When the phone stops ringing, it can be tempting to tip toe into unfamiliar territory, claiming newfound expertise in, say, rehabbing turn-of-the-century town homes. With small businesses entering survival mode, work opportunities are increasingly attractive, while necessities like marketing tend to fall by the wayside. In construction, the proliferation of players is only adding pressure to an already tense market.
"We are starting to see people venture outside of their skill sets," says Carl Harris, vice chair of the National Commercial Builders Council (NCBC) of the National Association of Home Builders. General contractors are considering putting up pre-cast concrete and other tasks formerly done by subcontractors. Since even small jobs can lead to unexpected complications, Harris advises contractors ask themselves: Have I done this before? Not only can I do this, but am I good enough?
There are plenty of ways to redefine your core business without sacrificing quality. The solution amounts to a balancing act between expanding into new areas and exploring ways to build on old ones.
Shifting markets are leading many builders and renovators to new geographical regions, says Harris. While geographically undesirable, jobs in school construction or water treatment could be worth the hike.
Before hitting the road, consider that each municipality has specific code requirements, labor markets and even equipment availability. Harris, who helps home builders diversify into commercial work through the NCBC says, "If you're working around a large metropolitan area, you"re used to seeing equipment rental yards up the street and can easily get air compressors, generators or joist products." However, he warns that the same equipment and labor materials may not be as readily available in other areas.
Other elements of the labor force, from quality electricians to lumber availability to HVAC licensing, may vary as well. Harris says that in different areas, there may be a shortage of licensed, qualified workers.
Depending on your location, target a new niche or specialty area. "In our area, people have had successes in various industries, " says Harris. Specialty hospitals, medical clinics and dental offices can provide new jobs, and experience in a new field opens other doors. A contractor who helped construct a hospital, for example, can tout that experience at health care conventions.
David Callahan, a certified renovator and spokesman for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, keeps a brainstorming list at work, the top of which says to stay positive. "Don't get mired in all the [economic] doom and gloom," he says.
If the doors haven't closed yet, there's still a chance to step back and outline a plan for the future. Doctors stay on top of medical advances and construction is no different, so take advantage of downtime by researching future trends in your industry. Avenues like green technology are giving some businesses a new edge.
One way to discover a new niche is by connecting with other small businesses or subcontractors. Renovators can focus more on offering services-in Callahan's case this means selling cabinets to other contractors. As the co-founder of Callahan & Peters, a residential remodeling company, Callahan says feel-good decisions like kitchen remodeling have been replaced with budget-driven necessities like roof leaks or electrical issues. As such, his company is looking at a fire restoration job and considering opening a small projects division of the company.
Before placing expensive ads, start picking up the phone and re-connecting with old clients. The owner of a seven-story office may assume the people who built it aren't interested in weekend maintenance work. And clients who were pleased with previous work can offer connections to other subcontractors. Keep an open mind-clients, industry groups and neighbors alike could be the link to your next great project.