During the next few weeks we asked ourselves what assistance we would want and need if we were in the shoes of our potential clients. We decided we would want someone else to deal with everything related to the physical aspects of the estate so we could deal with the even more difficult issues of the familial, emotional and legal realities of losing a loved one or moving an elderly relative into an assisted living facility.
Once we compiled the list of services we wanted to offer, our next step was choosing a name for our company and forming the legal entity. Recalling a conversation with a friend of mine who wanted me to co-author a book with her on Thanatology, we decided to call our new company "Graceful Exits Estate Liquidation Services", a fortunate choice of names that has served us well.
All in all, it cost us about $10,000 to start our company, including filing for the DBA, obtaining sandwich board signs for our estate sales, business cards, magnetic signs for our vehicle, and a quarter page ad in the local Yellow Pages (which was our most expensive mistake -but more about that later). With our help, though, it would cost you less than half that much to start your own company and market your services. And what's our fee for helping you get started? Well, that's an unbelievably pleasant surprise you'll find near the end of this document.
In September, we had our first call and our first job! Unfortunately, it was in Livermore, about 45 miles from our home in San Francisco. Nonetheless, we were excited about our first job and threw ourselves into it. We were also worried about it, but my dear sister Martie told us to "just fake it 'til you make it!", so we did. After our client decided to hire us in exchange for 30% of the sales income, we placed several ads in local newspapers (which is not cheap!), bought a portable cash register, placed our signs outside the house and prepared to do business.
The sale itself was a success, despite the limited number and quality of items for sale, but when we added up the costs of advertising, travel time and gas, and the money we paid someone to help us conduct the sale, we ended up making about $0.75 an hour -a successful sale for our client (who was very pleased), but not so successful for our business.
Nonetheless, we had conducted our first sale! And our second one wasn't long in coming. Our second client was a professional fiduciary, an executor hired by a distant relative. This house was in Oakland (about half an hour away), had been closed up for about 4 years, and had over 60 years worth of personal property in it. This time, mindful of the pitfalls of holding a sale for a percentage of the proceeds, we struck a deal to do it for a fee, leaving the property wall-to-wall bare and broom clean.
Encouraged by our second client within a month, we threw ourselves into it, hiring 4 people to help us prepare for the sale. Again, we advertised in some local newspapers, put out our signs, and sold almost everything in 4 days. Success at last! Until we added up the totals and discovered we had made about $0.40 an hour for that job. Uh-oh, time to refine the business model again.
During the first 2 sales our nascent business held, we met a number of very nice people who were attending the sales in order to find stock for their own antique and second-hand stores. Luckily, being refugees from the world of IT and knowing the potential value of a mailing list, we had asked the folks who attended our first sales to sign our guestbook with their areas of interest and contact information for future sales. That was the second best thing we did for our young business (our website was the first). We now have a mailing list of over 60 honest buyers who pay much more for items of interest than does the general public
Over the course of the next few months, we continued to win some business, but not enough to become completely self-sufficient (it takes, on average, some 5 years for a small business to become successful. But our plan that will cut that time down considerably.). We had to pay many of our monthly bills by drawing on our credit card accounts, and even dipping into our 401(k) plans when certain household emergencies arose. In other words, we had to have a better plan if our business was going to survive and thrive.
After one of our successful projects, for which our client praised us highly (see our Testimonials page), he contacted us again to help move an elderly couple from the upstairs unit into a retirement home. We hired a good friend (and wonderful person!) to help the couple decide what to take with them and what to sell, and to help them pack their belongings for the move. She spent about 4 hours a day with them, patiently going over each item and packing it up. We had figured that 4 hours a day would be just about the limit an elderly couple could endure, and Rebecca was wonderful in dealing with their concerns and worries over the move, which was, after all, a life-changing event for them.
