Advice and Investments in Equipment Doubles Revenue for Drain Cleaning Contractor

New technology and the advice of trusted industry veterans guide a sewer and drain company into new territory.

Advice and Investments in Equipment Doubles Revenue for Drain Cleaning Contractor

There are a lot of good drain cleaners. There are also a lot of good drain cleaners who don’t know how to run a business. Ben Smith spent some time in the latter camp, but then he got educated. 

When Smith struck out on his own in 2012 and established Marvel Sewer and Drain, based in Fridley, Minnesota, he considered himself a drain cleaner — nothing more, nothing less. Today, he’s proud to be a drain cleaner and a businessman who has doubled his revenue every year for the last five years through key investments in technologically advanced equipment. 

The story of how Smith evolved from a technically proficient contractor into a savvy entrepreneur illustrates the value of effectively using social media, such as Facebook and online reviews. It also underscores the importance of investing in equipment that both increases revenue and productivity and differentiates a company from its competitors. 

“When I started out, I was a bad business owner,” he admits. “I enjoyed the tools, and I enjoyed the work. … I was a great drain cleaner, but I didn’t know the first thing about doing invoices or accounting. I was basically just a dude at a job, making money so I could go on dates.” 

Smith says two things spurred his business awakening: Cleaner magazine and the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show. He first saw the magazine in the office of his former employer, where he worked part time while trying to establish his business. “At first, I thought it was a joke — the silliest thing ever,” he recalls. “Then, I started reading it and realized what a huge industry this is. 

“I subscribed right away and that’s what really enlightened me — showed me there was more to this than just closing an invoice and moving on to the next job,” he continues. “I saw there was so much more I could do to better myself.” 

While Cleaner jump-started his business education, the WWETT Show exposed Smith to the benefits of new technology. He attended his first show in 2016 and says it was a game changer. He invested in a PipePatch point repair system (made by Source One Environmental), which instantly diversified his business. 

“That really set me free … because there weren’t a lot of people doing point repairs in my service area (Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area),” Smith says. “Going to no-dig technology was huge — probably doubled my revenue in my first year.” 

Smith also learned another valuable lesson during his early years: Being the cheapest guy in town is a sure-fire path to failure. “When you start out, you feel like you have to be the cheap guy (to get established),” he notes. “But I believe that trying to deliver quality, speed and price isn’t possible — you can only have two of those things. You can drive yourself mental trying to do all three. So you have to choose, and I chose quality and speed.”

Roundabout route

Smith, 33, never intended to get into the drain cleaning field. But after about eight years working as a bartender, along with doing construction work during summers, he decided to make a drastic change. “The bar scene was getting disgusting, so I quit, even though I didn’t have a job,” he says. 

Smith’s father, David, was working as a drain cleaner for a Twin Cities-based contractor. He agreed to pay Smith’s rent in exchange for working as an on-the-job helper — and getting some drain cleaning training along the way. “I found I really enjoyed it,” Smith recalls. “You get a lot of ‘attaboys’ from customers every day because you solve their problems and they get to go back to their normal lives. You feel like you’re contributing. It just sort of spiraled from there.” 

While Smith established his company in 2012, he spent the first several years working primarily as a subcontractor for his father’s employer while trying to build his own customer base. Smith named the business Marvel Sewer and Drain because he’s a self-described “nerdy” comic-book enthusiast; he even named his yellow Labrador Marvel. 

With financial assistance from his father, Smith bought some basic pieces of drain cleaning equipment: a MyTana Mfg. M844, a RIDGID K-45 and a Ken-Way Jr. (from Ken-Way).

Today, his roster of equipment includes a Quik-Shot lateral lining system made by Quik Lining Systems; a RIDGID K-3800 drain machine; a Cal Tube Packer point-repair system and a Clog Dog drain cleaning machine made by the Clog Squad; three RIDGID pipeline inspection cameras (a SeeSnake MAX rM200B, a standard SeeSnake and a SeeSnake microDrain); and a RIDGID NaviTrack Scout sonde locator.

Embracing social media

Smith says social media has played an important role in his success, particularly online reviews that give his company a higher internet profile. While word-of-mouth referrals are the engine that drives much of his business, he also relies on an app called Real Time Reviews, which he says is a powerful marketing tool. 

