Thursday, 31 May 2007

Silicone sealant in bathrooms

We'd had a few call-backs recently on silicone sealant jobs. A very frequent job that we do is re-sealing baths and showers, where sealant has got old and mouldy and leaky. Removing the old silicon, and resealing with new is the sort of job all of our handymen should be complete experts at, so hearing that some of them weren't was worrying.

So, we had "silicone sealant" as the subject of our masterclass on Friday. Every fourth Friday we have our London team get together over breakfast. This is partly for social reasons - as our guys work mostly alone, they can go for days or weeks without seeing any of their colleagues; and partly to share knowledge and skills. And most times, we pick a topic for one handyman to talk about - whether it be a new technique, a new tool they have discovered, or whatever.

Stan and Don both gave brilliant demonstrations of their silicone sealant technique. Stan had a secret weapon, which he had mentioned before but none of us really understood how effective it was until we saw it in action. The secret weapon is simply an old perfume spray bottle filled with soapy water - spray this onto the silicone, and onto the tiles an inch or so either side of the bead, then (and only then) smooth it off. It is very, very effective, allowing you to produce a perfect smooth bead of silicone with ease. We'd used a mocked-up tile corner using black tiles and white silicone so any imperfections would be very visible. And even under those conditions, Stan's handywork was perfect.

So now we are issuing everyone with a little water-spray bottle, and now that everyone knows what 0800handyman silicone work should look like we hopefully won't have any more sub-standard siliconing.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Meeting with National Britannia / Safecontractor

So I went up to Caerphilly to meet with representatives of National Britannia (including their divisional managing director, James Ostler) to discuss the curfuffle I have created over our SafeContractor renewal.

I was actually quite impressed: National Britannia have put a lot of thought into what I have said, and took my concerns very seriously. Broadly speaking, this was the outcome of the meeting:

1. NatBrit agree that overloading people with information is counter-productive

2. Our risk assessments are very good, and do a good job of communicating information to our handymen

3. They would prefer to see more paperwork documenting the work we have done to produce those risk assessments (i.e. why we have chosen those risks not others; our process for identifying new risks, etc.)

This is also what the HSE hinted at: that the paperwork we issue to handymen is excellent, but we should have more 'back-office' paperwork to back it up.

NatBrit are going to re-audit our application and issue a revised list of additional things they'd like to see. I doubt if producing this extra paperwork will make our business any more safe, but it probably won't make it less safe (assuming, that is, that they don't ask us to issue more bumf to our handymen, just have it filed away for occasional review in the office) Once I know what new paperwork they would like to see, I will decide whether it is commercially worth the extra time and effort needed to produce it.

One question I did pose, which to their credit they did consider very carefully (and, I suspect, discussed further after I left) was this: "would you ever reject a risk assessment because it was too long-winded?". If one really does believe that over-loading people with excessive information is counter-productive, then it follows that you must reject some risk assessments for being too long. A 2,500 word document about, say, using a Stanley knife is unlikely to be an effective document and should be rejected. NatBrit didn't think they had yet rejected anything for ticking too many boxes, but maybe they will start doing that now?

Friday, 25 May 2007


I love Greenthumb. These are the guys that spread magic fertiliser stuff on your lawn four times a year to make it look lush and green. Why is that so special? Why not just buy the magic fertiliser stuff from B&Q and do it yourself?

Because it costs more to buy it from B&Q (or any other DIY store), even before you account for your own time trying to spread the damn stuff over your lawn. And it takes ages and ages to painstakingly pour n grams per square meter over your whole lawn.

So, for £21 a time, a lovely chap from Greenthumb comes four times a year and treats our lawn. To buy enough fertiliser to cover our (quite small) lawn does cost more than £21. That is a great business. Imagine if you were a restuarant and you could provide your customers with a gourmet meal for less money than it cost them to go and buy the ingredients in the supermarket.

