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“I can own this business without it owning me.”

This interview was made possible by our friends at Guidant Financial:

Guidant Financial

The leader in alternative startup, franchise and small business financing.

After seven years in banking, Mike Merrick walked through a brand new “window” of opportunity and founded Fish Window Cleaning in January, 1978. Mike quickly differentiated himself from his competition by providing his customers with uniformed professionals and reliable scheduling at a competitive price. He made each customer feel as though they were the only customer.

FISH specializes in window cleaning for low-rise structures, and also provides awning cleaning, gutter cleaning and construction clean-up for commercial and residential customers, who receive a 100% satisfaction guarantee on all work.

FISH was named to the 2010 and 2011 INC. 5000 list of fastest growing companies. FISH ranks 119th on Entrepreneur Magazine’s 2012 Franchise 500 list, 68th on Dun & Bradstreet’s AllBusiness AllStars Franchise 100 list and 14th among the Top 50 Large Systems in Franchise Business Review’s 2011 Franchisee Satisfaction Awards, which is based on the results of surveying over 22,000 franchise owners representing over 300 franchise brands.

MO: Why a window cleaning business? Where did your initial inspiration come from?

Mike: I was always looking at different types of businesses to own. The guy who cleaned the windows where I worked put his window cleaning business up for sale, and I decided to check into it. The more I learned, the more I thought it would be a good “fit” for what I wanted.

I liked that the business didn’t require an investment in inventory. Because I had a young family at the time, I liked that it was a Monday-to-Friday business that didn’t require any work in the evenings or on weekends or holidays.

My wife’s family had owned a restaurant, and I had seen how that business totally dominated and controlled them. The window cleaning business doesn’t have any perishable items like the food business. And we’re not like retailers who have to wait for the customers to come to them. We go out to our customers.

Bottom line: I can own this business without it owning me.

MO: What influenced the decision to start franchising the company in 1998? Were there any specific challenges you faced when trying to replicate your business model for others to implement?

Mike: I always thought franchising was a great idea, but really didn’t know anything about it. I always wanted to do it, and so I did it. Money wasn’t the primary objective. I thought about it for ten years before doing it. I figured this was a good business for others, too, since it had family-friendly hours and low overhead after start-up.

After I read an article on franchising I followed up with some of the resources mentioned in the article and worked with someone to help me get started and sell my first franchises. I learned some lessons from this experience and used those to refine my franchisee recruitment process.

One of my biggest challenges was that window cleaning is not a glamorous or sexy business. So it doesn’t have instant appeal to prospective franchisees. It became easier to attract franchises after I had the first ten or 15 franchises up and running, but getting there was a chore. My wife and I spent three long, hard years building the franchise organization, working seven days a week and traveling throughout the country helping new franchisees get their businesses up and running.

I also had to adapt to an entirely different role and set of responsibilities. I was no longer running my own business, but coaching others on how to run their businesses. I did not have control of all the factors that can influence a franchisee’s success, but their success was paramount to my success as a franchisor.

The key is to get people to believe in you and what you’re doing. You need successful franchisees who will give positive validation for your system when they speak with prospective franchisees.

When someone buys a franchise they buy a system so you have to be able to take all your knowledge and put it into an operations manual that franchisees can follow. My wife and I thought we could accomplish this in one “long weekend.” Boy, were we wrong. It’s very hard to take a concept and put it on paper. It took much longer to get the initial operations manual put together, and it’s an ongoing endeavor. We’re constantly revising, rewriting everything as our business changes and external factors come into play. Today we give our new franchisees three different manuals—operations, marketing, and personnel.

MO: What are some of the main differences between starting a business on your own and buying a franchise?

Mike: Franchisees don’t have to start from square one. They are given a proven business model that provides guidelines on everything they need to know—how to hire, how to get business, branding and marketing guidelines, billing and accounting procedures, as well as a proprietary software system that helps them run their business. A franchisee can come in and follow the existing system and get started growing their business on day one.

As one franchisee told me, “I don’t have time to develop a database for how I’m going to keep up with my accounts receivable, my customers, my schedule, how I’m going to do payroll, personnel, how many jobs have been done. I don’t want to come up with those systems. The FISH franchise offered me an opportunity to buy into all of these existing systems.”

Our franchisees have the advantage of 34 years of window cleaning experience, a large support staff that’s available to work with them daily, and a franchise community that openly shares information and supports one another. We have regional meetings for franchisees with guest speakers and industry updates. We leverage our buying power to provide franchisees with preferred pricing on window cleaning equipment and tools. We have marketing and branding materials online and in print, as well as targeted marketing campaigns that franchisees can customize for their individual needs.

MO: How are SEO (Search Engine Optimization), SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and social media helping support your business?

Mike: We proactively monitor and continuously optimize our franchisee’s Web sites to produce optimum results. We want to ensure a positive customer experience for users who are looking for a window cleaning service. We want it to be easy for them to find FISH so we work to maintain a top three placement in searches. We include an online estimate request form to help garner leads. We offer customers the option to pay their bills online. We use automation to keep things easy for the customer and the franchisees. We also maintain a presence on Twitter, LinkedIn and FaceBook.

MO: You regularly publish and update a list of suggested books for entrepreneurs and franchisees to read. What book recommendations do you have for our readers?

Mike: In addition to The E Myth, which I recommend to every prospective franchisee, I also recommend Good to Great by Jim Collins. The book addresses the question, “Can a good company become a great company and if so, how?” Collins concludes that it is possible, but finds there are no silver bullets. He and his team of researchers sorted through a list of 1,435 companies, looking for those that made substantial improvements in their performance over time. They finally settled on 11, and discovered their common traits that challenged many of the conventional notions of corporate success.

The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack and Bo Bulingham. The authors describe a company that is run on democratic principles–the same principles we demand in every other aspect of our lives–and came up with a revolutionary approach to reviving industrial America. This book is for people who are fed up with management systems that don’t work, and for managers who have tried every motivational tool and still can’t get employees to perform up to their abilities.

Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. This book looks at why some companies thrive in times of uncertainty, even chaos, and others don’t. Again using research and interviews, Collins and his co-author uncover and enumerate the principles for succeeding in unpredictable, turbulent times.

MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for Fish Window Cleaning?

Mike: January 2013 will be the 35th anniversary for FISH and the 15th anniversary for our franchise organization, and we plan to celebrate this all year. We are seeing record growth from our top performing franchisees and the synergy of the brand nationally. For example, Mrs. Smith may have FISH clean her condo in Florida, but she also has FISH clean her home in Michigan. A restaurant manager, who previously managed a restaurant in Knoxville where FISH cleaned his restaurant’s windows, looked FISH up when he was transferred to Jacksonville and asked them to come and clean the windows there. We’re getting noticed nationally all across the country. This provides tremendous momentum that we plan to build on and keep going.

We’re also expanding our brand presence by making our proprietary FISH Foam glass cleaner available for sale to the public. It’s been reviewed by several influential bloggers who give it high ratings, and we now receive orders for it daily. In fact we just restocked it in our warehouse this week.

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