How I did it: Nicholas Brand

Self-taught entrepreneur struggled to capitalize on runaway success
Nicholas Brand

Business in Vancouver's "How I did it" feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week's issue, Nicholas Brand, founder of window-cleaning company Men in Kilts, talks about how the firm was almost scuppered by its own success when it had to compete against a pre-Olympics demand for staff. Brand started the company in 2002 and decided to wear a kilt to stand out from the competition. In 2006, he partnered with former client Brent Hohlweg, who made the most of the company's whimsical brand.

"It [started with] me in a 1985 Honda Accord. The ladders were longer than the car. And I wore a kilt made by my wife.

"I had a beer with Brent, and he just said, 'You know you're sitting on something here. If you're ever looking for a partner, let me know.' I had been looking for someone, because the business was getting to the point where I was cleaning windows all day and trying to do marketing at night and pay employees and do the accounting.

"We wrapped the first vehicles [with tartan] and the business exploded. We were doubling, tripling for four years. And that's when we were going through a lot of challenges. Neither of us had really run a business before.

"As we were ramping up and growing, Vancouver was preparing for the Olympics. There were so many construction jobs available that if you were breathing and could swing a hammer, they would pay you $20 an hour. We were putting ads out at $15 and not getting a single resumé.

"At the time, we were paying a base hourly [wage]. We started at $12 an hour, and we kept increasing it, but we got up to $17 an hour just to get anyone to show up for an interview. We would have students [who would] show up to a job, and it was little bit smaller than anticipated, and they would find a way to drag it out all day.

"It was killing us from a labour cost perspective. We came up with a really good profit-share bonus system, where the guys are paid on the quality of their customer service along with the revenue they generate. It gave the guys incentive. All of a sudden, we were getting guys that were making $20, $25 an hour, but it was very profitable for us because they had to do a certain amount of revenue and the customer had to be very happy with their work.

"We went from $500,000 with about eight to 10 guys on staff, and then we were at $1 million, and we only had 11 or 12. So we doubled sales while adding only two staff because all of a sudden, we had a system that incentivized the guys to work hard, work fast and do the job well.

"I [now] own the Vancouver franchise, so my daily job is running the Vancouver franchise and working with my team here. I also provide technical support and coaching to the franchisees through head office.

"Despite the recession in the States, we've added four franchises [there], and we're now up to five in Canada … Watching the business grow through the eyes of a franchiser and an owner of a franchise and seeing the team around it, that is the key." •

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