Simple Hard Work Drives North Dakota Drain Cleaner’s Success

Josh Burris puts in the time — and sometimes the driving mileage — to grow his 2-year-old drain cleaning venture in North Dakota

Simple Hard Work Drives North Dakota Drain Cleaner’s Success

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Being an entrepreneur can leave a person fraught with anxiety. Starting a business is risky. And even when a venture is successful and a company is established, owning and running a small company is plain old hard work.

Josh Burris has experienced all of the above — though anxiety doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for the congenial business owner. His company Unplugged Drain Cleaning & Drain Camera in Dickinson, North Dakota, is 2 years old and thriving thanks to lots of hard work.

Burris grew up around water pipes, laying and repairing them, and installing water appliances. His grandfather, Wayne O’Brien, opened a plumbing shop in Menlo, Iowa, in 1949. O’Brien had worked for another plumber before getting the itch to be his own boss, working out of his garage and later opening a store in the middle of town and branching off into electrical and refrigeration service as well.

“He did a little bit of everything,” Burris recalls.

A son, Denny, took over the enterprise and a teenage Burris was introduced to water pipes working for his uncle in the plumbing shop. In the summer, Burris would put in a day of plumbing — sometimes operating a Ditch Witch trencher to lay new pipe — and then go home to clean up before heading over to a restaurant located right across the street from the plumbing shop. His stepfather and mother operated the eatery, and the young Burris would work there into the night, washing dishes and sometimes helping at the grill.

Burris’ father, Joe, went to work for O’Brien as well, eventually becoming a union plumber before opening his own shop. Burris had already left Iowa by then but could have returned and worked for his father.

“But I was already up in North Dakota working in the oil fields making money like crazy and I wasn’t about to go back to Iowa making $10 an hour working for my dad,” he says.

In other words, Burris was exposed early on to entrepreneurship and to hard work. Yet it would be another 25 years before he opened his own business.

Getting started

Dickinson, North Dakota, is in Stark County in the lower left quadrant of the state, a community of about 30,000 people, according to the latest census. Dickinson is situated in an open, sometimes windy landscape and is home to both the Badlands Dinosaur Museum and Dickinson State University. It is also the home of Burris’ wife Heather, a schoolteacher who Burris first met when he visited the state during wheat-harvesting season as part of a custom combine crew.

After Burris followed his heart to Dickinson, he went to work for a plumber briefly before jumping into oil field work where the money was plentiful. After seven years working in the oil industry, Burris and his wife settled back in Dickinson where, as a municipal employee, Burris built out his knowledge of water and sewer line maintenance, lagoons and wet stations. He next signed on to work with a sanitation company maintaining septic tanks, and then with a retirement center as a maintenance worker.

All of the vagabond work experience burnished a skill set that Burris finally decided to take fully in-house.

“I was lying in bed one morning and got to thinking, ‘You know, I bet I have $60,000 in my 401K. I’m going to cash it out,’” Burris says.

He did just that and became a self-employed drain cleaner.

With the money, Burris bought a Jetters Northwest Brute jetter, a 3,000 psi model that can produce 12 gpm. It had sufficient capacity for the residential property work he was targeting. To figure out what brand of cable equipment he should buy, he went online to watch YouTube demonstrations and weighed brand against brand. 

Burris ended up buying Picote Mini Miller and Mini Cleaner units with 50-foot reach and a Super Midi with a thicker shaft and a 65-foot range. He also settled on a RIDGID K9-306 FlexShaft drain cleaning machine that can clean 3- to 6-inch pipe up to 125 feet long. Then he opted for a RIDGID camera for inspections.

The gear went into his utility van or onto a trailer behind it and Burris was in business.

“I started out doing it as a part-time job because I was still working at the retirement center,” he says. “But within two weeks, I was drain cleaning full time. That was two years ago and it hasn’t slowed.”

Array of customers

Service calls are primarily to residences inside Dickinson, though there are occasional runs to ranch homes or farm homes in the county. Burris also ventured into cleaning larger municipal sewers when he undertook a solitary job in nearby Dunn Center, a town of about 200 residents. Burris was using his Brute jetter and struggled with the task.

“I talked to the city people and said, ‘You give me the whole town and I’ll go buy a jetter that can handle this kind of work.’”

