|Kris Barnes, left, and Brett Johnson of EcoInsulate.|
TACOMA, Wash. – In 2010 Brett Johnson and his buddy, Kris Barnes, were unemployed construction workers trying to figure out how to survive the recession. From December 2007 to June 2009, more than 1.5 million construction jobs disappeared in the U.S., so there were plenty of other guys in the same situation.
While jammed together one day in a crawl space, trying to fix another friend’s plumbing problem, Johnson had an epiphany: “We should sell foam.”
It turned out to be a solid idea. Though the construction industry had screeched to a halt, people wanted existing homes to be better insulated. Barnes and Johnson already had extensive knowledge in various building trades, so adding insulation installation to their skill set was not a huge reach.
Today their business, EcoInsulate in Tacoma, Wash., employs nine full-time employees, and in 2012 it had sales of nearly $1 million. Their construction experience helps them figure out the best way to insulate just about any type of building, but existing brick homes have become a specialty, in part because they are so difficult.
When EcoInsulate began, is was the only company in western Washington to offer Inject-A-Seal foam – a non-expanding, water-based foam that can cut heating bills by 50 percent. EcoInsulate now offers a variety of different insulation products, but the corn-based, eco-friendly Inject-a-Seal continues to be the most popular.
Johnson spent nearly a year investigating foam installation but, once he and Barnes decided to start their own company, they jumped into the venture with both feet. What they didn’t have in capital they made up for in resourcefulness.
No money for foam pumps or service trucks? They bought an old van and built their own foam pump, which worked better than the off-the-shelf models. No money for advertising? They held banners on the sidewalk, passed out brochures at street fairs and set up a booth at a farmers market.
Free professional advising
It was only after they’d been in business a few months that they took a breath and realized they could benefit from some business advising.
“Both of us could run a job site flawlessly,” Johnson said, “but we didn’t have a clue about how to run a business.”
They first connected with the Cascadia Velocity Accelerator (previously South Sound Regional Business Incubator) in Federal Way, and then started meeting with Rich Shockley, an advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in August 2010.
Shockley, whose office is at Highline Community College, is one of 26 SBDC advisors working in centers across Washington, from the Columbia River to the Canadian border. Advisors provide one-to-one, ongoing, confidential advising to owners who want to start, grow or transition their businesses.
Advising is a publicly supported program offered at no cost to small business owners. The Washington SBDC is supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
Sounding board, reality check
For the first year, Barnes and Johnson met monthly with Shockley, talking over everything from how to read a profit and loss statement to how to determine their target audience.
“They were tenacious,” Shockley said. “They did everything they could to stay alive long enough to figure out who their customer was and which marketing efforts were effective.”
From the beginning, Johnson said, he was impressed with Shockley’s business acumen. Johnson would come to meetings with specific questions or issues he wanted to discuss, and Shockley would be a sounding board and expert resource, as well as a reality check.
“It was almost like having an advisory board,” Johnson said. Shockley would point out potential pitfalls and help the partners stay focused on sustainable growth, even as their sales were increasing exponentially.
Planning for the future
Johnson said he is ecstatic over the growth the company has seen in the past two years, but EcoInsulate has reached the point where growth is no longer the most important thing: “We’re starting to look at when is enough, enough,” he said.
Early on, he said, he and Barnes were doing everything they could to bring in new jobs, keep the trucks running and keep employees working. Updating their business plan, developing business systems and creating internal controls – issues Shockley urged them to work on – were not high priorities.
As the company has grown, Johnson said, he has begun to see why all of those other business tools and processes are important. For instance, better record keeping has allowed the partners to determine which marketing efforts have been successful and which have not. Going forward in 2013, they have a much better plan for where to spend their marketing and advertising budget.
The SBDC was an important resource during the company’s start-up phase and during the first years of rapid growth, Johnson said. Both the owners continue to meet regularly with the SBDC to set targets and review strategies to take them to the next level of sales and profitability.
“I had no idea how hard it was going to be to get here and how much work it was going to take to stay here,” he said.