This is the third in a series of articles about student entrepreneurs on the Harding Campus.
The day before orientation at Harding University, Luke Yates changed his major from pre-med to accounting, and he never looked back. Growing up, he learned to power wash the dock at his family’s lake house, and later decided he wanted to try to turn that experience into a contracting business. With an investment in more professional equipment, Yates now operates Yates Power Washing and Sealing, LLC — helping to keep homes in Brentwood, Tennessee, in pristine condition. He’s located in an excellent market: Williamson County abounds with upscale residential developments in which maintenance is a priority. Many Brentwood homes feature exposed aggregate driveways and hardscape. Cleaning and treating those concrete surfaces with a protective sealant that leaves a rich gloss is the bread and butter of Yates’ business.
Yates has operated his company for three years, but before that, he had a variety of job experience. He was a Little League umpire and a math and English tutor during high school. He worked as a Domino’s driver, behind the counter for Smoothie King, and as a wood cutter for a barbecue place. “I work for a Christmas lighting company, Lumenate, over Christmas break. The owner started a small business purchasing the lights and helping design, install, remove and store them. It’s enjoyable work and there’s lots of face-to-face with new clients every day.” He enjoys the personal feel of small business.
While in high school he also helped manage accounts for an Instagram marketer. “He was extremely successful. At one time the total follower numbers for the accounts he managed amounted to one out of every seven Instagram users.” So Yates has peered into the black box of social media marketing at a high level.
Even so, he hasn’t used the typical social channels to promote his business. “I haven’t really had to,” he commented. The best tool I’ve found is the Nextdoor app.” Nextdoor is a social app that neighborhoods use to communicate about issues and events of common concern, and it is widely used by homeowners in Brentwood. “After I complete a job, if the customer is on Nextdoor, I ask them to complete an honest review. Keeping my reputation is what keeps business coming in.” And if he were going to add another social channel as his business expands? “Facebook, definitely.”
The power washing business has low entry costs: His business license as an LLC, his liability insurance, and his commercial power washing equipment. He shared a photo of an attachment called a surface cleaner, which operates like a floor buffer, cleaning the concrete better and faster than a spray nozzle. “It directs all that pressure into two tiny nozzles that rotate close to the ground, and you push it and you get a 20-inch swath.”
There’s the cost of the sealant itself, which is applied with a long-handled roller and short-napped roller heads. Other than the hourly wages for his crew, that’s about it. “I quote a rate per square foot based on size, how dirty the concrete is, the slope of the drive, and whether there are mulched beds that adjoin it. The average is around 3,000 square feet, at 30-40 cents per square foot. So washing and sealing makes the average job cost about $1,000.”
What has he learned from operating the business? “The customer really is always right. And the importance of being thorough. Even if I think something is OK — if I miss a small spot here or there — I’ve learned to fix the small things. I rely on ratings and reviews.” Quality work is always the goal. “I inspect all the work we do. I try to lead by example because my reputation is on the line. I want to be the company that stands out and doesn’t take shortcuts.”
What skill would he like to improve to benefit his business most? “Definitely managing people. Teaching others how to interact with a client, teaching others to sell. Every year I learn things, and the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.” He smiles wryly. We remind him that this particular feeling is common to successful business owners; entrepreneurs who don’t think they have anything to learn don’t generally last long.
Does he evaluate other businesses differently now that he runs one? Definitely. “I always look at a business — for instance a restaurant — with an eye for what they could be doing much better or what they do really, really well. I’m always looking for new ideas to implement into my business.”
Yates will graduate in May 2020. “I have a tax internship at BKD this spring.” He thinks he would like to return to Nashville for permanent work, outsource his business and keep the company going. “I have a couple of years to figure that out, though.”
He’s not sure what his ultimate goals are. “Accounting was the best way for me to learn business as a whole, and I might like to start my own business at some point. I kind of want to be known as that guy who does a lot of different things.”
If you’re a student operating a small business, the Waldron Center would like to hear from you. Email Patti Summers firstname.lastname@example.org.