The city agreed and Burris purchased a Mongoose unit that can pump 18 gpm at 4,000 psi. Residential pipes in Dickinson are typically 3 to 6 inches in diameter and most of the municipal pipe is 6 to 8 inches, with some 12-inchers here and there. Between the two jetters, Burris says he can handle whatever type of job comes up.

But Burris’ customer base is still 90% residential, partly by design. He says he is in the business as much for the people as for the money.

“I love doing this work,” he says. “I didn’t start the company to get rich. I started it to help people when they’re in need. I’m a friendly person and sometimes will just sit and shoot the bull for 30 minutes.”

Burris does have some commercial customers, including a restaurant he regularly visits to clean out grease traps and lines.

“They seem to have a lot of grease from that kitchen for some reason,” he says.

Another restaurant is an institutional client, the restaurant at Dickinson State University, which operates seven days a week.

Yet residential properties remain a constant focus for Unplugged Drain Cleaning & Drain Camera, though Burris does want to build out the municipal side of the business, too. At this point, his business plan seems to be working.

“My accountant says that, in his experience, he has never seen a company grow as fast as this company has.”

Hitting the road

To expand his business, the 43-year-old Burris is willing to travel to wherever the work is. He has made service runs into Montana, and as far south as Bison, South Dakota, some 110 miles away from Dickinson. He charges for mileage, in and out of town, so the distance is not a negative, except for vehicle wear and tear. Burris bought a 2021 Dodge Ram last June and already has put nearly 30,000 miles on it.

“I cover the whole state, I don’t care. I’ll go clear to Grand Forks (360 miles) as long as I’m charging mileage.”

Wherever he ends up cleaning a sewer or drain, Burris says he always tries to make it back home at the end of the day. No overnight layovers.

“The longest day I ever put in was 20 hours, but that’s unusual. I try to be done by 5 p.m.,” he says.

The right price

What to charge for his services has been a learning experience for Burris. He looks back on that first municipal sewer jetting job at Dunn Center, for example, and realizes he didn’t charge enough.

“But I was just starting out,” he says.

Burris had peers tell him that he wasn’t charging correctly for his work. Now, after two years, he says he has figured out the value of his work and charges accordingly.

Friends in the industry have done more than just advise Burris on how much to ask for his labor. They have also helped him find work, sometimes because they didn’t want it for themselves.

“I told some plumbing friends I was going to start drain cleaning and they said, ‘Great. We don’t want to do that anymore,’” Burris says. Guess where they send their customers who need a pipe unplugged?

Another friend does relining and always calls Burris to jet the pipes before lining. During summer months, the friend will send Burris five or six jetting jobs each month. Consequently, Unplugged Drain Cleaning is regularly running its jetters.

As for camera inspections, Burris does them mostly in conjunction with his cleaning jobs. The camera shows a Dickinson underground infrastructure that is aging. Some houses in the city date to the early 1900s and pipes are cast iron and clay, for the most part.

“I see a lot of cracks,” Burris says.

Looking ahead

What does Burris see for his one-man company in the next five years? To put it simply, growth. He is ready to parlay his work ethic and expertise into a two-division, four-person firm, with another tech joining him on the residential side and two more techs cleaning municipal lines.

“Some people think I’ll move away from residential customers, but I won’t,” Burris says. “Residential was how I built my business.”

He is working on winning contractual cleaning jobs and the steady revenue such work produces. He says he currently does very few standalone camera inspections of lines for real estate agents and property owners and hopes to change that.

As for equipment, Burris likes the jetting units he has, but he is also now in the market for a combo vac truck to up the scale of that kind of cleaning. Burris is also eyeing an Envirosight Rovver X camera to build out his company’s capacity to inspect sewer lines.

Whatever growth and expansion lies ahead, Burris knows that ultimately his company’s success sits with the reputation he has with customers. Why would Unplugged Drain Cleaning & Drain Camera get the call instead of a rival company? Burris speculates it’s because he always takes time to educate customers and explain what they can do to keep their drains clean.

“I don’t exactly know what my reputation is, but I do know I have 67 friendly Google reviews of the company and only one bad one,” he says.

That’s a pretty good start on a reputation.


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