The long-term success of your business depends on a good reputation. Make sure the facts you share are real, true, and honest.
I am founder and CEO of BuildBlock Building Systems. I started in the building business
in 1977, and have built more than 4,000 houses and 100-plus commercial structures over
I first got started in the ICF business because I was tired of jobsite damage. Some of it was kids; some of it was weather. Sometimes windstorms in excess of 90 mph would kick up and the building would be entirely knocked down before you could get the structure fully supported.
I had built many custom homes throughout the years, and had a pretty good client base, but nobody knew about ICFs in Oklahoma in 1992. When I started talking to people about concrete homes, they didn’t understand it, and thought the cost would be prohibitive.
Over a few short years, though, I went from selling a couple truckloads of forms to selling more than 100 truckloads of forms per years consistently. I became the top ICF distributor for three years running before shifting to a different brand, where I soon became their top distributor for multiple years as well. I credit that to the things I learned, which I’ll share with you here.
Branding and Positioning
First, choose an ICF company to work with and brand yourself using their name (e.g. BuildBlock of Oklahoma.) This ties your business to a company that has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a brand with national recognition. In today’s world, with the internet, it’s especially essential. ICF companies spend thousands of dollars annually promoting their brands and you’d be foolish not to piggyback on it. It does you no good to have a generic name that can’t be tied to anything when all of this power is available. No one uses the phone book anymore; they go to the internet and use a search engine, and all these ICF brands show up in the results. If you’re tied to one of these names, your name will show up with them. People will find you very easily.
Your name connects you to your customers and the products that you sell. Register it and get it trademarked and protected. It doesn’t cost much for the protection it provides. Incorporate your business as an LLC or something similar and protect yourself from liability. Protect your name, your family, and your personal assets by setting up your company with a protected business structure.
Set up a good accounting system, with good books and good bookkeeping procedures. You certainly don’t want to get in trouble with the IRS, and you need to know if you’re making money; don’t just guess. Invest properly here, and make sure this is taken care of.
Create the construction contracts and bidding systems necessary to be successful. This is one of the most effective things I did. Collecting money from the customer is essential, and it’s much easier if the paperwork is in place. My bids showed the customer exactly what they were paying for, by item, and what the labor was for installing that item. I tied that to my contract. My contracts weren’t big—a page or a page-and-a-half—and the purpose was not to include all the legal jargon; it was just to tell them exactly what I was providing, what they were buying, and how they were going to pay me. Most arguments on the jobsite revolve around who’s paying for what, and it’s typically the little things. (Whose job is it to pick up the trash that blows onto the jobsite?) Spell everything out in detail, and save yourself trouble down the road.
The payment schedule should make sense for your business cash flow. When I delivered forms to the jobsite, I got paid. When I did the foundation, I got paid. When I got the walls to full height, I got paid. This ensured that I always had cash available, and my customer always knew exactly when he’d have to pay. Commercial contracts are going to be a little bit lengthier, but you have every right to negotiate the terms. Don’t let the general contractor walk all over you. You have a lot more leverage than you realize. The GC needs your expertise to complete the job successfully. Make sure you’re paid 100% (not 90%) when the work is complete.
Finally, get the proper insurance protection. Know what you need, including worker’s compensation, general liability, property protection, and so on.
Get a street-front office with storage for construction equipment. So many people these days try to run a construction business out of the cab of their pick-up truck. That’s no way to be successful. People must know where you are and have access to you. Establish consistent office hours and post them. Have a land phone line and hire someone to answer it and greet customers. You won’t be able to develop a strong business that will support you and your family until you have a street-front location.
Put up good signage. Your name is your brand. Display it.
Have good displays and marketing brochures at the office. Set up some sample walls. Set up bracing and bucking. Attach sample finishes. Let customers can see how the system works, and have marketing materials right there for them to take with them when they go.
People will stop by your office all day long to look at your displays, find marketing materials, and get information about your products.
Today, a quality website is essential. Make sure your business has one. They are easy to build and setup with or without technical expertise. Set up social media accounts and post new pictures and information to it daily or at least weekly. Experiment with social media (Instagram, Houzz, Facebook, or Pinterest) where you can show off the quality of your work. Make sure your content is updated so search engines will index it. As you grow you can expand with paid search advertising, but do the free things first. Keep it fresh with new construction projects and information. Create a blog. Share projects and work on job sites. Talk about a challenge and how you overcame it. Be yourself.
Keep the office appearance clean and neat both inside and out. The appearance of your office is how the customer judges the quality and attention to detail you will provide on their build. So keep it sharp. Keep the grounds mowed.
I always preferred a building that offered a street-front location, an office in front and warehouse space in back for my trucks, trailers, bracing and equipment and inventory space for extra ICF forms.
Train yourself on the advantages of ICF. You need to be the community expert on this building method and the advantages it provides in energy efficiency, durability, and construction. All of the major ICF brands have extensive resources available on their websites, including installation manuals, CAD details, and engineering. These are tremendous resources available to anyone who is willing to take the time to look them up.