I don't quite understand the economics of Greenthumb, but I am guessing that:

(a) they are (obviously) paying a wholesale price for the fertiliser stuff

(b) they can spread it over a lawn in a tiny fraction of the time it would take the lawn owner, because they have bought (one) somewhat expensive fertiliser-spreading machine which it would be uneconomic for a single lawn owner to purchase. I've never actually seen Greenthumb administer a "treatment", but my wife tells me they are in and out in less than five minutes

(c) because they don't need supervised access, they can schedule their appointments to perfectly optimise (I like split infinitives; I think it is better to split than cumbersomely not to split one) their own travel time. So they do (I am guessing) a dozen lawns all within a stone's throw of each other, on a particular day, getting a good £250+ revenue per day. And presumably a lawn-treatment-dispensing person costs about £80 / day to employ (less?), minus (say) £5 a pop wholesale cost of the fertiliser, leaves you 40-odd% gross margin.

Then they charge extra for mechanical things over the winter (aerating and that sort of thing, which could easily add 50% to their annual revenue from each customer, if we are anything to go by), so all adds up to a good little business.

Plus they can charge extra to fix nasty things like leatherjackets (cranefly larvae, which live underground and eat grass roots, turning a lawn into a patchy brown area with some tufts of grass). Once you have a beautiful lawn, you are very, very ready to pay a bit more to keep it that way. (I speak as someone with a recently-cleared-up infestation of leatherjackets)

And, finally, I like them because they are focussed. They keep your lawn green, that's it. They don't mow it. They don't weed your flowerbeds, sell you compost or prune your roses. They don't do anything else in your garden at all. They just do lawn-fixing. There's a lot to be said for that - every additional thing you try and do inevitably reduces somewhat your expertise in your core area.

Link from John Kerry's blog

Gosh, this post I made a while back (noting how we have Margaret Hodge looking after Small Businesses; Americans have none other than John Kerry) has been noticed and linked to by John Kerry's own blog. That's one dedicated research team.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Safecontractor renewal latest

James Ostler, Divisional Managing Director of National Britannia has invited me to come to their office in Caerphilly to discuss my concerns about our SafeContractor renewal.

So I am up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to travel to Caerphilly in deepest Wales (well, 30mins from Newport, deep enough) to meet him.

Should be interesting.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

May 2103: 0800handyman completes its 100millionth job

I see that the AA attended their 100 millionth breakdown today. 100 million jobs in just over 100 years (the AA was founded in 1905). BBC reports they did 5 million jobs in their first 9 years (citing outbreak of WW1, which by my reckoning was 1914), but I don't believe that, they must mean WW2. Otherwise they would have averaged over half-a-million callouts a year between 1905 and 1914, surely there weren't enough cars around then to generate that many callouts (even if they did all break down more often)?

And, actually, the 3.5m callouts per year they say they do currently seems pretty high. Taking a wild guess that their market share is 50%, that implies 7m breakdowns a year - nearly a quarter of all cars in the UK (there are 33m cars in the UK) breaking down once a year? Surely not, seems far too high?

Anyway, I look forward to 0800handyman performing our 100 millionth job, which if we follow the AA's trajectory will be somewhere around May 2103.

HIP fiasco

So, the government decides to postpone HIPs once again. What a fiasco this has been. I always thought the point of HIPs was to reduce the costs and time associated with a house purchase by making the seller do a house survey, not the (potential) buyer. That way, fewer surveys are needed (as each potential buyer would otherwise do their own survey, even if they later pull out); and purchase can be completed more quickly (as buyers don't have to wait for a survey).

But then the building survey element was dropped some time ago, leaving a watered-down proposal that seemed to be pretty pointless, I don't know why govt didn't just abandon it completely at that stage. I suspect the whole thing will be quietly dropped not long after Aug 1.

Handymen needed in Manchester / Liverpool / M62 corridor

Interesting development today. A key customer of ours is very keen that we provide coverage for them in Manchester and Liverpool. They have obviously looked at the local competition, but have decided they'd rather use us (even though we don't cover those cities at the moment), which is very flattering

So we are going out on a bit of a limb and will hire one (or maybe more) handymen to cover this area.

Such a person would have to be super-self-sufficient and able to work very much on their own. Popping into the office in Battersea to catch up with the gossip wouldn't really be an option. But we could maybe stretch to getting them down for the summer go-karting.

If this might be you, fill out our application form and send it directly to me (my first name [at] We'll be interviewing next week.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

London bookings going through roof

Is there something in the water in central London? Our 30-day average bookings-taken-per-day metric has leapt nearly 25% over the past month or so (see graph; y-axis units hidden, to retain a modicum of commercial confidentiality).

