How an Old School Business Discovered the Internet and Grew 350 Percent

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What do you do when you’ve been in business for years, and have a crisis of confidence?

One day something happens that forces you to confront some cold hard facts:

  • The world has changed.
  • Your business hasn’t changed with it.
  • And now your business is in jeopardy.

That’s exactly what happened to Brian Young, owner of Home Painters Toronto.

He discovered that his customers had changed their buying habits. They were going online to find a house painter. Yet his business was literally nowhere to be found online.

Many times, a story like that would have a bad ending. Some small businesses would succumb to the odds, and become the next failure statistic. But that’s not the case for Young’s business. In his case, he managed a stunning turnaround.

And this is the story of how he did it.

Cold Calling Made His Business Hot

Young started the business 25 years ago, while he was still a student in college. Back then, when Student Painters came to campus offering its franchise-style model, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It had always been my dream to run a business since I was a kid growing up watching my dad. Student Painters was recruiting on campus, and my friend did it and recruited me into it. I thought, ‘this is my shot at running my own business,’ so I was really excited about that. It was my dream come true,” recalls Young.

That was in 1987.

He discovered he was good at growing a painting business — mainly because he was good at cold calling.

“I learned how to do cold calling really well,” he said. “At the time I was young so I had all this energy. And cold calling didn’t take much time. You just had to go knock on doors and give them quotes on the spot. It’s more of a heart thing. Just go out and be as aggressive as you can. That was the way of marketing back then.”

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Young, at age 19, cold calling for Student Painters.

Upon graduation in 1991 Young went off on his own as an independent business owner.

Business was good. “I think our first year I was doing about $100,000 to $150,000 in revenue, in that range. It was pretty good back then,” he added.

Year after year, sales continued to climb.

His cold-calling marketing approach worked well for about a decade. Up through the late 1990s, “cold calling was the way to go,” he said.

The Internet Changes Everything

By the year 2000, though, the Internet had started gaining ground in the painting industry. Young began to notice consumers were going online to find painters.

Young’s world had irrevocably altered. He just wasn’t ready to admit it.

“I saw what was happening but I didn’t want to change. I’m like, ‘you know what, I’m a cold caller.’ I just kept knocking on doors,” recalled Young.

Yet, deep down, Young knew things were changing. “It was tough because I could feel my market going down, shrinking more and more and more.”

He soldiered on for another decade, watching sales gradually decline even though he was working harder than ever.

It All Came to a Head – Literally – in 2011

“I was canvassing a neighborhood and a potential client was upset that I’d interrupted his dinner. He came out and punched me in the face,” remembers Young with a rueful smile.

Young ended up with a black eye and the incident made him reevaluate his company’s marketing.

“It hurt me emotionally even more than physically. I am really passionate about my business. But it also knocked some sense into me. I realized, ‘Brian, I have to change or else my business is going to die.’”

“I call it the million dollar punch,” he added.

Playing Online Catch Up

Young took stock of his business’s situation and it wasn’t pretty.

Up to that point, in 2011, his business was nowhere to be found online. Yet, that’s where his market was.

“My business was offline, totally. I didn’t have a smartphone. I didn’t believe in email. I didn’t believe in websites. When it came to technology, we were bare bones. I mean, I had a Blackberry that I could type short messages on and that was it,” he recalls.

“So, I hired a consultant who helped me get my business online almost overnight. We worked ninja style. I was like, ‘What do we need now? And what do we need next?’ So we got a website. We joined some review sites. We implemented email marketing. One by one, we just kept nailing them,” said Young.

A major milestone for Young and his Home Painters Toronto business came just a month or so into the online transformation.

One of his first steps was to advertise using Google AdWords. “We had to do it because we were nowhere to be found in Google search results at that time,” he pointed out.

Advertising with AdWords required a huge leap. It meant spending more money than he had ever spent on marketing.

Prior to that time, his marketing budget was just $500 a year. “I’d do my lawn signs, and I would buy business cards. That was it. I was really cheap,” he laughs.

But almost immediately he saw the benefits of marketing online.

“For the first time in my life I didn’t have to cold call a house. That was significant. I was getting leads coming in – they’re called inbound leads — and that pretty much was the start of how things worked out. As more people found us online, things really started taking off.”

The Online Strategy to Refresh a Home Painting Business

Starting in Spring 2012, sales exploded.

“We started 2012 at $375,000 in revenue. Now after 2014 we’re at $1.3 million,” said Young. By his calculations, that amounts to a 350 percent increase in just three years’ time.

“I’ve been working like a madman ever since trying to keep up with the growth,” he added.

“Our goal now is to grow 20 to 30 percent a year. At the same time, I want to get my customer satisfaction ratings higher. We’re at 98.5 percent. We’re going to shoot for 99 percent customer satisfaction and encourage more online reviews. That’s how you have to market a business like this, is through reviews, “ he added.

“Before, in my business, you could upset someone, and then you could just not work on that street for the next five years and they’d forget. But now online, everything is exposed and you’re vulnerable that way. So you have to be impeccable about making sure every customer is taken of, no matter what. It raises the game of the business owner, and gives the customer more protection.”

In addition to advertising with AdWords, developing high customer satisfaction rates and encouraging positive reviews, there are a few other arrows in Young’s marketing quiver.

The company also pursues content marketing and search engine optimization as part of its strategy. ”For a year solid I’ve blogged two or three times a week,” points out Young.

Articles such as “What Causes Paint to Bubble, Crack and Peel?” and “Bringing Warmth to a Room with Ceiling Paint” give consumers the sort of relevant information they are looking for when researching painters, Young says. Content marketing also has helped the company’s website rank well for Toronto painter searches.

