My guest, Mitchell Blackmon started Patriot Chimney, a chimney service and installation business in Roanoke, VA, last year with his brother Matt and his friend Billy. They have recently made their first hire and have another one coming shortly, a testament to the growth they’ve been experiencing.
If you liked the recent episode with Rich Jordan, you’re going to like Mitchell’s story too as he’s thinking about many of the growing pains and plans. We talk about getting into college despite losing the opportunity to play college track & field due to an injury, starting a home cleaning business, how wrapping his trucks has brought in more customers, developing a new routing system, and how he’s hiring new employees.
This episode is an example of what I love about the small business investing and operating space. Discovering new businesses and industries you never knew existed. I knew nothing about the chimney business and loved learning about it from Mitchell in this episode. I hope you find a few great takeaways from his story.
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Thanks, Mitchell, for joining. I’m looking forward to hearing about your chimney business more, since you talked about it on Twitter a little bit. It’s an industry I didn’t really know existed. I mean, obviously, people have chimneys. My parents have one, my grandma has one, but you don’t realize that there’s a whole industry around it and a governing board and scammers. So I’m excited to hear about how you got into the chimney business.
Thanks for having me on. I love your podcast, and I like listening to the stories, so hopefully I can provide something, too. So I was born in Florida, and I moved to North Carolina when I was about six. For most of my life, it was just my mom and me and my three siblings. I’m the youngest, so I had all of them to learn from. She worked a lot, single mom, four kids. So she passed that on to me and my siblings. She had to work a lot, and I guess she didn’t have a high school diploma, and she was doing all of that without any real education. I mention that because there wasn’t a big focus on education as a kid. It was really just work hard, have some common sense, and things might tend to work out.
So, for example, I loved to cook and my friends loved to eat my food. I had a friend that told his wife that I was a better cook than her. A lot of people think it’s strange when I tell them that I failed my cooking class in high school. I was really just in there to eat and just to get stronger for sports, for football and track. I did get stronger. My objective was to get stronger, and I did get stronger. But I failed the class because I didn’t do what I needed to do, and no one really cared too much except for my friend Cameron. I spent a lot of time at my friend Cameron’s house when I was in high school. He was home-schooled, so his parents put a huge focus on his education. When I told him that I failed my cooking class, he was like, “Man, what the hell’s wrong with you? Why did you fail foods?” I didn’t have much of an answer except I was there to eat and I wanted to get stronger.
Cameron’s dad owned a couple of postage stores in Asheville, North Carolina, where I grew up. Seeing him own those businesses and seeing where Cameron’s dad came from, it did spark an interest in owning a business when I was a kid. Actually, I didn’t know how to do it. I just knew that Burt really came from a similar background. He didn’t have a single mom, but he grew up on a farm in Florida, and it was a watermelon farm. He came, and he’s got four or five postage stores around western North Carolina. He started this business and was able to support a pretty big family. They got six kids. He was a big inspiration for me.
If you would’ve asked me when I was 15 or 16 what I wanted to do, I would’ve told you that I wanted to start a sports bar. I wanted to own a sports bar. If you would’ve asked me when I was 15, I would’ve said that I want to own a sports bar and just live above it. I don’t really want to live above a sports bar, but I don’t mind owning a sports bar someday, so maybe I’ll circle back around to that. In high school, my whole plan was either to go to college to play sports, and I wasn’t a very good athlete by any means, but I was getting a couple letters for track. I threw shot put and discus, and I thought, “Okay, well, maybe that’s an option, and if that doesn’t work out, then maybe I’ll join the Marine Corps like my older brother.”
But then my very first scrimmage for football, I tore my ACL and my MCL and my medial meniscus, and that put me out for the rest of the football season. I wasn’t cleared to do track because I needed to have a custom-fit leg brace, and that didn’t come in time. It took a long time for that to come. Even after I was cleared to be able to run around, I wasn’t able to do my spin method. It’s like a kick method for shot put. I wasn’t able to do that because I didn’t have the necessary hardware. And so there went my future, my whole plan for going to college for track. The Marine Corps recruiter said, “Oh, maybe next year. Maybe give it a year, and maybe you can join the Marine Corps next year.” I said, “Well, okay.”
