Off the Grid

My understanding of the phrase “off the grid” comes from a description of a fringe element in our society. They have literally and figuratively unplugged from the rest of America — carving out an existence by drinking well water, growing their own food and pulling in energy from photovoltaic cells on the roof of the dwelling they’ve built or rehabilitated. There are many advantages to being “off the grid.” First, I imagine that utility bills remain very manageable. Second, it makes it hard for Uncle Sam to collect taxes if they don’t know where a person lives or even that they exist. To a perverse way of thinking, this kind of living is very American — striking out on one’s own, complete self-reliance — all virtues ascribed to the pioneers and before them the Puritans.

But there are other American virtues that are inconsistent with an “off the grid” mentality, those that involve community, pulling together for the good of the whole, learning from others, etc. After several years of covering the remodeling industry and working alongside our industry associations, I am amazed at the number of remodeling firms that go it alone; they build their businesses in isolation from the profession. They are, in a way, off the grid. I say this not to suggest that there are remodeling companies looking to avoid paying taxes. Nor am I talking about the many unlicensed and unregistered contractors. I am referring to the tens of thousands established remodeling and home improvement businesses that have very little connection with the industry they participate in every day.

There are many reasons why people choose to operate this way. I have heard several. They don’t have time. They don’t want to give away their secrets to potential competitors. They serve a discrete clientele. They don’t need any help. I think these are natural impulses. But if there is a single reason why there is such a high failure rate of businesses in this industry, it can be attributed to this go-it-alone mentality.

Every day many people coming into this business, equipped with a base level of applicable skills — principally design and construction — begin taking on projects without knowing how to run a business. It is only the rare individual that can survive the plethora of business mistakes that come to those who operate in isolation. Typically they think they are making money and realize too late that they are, in fact, losing money. But in this sink-or-swim process, there is collateral damage — a wake of dissatisfied customers, unpaid subcontractors and suppliers. But to those who make it and even thrive in this business and remain an island, I suggest that you are missing an opportunity to improve your business, an opportunity to make more money and an opportunity to lend support to the groups that have helped enable your success.

One example is the very complicated issue of lead-paint remediation. Both industry associations have thrown a lot of resources at working with policy makers to ensure that when new EPA rules take effect next April, they do not impede the industry’s ability to operate profitably. Those remodelers who are off the industry grid should feel a need to support the industry and to get informed on this and other issues.

Get involved. You will not be sorry.