We always love hearing from service business owners and their thoughts on running a business, so we wanted to do a series of blog posts where we ask them several questions about their business. We would like to include as many kinds of service businesses as possible, from appliance repair to window washing, so if you run a service business and want to be a part of the series or you know someone you think would be interested, just send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For this post, we reached out to Matt, who's been running Hawkins Wildlife Control for 12 years now. When he's not busy capturing varmints and keeping them out of homes, he's practising archery, looking for mushrooms, and hunting deer. He loves pretty much anything outdoors, a real wilderman for sure.
We were lucky enough to catch up with him at his home and ask the questions in person. We hopped in his off-road cart for a quick tour of where he lives, through trails, dirt roads, fields, and woods. There were plenty of laughs along the way but also some real wisdom and great advise not only for folks looking to get started in wildlife control, but also for anyone that's interested in running a successful service business.
Running a wildlife control business
When did you start your business, and why?
I started my business in 2006 because I knew a few things: I knew I wanted to work for myself, and I knew I wanted to work with wildlife or something to do with wildlife.
How did you know you wanted to work for yourself?
Because my dad did, my dad's dad did, and I really don't like being told what to do.
Because you like wildlife you said?
I like wildlife you know, even though I don't really deal with wildlife much, honestly. I mean I keep them out of homes a lot. But the hands-on, grabbing raccoons by the tail and stuff, I don't get to do as much of that.
How did you get your first customer?
That's a good question. Well, there're two kind of different first customers, and I say that because my very, very, very first customer was from trapping beavers for a guy that I knew. But as far as like squirrel control, squirrel exclusion on homes and cabins that I do so much, that was probably about 8 or 9 months later, and I believe I got that from business cards.
I was passing around business cards to anyone and everyone that I thought would pass out business cards for me, or I put them where somebody would look if they were looking for that. So Lowe's, Home Depot, you know places like that, that sometimes have boards for business cards. Ace, Tractor Supply, feed and seed stores, pet stores. I mean the list goes on and on. Just anything that has to do with your business and getting your name out there. Even if it isn't related, throw your card out there.
What were the initial expenses for starting your business?
I'd have to say most of it was buying ladders, drills, getting the business cards made up, and decals for the truck. As far as the initial cost, for me to start that up, I think it was probably only around 1500 or so dollars.
Expenses, as far as wildlife control, are going to be for ladders, drills, screwdrivers, small tools, some type of snips to cut your metal, pouch to carry your screws, any traps.
So you kind of piece it together. As you get a job that needs something, you buy it.
Yeah, once you get on in to it, you kind of find out what you need. Because what I need here in Georgia is not what somebody in Michigan needs. It's not going to be the same stuff. They're more than likely not going to be doing flying squirrel work in cabins. They may be doing raccoons in lodges, you know, that may be the big gig up there. So it just varies from place to place, but rodents are just a big part of wildlife control. Squirrels and rats, most of your money is going to come from that.
How much do you spend on advertising a year, and what have you tried?
I usually spend... I'll have to think about that a second. No more than a $1000. I may do something like... this year, I did a little advertising at a pizza place, something small just to try it. I probably spent a couple hundred dollars. I had small, business card sized ads on the top of pizza delivery boxes. I don't really do too much advertising, most of the work is from referrals.
You're always trying stuff?
I typically try to experiment on something here or there throughout the year, but I don't spend a lot of money on it.
You don't get a lot of work from advertising?
I don't. I've tried billboards. I actually found that there's more of a local type billboard, same size as the ones from big companies but at a quarter of the price. So I spent $225 a month on a billboard for a couple of years, and I only know of two people that said they got my name from the billboard.
I'm sure it varies from billboard to billboard, and I could have tried another billboard somewhere else. I've done newspaper ads in several places. I'm in the phone book, which does nothing these days. Newspaper ads do nothing, usually. Really nothing works that I've seen, that I've tried, except maybe an online type deal. Nothing typically works as good as just doing a good job and people remembering that.
How important is it when you do advertising, when you try stuff, that you ask customers where they found you?
Typically most customers will say "Hey I'm so-and-so. I got your number from wherever." Most of the time if it's from somewhere, they tell me.
Do you have a slow season, and if so, how do you overcome it?
Not anymore really. I think if there was a slow season it would be summer, but the past few years, summers haven't been bad since I've found ways to deal with it.
You know, my first 7 or 8 years, I really didn't do anything for insects or mice. I just turned down the work because I didn't know what I was doing, and I didn't want to deal with it, but I eventually figured that type of stuff out and just added to it. I started taking a lot of those calls in. And now that my name has gotten more popular, I still get some of the regular flying squirrel type calls that I used to not get much of in the past during summer.
How many employees do you have, and what do they help with?
I have 1 employee. He pretty much does exactly what I do which is exclusion work. He also helps with trapping. Occasional he goes out on his own, but most jobs are two man jobs so he's usually with me.
Sometimes he'll answers phones, take down notes while I'm on the phone, you know names and addresses, that kind of stuff.