So that next summer I actually tore me ACL again, so that one really totally nixed the idea of joining the Marine Corps at all. While I was in high school, after I tore my ACL, it kind of derailed my whole plan because both of my options required me to have a functioning leg. I didn’t know what to do. One of my old teachers, he asked me, “What are you going to do next year, Mitchell?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “That was pretty stupid.” So he let me come back to the classroom, and he helped me come up with a plan. Since I was basically poor growing up, he got me in contact with my guidance counselor and said, “Hey, get a free waiver for the SAT. Your GPA is not that bad. You might be able to get into college despite failing foods.” Get some waivers for my college application, he guided me through that. Nobody else in my family had ever been to college, so he guided me through that and helped me out with that.
I got into a small school pretty close to where I grew up called Mars Hill University. Nobody’s really ever heard of it. It’s got about 1200 students, but it’s a small, private liberal arts college in the mountains of North Carolina. Since I kind of had my whole plan derailed in high school, that was a huge catalyst for my whole life because I’ll never not have a plan. I’ll always have a plan. I’ll always have a contingency plan. I had my plan when I tore my ACL, but I didn’t have backup plans, so I was screwed when I did. Coming into college, I did everything I could to take my education serious because I thought if I graduated with a high GPA then I’d be able to get a pretty good job.
Then I thought, “If I stayed involved with a bunch of different organizations, then that’ll help me get a job.” So I was an RA. I got RA of the year. I was on the campus activities board, so I planned a ton of different events. I was on the traffic appeals board, so I got to say no to a lot of people’s traffic ticket appeals. Then I had a couple of marketing internships. I stayed awake a lot, and I didn’t sleep that much. I worked my way through. I studied, and I graduated magna. I was pretty proud of it. Then I graduated from college, and it kind of turns out that you need an alumni network, and that would make things a lot easier when you graduate to find a job, if you have an alumni network that you could reach out to.
It also didn’t help that I chose to move to Lexington, Kentucky right after college. I had a girlfriend, and, I mean, it worked out. She’s going to be my wife in May. She convinced me when I graduated from college to move to Lexington. I think it was part my idea, too. I’m not going to put it all back to her. But I moved to Lexington, and my only thing that I didn’t want to do was to have a sales job. I just didn’t want to go into sales. There aren’t too many jobs for new graduates in Lexington, Kentucky because that’s where the University of Kentucky’s at, so there were a lot of graduates there trying to stay in Lexington. It’s a great city. So I had a hard time finding a job.
A few months after I graduated, I finally moved to Kentucky, and I sold armored car services for Dunbar, Dunbar Armored. They got bought by Brinks right before I moved back to North Carolina. I was dealing a lot with banks, a lot of the regional banks. I didn’t deal with large national banks, but I had free rein all over the state of Kentucky. We had the largest footprint in the entire country for our region, so we covered a little bit of Ohio, a little bit of Indiana, all of Kentucky, and a little bit of Virginia and Tennessee all out of our small Lexington office. So I was driving around a lot and I was selling a lot and I was talking to a lot of bank executives all over Kentucky. I made a decent amount of money, and I really liked that I had the autonomy.
I was in Lexington. I was the only salesperson in the whole branch, and my boss was actually based out of Cleveland, Ohio. He would come down maybe once a quarter just to see how I’m doing. Sometimes, he’d just meet me in Louisville and go on about his way. It was nice. I really appreciated the autonomy, and he trusted me. It was cool. But the problem I had with it was even though I was selling and growing that Lexington branch, I was the first salesperson that they had in that branch, I didn’t feel like I was doing much. I didn’t feel like what I was doing had much of an impact.
So I was looking for a way out. I wanted to get out of sales. I didn’t want to be in sales to begin with. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do. I thought maybe I’ll go and go to the Patterson School of Diplomacy at the University of Kentucky and then be in politics or something. Then I thought that sounded kind of boring, and I didn’t want to do that. I thought about going to the University of Kentucky again to get an MBA, but I decided I didn’t want to do that either, not at the University of Kentucky. I didn’t think it was worth it, and I just didn’t want to do it. But I thought, “Oh, maybe sales is all that I could do.”