Even though his company was playing catch up, Young soon discovered that most of the painting industry was “still way behind.”

“Now they copy what we do. But they can’t keep up. Not that I’m trying to put the competition down — just saying that’s what is happening. My business has become the pacesetter,” asserts Young.

Growth Brings Another Set of Challenges

Another important element of the success story is how the company implemented Infusionsoft marketing automation software.

It wasn’t long before Home Painters Toronto became the victim of its own fast growth.

The more client leads the company got, the harder it became to manage them and keep track of what stage they were in.

“We had all these lead sources, and needed a way to organize them,” said Young.

In fact, Young insists that without automation there’s no way his company could function.

“Today, we quote anywhere from 200 to 300 leads a month. Trying to follow up manually with that many leads is nearly impossible. Automating our follow-up sequences saves us hours and hours each week,” he added.

He also needed to be able to hire and train people to help him. His vision was to create a platform to run the business off of, so he could duplicate his system and grow without increasing his personal working hours. That’s another thing Infusionsoft gave them, he said.

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Young, of Home Painters Toronto, channeling Rocky Balboa, with partner Jill Littlejohn.

But implementing Infusionsoft wasn’t smooth sailing at first.

“I was excited by our growth, but Infusionsoft was driving me crazy because I just wasn’t ‘getting it’.”

He knew from his father’s role model (his father also is a small business owner) that perseverance and hard work would pay off.

“Even if I had to stay up for 24 hours, I was willing to do anything because I saw in the first two or three months what the Internet could do for my business. This was my dream shot at turning this thing into something big. I couldn’t sleep. I was like ‘there has to be an answer to this, and if answers aren’t apparent, then we’ll find them’,” he added.

While on a retreat to Puerto Vallarta, Young coincidentally met Kelsey Bratcher of Hired Gun Solutions, an Infusionsoft expert. Eventually Young hired Bratcher as an outsourced member of his marketing team.

According to Bratcher, “small wins lead to big wins.” So, he focused on helping Young break things down into small pieces so they could quickly achieve some successes. The first thing they did was break down the Home Painter Toronto sales process into 12 stages and automated some of the stages.

Almost immediately, Young got his first “win” through Infusionsoft. The company sent out a reminder sequence about an upcoming appointment. “For the first time,” Young recalls, “I actually got a confirmation email from the client saying ‘we’re good to go tomorrow for 7:30’ without me having to call.”

“A light bulb went off. Previously I’d have to make multiple calls and leave voice mails. It got me thinking in terms of automation — versus of me doing all the work in my business. I realized it would free me to focus on strategy,” Young added.

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Young, with Kelsey Bratcher of Hired Gun Solutions, after accepting the 2015 ICON Award.

What It Takes to Transform an Old-School Business’s Marketing

The transformation of this once tech-phobic painting business is so dramatic that Young and Home Painters Toronto won the 2015 ICON Award. The Award is presented by Infusionsoft to small businesses demonstrating outstanding marketing success.

According to Marketing Coordinator Jill Littlejohn who was on hand at the 2015 ICON Conference (dressed in painter’s clothes just like her boss), under Young’s leadership they have embraced marketing automation completely. The Infusionsoft marketing automation software has been woven into the company’s processes so deeply that it is now “essential,” she said.

Today, Young sounds like a marketing tech whiz. But according to Bratcher, at first he was anything but. “I had to explain how the technology worked.”

But what Young had going for him was his drive. “He listens, and he goes with it. We’ve made some mistakes over the years and made some people angry with emails. But he doesn’t have this fear component. He just moves ahead — not recklessly, but he doesn’t spend much time worrying about his decisions,” added Bratcher.

That drive has caused Young’s business to be recognized as one of the top home painters in Toronto. The business has even been featured on several home decorating and makeover TV shows.

Young had some final advice for other small business owners — of any industry. “No matter how bad things are going, no matter how long it’s been going, there has to be a solution. Someone in the world has succeeded and overcome that problem. If they can overcome it, you can. You’ve just got to pay the price. If that means working a little harder, you have to work a little harder. Or work a little smarter. Or learn a new technology.”

“I watched the movie “Rocky” growing up. I’ve watched it so many times I know almost every line. I could almost recite it. I look for that movie whenever I’m having a tough time because this guy came from nowhere. He got a shot at the title and he just gave it his all, and he was standing at the end of that first movie. Motivation like that gives me the pigheaded determination to overcome anything no matter what,” he added.

And what about that $10,000 check that Young received as part of the ICON award? “I donated half of it to an entrepreneur cause — and am thrilled to help other entrepreneurs make their businesses a success.”

Image credits: Small Business Trends, Home Painters Toronto


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

6 Reactions
  1. I love seeing SMBs using AdWords to effectively grow their business. I run into so many that have poor experiences and swear off PPC entirely afterward. Kudos to the consultant that helped it be a positive experience.

    • Anita Campbell

      I thought this was full of positive lessons, Robert. And kudos to Brian for showing the drive and leadership he has.

      – Anita

  2. What a great story and a good learning experience for small business owners everywhere.

  3. Anita Campbell

    I loved Brian’s story, Kip. He has made incredible progress in just a few years. – Anita

  4. Commenting a bit late but what a great read! I think the biggest lesson learned here is the self-realization that the business model needed to change with the digital times. I think right now is a prime example of how businesses are using the internet and other forms of marketing to help keep themselves afloat. Some of the top searched words in google right now are SEO for small businesses. Just like how Brian had to pivot his company, I think we’ll see a lot of companies adopting digital strategies going forward.