The process is fast and simple. After completing a job, Smith asks the customer if they’re willing to provide a review of his work. If they agree, he calls up the Real Time Reviews app on his phone, types in the customer’s name and phone number, and sends the customer a text. “The message thanks the customer for using Marvel Sewer and Drain and asks if he or she would recommend us,” he explains. “They can hit ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If they hit ‘yes,’ then it asks if they want to give a review on Facebook and/or Google. If they click on that, it walks them through some basic steps.” 

The process doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes. That’s important because Smith doesn’t leave until the customer finishes the review. Why? Even if customers say they will do a review, research shows the vast majority won’t do so after a contractor leaves the premises, he notes. 

“From what I see, people in this industry don’t generate enough online reviews,” Smith explains. “That just doesn’t make sense — you make all those clients happy and you don’t ask them to give a review?” 

When Smith first started using Real Time Reviews in February 2016, he had a grand total of 12 Google reviews. He sent Real Time Reviews texts to as many past clients as possible, which boosted the total to 40. Now, Marvel Sewer and Drain has 90 Google reviews — and counting. “For a one-man shop, that’s a ton of reviews,” he notes. 

Smith pays a monthly fee of $199 for access to the service, which doesn’t require an annual contract. He concedes that at first it seemed like a lot of money. But it helped that there was no annual contract. “That was a huge selling point for me because it’s so intimidating to pay for a product like that and be stuck with it for a year if it doesn’t work so great,” he says. Besides, he notes that one or two service calls a month cover the fee. 

Moreover, Smith says the online reviews now generate about 20 percent of his service calls from new customers — about 10 jobs per month, he estimates. He knows this because he always asks customers how they heard about the company — a critical factor in assessing whether or not such marketing efforts are effective. “With more and more people saying they saw the online reviews, I know it’s working,” he says.

More growth expected

As Smith assesses how far his company has come, he says he’s proud of the fact that in 2017 he once again expects to double his revenue. He also points out that his wife, Emily, who handles the company’s administrative details, is a key reason for the company’s success — always willing to serve as a sounding board for new ideas and keeping Smith grounded. “I’m a big dreamer, and she’s a dream-crusher,” he quips. “Without her on the team, it would be a pretty tough situation.” 

Ultimately, Smith envisions eventually employing a five-man crew for drain cleaning and two employees for sewer lining. “Years ago, I just wanted to work. Now, I want to keep growing. Your needs and wants change over time, but right now, that’s what I’m aiming for. You have to keep taking calculated risks. The way I see it — if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”

Strength in numbers: Facebook group helps drain cleaner grow

Facebook can be so much more than a way of keeping in touch with friends and family. Just ask Ben Smith ­—­ the owner of Marvel Sewer and Drain in Fridley, Minnesota — who says the social media platform has been instrumental in helping his company achieve significant growth over the past several years. It has also provided him with a tuition-free business education. 

More specifically, Smith relies on the Sewer Roundtable, an informal group of roughly 75 drain cleaning and trenchless pipe-rehabilitation contractors, formed nearly two years ago by Ben Kohn, the owner of From Sink to Sewer in Ventura, California. He learned about the group from a representative at Allan J. Coleman, a Chicago-based distributor of RIDGID equipment. 

From how to price services appropriately and the best ways to warranty work to learning about how to enter new markets and the best equipment to buy, Smith says the group has schooled him about all things drain cleaning — and inspired him, too. “It’s ridiculous how much I’ve learned from these guys,” he says. “It’s so great to be able to talk about problems we all encounter, and everyone feels free to give great advice because we’re located all over the country and not directly competing with each other.” 

Smith says one group member, Tom Carlisle — the owner of Underground Connections, a trenchless pipeline rehabilitation company in Wooster, Ohio — encouraged him to get into pipe lining. He says he’s also built a strong relationship with Ken Beyer, owner of the Clog Squad in Hamilton, Michigan. “He’s one of my most valuable resources,” Smith says. “He’s given me an insane amount of knowledge, and his friendship has been incredible. If not for all these people, I wouldn’t be where I am now. They’ve provided me with a huge wealth of knowledge I otherwise wouldn’t have.” 

In addition, another group member, Ted Puzio, the owner of Southern Trust Home Services in Roanoke, Virginia, led Smith to a business coach, Kenny Chapman, the head of The Blue Collar Success Group. “He’s also been invaluable to me,” Smith says.

What’s the takeaway for other drain cleaning contractors? “It wouldn’t be hard for others to form the same kind of group,” Smith says. “Too many people think they’re stuck, but they don’t have to be stuck. There are people out there who are way smarter than you are. Ask for and accept their help.”


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