One day, my friend Cameron, the one I mentioned before, he said, “Hey, let’s start a business together.” He was working for the NSA in Maryland, and the NSA, I guess it can be boring, too. He decided he didn’t want to be there and said he wanted to start a business. We went to college together, and he was one of my best friends growing up, like I mentioned before. Then he kept mentioning stuff like drop shipping and affiliate marketing, and I thought it didn’t sound right. I didn’t want to do it. I guess he got bored with it and joined the Army. I still thought, “Well, yeah, starting a business might be fun.”
So I started a housekeeping company in 2017. I graduated college in May of 2016. I started Town Mountain Maids, my housekeeping company, in 2017. That gave me the first little taste of entrepreneurship. I followed Rohan Gilkes on Reddit. He had a local case study kind of thing on his entrepreneurship ride-along subreddit, and I followed it almost to the T. I figured out as best I could. If I didn’t know how to do it, I just googled it, and I tried my best to get it going. I hired my mom and my Aunt Missy, to work for me. For three months, I didn’t get any business. I was spending money, trying to get leads from Thumbtack. I didn’t use Porch at the time, but I was using Thumbtack, and I was doing that while I was working for that armored car company. I was in Kentucky, and this company is based out of Asheville, North Carolina. So I had them working for me.
Three months goes by, nothing, I don’t have anything. I’m doing my best. I’m posting on Facebook and trying to do what I can remotely. Then, all of a sudden, I had a guy that just, I guess, took a chance on us off of Thumbtack, and then we got him. Then, that same week, the next day, I got another one, and then, eventually, we had a pretty decent stream of business coming in, not enough for me to quit my job or anything but enough to give my mom and my Aunt Missy a little bit extra. Full transparency, I don’t really care for the housekeeping industry at all, not anymore. I’ve gotten so burnt out of it. I still have it. I get some money from Town Mountain Maids here and there. But the big thing with it is I learned a lot from it, and it helps my mom and it helps my aunt and it gives them money. I got a couple other cleaners, and it helps them, too. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s why I haven’t just cut the whole thing.
My brother, the one I mentioned that was in Marine Corps, he reached out to me a few months after I had started seeing a little bit of success with Town Mountain Maids, and he said, “Hey, let’s start a landscaping company.” We played around with the idea. We knew that it’d be cool to start a business. He wanted to start a business, and I think I mentioned in the call with you before, I don’t know exactly why he wants to start a business. It seems partly like maybe he just got sick of being told what to do because of all that time he was in the Marine Corps. Maybe he just wants to have his own business. I don’t know. I never really asked him about it. But he said, “Let’s start a landscaping company,” and that fell through, and he decided he was going to take a part-time job while he was going back to school.
I think he was wanting to be a game warden, and so he was going to a local community college in Roanoke. He took a part-time job out of Craigslist. A chimney company was asking for a part-time employee, and he took the job. One thing led to another, and he used his GI Bill to go up to the national training school for chimneys in Indiana. He got certified, and he’s actually a certified chimney sweep. He’s got a bunch of certifications that he earned because he really loves the chimney industry. After we nixed the idea of a landscaping company, he then called me again, and we talked about starting a chimney company because his checks were starting to bounce.
The company that he was working for, we owe a lot to that company, and they’re one of our competitors now. We owe a lot to that company because that’s kind of the start of how Patriot Chimneys started, is them offering Matt that part-time job. But they were doing some shady stuff, and Matt wanted out, and his checks weren’t clearing all the time. He just wanted to get out, and it was a good time for us to start. He had another friend that he served in the Marine Corps with that was also working for that company, Billy. Me, Matt, and Billy came together, pooled some money together, and with about 10,000 bucks from … It was less than 10,000 bucks, but we got some money from our savings and from credit cards and a few thousand bucks from some family and stuff and pulled together, bought a van, made a list of all the equipment that we wanted to get, and we bought a magnet that you can see. We bought that magnet and put it on the side of our van. That’s how Patriot Chimneys started.
I reached back into my time with Town Mountain Maids when I was starting that and remembered how to file the LLC. I built the website and wrote all the stuff for it. That first month was pretty tough. We bought a bunch of door-hangers and flyers, and we set up a Google Voice phone number, and we went and … I say we, but it was me planning it and then Matt and Billy went into action because I was in Raleigh, North Carolina at that time. I had moved from Lexington to Raleigh, and we were starting that business in Roanoke. So I was doing more of the back office sort of planning and building, and they were on the front lines actually doing the work. They were canvassing and knocking on doors and putting up door-hangers.
