Michelle Lamb, now the owner of Better Home Texas, spent years at her former company. She was next in line to take over, and the president was stepping down. The president called her in and said, “I can’t have you run my business. I’d never imagined having a woman as the president of my company.”
Fast forward to 2020, and Lamb has started her own home improvement company—in the pandemic. Though it may seem crazy, her business experience, approach to company culture, and hard work have put Better Home Texas on track to hit $1.2 million in sales by its first year of operation.
You can coach a skill, but if someone is missing a value, there’s nothing you can do.
Only around 8.5% (59,580) of construction businesses owners who responded to the 2018 Annual Business Survey were women, compared to the roughly 77% (542,426) of construction business owners who were men, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s data from 700,453 respondents who identified their gender. The rest, roughly 14%, identified their business as equally male/female owned (98,446). But when you zoom out, women are actually making headway in business ownership. Nationwide, women owned approximately 20% (1,118,863) of all employer businesses (5,601,758), and that number is trending up based on previous surveys. Though remodeling lags behind healthcare and social assistance industries, the two sectors with the most women-owned businesses, it is still sees the benefits of increased diversity with people like Lamb starting companies.
Building a business from the ground up isn’t something most people do on a whim. A stable job at an existing company would be the path of least resistance and lowest chance of failure. When founding remodeling businesses, many women come with a vision to create something they cannot easily find in the industry.
Creating a new kind of culture
Lamb built Better Home Texas with company culture at the forefront. She says she has been at companies with “zero enthusiasm” and wanted to provide an environment that didn’t just care about the bottom line, but uplifted employees right off the bat with benefits, profit-sharing, and equity after five years.
“I’ve been in businesses where you knew we had a good year because the owner would show up in a new Rolls Royce. The Christmas party didn’t change. There were no year-end bonuses,” says Lamb. “Employees did their job and were grateful for their job, but the profit was the owners’ and that was that.”
Lamb’s idea of a healthy company culture extends to the way employees treat clients. Instead of only focusing on the details of the job, Lamb also takes into consideration clients’ emotional needs and comfort—especially safety measures that may be taken for granted without a female perspective. For example, when she finds out that the homeowner is a single woman, she makes sure to show up to the appointment, which she says makes a huge difference.
“I’ve had several women say, ‘Oh, I was so nervous about somebody coming to my house, you know?’ and ‘I’m so glad you were the one that came,’” Lamb says. “It’s just the little things and being cognizant of your clients’ needs.” In this vein, she also does not use subcontractors and only hires employees that pass a background check, even though it takes more effort on her part.
Creating a good company culture isn’t a one and done process. Ashley Wainscott, founder of Simply Sold [now Simply Home] in Austin, Texas, wanted to be part of a company that promoted physical and emotional wellbeing. Not finding one locally, she started her own.
Now, the company is rebranding as Simply Home, so they’re revisiting their culture document that expands on original values. They’ve rewritten the document three times as the company has grown. Though the content is similar, each itneration updates wording to reflect lessons learned.
“We try to not veer too far off from ‘why,’ even though we’ve grown and expanded,” says Wainscott. “Why do we get up every day? Why do we do what we do? Why do we serve our community? [Revisiting these values] puts some lighter fluid on the fire.”
Innovative tools for hiring the right team
Good culture starts with the right team. Bolster, a luxury design-build firm in New York City, invests thousands of dollars into finding the right candidates that align with their values, according to co-founder Anna Karp. It is crucial to find the right hires because even if someone is a top performer, Karp says that employees can erode the entire company culture if they are dishonest. “You can coach a skill,” Karp says. “But if someone is missing a value, there’s nothing you can do.”
For years, the company relied on using contracted recruiters, but recently they transitioned to Breezy, a hiring platform. This platform allows hiring managers to track a candidate’s progress, give internal feedback on applications, and score them based on the candidate’s strengths and evidence of work. By taking ownership of the process, Karp says they have been able to quickly test for the people they want for the skills that they need. From there, the employee is put on a 30-day probationary period to ensure that it’s a good fit for both the employee and the company.
Wainscott places a high premium on finding the right candidates after realizing it can take a significant amount of time to do damage control after a bad hire. Inspired by her love of self-improvement books and psychology tests, Wainscott pays for personality and behavior tests to screen potential hires. “This process gives you better insight instead of spending 90 days or six months with somebody to find out who they really are and how they act in a workplace,” she says.
The company uses open-ended interview questions as well as quizzes that quantify how candidates tend to lean in certain scenarios, which Wainscott says have been spot on in their predictions.
Investing in employees for the long haul
Even if you find a perfect diamond, polishing it can increase the shine.
What sets Bolster apart is the potential for upward mobility. Karp says that Bolster provides coaching and programming not just for company executives, but also for the tradespeople and managers so they can grow their skills. Because of those opportunities, employees generally stay with the company long term. “We want people to grow within the company.”
Karp says they’re making that dream a reality by giving enthusiastic employees the chance to run small projects even if they haven’t done it before to gain experience. If they prove themselves, they can then take on greater responsibility and larger projects. “We have two people that started in general labor positions that are now build-managers-in-training. We have had someone start as a driver move to general labor, and we’ve had a skilled tradesman who is now a foreman,” she says. “People don’t generally leave Bolster.”
At Simply Sold, Wainscott sees employee development as improving the whole self. Each team member reads the book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” (Stone, Douglas; Penguin Books; 2010). and then employees discuss the book as a team. Lately, they have also introduced new workshops about topics such as playing the victim, procrastination, and ownership of mistakes. By airing these issues out in the open, Wainscott says they can tackle them as a team and move past them. This also gives new hires the chance to start off on the best foot possible by nipping issues in the bud.
“Other companies don’t have these super transparent conversations,” Wainscott says. “We can be real together. We don’t have to pretend not to have flaws.”
Positioning female perspective as a strength
A knee-jerk reaction for women starting a business is to try to create a company brand that blends into the industry and masks their gender, but for Lamb, authenticity was paramount. She didn’t start off explicitly advertising her business as woman-owned, but the brand spoke for itself: Her office features bright teal and coral-lipstick wall paint, a garden she planted herself, and encouraging notes for employees in the restrooms while her website dons soft, cheery colors.
“We created an environment so when potential employees come to interview, they say, ‘Oh, this is the place I want to be!’ or ‘This is not my jam,’” Lamb says. “We set that precedent at the beginning with not just what we say [on the website], but also how we present ourselves.”
Lamb says a great first impression will pay off in the long run by gaining the trust of potential clients and hires, especially since the office is by a busy road where anyone can pop in. Because of how well put together the office and website are, clients and vendors have been surprised to find out that they’ve only been in business for less than a year. She says that she has actually gained partnerships with manufacturers and business from homeowners who were looking for women-owned businesses, and now she positions that aspect of her brand as a strength.
At Simply Sold, Wainscott uses her perspective to connect with her team and make them feel heard. She says women tend to express kindness and look for connection, two attributes that can help boost morale. “Men love being talked to and recognized just like any human would, but when you’re in a working relationship in this industry, a lot of times these guys get worn down on job sites and don’t feel seen or appreciated,” Wainscott says. By taking just five to 10 minutes to talk to team members, make a few jokes, and tell tradespeople that they’re appreciated, Wainscott says that business owners can change the workplace dynamic in a way that leads to more trust between management, employees, and the trades.
“Women can thrive by utilizing their gifts, but also by being very confident in who we are as a feminine body,” Wainscott says. “I think that’s what really made me super successful.”