In every phase of an entrepreneur’s career, there are times when they have to stand back and decide: Should I be doing this? New building service contractors struggle to survive and hope it’s all going to be worth it. Later on, they wonder if their decisions will mean riches or ruin, and if their leadership is good enough for their people and their vision.

Owners and managers of established businesses might get a seven-year-itch (or a 20-year itch, or a year-from-retirement itch), in which they daydream about what else is out there.

Getting beyond these forks in the career road and overcoming these challenges require a lot of hope, willpower and hard work, and perhaps a little faith. But, it also requires proper planning at every step of the way — from start-up through growth to retirement. BSCs who prepare for the challenges during each phase can better confront them once they do occur, and emerge stronger financially and emotionally on the other side of the hump.

In the beginning
One of the most stressful times in an entrepreneur’s career is the start-up phase. A cleaning executive might be working hundred-hour weeks, doing the jobs of three or more people (perhaps including some cleaning) while wondering if they’ll be able to make the next mortgage payment.

Part of surviving this phase, of course, is financial, and many new BSCs find themselves exiting the industry because their business isn’t making money and they can’t afford to subsidize it anymore. To reduce the chance of failing financially, new entrepreneurs should create a “living” business plan that addresses everything from values and branding to budgets, contingency and succession plans, and even retirement, says San Francisco-based master certified coach Catarina Rando, who specializes in entrepreneurial success.

“It is shocking how many businesses are operating without a business plan of what their objectives are,” says Rando, “including how much profit they want to generate and how they plan to get there. You also need an operations plan that discusses how you deliver services, and a sales and marketing plan that outlines all the ways you are going to attract and retain your clients.”

Small business owners are often so caught up in the day–to–day challenges that they never stop and ask themselves important questions, Rando says. Questions such as: What is the best way to do business today — and into the future? What would make my business more profitable? Is there some new technology that can help me streamline production or reduce my marketing expenses? Are there other businesses I can partner with in purchasing or delivery of services that would give me leverage?

“Ask these questions every month and take action on the answers you come up with,” Rando says.

While financial problems are a big cause of early business failure, stress also can lead to a decision to close up shop. Only the individual can determine tolerable stress levels, but there are some things most financially solvent BSCs can do to keep from hitting that point, including delegating some of that responsibility to others.

“When you own a business, you are your business,” explains Rando. “Many entrepreneurs wait too long and are monitoring dollars rather than getting more, experienced help. Strong staffing means you are proactive rather than reactive and you have structures and systems to support you.”

“I was like 99 percent of other startups, wearing 17 different hats for a number of years,” says Curt Nord, president of 115-employee, Bloomington, Ill.-based Nord Cleaning Service Inc., which he founded in 1978. “Then I started crossing bridges with hiring, sales, billing. I just physically couldn’t do it anymore! It was hard for me to learn to delegate, and let others do what they should do to let the company grow.”

Nord suggests owners focus on their strong suits or the parts they enjoy the most, and find someone to do the work at which they don’t excel.

Rando also makes a financial case for hiring or contracting someone else to perform certain tasks.

“It’s the age old time/dollar equation,” she says. “If I spend one day a week billing and invoicing, that’s one day I’m not attracting clients, marketing and moving projects forward. How much does that cost me? A bookkeeper — for 20 to 40 dollars per hour.”

Implementing new technology can also reduce stress and liven things up, says Nord, including electronic timekeeping systems, propane burnishers and backpack vacuums .

“Find a ‘tech’ adviser who works immediately and won’t gouge you,” says Samantha McDermott, chief operations officer and business coach with Spencer Consulting Group, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “Connect with those people, get references and call them to see what they’ve done for others.”

Healthy body, healthy business
Ambitious entrepreneurs also are often tempted to put healthy diet, sleep, exercise, rest and relaxation and other stress reducers on the back burner, which can have negative consequences over the long haul. Busy BSCs still should find time for their own health, which can improve the health of their companies.

Tim Murch, president of St. Louis-based Mitch Murch Maintenance Management plays hockey in the mornings, three times a week, which he calls his therapy.

“That allows me to have a clear head, come in, and hit the door running,” he says.

“Fitness helps deal with rejection, too,” adds McDermott. “You have more endorphins, and your body is happier.”

Healthy eating habits, too, can keep stress levels in check.

“Diet? I can’t say enough about nutrition and how it effects you,” Murch says. “I try to eat fish [and] veggies, and use common sense. Yeah, I’d rather have a big old pizza! It’s just moderation.”