In our first month … So we officially started and launched the website and said we had a company in July. Nothing happened in July. August came along, and it really took off, and it really started working out for us. We made 13,000, a little more than 13,000 bucks in that first month. That was in August. By November, we bought a new van. So we had a van to begin with, and we bought another one, so then we could theoretically almost double our jobs and how much we were able to take in. They were horrible vans. One was one that we bought used on Craigslist, and the other one, actually, we bought from … It was an old Spectrum Cable van, and we bought it from a used car dealership.
They were so rough, but they were clean on the outside and they looked fine on the outside. We slapped these big magnets on the side of them, and we took off, and by the end of the year, we had to hire a receptionist to answer all the calls and schedule everything. We did about 75,000 in those four months, those first real four months of actual getting down to the dirty work. In February 2020, I was able to quit my job. I’m not in sales, like a proper sales job anymore. I’m not doing those cold-calling anymore, and I’m working full-time building out Patriot Chimney, and I’m loving it, loving it.
So how many trucks do you have today then?
We still have two, but we have those other two that we had to begin with. So we have two, we’re about to buy a new one.
Nice. And you also talked about the magnet. You said you wrapped your trucks recently. What made you decide to wrap them, and how’s that gone?
It was always kind of an idea to get it wrapped straight from the beginning. We thought, “We’re going to get it wrapped.” I’ve never been impressed by a company’s wrapping on their truck. I’ve never owned a home either, so I guess it didn’t really matter. I’ve never been influenced that way. I thought, “Oh, that’s just going to be a waste of money. As long as they know that it’s us and it’s not just some creepy white van that’s pulling down their driveway, we’ll be fine.” Then we just started making a little bit more money and doing more repairs and we had more money that we thought now would be a decent time. So we partnered with this company called Sun Solutions in Roanoke, and they tinted our windows and wrapped our trucks.
It’s a very basic design. It just has Patriot Chimney, and it has a couple of our certifications, and it says that we’re licensed in the state of Virginia. We started a nonprofit. I can tell you about that later. But we have that logo slapped on the side of it, too. Very basic, very minimal. But I had no idea how impactful that was going to be. I had ridden along with them and done some jobs with them before with just the magnet on the side, and nothing really happened. But the last couple times, literally, the last couple times that I’ve been up there in Roanoke doing jobs, there was one time where we’re driving, I was riding with my brother, and he was just showing me this chimney that we just built because I hadn’t seen it in person, and built the whole thing from the ground up. So he was showing me that. We’re driving through this neighborhood, and this guy is just hanging out by his fence talking to his neighbor. He waved us down and asked us about our work, and we booked an appointment with him.
A couple times, we’d be at the hardware store, at Lowe’s, and people would see our vans, and we’d be getting out of the van or going back into the van, and people would stop us, and we’d schedule an appointment right there. Or we were on top of a roof, and this lady or man, I don’t remember, they were going for a walk, and they had a stroller with their kid and waved us off the roof. We booked an appointment there, just because they saw that we had a van and they knew that we were doing chimney work. It’s crazy. I had no idea. But it happens. People like that wrapping, I guess, maybe at least in southwestern Virginia. Pretty cool.
So you talked about building the chimney from the ground up. How much of your work is new construction, building new chimneys, versus the service and cleaning type work?
Building new chimneys, say, like laying brick by brick or building the siding up a chimney, that doesn’t happen very often. What does happen is sometimes a customer wants to convert an old chimney that they had, and we’ll drop a liner down for that. But that’s just a similar process if we want to, say, repair their old liner. So that one’s the same process. I’d say we’ve probably built from the ground up maybe two, three chimneys now. Like I said, it doesn’t happen very often. But actual repairs happens a lot. I don’t have a percentage for you, but we do a lot of repairs. Every job starts with an inspection, so we do a ton of inspections, a ton of sweeps. I wish I had a percentage for you, but I don’t.
I also mentioned before that I know nothing about the chimney industry, so when you say lining of the chimney, do you mean that there’s the brick that is the main structural element of the chimney and then there’s some metal or material lining in the middle of it, in the tube portion where the smoke comes out, and that’s the part that gets replaced and fixed?