It hasn't taken us completely by surprise, we have been doing one or two quiet little bits of new marketing, but it is pretty amazing, nonetheless.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Red tape myth repeated in Sunday Times yesterday

Rachel Bridge in yesterday's Sunday Times (tried to find link, but their website still has last week's articles on it; it is on page 15 of Business section of the paper version), repeats this myth that we all spend many hours a week on so-called "red tape".

She reports a new, even scarier statistic about how much time businesses spend dealing with red tape. Not to be outdone by the FSB claiming that businesses spend 28 hours a month on government red tape, a business-advice outfit called Peninsula claims that small businesses spend an average of 9.5 hours a week just on employment law and HR matters. That's a whopping 41 hours a month.

Anyone who is so poor at managing their time that they have to spend more than one entire day a week on "red tape" shouldn't be in business.

What are these businesses doing that we aren't? I suspect this figure must include-lots of things which aren't "red tape" (i.e. government-imposed bureaucracy), although that is not how the Sunday Times / Peninsula are presenting it. "HR matters" may well include lots of important and valuable work which isn't "red tape" at all. If you run a service business, most of your time is going to be spent managing your staff. But that is the nature of your business, nothing to do with government-imposed bureaucracy.

And I am deeply skeptical of Peninsula's claim to be campaiging to reduce red tape. They are, I think, really campaiging to increase awareness of (belief in?) red tape. Their business depends on other businesses believing that red tape exists, is excessive, and is expensive to comply with, so those businesses pay for Peninsula's advice.

They are not a credible campaigner to reduce red tape. It is like a petrol company lobbying the government to require cars to be more fuel-efficient.

I say again that a much more productive stance for the Sunday Times, the FSB, and anyone else in a position of influence is to say "we, in Britain, enjoy loose regulation and are generally trusted to manage our own affairs, unlike businesses in the USA and mainland Europe. We'd like to keep it that way."

You don't want politicians and bureaucrats to think that we operate in a highly-regulated environment. If they think that, they won't worry about adding a few extra regulations here and there. It is like dropping litter on the Tube: if you think you see other people leaving their litter in a particular corner of a platform, you might not worry about leaving your empty coffee cup there. One more won't make any difference. But you wouldn't dream of leaving your empty coffee cup on a pristine platform. So it is with red tape: if, as a politician, you think there is already lots of red tape around, and that most businesses set aside a day a week (!) to deal with it anyway, adding an extra trivial regulation (which, your RIA tells you takes five minutes a week to comply with) really won't make any difference, you would go ahead and implement it.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Microwave drill

Check this out:

The Microwave Drill

The inventor contacted us a couple of years ago, looking for someone to get involved in real-world testing of this extraordinary invention. Apparently, the device is too dangerous for the amateur domestic user, but he reckoned that pros like us could handle it.

We've decided to stick with DeWalts for now.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Quickbooks upgrade and sunset policy

I love Quickbooks, it is fantastic software, and I happily recommend it to anyone who will listen. It is far superior to Sage.

But I don't like the way they handle their upgrade policy. Every couple of years, they release a new version and eventually stop supporting old versions. This is perfectly sensible, and we also upgrade every few years, as our version approaches its "sunset" date (the date when they stop supporting it, and stop offering payroll tax table updates).

We prefer not to upgrade to the very latest version as soon as it comes out, because new software (whether from Microsoft, Sun or Quickbooks) often has bugs which are only ironed out once very large numbers of users have been bashing away at it for a year or so. Indeed, Quickbooks itself had quite a serious bug in their 2003 Pro edition when it first came out. Plus there was a complex change to VAT reporting in 2005 Pro which, while not a bug, was difficult to handle and we handled it incorrectly causing us considerable problems later on. This was our fault, but nevertheless is another example of why we avoid upgrading too frequently - we don't want to have to spend time every year figuring out this sort of thing.

But Quickbooks always try and bamboozle us into upgrading nearly a year before our current version sunsets, by refusing to sell us a payroll subscription for our version, on the basis that that version will sunset a few weeks before we have had a full twelve months' use out of that payroll subscription (because we first subscribed in May 2001, so every year we renew in May, but the sunset date always falls in April.)

We then have a little barney about this, insisting they honour their published sunset date, if that means we lose a few pounds-worth of payroll subscription we really don't mind. And they agree, and we then upgrade about a year later. (And I don't think we do ever actually lose out on the payroll subscription, because we roll it into the new version when we do upgrade).

