New Jersey Solo Operation Finds Ways to Diversify and Grow

Steve Russo has taken a carefully calculated approach in building his still young drain cleaning and septic services company into an efficient and well diversified operation

New Jersey Solo Operation Finds Ways to Diversify and Grow

 Steve Russo, owner of Mid-State Septic & Sewer, and wife Julianne.

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Whether deciding to buy new equipment, selecting the most cost-effective marketing approach or determining what services to provide, Steve Russo takes a calculated and reasoned approach and lets the numbers be his guide.

That conservative financial approach has served the owner of Mid-State Septic & Sewer well. In only two years, the company — based in Marlboro, New Jersey — has built a solid customer base and assembled a decent-sized roster of equipment for a one-man operation.

Drain cleaners interested in diversifying their services might consider Russo’s strategy of pairing septic and drain cleaning work — two complementary services that require similar skill sets, provide a bit of equipment overlap and offer opportunities for cross-marketing. The company currently offers drain cleaning services in addition to installing, repairing and inspecting septic systems.

Russo’s calculated financial approach also offers a playbook for success for growth-minded drain cleaners.

“I definitely was pinching pennies when I first started out on my own in 2020,” says Russo, 33. “I was very calculated about everything. I established fixed numbers for things like investing in advertising and equipment and paying for insurance. I treated everything pretty mathematically. I knew it was a risk jumping out on my own and I definitely didn’t want to go belly up. So I spent countless hours breaking down costs to make sure I wasn’t running down a rabbit hole and losing money.” 


Russo’s approach to marketing reflects his overall philosophy of getting the biggest bang for your buck.

Because he was a market newcomer, Russo couldn’t immediately rely on the best form of advertising: word-of-mouth referrals. So he invested wisely in building brand recognition in a competitive market for septic services.

“Advertising was huge, especially as a new business,” he says. “I think the most effective form of advertising was paid ads on Google.”

Russo opted for a marketing program that pushed his company name to the top of searches for septic services for only a percentage of each day. The cost? A flat rate of about $1,000 a month, he says.

“It was kind of a weird marketing model, but it really worked,” Russo says. “Plus it fit my approach to business because with a fixed monthly rate, I knew how much revenue I needed to generate to cover that payment. Paying for that prime online real estate on Google even for just a percentage of a day generated about three to four phone calls a day. And when you’re working by yourself, that’s more than enough to keep you busy.”


Russo gained valuable experience in utility work while working for his father, Sam Russo, who owned a company that did site work for commercial buildings, such as installing gas and sewer lines.

“College was there for me if I wanted it,” Russo says. “But I was running equipment for my dad when I was 8 years old, so I was ready to work.”

After attending a vocational high school, Russo worked for his father for about 13 years. In 2020, he decided to start his own business. And so Mid-State Septic & Sewer, named because Marlboro is in the middle of New Jersey, was born.

Russo opted to do drain cleaning and basic septic system maintenance and repairs for a few reasons: He could provide those services by himself. He was familiar with running machines. And offering more than one service made sense.

“I had to be realistic and you don’t need a crew of guys to do septic work or drain cleaning,” Russo says. “Plus I saw the stress my dad always was under while doing site work and commercial jobs. I didn’t want that, so I kept things small and manageable.”


Russo started out by doing septic system inspections and repairs and cleaning drains. He eventually started doing system installs, as well.

“I definitely struggled at the beginning,” Russo says. “Anyone who tells you that running a business is easy probably hasn’t ever run one.”

Providing more than one service was critical to building enough business volume to sustain operations.

“You have to do a little bit of everything — it’s much better than doing just one thing,” Russo says. “That’s how I started out and it made sense to keep going that way and become a one-stop shop for customers. It’s not like drain cleaning is apples and septic services are oranges. They’re both somewhat related and complement each other.”

Providing one service can also lead to customers needing another one. For example, Russo notes that a septic system inspection with a pipeline camera can expose a blockage in a drainline. And if a thorough cleaning reveals failing lines, it could lead to a more lucrative installation job.

“Inspections and drain cleaning are a good way to get your foot in the door,” Russo says.

Today, drain cleaning generates about 10% of Mid-State’s revenue, with septic services — particularly system installations — generating the balance.

“Installations have really taken off for me,” Russo says. “That’s my biggest market niche.”


Providing various services requires a diverse fleet of equipment. For drain cleaning and inspecting/maintaining septic systems, Russo relies on a Model C sectional drain machine from Electric Eel Mfg., two EasyCAM E5200 pipeline inspection push cameras (now called the SL200) and an EasyCAM pipeline locator.

For the septic system installation side, Mid-State owns a KX-80-4 Kubota mid-size excavator; a Bobcat T650 skid-steer; a Kubota KX91-3 mini-excavator; an International tandem-axle dump truck with a 25-cubic-yard dump body from Ox Bodies; a Komatsu D38P bulldozer; a 20-ton flatbed trailer made by Interstate Trailers; a 20-foot equipment trailer from Big Tex Trailers; and a tilt-deck equipment trailer from Kaufman Trailers.

The company also owns a 1997 Ford F-350 equipped with an 8-cubic-yard stakebed body built by Reading Truck and a 2016 Ford E-350 service van with a Supreme Corp. body.

Investing in good equipment was essential because as a one-man operation, Russo can’t afford equipment breakdowns and must maximize efficiency and productivity. Like thousands of other contractors nationwide, he says he is feeling the effects of the labor pinch.

“I was prepared to work alone for a while, but I didn’t think it would be this long,” Russo says. “I was planning on working alone for about a year, just to get my feet wet, then start looking for some help. But I don’t even see that in the near future. It’s really tough to find the right person. I’m constantly looking. But it’s hard to find someone you can really trust and that does quality work. I need help, but I can’t just go out and get it, which leaves me between a rock and a hard place.”

The labor issue is especially frustrating to Russo because it’s hindering his ambitions for growth.

“I hate saying no to business,” he says. “But sometimes I have to. I know my limitations.”


Despite the grim labor outlook, Russo says he is optimistic about expanding Mid-State in the long run. Despite the strong area competition, there’s plenty of work to go around.

“I’m going full steam ahead,” he says. “The equipment is there — now I just have to find the workforce. Hopefully that comes sooner than later.”

After he hires a few people, Russo says he envisions obtaining a waste-hauling license, then investing in a vacuum truck and expanding into pumping septic tanks — yet another logical bolt-on service with even stronger cross-marketing potential. He’d also like to invest in a water jetter to handle larger drain cleaning jobs.

Is Russo surprised at how far he’s come in only two years? Definitely, he says. But he’s nowhere near ready to rest on his laurels.

“If I could work eight days a week, I would,” he says. “I’m definitely not topped out yet. There’s plenty of work out there.” 


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