Yeah, so if you built a chimney, and say it’s your standard brick chimney, when the construction workers, when they build it, they’re going to put … Usually, they’ll put a terracotta flue inside, so that flue is what’s exhausting the gas from when you’re burning wood or gas, whatever. That flue exhausts the gas up your chimney and out into the atmosphere. When one of those terracotta flue tiles break … So they’re basically stacked on top of each other, as if my hands are terracotta flue tiles, and if one of those breaks … There’s something called creosote when you burn wood, sometimes to a lesser extent when you’re burning gas, but when you’re burning wood, you have smoke that’ll go up, obviously, and then that smoke and that fire is building. It’s exerting moisture out of the wood, and so that moisture comes up and it mixes with the smoke, and creosote is just a natural byproduct of burning wood. So that sticks to the inside of the chimney. It’s actually acidic as well, so if water comes down and it mixes with that, it’ll eat away at your terracotta flue liner.
It’s also flammable, so if you have, once again, a wood-burning stove and you have an ember that goes up and you have a little bit of creosote that’s stuck to the inside of your chimney and that catches on fire, that could damage the flue tiles. And so, as you have damaged flue tiles, then we could replace those. It’s expensive because, like I mentioned, they’re individual tiles stacked up, and so we have to dig into a chimney and break away and actually kind of damage your chimney. We replace it, but we have to damage it to get into it and pull the broken flue tile out, put a new one in, and then replace your chimney. So that’s expensive and kind of unnecessary.
Instead of doing that, what we could do is take a stainless steel liner, and it’s just a long liner, it’s the same length as your whole chimney, and run it down and connect it. They last forever. You got to get them swept, but they have a lifetime warranty, and it lasts forever. So that’s what I’m talking about when we drop a liner down. It’s repairing the inside and putting a new liner in.
And then when you say sweeping, do you mean cleaning out the liner or the smokestack itself, or is that more of where the fire is burning and the fire is being added? Is that the part where you’re sweeping and cleaning?
It’s both because what we’ll do … You can do it from the top, or you can do it from the bottom, but either way, you take a brush. They’re these really long fiberglass brushes with wire brushes at the end. You have to scrub the creosote off the side, and that’s what you’re cleaning off. That’ll come down. And inside, where you’re burning the fire, that’s your firebox, and inside that, you have to clean it just the same and sweep that. If you have a wood-burning stove or a wood-burning fireplace underneath, there’s an ash pit, so it’ll collect the ash, and you have to sweep that out, too, because, like I said, it’s flammable. If you’re not careful, that’ll catch on fire, and that’s how a lot of house fires start, is from creosote just hanging out and not getting swept.
How often do you need to sweep a chimney?
If you use your chimney once a year, you can probably hold off. You need to get it inspected every year, but you don’t need to get it swept every year. If you use your chimney a lot, then a good rule of thumb is once a year to have it swept. We do have this restaurant client that gets it swept once a quarter because they’re burning wood all the time. What we’re taught at the training school, I didn’t go to the training school, but what we’re taught from the National Fire Protection Agency, and they’re the ones that set the standards, is that one-eighth of an inch of creosote buildup dictates the need for a sweep. But once a year is usually standard.
So with your service customers you have, are you setting up recurring inspections and sweeps for them as part of a long-term recurring customer relationship?
Most of the time, what we’ll do … Since it’s one year in between, we can’t really set up a recurring discount. I don’t think that that would really work. I mention that because with my housekeeping company, that’s what we do to keep the recurring clients coming back. We would offer a recurring discount. With these clients, they just come back, and we remind them that they’re supposed to have an inspection and a sweep every year. Before we close out jobs, we try to ask them, “Would you like to get onto the calendar for next year? We can go ahead and put you on because if you wait until burn season, which is now when people are starting to use their fireplace, if you wait, you’re going to have to wait.”
Like, right now, it’s November. We’re booked into mid-February with burn season clients. We booked way out, and it’s not just us, it’s every chimney company across the entire United States unless they just started out and they’re filling up their client base. So we get that, and we say, “We’ll lock you into the same year pricing. We might raise our prices next year, and if we go ahead and put you down, we can lock you in.” It works. Sometimes, people are like, “No, I don’t know my schedule next year,” and we say, “Okay, that’s fine. Just give us a call when you’re ready, but don’t wait until burn season because you’ll have to wait.”
