by Denny Townsend & Shawn Snelgrove
How many people have dreamed of working just half a year and making enough money to spend the rest of their time doing whatever they want?
Meet someone who has accomplished just that -- by washing window. Philip Bregstone began the business he calls "Dr. Glass" just out of high school. Twenty years, a degree in music and a family later, he's still at it. Using his squeegees to make home owner's lives "a little brighter," he earns six figures working just part-time. He devotes the rest of his time to his family and a variety of creative pursuits.
My greatest marketing tool is me. I make sure people get to know about me and my life, my family, interests and values, right from the first contact call through to the end of each job. I take every opportunity to differentiate myself from any other window washer or service company they know of. This way I’ve taken a working class job and turned it into a white-collar specialty trade.
In the past few months, Philip's entrepreneurial exploits have made business news headlines on NBC and CBS affiliates as well as talk radio interviews in NYC and Colorado. There have been major feature stories in USA Today, Kiplinger Finance Magazine, and a number of major newspapers.
As the story spread, people with dreams of business ownership called from all over the country asking for help starting their own high-end window washing services. "I guess it really struck a chord," says Bregstone, "to be able to run my own profitable business with very low overhead, providing a tangible service to a variety of customers, and to be able to take off for half of each year."
So while his 1000 clients get a clearer view of the world (thanks to his elaborate and profitable subcontracting system), Bregstone is now working hard as a business consultant for like-minded entrepreneurs.
Bregstone started Dr. Glass out of high school as a way to supplement his income as a working musician. He says it all began one job at a time -- borrowing a neighbor's ladder, making a trip to the local hardware store for a squeegee and a bottle of ammonia, then knocking on neighbors' doors offering his services. "I look back over 20 years," Bregstone ponders, "having figured out everything on my own, technique, marketing, sales. I've learned a great deal at the school of hard knocks."
By way of customer referrals and persistent flyers, his reputation grew and the young entrepreneur found himself in the homes of clients like Sugar Ray Leonard, Patrick Ewing, (GOP Veep candidate) Jack Kemp and (former Senator) Howard Metzenbaum.
He began to realize he was more than just a window washer. His greatest business assets didn't have much to do with squeegee technique. "I've gone bedroom to bedroom playing peekaboo with Leonard's son, participated in an accidental tug-of-war over a screen door with Marilyn Quayle, and joked with Mrs. Ewing about the extraordinary height of her kitchen countertops," recalls Bregstone.
"I realized this was all about service, and that 'real service,' the kind that stands out, is about interactions and relationships. With my customers, I share about who I am, and they reciprocate, opening up to me. Service is about becoming a person in someone's life," he says. "It's not a uniform or a van, it's the person. For my clients, it's the experience of having a Dr. Glass person in their house. I talk with my clients, let them know the things I care about, who I am, and really listen to them. I get to know them, their children, even their pets.
"I feel like I've failed if a customer's talking on the phone and I overhear, 'The window washer is here.' I know I've succeeded when they say, 'This really interesting guy named Philip is here and he's washing my windows."'
Another key to his success has been teaching an ever-increasing number of "like-minded souls" how to wash windows. Each year, a few new compatriots receive free training. Once they've reached a reasonable level of proficiency, he gives them regular work and in exchange receives a hearty percentage of their gross earnings. His subcontractors include a church minister, a concert pianist, an architect and an interior designer. They all make a healthy living washing windows, and have time left over to pursue their other interests.
In 1992, Bregstone married and moved to Colorado to join a rural co-housing community. "It's a great place to raise kids," Bregstone says. His unique business model allowed him to keep his East Coast operation running with only two seasonal commutes - for three months in the spring and less than one month in the fall. His family comes along for the adventure each spring. "We rent a place near the Washington Cathedral and pretend we're in Paris on holiday," says Bregstone. It works well. Since Bregstone left town his business has more than doubled.
"If I paid an hourly wage, I couldn't possibly receive the kind of service my clients demand and my long-distance business probably would fizzle. But I help each of my subs start their own business, buy their own equipment, learn how to solve technical and business problems on their own. They get paid directly by the customer so they have a great stake in the quality and efficiency of their work. It's a bit like a franchise, but it's based on trust rather than entangling legal agreements.''
