Not every successful small business is glamorous.
In fact, many of the small businesses in the United States are stressful, dangerous, tiring, and downright icky.
But you’ve heard the phrase: “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.” Well, these six small business owners aren’t just “doing it”—they’re doing it really well in industries you couldn’t even imagine operating in.
We asked them how they run successful small businesses in industries that few people dream of getting their hands dirty in. Here’s what they had to say about dirty success.
1. Treat Your Employees Right
When you hear “environmental air quality industry,” it doesn’t sound so bad… Right?
Well, if you know anything indoor air quality industry, then you know that the real day-to-day work is cleaning out air ducts and trash chutes. You might not have ever thought about it, but those metal ducts and pipes that run throughout the walls and ceiling of buildings are magnets for dust, dirt, and in the worst case—dead rodents.
For obvious reasons, air quality systems need to be cleaned on a regular basis. Maria Vizzi, President of Indoor Environmental Solutions, knows firsthand just how dirty this service industry can get.
“When cleaning trash chutes, our technicians have had New York City-sized rats literally charge towards them. Our technicians find all types of bugs and vermin living within even the most luxurious, high-rise buildings. As if the creatures weren’t enough, employees also experience odors that would make others pick a different profession altogether,” says Vizzi.
When you’re in such a dirty and demanding industry, how do you keep your employees from throwing in the towel?
Well, for Vizzi, it’s all about hiring the right people—and investing in their safety and happiness at work:
“This industry is not for the faint of heart. It’s such undesirable work that we make sure that our employees aren’t intimidated by anything.”
“If you run a similar ‘dirty’ businesses, make your employees your top priority. Extra care and consideration needs to be taken to make sure your employees are protected with the appropriate, personal protective equipment. Plus, you need to let your employees know how much they’re appreciated.”
-Maria Vizzi, President of Indoor Environmental Solutions.
2. Build Your Reputation
The hazardous materials removal industry is a double whammy when it comes to undesirable industries—it’s both dirty and dangerous.
That asbestos, lead paint, or biological waste that you can’t live near—someone has to take that dangerous stuff out and dispose of it. And that’s where Ted Gallagher, Vice President and Partner of Environmental Hazards Control, comes in.
Like many other small business owners in similar industries, Gallagher does a job that no one else wants to do—or is even qualified to do correctly. And because no one else is willing or able to do the work themselves, Gallagher and other businesses in the hazardous material removal industry can charge a premium for their services.
And as a steady-growing, $214 billion dollar industry, the hazardous waste removal industry has a lot of successful small businesses under its umbrella.
“I knew I was getting successful after signing my very first abatement project in 2004. From that first signed contract in the basement of that Lancaster City row-home, our growth has been exponential. This first project wouldn’t be the last that my business partner and I would get dirty doing ourselves as we grew the business. Fast forward to 2016, we now have over 50 employees and have performed $1.5 million projects—a far cry from that first $1,200 dollar basement project,” says Gallagher.
From a 2-person small business to a 50-person company making multiple $1.5 million deals, Gallagher’s made it in a dirty, dangerous industry that no one wants to come close to.
But if you do want to tap into some of the potential behind the hazardous material removal industry, here’s what Gallaher has to say:
“Here’s my advice to businesses in similar ‘dirty’ industries: If you want to be successful, always do things the right way and with integrity—even if it costs you money. Your reputation is the single most valuable part of your company and without it, your doors will close.”
-Ted Gallagher, Vice President and Partner of Environmental Hazards Control.
3. Invest in Your Business
Have you ever woken up on a cold, snowy morning dreading the moment you have to go outside and shovel the front steps?
Well, imagine the feeling of being in bone-chilling cold clearing snow—but make it much, much worse. That’s Joe Palumbo’s job, owner and operator of The Ice Dam Guys.
If you live in a northern climate with frequent snowstorm emergencies, you might have been plagued by an ice dam before. An ice dam is just what it sounds like—a buildup of ice on roofs of buildings that can ruin attics and cause rot and mold all throughout houses. When a snowstorm emergency hits, Palumbo and the Ice Dam Guys save homeowners from the headache of a bad ice dam.
But it isn’t as easy as shoveling the driveway. “The only way to clear them is to stand on the slanted roof in feet of snow and ice with freezing temperatures, using a steam gun to melt them away. It’s seriously brutal, cold, and undesirable to the limit,” says Palumbo of his business.
If Palumbo’s industry wasn’t unique enough, here’s another aspect of the industry that throws a wrench in how he runs a successful business: As an emergency-based industry, homeowners in need will pay just about anyone for any kind of help.
“One key to making it in this business is to stay out of the low-bidding ‘race to the bottom.’ Many roofers, gutter cleaners, handymen, and other contractors who often run out of work during the winter will do anything to get an ice dam removal job,” says Palumbo.
“They’ll give unrealistic estimates over the phone, they’ll hire anyone and not train them before sending them on a roof, they’ll buy cheap equipment, or they won’t even come to the job with enough equipment, they won’t carry the proper insurance, so that if one of their employees falls off the roof and breaks his neck, the homeowner gets sued into the Stone Age.”