In order to grow and increase your capacity, it sounds like it’s more of a … On your end as a business, it’s less of I don’t have enough customers to grow. It’s more of I need more employees and inspectors and chimney folks in my business to help grow. So how are you approaching that end of your growth?
Slowly. So, right now, I mentioned that we have a wait period of 90 days, and it’s going into mid-February. We’re trying to hire people, but hiring poorly really scares me. I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to hire the wrong person and then maybe they mess up our reputation that we’ve built in the Roanoke area. But I also don’t want to hire somebody that’s … I guess you’re kind of prone to get injured sometimes maybe, I don’t know, if you’re on top of a roof. So we want to hire careful people, and we want to be really careful with who we hire. We take our time.
We’ve had a hard time with hiring people, not because we can’t do it or we don’t know how. But what was hard in the past was we didn’t really know exactly how to do it because the chimney industry, it does take a lot of experience, say, to go to an inspection and diagnose a chimney. It takes a lot of experience to be able to repair a chimney, to a certain extent. So what we were trying to figure out and what we were really struggling with was how can we hire somebody and then train them to be able to do everything. That was one of the biggest problems that I think we had, even, I guess, up to a couple months ago. We struggled with that. We were getting booked out. It sounds nice that we’re booked to February, but I hate it because we can bring those people a lot sooner.
How many people are calling us and we’re like, “Hey, we can’t get you in until February,” and then they’re calling one of our competitors? So we’re losing I don’t know how much. Basically, all this is is speculation, but we’re losing business, I think, because we can’t get people in a lot sooner. I looked around and tried to find people that were in a similar situation to us. On The Sweaty Startup blog, he has a hiring guide, and that hiring guide, it wasn’t geared towards chimney industry, and I kind of had to read it with the mind that I’m going to have to change a few things, of course. I got to thinking, “Well, I’m not a chimney expert, but I know a little bit about chimneys.” I’ve done some ride-alongs, and I can put on a cap. All that is is climbing on top and putting a cap on. I can put crown coat on. That’s you take this bucket of mortar, it’s a little bit more than just mortar, but you take that and you paint it on top of the crown of the chimney. I can fix some of the bricks.
I got to thinking about, “What are things that I can do personally?” So I made a list. I went through all of our stuff that we did, and I made a list of everything that we were doing. It turns out, out of all those things that I think that I could do, that made up 68% of the work that we were doing post-inspection. So all those repairs that we were doing, 68% are jobs that I could do. My thought was, “Well, if I could do it, then we can hire somebody, and if they spend two weeks working with us, 80 hours doing it, they’re going to be perfectly fine to be able to be in their own truck and go and do the work for themselves.” I got that idea from that Sweaty Startup hiring series, and I passed that on to my brother, and I passed that onto Billy, and we actually just hired somebody.
He started yesterday, and we’re still hiring some people. I’ve been talking to the local VA to try to get some veterans that can get hired. I’m trying to hire some college students that might want to get dirty and don’t mind climbing on top of a roof. We can get them and train them. That’s the idea, is try to get something that’s simple, where we can have people on the board with us and trained in two weeks. The hardest part that I had before is, like I mentioned, I’m not a chimney expert, so I was relying on Matt and Billy to build out the SOPs for all the other stuff. Well, they didn’t have the time to do it.
That might be my fault because in June I decided I was going to reroute some things. My goal was to make a lot more money, and I did it, but then they were booked like crazy. We went from literally in … I wrote it down because I knew I’d forget it. So, in May, we made $21,841. In June, we made $48,700. So I took a long time to think about this and a long time to build out a new routing schedule, and the goal worked. We got a ton of new customers, and we were able to fit people in a lot faster, and we made a lot more money. The profit stayed about the same. I didn’t work out the percentages when I wrote this down, but it stayed about the same, and, actually, it went up in June, so we became a little bit more profitable, too.
But what it did was it left hardly any room for error. So if it rained, it was really hard to schedule people back in. Plus, we were getting back into the burn season, and our call volume shot up. It went from 87 new customers in May to 147 new. Then, in September, we did 213 new schedules. So it picked up, and we got booked like crazy, and there wasn’t any room for mistakes. Matt and Billy were working like crazy. They were working really late, and I felt really bad because there has to be some work-life balance, and we were pushed up against the wall. Because they need to have work-life balance, and the only way to do that is to hire new people, but we didn’t have enough time to build out the SOPs I thought we needed to be able to hire people.
