). Zoho allows you to have a professional business email ([email protected]) for free. It’s very nice too, especially at the price lol.
- Zoho CRM - Pipeline management. SalesRabbit helps keep Kyle organized with where he’s been, but once the customer has agreed to inspection, there isn’t a way to keep track of SalesRabbit. So we still use the CRM to keep up with that.
- Aweber - Email marketing. I use this to email current clients, but also to create automatic follow-ups with leads from landing pages.
- Zapier - I don’t actually use Zapier yet because a lot of the systems that I use require a more expensive plan, but I really want to plug this in there, because everyone needs to know about the automation capabilities of Zapier. Once we earn enough to afford the bigger plans for Jobber, SalesRabbit, Awebber, and I think a few more, you better believe I’ll be automating a lot of these tasks.
- Asana - This is a simple task list. There are a lot of things to get done throughout the day. I use this to help me know exactly what I need to do to stay on track. I even use it to make my grocery list for Sunday!
- Trello - simple project management. I use Trello for a view on larger projects and categorize them as To Do, Doing, Done. I’ve used it in a much more comprehensive way, but for me today, I keep it pretty simple.
- Facebook Ads
- Hotjar - Conversion Rate Optimization tool. I can record users and get heatmaps for scrolls and clicks. It’s pretty useful for optimizing all of my landing pages.
- Upwork - Freelancers. I use Upwork to hire freelancers for jobs that I can’t do, like with more complex graphic design and web development work.
- NiceJob - Reviews software. I connected it to Jobber and reviews sites. When a job is marked as complete, NiceJob automatically sends the client a request for review and then follows up automatically a few times.
- Grasshopper - Phone System that forwards the calls to our cell phones.
- Zoho SalesIQ - Chat bar on the website. Pushes the leads to CRM.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
LinkedIn - follow business leaders around Raleigh and the USA that post inspirational content.
Youtube - tons of videos around marketing. Too many to count.
Factfulness - look at data in a very different way.
Hillbilly Elegy - understand my roots, the personal agency will allow me to overcome.
Fanatical Prospecting - always be prospecting. You need to be a salesperson to run a business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The first one is that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint; you have to play the long game. Create goals for the next 1, 3, and 5 years and then base your short term goals on those. That’s going to help give your operation purpose; it will help you stay organized.
That being said, don’t be afraid to pivot. It’s okay to shift your plans, so long as it coincides with your end goal (this obviously doesn’t ring true if your long term goals change too). For example, a big part of our short term strategy was to clean restaurant kitchen exhaust hoods. This was very difficult because Matt & Billy were working during the day and had to go out to the kitchen exhaust jobs in the evening after the restaurants closed. Then they had to go to the chimney jobs during the day the next day. It was a nightmare. It’s still a good addition to our services, but we decided to hold off on jobs until we can hire more people to help exclusively with kitchen exhausts.
My last one would be to listen to your clients. One of the best things that we did was figure out what our competitors sucked at; we looked at poor Yelp reviews and made a note of what the customers want that our competitors didn’t deliver on. And since we’ve started, we always ask the clients how we can improve and we really take that to heart to ensure we’re providing the best service possible.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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