Today I have a wood flooring business in North Carolina that I love. I have seven great guys who work for me, including my brother, who moved here from New York State to work with me. We have three work vans and three trailers, and I use my personal truck for estimates. Last year we acquired a shop, which was a game-changer, because I'm able to store equipment and supplies efficiently, as well get equipment I previously had no room for.

Our jobs are anywhere from five minutes to a maximum of 25 minutes away, and many of them are in million-dollar-plus homes in gated communities. We dominate the local market on Google and work almost exclusively with homeowners. Less than 15 years ago, though, I didn't know this area at all. I moved down here when I was 21 with my friend, my bed, my clothes and, literally, 37 dollars in my pocket.

When I arrived here, I didn't have a plan. My friend was moving to the area and I just decided to go with him. I didn't know what the market was like; after being in upstate New York my entire life I just wanted to get out and have a change of scenery. I just took a leap of faith.

The trip down here didn't start out very well. My friend was driving the Budget moving truck with my car being towed behind, and I was following him in his truck pulling a trailer with a four-wheeler. Fast forward 15 minutes, and we discovered Budget hadn't locked the trailer on to the ball—the car trailer bounced off the hitch and my car was demolished against the guard rail (thanks, Budget!).

The second day here I found a job. In New York I had grown up in the wood flooring industry, working for my dad's company since I was 13 and running the business at age 18 after he went to college to change careers. So when I arrived here I stopped at a local Carpet One to see if they sanded floors. Sure as heck they did, and he offered me a job on the spot. I started the next week, and within that week I was running their sanding department of six guys.

 

Working there got my feet wet and helped me learn the area. I knew I couldn't go out on my own with no money, so I worked to save money. I paid for a car with cash and used the title from that to buy my own set of sanding equipment—all while I was still working at Carpet One. Once I got the equipment paid off, I bought my truck, and around that same time I met my now-wife, Toni. She really encouraged me to take the leap and start my own company, but I was really, really, really nervous to start and told her I didn't know if I could do it. I was worried about being able to pay my bills. She said, "What's the worst that happens? You fail, so what. Then you just find another job, but at least you gave it a shot." By then I'd only been in the area for about 18 months, but what she said stuck with me: The only way to find out if it would work was to just go out there and do it.

In order to get my name out there, I took on builder work. I don't work that way now, but you have to start from the bottom, I guess, and I hated it from day one. They would just beat you up on price and tell you that you had to take their price or they would find somebody else. At the beginning I felt like I had to stoop down to their numbers just to get my foot in the door.

During that time, the phone would ring here and there, and I was working job-to-job, waiting for the phone to ring. I was passing out cards and brochures to every builder and homeowner who came my way.

Fortunately, Pinehurst, N.C., is a relatively small area where everyone knows everyone. The builder work helped me get established, because one homeowner would tell Mrs. Johnson who did their floors, and she would tell Susie, and so on and so on, and it snowballed from there.

Within a year I had a pretty good builder base. I had also hired a local company that specializes in online marketing. They optimized my business online, building a website set up to attract local customers through SEO and claiming and setting up my business on Google. It was the best money I ever spent. It takes awhile for that to start working while Google finds you; they say you usually see the effects from six to nine months after it's set up.


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Between the word of mouth and my online marketing, I started getting calls directly from homeowners and was able to move away from the builder work and the cut-throat pricing. As I built my business, I also invested in skills, getting training and certifications from DuraSeal, Loba, Lägler and the NWFA. Today I try to stay as far away as I can from builders except for three I work with who are all custom builders. I have a great working relationship with them, and their jobs operate smoothly, which isn't always the case when there's so many people involved with builder work.

Looking back, starting the company was really the perfect storm as far as being the right time in the right location. I got down here after the market had crashed and the area was starting to rebound. And I met the right woman who encouraged me to take the chance and just do it.

Today when I talk to guys in a similar situation like I was 13 years ago, scared about going on their own, I tell them: No one's going to do it for you. The worst that can happen is it just doesn't work. It is hard work in the beginning, but if you don't try, you'll never know what might have been.

As for me, I wouldn't change it for anything. I enjoy working with my crews, and my wife is now able to stay home with our twins. And I get up in the morning and enjoy my work every single day.

Dan Portu is owner at Aberdeen, N.C.-based Heritage Hardwood Floors.