So, eventually, I was like, “I’m just going to do it. I’m going to do my best.” Matt helped me build the SOPs for those things that I mentioned before, what I call light repairs. We hired somebody, and we’re going to hire somebody pretty soon. Hopefully, I’m going to get some new applicants and get back out trying to hire some more people and buy a new van. I’ll reroute again, I’ll restructure it again, reroute, and then, hopefully, we have the same effect and we can do similar to what we did back in May and June.
So with your routing, is this something that was previously written down or on an Excel sheet and now is a new software? Or what’s this routing system you improved on?
The first few months when we started our company, we were doing it with a notebook. Matt and Billy would take the calls and write things, and that was really hit. At about October, we started realizing things were falling through the cracks, so we went with Jobber, and we implemented Jobber. At that point, we would just write down where we were going to be on the calendar. We’d say, “Yep, we’re in Roanoke on Monday. We’re in Lynchburg on Tuesday,” or maybe it was kind of just sporadic and we were all over the place and they were going back and forth. So I thought what would be a good idea is to take a little bit more of a quantitative approach to it. I ran a report in Jobber and pulled all of the zip codes that we go to, and I figured out how many times we were in each zip code in Google Sheets. I broke that down and figured out how many times we were in each zip code per month on average.
Then I put that information to work. So I’d say, “Okay, well, on average,” for example … I don’t know the exact numbers off the top of my head, but I said, for example, “We’re in Roanoke. We have X amount of jobs in Roanoke. We need to be there three times a week. And Blacksburg, we could be there maybe once or twice a month. And in Lynchburg, maybe we need to be there two or three times a month.” I just wrote it down on and kind of arbitrarily just put it on a calendar, and then I ran another report for the customers that we had moving forward. I called them and rescheduled them and routed it in Jobber and put them into the calendar and just redid everything as far as that goes.
That’s kind of how we’re doing it now, and just the number of jobs that we have scheduled for Roanoke, that stays the same. What we want to do is instead of giving our customers a set time, let them pick, “Okay, well” … We say, “We can be there either between 8:00 and noon. You either get a morning or afternoon.” I don’t know how that would work. We haven’t really tried it, or I haven’t asked any of the customers how they would feel about that. But I think that would allow us to take the customers … Like if you called in, I’d say, “Well, would you prefer morning or afternoon?” You say, “Afternoon.” I say, “Okay, well, I’ll put you down for that, and the week before, we’ll give you a call and give you an actual time, or two weeks before, we’ll give you an actual time,” and we can run it through a route optimization software in Jobber. We tell them, “Okay, well, we’ll be there … Actually, I’ll be there at 2:30 on that day that we picked.” I think that would save us a lot of time, too. That’s how we route.
Nice. You’ve had a lot of improvements there with the wrapping, better hiring, route scheduling. Going into 2021, what do you think is next for your company and the next system and step function of improvement?
Definitely, we need to hire more people, we need more vans. One thing that I think we could really improve on is figuring out how to stock our inventory in our shop. We have a small shop. It’s a three-car garage, basically, and it’s full of a bunch of stuff. Right now, how we do it is when a customer needs a cap or something or say they need a new liner, we have to order it from our manufacturer, and we have to get it, and they ship it to us, so we tell the customer, “Okay, well, it’s going to take two weeks for us to get it. You have to pay your deposit, and we’ll be able to order it.” That’s how we do it right now.
What I want us to do is when we have more people and the customer has one of our common cap sizes, we already have those in stock, and when we notice that they have a cap that needs to be installed, we say, “We can be there next week,” and we can come, and then I have the people, like I mentioned, in the light repairs, like the new guy that we just hired or the college students that we may hire, and we have them. They go out and install the cap for us the next week, and we can build it out really fast. I really want to speed it up.
A lot of companies in the chimney industry, they’re booked out quite a bit. The top guys, from conversations that my brother has had with … There are a few decent-sized chimney companies where they’re running 30 trucks. It’s not very common, but they exist. So my brother, he’ll talk with them sometimes and ask how they do things and how long they’re making their customers wait. Well, the biggest companies are only making their customers wait two weeks, and they’re able to get to their customers. That’s one of our next biggest goal that we want to achieve. We’re not 100% sure how to do it, but just like everything else, we’ll figure it out and we’ll have it done.