Do you ever want a business partner, someone to help with the business side of things, like sending invoices?
Sometimes, but not bad enough to give away part of my company. I'm too picky with my business.
What's been your biggest challenge?
Finding help, but I think that's also changed, because just this year is the first time I've started paying somebody a weekly rate.
Why're you doing that?
Because I've always just hired friends or family that need a job real bad, not really permanent employees.
Why are you now getting serious about it, what's the reason?
I think a couple of reasons: because I make more money these days, and I feel like I'm willing to pay for good help and feel comfortable with it. Originally, a year ago I was wanting to do it to help take a load off. I wanted somebody that was long term, and I was going to pay them a little bit differently. Someone that was really into the company that I trusted that would do the same type of work when I was there versus when I wasn't. It's just hard to find those people, you know.
What do you hate most about running a business?
I am really not a big fan of the invoicing and the paperwork. The "business" aspect of it, I'm really not a big fan of it. I'm more of the hands-on, do it kind of guy.
I use WorkWeek though, and it makes everything easier as far as estimates and invoicing goes. Running a small business, you gotta have it. I don't know how I did it all those years without it.
Have you ever considered going back to working for someone else and just being an employee?
Yeah, I think about it sometimes when it gets really difficult or it's real miserable working. For example, in the summer when we're on these roofs for 2 or 3 hours, it's pretty rough you know. Those are the worst times. I do think about it, but I would never do it. I mean, this is all I really know, and even if I got into wildlife control for somebody else, I don't know if I would last long because I've been doing it myself for so many years.
How do you deal with customers that don't pay on time?
On my invoices it says due after two weeks when I send them, and I usually don't even pick up the phone and call them, or email them, or text them until a solid month after the past due date. Just because, typically, I know they're going to pay, and sometimes people just take their time paying, or they're on some type of payroll system where they only pay invoices one time a month, and I understand that, so I give it plenty of time. I'm usually not hard on people, but when I do try to reach out and I don't hear a reply, that's when I worry. As long as I get a reply back, and I typically do, you know "hey we're sending it" or "it'll be there" that's good enough for me.
What about the ones that don't ever pay?
In 12 years, I've only had 6-8 customers that didn't pay, and I haven't had one in 5 years now that hasn't paid. Honestly in those few times that that's happened, I haven't done anything about it. I had one guy that gave me the complete wrong information and wouldn't call me back. I just let him go. If it were a bigger job, I probably would try to get the money, but most of those were smaller.
How do you price your jobs?
It changes so much it's hard to say, honestly. Most of my income is from squirrel exclusion: keeping squirrels out of cabins. That is my main income. Typically, depending on the size of the cabin and what needs to be done, whether it be the ridge cap or drip edge, there's a little variation on each cabin. And then of course the size, the shape, and the condition the cabin's in.
I just look at it, and ask "what's it worth to me", "what do I usually get for theses". I'm going to be on this roof in summer for 2 hours and then coming back at another time to remove a little one-way trap device. What do I want to make to do that, plus material, plus pay for my help.
And then trapping is a little bit different. I look at how far the job is, how many trips it'll take. I don't necessarily charge per trip or per animal, I just kinda know if I'm going out there 3 times, and I'm only stopping for 30 minutes at a time, I don't charge as much for that.
What advice would you give to someone starting a wildlife control business?
Do a lot of reading about trapping. Know your animals and be prepared to answer any kind of animal related questions even if it's not about the job you're working on. Research. Know your stuff because you don't want to sound like an idiot if somebody asks you about a bat species.
Be friendly to the clients. Treat them with respect. Be courteous. Answer any questions they have. Do the work. Do the work right. Make sure you do everything you can and explain everything to them. Just do quality work. In the long run that's what's going to keep your business going, doing quality work. Pickup the phone, show up, call people back. You can't pick the phone up every time somebody calls, but you can always call somebody back.
What would you say is unique about running a wildlife control business compared to other service businesses?
I think it's just unique in itself. You look at pest control, they're everywhere. You look at landscapers, they're everywhere. You need a plumber, there's plenty to choose from.
There's less competition, less people in it. It has grown significantly over the past 10 years, even since I started. I got into before it really even got as big as it is now. When I started, you could find 2 companies in Atlanta, 1 in Chattanooga. Now, online you can find 15-20 in Atlanta and 8-12 in Chattanooga.
Do you see a lot of them come and go?
Yeah you see a lot of the small timers come and go, but as far as the bigger names, they kind of buy each other out all the time and merge. They pretty much stay there, they don't go anywhere typically.
Why do you think the small ones fail or don't do well?
I think pretty much for the reasons I mentioned before. They didn't call people back, they didn't put their all into it, they didn't fix the problem. If the customer had a problem, they didn't go back and fix it. They didn't give 100%, basically.
Thank you to Matt
We want to thank Matt for taking the time to talk with us about his business and experiences. You can find his website here which includes his contact info, all of his services, and his service areas.