In the past 12 years or so, the UK went through a number of big shocks. The great recession of 2008, the Brexit referendum and later negotiation, and now covid-19. The economy as a whole has suffered, and some specific industries more than others. But others have remained mostly unaffected or even thrived.
I considered taking the leap in 2008, in the heart of the Northern Rock Bank crisis. I was working in a local government role enjoying great conditions. Many of my friends and co-workers warned me it was a risky thing to do in such a context. I would be better off staying in my secure and well paid council job.
So yes, as I ventured as an entrepreneur into the path of pest control, I lost money on the first 2 years. What I mean is that I would have been better off keeping my council salary. The other aspect was that I worked and worried possibly twice as much during that period. I was a one man show, was a great biologist and was very good at I do. But being an entrepreneur is a completely different ball game.
Putting aside all the mistakes that a new company director may do, I recall there was work to be had. It was the infancy of Google Adwords and Google Local listing. With £100 per months pay per click budget and a website I put together in 3 days, I managed to make a living. And like me, were large numbers of technicians who had been let go by larger pest control companies that had to reduce their overhead costs to survive the downturn.
Pest control in London is very competitive. There are the big players, some that are focused on quality and clients, some that only care about profit at the expense of the client. Then there are the self employed, the respectable sole traders or the despicable con artist that take advantage of the distress people feel when they see pests. What I learned since 2008, is that doing things right is hard and expensive to run. And being a cowboy, a con, is much easier and has fewer overheads.
But handwork and dedication eventually pay off. In my experience from year 3, things became much easier as returning clients offered new business. As I got my first employee, it freed my hands so I could focus on growing my business and client base. It is now clear to me that offering a good service and experience to clients ensured their fidelity and returning business or recommendations.
Financial crisis or not, there will always be pests, death and taxes. The key is to be flexible and remain competitive. By offering a better service than my competitors, better value for money and personalised attention, you suddenly create reputation and momentum. By not being fearful, you dare to offer conditions and guarantees others would not consider.
I knew how to get rid of mice and mouse proofing was my speciality. So I offered a 1-year guarantee. That actually got me the trust of my clients and many would take a chance on me. I paid the same attention to every single treatment I carried out, any single pest I had to deal with. After a while, more business also meant more staff, and with staff came the necessity to maintain the standards that were possibly the hardest of challenge and still is.
With crises may come opportunities. Business suddenly strapped for cash, will look for cheaper contractors. So downturns are not always the worst time to start a business as long as you do not have many overheads. And in the case of large companies, they would simply let go of their workforce if they do not have enough work coming in.
With Brexit, something unexpected happened. The lowest month ever was June 2016. I had 5 technicians and suddenly all stopped. It was as if all the country was holding its breath. I made my biggest ever loss that month. And then it was back to business as usual. A Brexit vote hiccup followed with a steady increase in material costs and overheads.
Fast forward 2020, and the challenges are completely different. It is even possible that we have more business now than ever before. Since people spend the most time at home, they have more opportunity to spot pests or more incentive in wanting to solve the pest infestation. The difficulty nowadays becomes to manage human resources. There is a constant fear to lose a technician to self-quarantine.
My greatest regret is not being able to do one-2-one training sessions any more for fear that if one is exposed, then the 2 need to self isolate as a precaution. So training becomes a challenge of sorts. Video calls and meetings can only teach so much, You cannot expect to become a Michelin star chef from reading a book. So as a consequence, we stopped offering trainee positions that had offered a great opportunity for other candidates in the past.
I believe that pest control companies are mostly immune to an economic downturn, but their staff are not. To some extent, as some clients start struggling financially, they may go for the standard treatment and avoid the premium services of mouse proofing and heat treatment. The commercial pest control sector is often tied to contracts, but there are opportunities for takeovers if the time is right.