Love it. And we’re getting to some closing questions here because we’re bumping up on time. What class would you teach in college if it could be about any subject you wanted?
I would teach a class on rhetoric. I’m not an expert on it by any means, but I think a big part of rhetoric is how you say something and a big part of why I like that so much is that goes a long way. If you’re having an argument with your wife or something and you say something wrong, it’s how you say it. Or if you’re trying to sell something to one of your customers, it’s how you say it. I think that would be a very beneficial class. I read a book called Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs, this book here. That one, he just talked about … You have to talk your audience’s language. It makes sense. It’s kind of a duh moment. But when you do that, when you start marketing towards your customer, you ask them questions and then you market in their language, then that helps. So if I could teach any class in college, it would probably be something about rhetoric.
Nice. I like it. We’ll link to that book in the show notes. What’s a belief you used to hold strongly that you’ve changed your mind on?
I had a hard time thinking about this one, but I figured it out just before our conversation. I used to think that I should and could just do everything by myself. That’s not feasible at all. I learned how to build a website because when I was building Patriot Chimney and Town Mountain Maids, I thought, “I could do it,” and so I just did it. But I could’ve saved so much time, maybe not money because if I’m doing it myself, it doesn’t cost that much to do, just a lot of time. If I had all that time, I could’ve done anything else instead of building a website. While it’s kind of fun to learn new things, I don’t need to …
One of our biggest growth strategies, I think, in the beginning, was we reached out to a lot of real estate agents in the area, and by a lot, I mean I hired someone to go through and scrape the Realtor Association website in Roanoke and pull that. So I reached out to every single one of those people, all the realtors that were in Roanoke, and said, “Hey, we’re a new chimney company, and we want to partner with you.” Just hiring that guy saved me so much time. I didn’t have to pull all that data. Every once in a while, if I need help, say, building a new logo or I want help making an infographic or something, I hire a freelancer because I don’t want to learn how to work Photoshop or Illustrator or anything like that. I know I don’t want to.
Yeah, I can strongly sympathize. I just redid my website and podcast cover art with my cousin David’s help. He’s just starting his own design studio. I totally agree. There’s things like that that someone out there is way better at and enjoys doing that I don’t really … I shouldn’t be spending my time doing something I’m not better at than someone I can easily get ahold of. So I can completely sympathize with that. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
All right, so I know this is going to sound weird. McDonalds. I think that’s my favorite company. They get a bad rap, but they’re so … Well, sometimes. Where I lived last time, we had a McDonalds across, and I think it was the second worst McDonalds in the entire United States. The first worst McDonalds was this one that I went to on Canal Street in New Orleans, horrible. But all the other ones, fantastic. I really appreciate how consistent they are. I went to Alaska this past summer, and I was in Anchorage, and we’re driving back to our Airbnb up in Alyeska. So we stopped at a McDonalds, and the only thing that was different is they had a burger called the Denali burger. I didn’t get it, but I got my usual, and Coke tasted the same, and the double quarter pounder tasted exactly the same. Consistency. I’m a creature of habit, and I can appreciate the consistency. I really like McDonalds because of that.
Is there something about McDonalds that you’re hoping to apply to Patriot Chimney?
Like I said, the consistency. I mentioned that the reason we were so slow to hire is because I really wanted us to have SOPs. That makes sense, but I wanted them clear and concise and written down. We have that with every little aspect. Some things are kind of hard. Some jobs you can’t really predict everything that can happen. But for the jobs that are predictable, we should have a step-by-step checklist because I want a customer that, if they hire us this year for an inspection and a sweep, I want somebody else maybe to go next year and I want them to get the exact same experience. Because if they’re calling us next year, we did something right this year, and so I want to duplicate that. That would probably be the best thing that I would implement for us.
I like it. Thank you so much, Mitchell, for sharing your time with us. This has been awesome. I really enjoy getting to hear about the chimney business and how you’re building it and improving on it. This has been really fun. Thank you for joining.
Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
My guest, Mitchell Blackmon started Patriot Chimney, a chimney service and installation business in Roanoke, VA, last year with his brother Matt and his friend Billy.