Cheryl Thienes and Bob Lee help people stay in their home longer, safer, with increased property value, through their business Home Maintenance Experts.
Bob and Cheryl might seem like an odd couple to start a business together–Cheryl wanted to trade her corporate career for an encore with more flexibility, while Bob, much younger, was a self-employed “home flipper” looking for an opportunity he could grow to a larger scale. The two were connected through family. “Our different strengths meld,” Cheryl said, “and we have that trust factor.” They began looking at business ideas together.
Customer focus led to innovation
Driving Bob and Cheryl’s search was a focus on their community around Onalaska. “We looked not at what we wanted to do, but what would benefit the community,” Cheryl said. “We discovered you can find people to build your house, but it’s very difficult to find people to help with smaller projects.” Bob and Cheryl conceived a business that would prevent small problems from becoming big ones. The firm takes on larger projects like kitchen and bath remodels, medium-scale ones like pressure-washing a deck or painting a house, and little tasks like installing a grab bar or light fixture. They welcome jobs most contractors consider too small.
Bob brought the idea of a subscription business model for home maintenance to the table. “We wanted to be in people’s homes on a regular basis,” Bob said. “It gives us the opportunity to catch problems homeowners might not be looking for.” The company schedules visits three times a year to do routine maintenance. Each visit includes a half hour for tasks on their customers’ “Honey-Do” lists.
The partners started out doing the home repairs themselves. “Near the end of the first year we were ready to bring on our first employee. We’re very proud of all our employees’ skills as well as their professionalism in helping us grow our business,” Cheryl said.
SBDC helped position the start-up for growth
Cheryl learned about the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center network when she took the Entrepreneurial Training Program course offered by the SBDC at UW–LaCrosse. There, she met consultant Terri Urbanek. “Our first business plan was just a simple framework,” Cheryl said. “Terri helped us look further into the future.” With help from the SBDC at UW–LaCrosse, they have evolved the scheduled maintenance program to focus more on customers’ individual needs and wishes. But setting a price for the program was difficult. Cheryl said, “That’s where Terri’s experience in finance and accounting was critical.” With help from UW–LaCrosse SBDC staff, projections about costs, pricing, number of customers, and service area all went into the equation. Bob added, “Without Terri’s guidance, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today—at least not so fast.”
Terri said, “All the ideas they’ve come up with are unique in the market.” As the business has grown, Bob and Cheryl have re-invested profits to add employees, vehicles, and tools.
Accomplishments with the SBDC at UW-LaCrosse:
- Financial projections, cost analysis
- Business planning
- Sounding board
Discovering the target customer
Bob and Cheryl expected their customers would be retirees wanting to safely age in place. To their surprise, demand has come from a younger clientele. Many customers are two-career couples with children busy in after-school activities. “They’d rather write a check than do the work wrong or not at all,” Cheryl said.
Bob and Cheryl market their business through networking groups and home shows, and demand has been huge. A mix of subcontracting and hiring helps them keep the time between the estimate, contract, and scheduled work reasonable. Terri observed, “They don’t want to grow so big that they can’t deal with everybody on a personal level at some point during the job.”