The seven-year itch
At any later stage of the business cycle (but commonly after the business has been doing well for some time), building service contractors can burn out. It may be that the personal joy of ownership feels diminished. Perhaps the novelty and newness of the job has worn off. Or, perhaps paradoxically, the stress of new ownership was what was keeping the owner interested in work in the first place, and once things become relatively calm, malaise sets in.

Burned-out contractors need to find out why they’re burned out, says Rando. Then, they need to take some time off (even a day or a week, or longer if necessary) to reflect and get back their perspective. They shouldn’t make any abrupt decisions about staying in or getting out, especially when they’re feeling burned out and can’t necessarily think things through properly and thoroughly.

“Solo entrepreneurs who live the business day in and day out are not getting enough opportunity for renewal, new perspective and ideas in most cases,” Rando says. She advises burned-out BSCs to ask themselves what they are passionate about, and what they expect to be passionate about in the next five to 10 years.

“If the passion is gone, why do you think it left?” she asks. “Maybe your industry has changed, or your lifestyle has changed, or your priorities have changed, and what was important to you when you started does not matter so much anymore.”

Contractors in this phase don’t necessarily need to get rid of their businesses, but they will need to change the way they do business.

For example, Nord took a large, long-term retail client off his books, and he says it was one of the best days of his company’s existence. In the earlier years, the third-shift, 365-day-a-year account seemed to be manna from heaven. But eventually, it grew to outlive its usefulness and was dragging employee morale down to an almost intolerable level.

“It was a pretty large chunk of money,” says Nord, “but we exceeded that by concentrating more on our core business. If you have a niche or core of business and one piece outside that, it can really make you stop and think, ‘what am I doing in this business?’ If you don’t have that, your whole perspective changes and everything in your core business — your management, everything, falls into place. It did for us. It’s great.”

Or, perhaps the joy is gone because the owner has been so focused on ‘the biz’ that he or she is suddenly feeling disconnected from family, friends and spirituality. In that case, Rando recommends reassessing priorities.

“Certain areas we’re already good at,” explains Rando. “These are our centers of power, and where we put most of our time, energy and thoughts. The others are neglected. You can’t have 10 major goals in a year and expect to accomplish them, so pick your priorities and say, I have three priority life areas now, and three major things for the day.”

Sometimes, she says, pumping new energy into the business can help at this stage. She suggests hiring a business coach or consultant to add a new perspective, or adding a new product or service to create a freshness and excitement for the company and for its clients.

“Revisit your passions — providing jobs, services for customers, being self-employed, using non-chemical products and green equipment — and bring more of [them] into your business,” Rando recommends.

Whether you’re just starting up, coasting along in a holding pattern or in a period of rapid expansion, the key to moving forward successfully is growth, says Murch — in your business as well as your personal life.

“The objective is to continue to grow, and grow everything along with that: sales management, labor,” he says. “We create as much value as we can, so we’re always forging ahead, pushing unchartered territory in methods, procedures, systems and utilization so we can continue to enjoy the success we have had in the past.”

Ready For Retirement?

Planning for getting out of a business is just as important as planning when starting one, and there are potentially harsh negative consequences (financially and personally) if it’s done improperly.

Ideally, the owner has built a company that manages itself for the most part. He has processes in place to protect the continuity and credibility of the organization now and after retirement. He has a viable successor lined up. He is often recognized as a leader in the industry, speaking, networking and lobbying to benefit the company and create fertile ground for the industry.

The entrepreneur should also be fully aware of the responsibilities, legalities, and paperwork entailed in making the transition — including if he or she intends to take on a Chairman of the Board role during retirement.

If a balanced life has been nurtured and succession and financial plans have been tended to, retirement will be anticipated with excitement, not dread. Mitch Murch, founder of Mitch Murch’s Maintenance Management in St. Louis, did things the right way.

“He had a plan for retirement, explains son Tim Murch, who took over for his father. “To hit hard for 10 years, and retire in 1991. We worked it out before I started so he could do what he wanted to do, when he could do it. He backed off more as I took on more.

“He always had a balanced life,” Tim Murch continues. He volunteered in numerous associations and charitable organizations that were in no way associated with the industry, including a scholarship fund for the children of migrant farmers based in southwest Florida, near where he now winters.

“He also has an office in town,” he adds, “to get out of the house and work on his charitable and personal interests.”

Lauren Summerstone is a business writer in Madison, Wis., and a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.