The Handyman Syndrome

I’ve worked with dozens of contractors, and with a few exceptions, they have all suffered from what I call the “handyman syndrome.” This condition, however, is not limited to only craftsmen and tradespeople though it is especially prevalent in that industry. This is just a more specific way of illustrating E-Myth’s picture of the three personalities within a business owner: technician, the manager and the entrepreneur. Respectively and said simply, the do-er, the planner, and the dreamer. The handyman syndrome is a particularly stark example of how fusion to the technician persona causes serious business problems.

The Entrepreneurial Myth, the myth that business owners are entrepreneurs when in fact they are usually technicians who had “entrepreneurial seizures” is especially interesting to apply to Solopreneurs. These are people who are in some cases so purely technician that they have not yet even had their seizure yet, and therefore they are some of the most fused-to-technician business owners around. Their inner manager and/or entrepreneur in fact do not get much room for expression at all.

Many people are happy with this and that is of course fine, but they unfortunately too often do not see the effect their technician mentality has on the other aspects of their practice when they are not pounding nails, setting tile, or framing walls. This article will explore the consequences of the technician mentality in tradespeople, especially but not only Solopreneurs.

I use the term handyman deliberately because it has a kind of unsophisticated connotation that is meant to quietly offend an expert tradesperson. It is a prod to help you discover that you are more than that. It suggests someone who is limited in ability: someone who can fix an outlet but not rewire a house, repair a sprinkler system but not install new plumbing, install a new lock but not plane down a door for a perfect fit. You get the idea. But these are only the skills connoted by the handyman. I am talking about the handyman mentality, and that is way more important, since it is upstream of all of his skills. The way we think and are is always upstream of what we do, and so the greatest leverage for change is in the thinking/being domains.

The handyman mentality is an order-taker. Tell him what to do and he goes to work. Give him the tools and the job site and his head is down. He may have a yellow pages ad, but waits for the phone to ring. He’s got past customers, but he doesn’t have their contact information or a mailing list. If they need him, he says to himself, they’ll call. Besides, he’s keeping busy with new customers, new jobs, and new orders to take.

He’s thought about hiring an assistant, but that seems like a lot of work. He’d have to be able to depend on a steady stream of a lot more income then he has now. He’s not sure how much that is, or even how he’d figure that out. He’s not so comfortable with Excel. Besides, he’s busy working and too tired at the end of the workday to plan for the future. Who knows what the future will bring?

The calls keep coming, the orders keep coming in. Hiring someone would just complicate things: payroll taxes, workman’s compensation, insurance, management. He thinks about it sometimes in the 100 degree heat, or when he has to crawl under a house, but at the end of the day, after a job well done, it just doesn’t seem worth it. Mostly, he’s just too busy to dream, much less plan.

This is not just the story of a carpenter. It is the story for almost any Solopreneur, and often still applies to someone who’s got an employee or two. Without a Vision of where the business/practice is going, without a plan of what is next, the handyman is destined to go wherever the wind blows. With no plan, there is no direction but whatever arises.

Of course, any Solopreneur who wishes to stay small certainly has that choice and this is no judgment of that. The problem is when such a person’s handyman mentality trickles into domains that limit their opportunity, their success and their fulfillment. Let’s look….

The difference between a successful general contractor and a handyman is not in size, scope or volume. It is in attitude. In sales, the handyman is an order-taker. The G.C. is an expert consultant. The handyman, who is often humble, hard-working and meek, feels grateful to have the opportunity to work in someone’s home. Often they do not own a home themselves when they are just getting started. The handyman is shy in the client’s home and does not look around. If they do, they do so only in glances, staying focused on the job at hand. The G.C. would ask for a tour and take their time.

The G.C. steps into the client’s home respectfully, but they are not shy about taking up space. They look around. They are an expert in craftsmanship and are not shy about it. They notice things and make comments. They notice the door does not quite fit the threshold when they walk in. They notice the windows are thirty years old at least. They notice the leaky kitchen faucet. But when they make comments, they have a rapport with the homeowner that makes it come off as helpful not critical.

“Does this door bother you much?”

“These old single pane windows are costing you some money, eh?”

“I’ve got a great plumber, if you want me to take care of that leak for you.”

To the G.C. every job-site is a catalog of opportunities and work. To the handyman, it is a place where they must ask permission to do anything other than why they were called in the first place. The G.C. expert consultant knows that the homeowner may have no idea how simple or inexpensive it could be to fix that faucet or that door. The G.C. knows that maybe the man of the house is shy about it; maybe he tried to fix it himself and failed. Maybe he installed that faucet himself and hasn’t been able to bring himself to relook at it.

