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Going Places

[ 0 ] Feb. 22, 2011 | SBO Editor

$500,000 a year helping senior citizens declutter, pack, box up and move.

By Chuck Green

Katie Hamann started her service business that caters to senior citizens from home. The company developed into a complete senior relocation specialty firm and handles all aspects of making a major move comfortable, non-threatening and completely foolproof. It's a huge market and a nice niche.

She didn’t know what exactly, but Katie Hamann always wanted to start her own business, and specifically in the service industry. But what to do?

“I always wanted to run my own show,” said Hamann, who had worked in sales and service. “I always had a service background and loved working with people. The senior aspect of it wasn’t anything I had experience with, but I didn’t think that was important. I thought as long as I enjoyed working with people and helping them, it didn’t matter who you were serving as long as the motivation behind serving someone was there.”

Several years ago, she’d been talking to a business associate who had come up with a concept that formed their company, Door To Door Solutions, which specializes in assisting with every aspect involved with the process of moving older adults. “I was at a place where I was ready to quit my job and really try something,” Hamann said. She and her two partners performed extensive market research and conducted focus groups in the area to determine if their idea was something that the people to whom they expected to sell would be interested and whether there was much competition or many other people doing it. They also hammered out a business plan.

Door to Door Solutions specializes in senior relocation. “This means we assist older adults with the process of moving from one home to another, typically a long-time home where they have lived for more than 30 years, and typically clients move into a space at least 50% smaller. Services offered during this time of transition include floor plan assistance, downsizing and decluttering assistance, packing, moving, unpacking, new home setup, cleaning, and clearing of items that are no longer wanted.

“Our senior move managers work with clients sorting, organizing, packing, unpacking, cleaning, hanging pictures and drapes in their new home. Our professional moving team handles the moving. It’s full-service.

“Then we just went out there and said ‘let’s try this thing.’” Hamann said she quit her job to devote full time to getting the Richmond, Virginia-based company off the ground.

Not surprisingly, as sure as she was about pursuing her goals, Hamann also had concerns about leaving her position. “It’s a pretty scary undertaking not to know what your income is and where your paychecks are coming from.” Still, Haman had worked on 100-percent commission sales before, so she basically knew that on the one hand, “it really forces you to motivate yourself because you’ve got to earn every single penny.

On the other hand, I reminded myself that I was fairly young and all I really had to lose was time and money. I could always earn money. And the time, I really don’t lose that, because no matter what happens, I’ll learn and have experience.”

Obviously, she made a pretty convincing argument to herself. Time to act.

Hamann said she met her partners through a business networking group, although she and one member ultimately bought out the other. They started out of their home and booked their first job. “That was really scary,” she chuckled. “We said, ‘oh no, now what?’” At that point, Hamann’s partner said that if they were going to proceed, ‘we’re going to learn it from the ground up.’” And they did, doing a move for a client with a friend’s truck and borrowed equipment.

“No matter what we did, we had to understand every aspect of the business. Even though we might not have wanted to be in a truck every day, we had to understand how the business works, what we were doing and how to do it most efficiently. We learned from our mistakes.”

And make no mistake, just as importantly, it also taught the two to look at the experience through the eyes of their customers. “That way, we could be sensitive to what they were going through. It’s a huge change in someone’s lifestyle.”

To attract customers, Hamann said that she and her partner went out and talked about their services to everyone who might be interacting with someone in that situation, whether it was the individuals directly involved or a family member. They also discussed it with, among others, realtors, estate attorneys and senior living communities, where potential customers were moving, in order to educate and create awareness of their service and its availability. “Several years ago, there wasn’t a lot of awareness that it existed. I kept hearing ‘I wish I would have met you six months ago because I just moved.’ It got frustrating to hear that. I think of all of those missed opportunities,” said Hamann, whose company had sales of about $500,000 last year.

They became more focused on “Who do we find next so we don’t hear that again and how do we get in front of them before they need us.” They believed they had the answer. “I think the single most important resource to us is the community into which the person’s moving and those communities recognizing that our service allows those people to live as well as they can from the minute they arrive.” Hamann said those communities started to recognize how important their service was and “almost started to help sell the service for us. It was like being able to multiply the sales force.”

With an eye on expanding their market, at least to a degree, while they’ve always focused on being senior relocation specialists, Hamann said the company recently began to hone in more on those outside that market. “Others that have wanted the same service but might not be seniors have started to say ‘you moved my mom, could you do it for me?’ So we’re starting to think more about the benefit our service provides and who wants to receive it.”

Another tactic to help grow the business was not taking a lot of money out of it, she said, “We didn’t pay ourselves much; we basically just put our time and energy into it and we didn’t get outside financing. The only thing we gave up was our own income. Our philosophy is to build for growth, but sometimes you can’t predict when that growth is coming. Building for growth means putting money forward before money comes back. That philosophy always served us well. We’ve built, meaning adding employees, and the growth has followed.”

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Category: Magazine, Small Business Opportunities, Small Business Opportunities May 2011