That's all broadly fine. It is obviously in Quickbooks' interest to persuade people to upgrade more frequently, so I don't object too much to them trying to do that.

But I do hugely object to the telephone manner of the "supervisor" who I just persuaded to renew our payroll subscription. She did this very begrudgingly, saying "but you are just going to complain about this in 2008 when you need to upgrade the software. Every time you contact us it is to complain."

Pop quiz: what's the best way to deal with a customer who complains? Blame them for complaining too frequently? Or try and fix the problem?

(plus, it's not me contacting them, it's them contacting me, trying to sell me something I don't really need.)

Friday, 4 May 2007

Fixing broken handymen

I generally avoid politics on this blog, but I feel I have to post about our recent experience of the NHS. One of our handymen (Greg, he of the "No, you are not stealing my scooter" adventure) had a low-speed tumble on his scooter several weeks ago, leaving him with an apparently injured knee.

He was obviously in pain and unable to work properly, but struggled to get any meaningful treatment from his GP, despite several visits - just a prescription of anti-inflammatories. He really needed an MRI scan to properly assess the damage.

In exasperation, Greg returned to his native Hungary to get an MRI scan (he has been a UK resident for ten years, but still holds dual Hungarian / British citizenship). He's had the scan, his (Hungarian) doctor has diagnosed what is actually wrong (which is, unsurprisingly, more than just "inflammation") and will fix him.

We in the UK spend $1,429 of tax money per year per capita on healthcare. In Hungary, they spend just $842 per capita and that includes private spending (Source: Nationmaster).

And in the past year 0800handyman handed over in excess of £300,000 in taxes (including payroll taxes, corporation tax, net VAT). You'd think there'd be enough in there to pay for a prompt MRI scan (which should cost the NHS about £300 per scan)

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Handymen extra-curricular activities

A recent handyman applicant included a cover note to explain that he was an aspiring actor and wondered if we could allow him occasional time off when acting jobs came up. He candidly admitted that being an actor meant that "for most of the time I'm unemployed".

We love handymen with strong outside interests, here are some of the activities / interests our handymen and office staff pursue when they are not fixing your shelves:

- Fly fishing
- Professional yacht skipper
- French literature
- Special constable
- Assessor for Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists
- Paraglider pilot
- Military helicopter pilot (*)
- Samaritans counsellor
- Clapper/loader (assisting cameraman on film set)
- Military fast jet pilot (*)
- Scout leader

(*) I'm cheating a bit with these two examples. We have handymen who used fly jets / helicopters, but from before they worked for us.

And that's just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. No doubt there are all sorts of other worthwhile and interesting things our guys get up, all of which makes for a great, well-motivated, friendly, interesting team.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Year-end PAYE takes less than 1 hour

Further to this post about people moaning about red tape, I can confirm that it takes less than an hour to file your year-end PAYE return. I just did it: about 30mins reviewing everything last week, waited for HMRC to send printer-friendly P60 forms, then 20mins today actually printing off all the P60s and letting QuickBooks submit the P35 online.

Plus, HMRC are still paying small companies (<50 staff) to file on line. This year, they pay us £150 to file online, which is pretty reasonable for less than an hour's work.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Noticed this on Charles Tywhitt's website the other day: "independent user feedback from".

Feefo is doing very much what I described in this post. Gathering customer feedback on behalf of a supplier, aggregating it, and then providing reports/tools for the supplier to use on their own website. They are currently focussed on suppliers of products (like shirts) rather than services (like fixing taps), but the concept is the same.

At the moment, though, they have very few suppliers signed up, and of course getting critical mass of suppliers is as important as getting critical mass of feedback.

I do, though, really like the way that, once you have submitted feedback, they ask you to offer feedback on **any other company you have ever used**. So you could offer an opinion on your local butcher, or on you cable TV company. Feefo then (presumably) find some contact details for that company and tell them "hey, Bruce Greig says your company is great / mediocre / sucks. To get more useful feedback like this, you should consider signing up to Feefo". Great example of word-of-mouth marketing.

I struggle to find enough time to really get my head around what we ourselves want to do here. Certainly something. Question is exactly what, and with whom. We are talking to one other player in this space, who is working hard to provide really good solution to this problem, and we will back them (with time and effort, not money) and see how it pans out. I think.