Who knows? The G.C. is confident enough to ask questions and make suggestions; in short, because he understands the value he brings to the table. The G.C. is happy to grab a new washer from his truck and install it for you in a couple minutes, because he knows it might have been bothering you for months. Maybe it’s even been the spark of conflict in the homeowner’s marriage.

Meanwhile, the handyman quietly goes about his business. He’s focused on the job at hand, not the scores of opportunities around him. The G.C. has a vision for what the home could look like if he was given the time and the budget. The handyman is focused on finishing the work, getting paid and moving on to the next job.

The handyman gives a verbal bid, or a loosely organized email, or something neatly hand-written on lined paper. The G.C. submits a proposal that exactly covers the scope of work, the exact cost, and by when it will be completed. It has each component of the work broken out so the client can compare apples to applies and/or remove pieces of the job to cut costs. It’s typed. It’s delivered in person or at least with a phone call following up.

The handyman says about when he’s going to show up and shows up 15-20 minutes later. The G.C. is on time, every time exactly as promised. The handyman makes the bid and waits. The G.C. follows up because he wants the work and wants to know why he wasn’t chosen to do it. He’s interested in continually improvement, not just continual busyness. He cares about his impact on people and so he’ll proactively ask the client why he was or wasn’t chosen, because he’s willing to accept criticism and work with it. The handyman has his head buried in the sand.

You get the idea? This sales example is just one of dozens of ways in which the handyman mentality cripples the growth of what could otherwise be a thriving business.

What this is really about is the inability for a technician-fused person to hold a context-thinking bigger. Customer fulfillment is a context, customer relationship is a context, engaging with a customer about possibilities requires bigger thinking. Holding this kind of context requires confidence and the willingness to assert yourself as an authority on a subject.

The lack of confidence in skilled laborers is tragic. Maybe it’s because they lack the education that many “white collar” professionals have and so shame themselves. Maybe it’s because they drive trucks instead of fancy cars. Maybe they didn’t do well in school because they needed to learn with their hands. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have seen many a skilled laborer perform magic. They can cut things to exactly fit. I mean exactly. They can assemble things so they don’t leak, short out, or fail to work the first time. They know where to apply the oil to stop the squeak. They can paint razor straight lines without masking, and cover it in one coat. They know what’s wrong with your engine just by listening. They know what’s wrong with your furnace by smelling. They can see the difference between 7/16 and 3/8 and save themselves thirty minutes in the hardware store because of it.

They must think this stuff is normal. They must not know how incredibly difficult, frustrating and time consuming it is for the average person to do this kind of stuff. Like schoolteachers, they are under-recognized and underpaid. These people keep our lights on, our water running, and our homes warm and many of them sell themselves short every day. I would gladly give away my expensive education to have the knowledge to build a fine home, foundation to roof.

As skilled as they are in the content of their work, though, the handyman mentality drags them down and keeps them small. They have the skills to do their job, but not the slightest idea about how to run a business. The handyman doesn’t see the need for a marketing strategy, or a strategic Vision, or a 36-month rolling budget, or sometimes even a standard contract. To the handyman, it doesn’t seem that important. The work keeps coming, after all.

But eventually, something will go wrong. Cash flow is a problem because there was no tracking mechanism. A customer refuses to pay for something because you didn’t create a change order. The work dries up because you don’t have a lead generation plan and the market shifts in a way you didn’t foresee. Something will eventually happen because in the same way you are responsible for having the technical skills to do your work, if you work for yourself you are responsible for having the business skills to hold the context of your organization.

This is empirically obvious. You may not realize it yet, but if you work for yourself you are responsible for a great many things beyond the content of your work. Tax and liability issues, licensing, insurance, labor law, contract law, intricacies of borrowing money, P&L and cash flow analysis, budgeting, job costing, accounts receivable management, writing ad copy, tracking lead generation, sales strategy, presentation scripting, organizational strategy, and on and on and on. Some of these things you have to do, others you can get away with not doing, but you are responsible for all of it.

It’s actually simpler than knowing how to build a house. It’s about as difficult as most high school education. The difference is, it’s relevant to your business and your Life every day.

You are already a master of your trade. Bravo! Really. It’s amazing what you do. You could teach me how to tile a bathroom, frame a house, smelt copper, or mud drywall. You’re an expert in your trade. But are you an expert in business itself? Can you see that you need to be a master in this realm as well? It can be learned just like anything else. It’s not rocket science. Can you see yet how many missed opportunities and problems come from not what’s missing in your trade skills, but your business skills?

As a business owner, you are responsible for more than just being a master of your trade, you must seek to become a master of business itself. Otherwise, you are destined to remain a handyman forever, regardless of your trade.