You must be able to communicate this information with confidence and authority, and make the technology approachable. When a couple shows up at your office with plans, they want to know how it’s going to be built, the timelines and rough costs. This is their baby, and we need to respect that. You must be able to demonstrate the dramatic difference in performance against wood. Explain and identify real world costs and savings. Reiterate safety, cost of living, comfort, and security differences. Explain real world energy-efficiency in your area and disaster resilience.
Have a list of previous customers that are willing to provide testimonials and recommendations. When I was starting out, it didn’t take me long to develop a list of more than 100 references. I had a sheet available in my office with 50 names per side, listing the customer’s name, address and phone number, all of whom were willing to be contacted and provide a good reference. It takes a little while to build up your customer base to this point. Before I had all those names, I used photos and quotes from the projects I did have. Satisfied customers show credibility.
Build Your Pipeline
You have to market yourself to build a pipeline of work. ICFs are a niche market, and you are building a business around a specialized product. Unless you promote it, work will be slow. Get in front of potential customers, designers, architects and engineers. Make appointments with those you know are designing lots of structures. Find local construction management classes at colleges or community colleges and offer to speak and share this technology.
All of the major ICF brands have materials developed specifically for this type of outreach. They have education programs, PowerPoint presentations, and marketing pieces developed specifically for you to use with these audiences.
Meet with building officials, newspaper reporters, TV and radio professionals. Here in Oklahoma, every year at the beginning of tornado season, I would call the local news stations, and they would come down to my jobsite and shoot video. I was on the evening news year after year, talking about my product and the safety of it. You can’t buy that kind of exposure.
Display your products at the local home and garden shows, and at building shows if they’re available in your area. Get a booth, put out some block, and collect names. I would always put up a sign saying “Seminar Next Weekend: Come Learn About ICFs.” I don’t have time at the show to take two hours and educate every person that stops by about all the advantages of ICF. So I would get their name and contact information, and follow up with a phone call and email within a day or two inviting them to the seminar, held at a local hotel conference room.
I told them to bring their home plans, their questions, their family and friends; anyone that might be involved with the buying decisions. We’d provide coffee and donuts, and usually have 40 to 50 people show up. They always wanted more information than I could give them in that two-hour seminar. I would typically leave each seminar with a couple of new jobs, and if I handled things correctly, a few more that would later come into the pipeline.
Building with ICFs is a soft sell. You don’t know when they’re going to build that house. Most of the time these people are dreamers. Some will build in the next few months, but others not for three to five years, and some may never build their dream house. That’s okay; they’re going to tell their friends!
Train and Educate
Build a team with home designers, HVAC contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc. At my seminar, I would bring along a good architect or engineer to answer questions about that aspect. They were happy to come, as it built their business. At the same time, I was getting the community involved in ICF, multiplying my abilities, and expanding my potential customer base. Many times, plans would land on my desk for a bid, and the customer was already sold on the concept of ICF with plans drawn for ICF. All I had to do was put a number to it and then go build it. Designers brought me job after job. Put together a good team, and you’ll be seen as the expert.
It took me about two years of marketing to build a pipeline. After that, I had more work than I could do with just a single crew.
My business was ICF shells only. We were the first in, first out, and we always got paid because we were at the beginning of the construction process. It also allowed us to work on many more projects than if we built the entire home. If you want to build the whole home yourself, there’s more money per project, but you won’t be able to handle as many projects.
Train a good construction crew you can depend upon. Always be willing to teach others. They’re not your competition. They enhance your reputation and the reputation of ICFs in your area. To grow, you have to multiply yourself and train others. Transition yourself from working on projects and installing block to working on the business itself. I had enough work to keep three crews busy constantly. I also made sure that every crew was building quality structures. It’s your reputation they’re using, and you need to make sure you’re giving the customer everything they’re paying for.
Hire a good salesman when the time is right.
In the final analysis, the long-term success of your business depends on a good reputation. Don’t give excuses. If something sub-par is brought to your attention, say “Yes, I’ll fix it and I’ll take care of it.” That attitude will bring you more business than you would believe.
Make sure the facts you share are real, true, and honest. Be accessible and honor your word. Don’t overpromise. Rather than simply selling, teach, motivate, and inspire your customers. Give them the best you can offer. Strive for quality construction and excellent follow-up service.
You deliver a product that creates a daily experience making a true difference in the lives of people who live in an ICF home. It’s not just about the energy savings, peace of mind from mother nature, or the healthier air and quiet comfortable space; it’s about a better way of building for today and generations to come. Understand and believe in that difference and enjoy the success that will be yours.
Founder of BuildBlock Building Systems, a leading provider of ICFs. Prior to founding that company in 2004, he was the leading distributor of two other ICF brands. This article is adapted from a presentation Garrett made at the 2017 ICF Summit titled “Building Your Construction Business with Disaster-Resistant ICF Structures.”