In terms of marketing, Bregstone realized how important it was to differentiate himself from other service companies. "In the beginning I didn't realize it was an advantage to be small-scale. But I began to notice that my main competition was coming from big impersonal companies. Running a small home business became the feather in my cap."
He started to seek out upscale clients who would appreciate his homespun service. Producing flyers, coupons, postcards, and business cards on his Macintosh computer, his advertising was inexpensive, targeted and flexible. He created great stuff with snappy graphics, and doing it himself at home, he could "course correct" as often as necessary. If he created a flyer that didn't click he'd recycle and start again. Because his business remained personal and "hands-on" he could weave daily experiences and stories into his promotions and sales calls. "I was able to create and control the image I wanted to convey, the sort of folksy but clever just-a-young-guy-with-a-squeegy image.
"So I've focused on my greatest assets: I am small-scale, home based and I'm a personable guy. All of my advertising is directed at pointing out these differences to my poten
tial customers, and instead of advertising in the traditional places, I focus on getting referrals and 'flyering' just a specific area where my ads are seen repeatedly and they stand alone. I want to become a household name in this one important community."
It works. Bregstone says his customers pay a premium of between 50% and 100% over what they might pay a standard company they would find in the yellow pages. "They realize I'm worth it."
Adding to his homespun style, during the window-washing season, Bregstone runs his business up on the ladder while he works, using not only a bucket and squeegee, but a cell phone and laptop. "Customers love to reach the boss right from the get-go," Bregstone says. "! forward my business line right to my PCS phone and take all the calls myself. They love to hear I'm atop a 28' ladder taking notes with my digital dictator in one hand and the digital phone in the other. They caution me not to fall."
Keeping Track Of Business
He experimented with different databases early on. By tracking information about each job by date, location, profitability and customer commitment, his follow-up cards and calls reaped great results. "I know so many home business window washers who don't use a computer. I'm certain I do twice the business each year because of my Mac."
Bregstone says spreadsheets have helped him track the financial health of Dr. Glass for years. Data analysis on seasonal gross and net profits coupled with goal setting keep him on target and beyond. "! like to make modest goals, and then smash through them as fast as I can. I'm amazed that just by keeping track of where I've been and where I want to go I can regularly increase my profits. ! can check in a flash how I'm doing compared with previous years. Making direct comparisons with previous seasons allows me to push on current sales in order to skew the evolving stats in my favor -- and that means ever greater profit for me."
With twenty years and a million clean windows under his belt, Bregstone has created a successful system that others can model. Bregstone explains, "with all this press I've received, out of the blue, guys started calling who wanted to start up their own window washing businesses. I was really surprised. Many of these people have perfectly good jobs in the corporate world, dual incomes and benefits, and they are ready to give it up, husband and wife, to begin their own business."
Bregstone came up with his "Biz-in-a-Box" concept. "! looked around at some of the astronomical start-up costs out there on franchises and such, and I thought, '! can do better than that.'" Bregstone enlisted the help of people he knew who had the necessary professional skills to produce training videos and how-to manuals devoted not only to window washing techniques, but also marketing and sales as well as business topics like taxes, insurance and incorporation.
"It's everything I've figured out over the past 20 years. It's a little like a franchise, but better," he says. "I'm helping people start a business, and I'm profiting from it, but it's not out of most people's reach. Some guys are trying to get you to spend $40,000 on something that could fail. I'm suggesting that you can spend just a few thousand and you can't possibly lose. With this business, you can make good money and have the time for your life," says Bregstone. "There's a thirst in this country to do satisfying work. I'm glad I'm able to help out. ! never imagined my window washing business would help others improve the quality of their lives."
For further information Bregstone can be reached at (888) 282-3535 (maybe from up on a ladder) or check out the Dr. Glass Biz-in-a-Box web site at www.Doctor-glass.com.
Denny Townsend and Shawn Snelgrove are freelance writers living in Boulder, Colorado. They may be reached, respectively, at email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org