How Canyoneering Is Like Starting - or Growing - a Home Performance Business

June 30, 2013
July/August 2013
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2013 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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As a way to get away from e-mail and blog posts, I’ve been a longtime fan of remote wilderness backpacking, especially in the Grand Canyon. This past fall, I took a trip that demanded something new from me, something well beyond my existing experience and skills: technical canyoneering. The technical part involved carrying ropes, harnesses, helmets, wet suits, and a lot of other stuff to hard-to-reach places. It was physically hard, nerve-tingling to a neophyte, and absolutely amazing. So much so that I planned an even more difficult trip for the spring.

Mike Rogers
is the president of OmStout Consulting, LLC. A nationally recognized expert in residential energy efficiency, he works with contractors and programs to scale sustainable market approaches to improving homes. (Mika Rogers)

This was an extended version, more technical, farther from any potential rescue, and with the extended distances, days, and gear, it required carrying more weight. Without adequate planning and readiness, it would have been extremely risky. And putting it all together reminded me a lot of some of the key elements of starting or growing a home performance business.

The big payoff comes after you take the risks. There really is no way to see some of these beautiful areas without taking risks. I’m not talking about being reckless. But I am talking about taking on a risk in a very calculated way, with due diligence, careful preparation, and hard work in order to reap big rewards.

Sometimes you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. (Bob Davis)

You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Risk usually involves some degree of discomfort. Being in a remote side canyon very few people have ever gone down, that isn’t likely to be travelled while you’re there, and that involves substantial risk can be daunting, especially when it’s new to you. Sounds like moving into home performance. And the first step off the cliff can be the most unsettling.

It’s good to research what others have done. It often seems like moving into home performance is like heading into a remote canyon that’s been traversed less than a dozen times. The good news is that there are examples—and more and more every year—of companies successfully taking the plunge. You can even learn by seeing what has not worked. By building on the experience of others, you’re more likely to succeed, and you can do it much more efficiently.

You’ve got to have a plan and the working capital to meet it. On an extended backcountry trip, you need enough food, water, and rope to get you through. These items are equivalent to the working capital of your new venture. That rope, for instance. It’s nice knowing that you only need 200 feet. But if you need 200 feet, then 100 feet won’t do. Applying this logic to your business start-up finances, if you need $50,000, then $8,000 won’t do. You’ve got to do the research. Then you have to put together a plan and track how you’re doing against the plan. You’ve got to have enough working capital to get through the plan to the point where you’re earning a profit that can sustain your business. Yes, sometimes the unexpected happens, and you fall short. That’s the risk part. But it’s better to go in with a plan, and the resources to meet the plan. You wouldn’t start off knowing that you don’t have enough rope even if everything plays out exactly as expected, would you? Nor do you want to start out knowing you won’t have any way to meet payroll, pay your vendors, or keep the doors open. Oh, and if the plan says you can’t possibly survive, you might want to pick a different vocation.

Similarly, it’s good to have experts to check in with. You may be able to figure out home performance on your own. I could have experimented with anchor-building techniques and rappelling methods while hanging by one hand 100 feet up a cliff—but it was safer and faster to get guidance and training from those who knew what they were doing, even though they would not be on the journey with me. It’s also okay if you have an expert along for the trip (thanks, Bob!).

You don’t get ready for an epic journey with a one-hour course. You have to learn the skills, even if you learn them on your own. When you learn those basic skills, you have to practice, practice, practice; and train, train, train. Then you do it some more, and keep doing it. You’ve got to have the fundamentals ingrained in the company’s muscle memory so that you can clear the difficult and unforeseen obstacles that will likely be there. You need systems to run your business. Can you tie that knot with your eyes closed? How about one-handed? Can you apply the building science you’ve learned to fix the problems you’ve never seen before? If you work to make the hard stuff easy, then you’ve got a good chance of making it through the challenges that at one time would have stopped you cold.

You do need to take the time to stop, look around, admire, and celebrate. Sure, I was nervous dropping off that slippery rock the first time and swinging in the air, dropping down into a frigid pool of water over my head while wearing a heavy pack. But there was much to see along the way, and it’s great to take in the success as it comes with a small moment of appreciation, and a big celebration when warranted.

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Home performance is not easy. In a tough economy, it’s even harder. Success is not guaranteed. But it’s possible to thrive. We’re at a point where some of the routes have been traveled. Experience has produced experts who can help. There are proven techniques to add to your skill set. Yes, you need to learn them. You need to practice. You need to get better at the hard things. But it’s doable. And the rewards are there if you’re willing to step off the edge.

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