Our next step was to actually move their belongings to their new residence and unpack everything for them. Both our client and the couple we had moved were enormously happy and grateful for our assistance, and we realized that we had a new and important service we could offer. We then became "Graceful Exits Estate Liquidation and Senior Relocation Services", which has since increased our income and profitability considerably.
Then out of the blue, another opportunity presented itself. Someone representing a company in New York called and asked if we would visit a well-known person in Marin County (just over the Golden Gate Bridge), pick up an artwork that had been damaged in shipping, and UPS it back to them. Chrissy and I figured "Why the heck not?" since our client's customer was an internationally known restaurateur we admired and we'd get a chance to meet her in person. She turned out to be as kind and charming as the magazines had written and we spent a pleasant time with her at her home. And made some money from the deal, as well. That episode was the beginning of our "On Site Personal Services" aspect of our business. Since then, we've taken on jobs no one else would take on, including holding sales out of storage lockers, sorting and sending boxes of items to different addresses, and generally helping our various clients accomplish their goals.
Our business model has evolved to include flat fee structures, flat fee + 3rd party expenses, commissions on sales, and hourly fees of $65 when no other fee structure fits the situation. I guess the point I'm making here is to be flexible and take advantage of all opportunities offered to you to increase your business. The second point is that this business is fun, profitable, and extremely satisfying.
First, let me back up just a little. As I said earlier, creating our website was the best thing we could have done to promote our business. As of this writing, if you type "estate liquidator" into Google with no other parameters, Graceful Exits is the very first listing. If you type "estate liquidation" into Google with no other parameters, Graceful Exits comes up in the #4 and #7 positions of the first 10 listings. And that's a search for entire planet! If you add the words "senior relocation", we come up in the #1 and #4 positions. Further, by adding "San Francisco", we come up in the #1, #2, and #3 positions.
Similar results are obtained by using "moving" instead of "relocation", or substituting "liquidators" for "liquidation". In other words, Graceful Exits almost always shows up at the top of the heap whenever someone is looking for an estate liquidator or senior relocation services. Try some of your own likely keywords for this sort of business in your favorite search engine and see for yourself!
Now, this is where the desire for a new business of your own without having to spend a fortune, us not wanting to franchise, and the popularity of our website converge to enable you to have your own business without reinventing the wheel or spending thousands of dollars on franchise fees.
What this means to you is the opportunity to piggyback on our success and drive business to your own estate liquidation and senior relocation services company at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost you. But there's even more we will do to help you start.
First, we'll help you start your business by sending you all the forms we use, including our Statement of Services, Sales & Expenses Spreadsheet, Invoice, Credit Due, and Sales Brochures. All you do is substitute your own information for ours in the forms and flyers.
Second, we'll teach you how to market your business and who to market it to.
Third, we'll enroll you as a member of the Graceful Exits Network and put your contact information, including your website URL on a special page on our website to help drive business to you.
Fourth, we'll grant you exclusive rights to your service areas as defined by ZIP codes; we won't sponsor or promote any other company servicing those ZIP codes.
Fifth, we'll use a portion of the fees we collect from you to further promote the Graceful Exits Network through Google Ad Sense and other online and print venues, which will result in more business for all of us.
Sixth, as the network grows we'll establish a Listserv mailing list or a private Google Newsgroup for members of the Graceful Exits Network so we can share advice, information, and stories about our businesses.
Seventh, as a member of a network of estate liquidators and senior relocators, we'll all be able to offer our potential clients who need to move a seamless service from coast to coast, helping them to get out of the old residence and helping them to set up in the new.
Eighth, we can also help you launch your own website for a small additional charge. (See http://www.ourweb.com).
See for yourself: Click on any of the Google ads for franchises at the bottom of this page and you'll see that a franchise for just about any other business will cost you between $10,000 and $60,000 for the franchise and name alone. And you'll still have to drum up business on your own, anyway. So the choice is yours, and it's a simple one to make: spend many thousands of dollars or just $500? I think you'll agree that it's a no-brainer.
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