Steve Trout dreamed of starting a business in high school. As he formulated his plans and discussed ideas with his dad, he realized two things: Running his own company would give him the flexibility to spend time with his family, and avoiding debt would relieve some of the pressure to succeed immediately.
Trout honed in on appliance repair while still in high school, reasoning that it would be a service he could offer anywhere, and it would be a resilient industry during hard times. Trout patiently saved money as he worked various jobs and learned how to fix appliances, from microwaves to washing machines, during an eight-year stint as a repairman for Sears. In 2008, he started Liberty Appliance Repair with his wife, Caitlin.
The Ripon, Calif.-based business has grown steadily, serving residents in the greater Modesto area. Trout, who’s now looking forward to the birth of his third child, says he’s achieved the entrepreneurial independence that he’d dreamed of a decade ago.
The GoPayment Blog recently talked with Trout about launching and growing his business during the recession.
GoPayment: You started your business in the middle of the recession. Wasn’t that a bit risky?
Trout: When I joined Sears, my goal was to learn the trade. The repair business actually tends to do well when the economy is down. People are more inclined to repair what they have rather than buy something new, which helped us.
How did you attract your first clients?
I stayed in touch with people and did some jobs on the side (during a stint away from Sears), so I let people know I was now doing it full time with my own company. I also invested in an online advertising campaign with a company that handled everything for me. For the first six months, the campaign was pretty aggressive, and then I scaled it back significantly. After that, we started to get repeat customers and a lot of referral business.
The repair business can be very competitive. How are you able to differentiate Liberty from other industry players, including large companies?
Not many competitors use the internet, and we invested heavily in that. The internet seems to be the way most people search for services now. When I started the business, I knew that I could easily compete on price. Because I didn’t have huge overhead costs, I could charge less and still make money.
I knew I could also offer better customer service. Larger companies do not have local service people and use out-of-the-area call centers for scheduling, so customers fall through the cracks. I handle the entire process, from scheduling to ordering the parts and making the repair. If there is a problem, I can fix it on the spot.
How has using GoPayment changed your business?
Initially, I had no means to take a credit card, and most of the different options were geared toward companies with large volumes. So, providing the service wasn’t worth it for me. Most people paid with cash or a check.
But I was already carrying a laptop for technical or part research, and eventually I set up an account online to accept credit cards. It was a good short-term solution. As I was looking for ways to cut costs, I moved to a smartphone and decided to look at mobile payment options. I liked that GoPayment offered better security and had a more robust setup.
GoPayment is a lot more convenient to use, and we’re saving time with our bookkeeping. With our previous laptop system, the processor took a percentage fee out prior to depositing the amount into the bank account, so the amounts didn’t match the receipts. We spent a lot of time reconciling accounts. That doesn’t happen with Go Payment, which makes sales a lot easier to track.
The transaction also doesn’t take as long at the customer’s home. Previously, I had to sign on, log in, get authorization, manually enter in the customer’s information, submit it, and wait for approval, which could take five to 10 minutes. That can add up if you are making five to 10 calls in a day. Now, customers just sign with their finger.
What is your biggest challenge?
We decided to run our business without using debt, so it restricts what we can do. I know I could grow quickly if I took out a loan, but by being more deliberate about how things are set up, there isn’t as much pressure, and I can be in a position where I’m more at ease.
I had a repair truck and that broke down, and I need to replace it. I’d also like to spend more on different marketing opportunities, so not having a lot of extra money is agonizing at times. But it has allowed us to grow at a more natural pace, and I don’t have a lot of the concerns and worries that come with large debts.