The key to running a successful business in this industry?
For Palumbo, it’s investing in the quality of his business and doing his jobs well:
“My company, the Ice Dam Guys, has succeeded in part by investing in our equipment, by not giving customers sunny news over the phone and the bad news only once we’re on the roof, and by having stuck with it for 20 years. Now we know exactly what it takes to do the job right in an emergency. We’ve traveled overnight to Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, D.C., and many other locations when a freak storm hits to help local ice dam victims and deliver proper service.”
– Joe Palumbo, Owner and Operator of The Ice Dam Guys.
4. Stick to Your Values
By nature of the trade, the cleaning industry is a dirty one.
But did you know that it isn’t just “dirty” in the traditional sense of the word? It’s also very cut-throat, making it an even more unpleasant industry to work in. Rune Sovndahl, Co-founder of Fantastic Services, experienced the “dirtiness” of the cleaning industry firsthand.
“Going into the cleaning industry with no experience was a real eye-opener. It was a dirty industry. I’m not exaggerating when I say that within the first month we had competitors slice the tires of our cars as a warning to stay out of ‘their’ industry,” says Sovndahl.
How can you stay in an industry that all of your surrounding competitors want to kick you out of, and with such aggressive actions?
Well, for Sovndahl, it was about defining their values, sticking to them, and being downright better than their competition that wanted them gone.
“This was not a nice industry. It was the first thing that my business partner Anton and I decided we wanted to do differently. We wanted it to be simple. Simple to pay, and simple to count on the quality of service—which we wanted to be fantastic. In short, we wanted to clean up the cleaning industry.”
Once they defined their goals and values among similar businesses that didn’t appear to have any, Sovndahl really hit his stride. Likeminded employees approached the two, determined to join the industry they were trying to clean up.
“We soon found that as well as the cowboys and the charlatans, there were a lot of motivated people out there. These were people who didn’t know how to market, who weren’t properly trained, or who didn’t have the money to buy a franchise to get going—but they were motivated to succeed. So we came up with the logical solution: Get these dedicated people on board, because they had the passion and values that helped grow our company into what it is today.”
Now, Sovndahl and his co-founder Anton Skarlatov have 650 employees, 2,000 franchises, and bring in over $30 million in revenue. If that’s not a small business success story in an undesirable industry, we don’t know what is.
– Rune Sovndahl, Co-founder of Fantastic Services.
5. Make Something Clean out of Something Dirty
Picking up and recycling old cigarette butts that you find on the ground seems like one of the dirtiest jobs possible. With all the toxins and germs lingering on used cigarette butts, the cigarette waste and recycling industry is one that no entrepreneur could imagine forging into.
But for Ken Beck, getting into such a dirty industry was all about providing clean solutions for the greater good. As the owner of Cigarette Pollution Solutions and the founder of the Butts to Watts recycling program, Beck and his team recycle cigarette waste into electricity.
“Each year, the United States discards over 100 million pounds of cigarette litter,” says Beck. That’s over 576 million watts of energy.
Why did Beck enter such a dirty industry? To make something green out of it:
“I started my business because I hate cigarette litter. But if you’re not doing something about solving a problem, don’t complain about it. Use that time to figure out a solution. It feels better and feeds itself, and that’s just what I did,” says Beck.
Now, an industry that seems so dirty and undesirable to most is something entirely positive to Beck:
“At least when I see someone smoking and discarding a cigarette butt in a flower bed or in the street, I can tell them that there’s a proper place to put that butt. Placing cigarette butts in the correct place evolved into an energy-producing program… What’s next?”
-Ken Beck, Owner of Cigarette Pollution Solutions.
6. Be Proud of Your Work & Build Lasting Relationships
When you think of “dirty businesses,” we wouldn’t be surprised if the first industry that pops into your head is one involved in septic waste management.
It’s the quintessential dirty job that someone has to do.
But that doesn’t mean that a business in the septic management industry isn’t a successful, fulfilling one. For Jared Gustafson, Office Manager of Gustafson Septic Service, it’s all about recognizing that the job needs to be done and being proud of the establishment his family has built.
“Running a septic service can seem undesirable due to the nature of the industry. However, our family-owned business is proud of the personal relationships we have built over our 30 year history here in North Dakota,” says Gustafson.
And by building relationships in their community, Gustafson has extended his business far beyond their local area.
“We work not only with our neighbors and other small business owners by maintaining their septic systems, but we also work with several Fortune 500 companies in the oilfield providing portable restroom and waste water disposal services. Our success in the industry is a result of building relationships with our local contacts and not being afraid to take on a dirty job when needed.”
– Jared Gustafson, Office Manager of Gustafson Septic Service.
These small business owners may operate in the industries that some could never imagine entering. But for them, it isn’t just about sucking it up and doing the job that no one wants to do.
It’s about hiring great employees, building successful businesses, and providing exceptional service. Getting their hands dirty is only part of it.