Sometimes, starting a small business can lead an entrepreneur to discover a much bigger idea.
Consider Diane Pisani, who opened a company in Naples in 2006 called Your Home Watch Professionals. She quickly developed a following among seasonal residents who needed a professional to look after their second homes in Naples, but she couldn't find anyone reputable to take on the overwhelming additional demand for her services.
In that process, Pisani realized that she could build a bigger business by teaching people how to start their own home-watch companies. She's created training seminars that help prospective entrepreneurs start their own companies catering to seasonal residents.
For example, the Pelican Bay community in Naples has 5,800 homes, many of them owned by seasonal residents. “I could put 40 to 50 companies in business in Pelican Bay alone,” she says. “There is so much business out there.”
Once these entrepreneurs have passed the course Pisani teaches, they will be eligible to join an affiliate program she's launching in January that will provide a helpline and continuing education. With improvements in technology, Pisani plans to take the seminar online so she can offer it to people everywhere.
“Without question, it has huge potential to be a very substantial business,” says Karl Gibbons, president and CEO of Naples consulting firm Third Eye Management, who has advised Pisani. “We all know the boom in online education, it's one of the biggest growing sectors of the market.”
Serving the customer
Pisani grew up in Indiana and started working as a phone company customer-service representative. In 1985, she left the phone company, attended travel school and opened a cruise-only travel agency in Crown Point, Indiana.
By the time she sold her travel agency in 2003, Pisani had so much travel business she could fill an entire Carnival cruise ship with 2,000 passengers. “I'm a customer-service gal inside and out,” she says.
Pisani moved to Southwest Florida after she sold her travel agency and worked for a nutrition company that subsequently went out of business. “In 2006 I opened Your Home Watch Professionals and it grew very quickly,” she says.
It grew so fast, in fact, that it was more than her company could handle at one time. Today, she manages 150 clients with three employees. Prices start at $40 per visit and go up as high as $90 depending on the size of a home. Homeowners can schedule visits every seven, 10 or 14 days.
“I see every home as a series of water zones,” Pisani explains. She checks each room, paying close attention to any signs of water leaks, mold or pests. “Ice makers should be outlawed,” she laughs.
When Pisani sought out other professional home-watch companies as the volume of business grew, she had a hard time finding anyone who was as diligent. “A lot of people who do home watch are completely untrained,” she says.
Most people who moonlight as home watchers haven't set up a corporation and have no insurance. “They're not charging enough,” Pisani adds, saying some charge as little as $10 a visit.
Pisani developed a curriculum that delves into a variety of subjects dealing with home watch. These range from client communications to developing a checklist, creating contracts and establishing a menu of services with the right prices. “My goal now is to build a group of home-watch providers who are trained, trusted and tested,” Pisani says.
The workshop she teaches consists of nine classroom sessions lasting 30 hours over a three-week period. Classes take place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and a full day on Saturday. Pisani also invites guest lecturers who are experts on air conditioning, plumbing, insurance, accounting and disaster recovery.
Pisani declines to say how much her course costs, though she says it's less than the $5,000 deductible for the insurance home-watch companies should carry. She's reluctant to divulge publicly what she charges because she worries it might keep some prospects from considering her course. “Even when I was selling telephones, it's not about the price,” she says.
Before any prospect signs up for the course, Pisani conducts a one-hour seminar that outlines her course and presents the real challenges to the business. “My job is to scare them out of opening a home-watch business,” she says. “They think it's easy.”
Graduates of Pisani's program who create a business, get the insurance they need and pass a background check can become an affiliate of her organization when she launches the affiliate program next month. For an undisclosed monthly fee, home-watch entrepreneurs who have completed the course can use the Your Home Watch Professionals logo, a sort of Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
In addition, affiliates will have access to Pisani through what she calls the Spazz hotline. If they run into a problem in a customer's house, affiliates will be able to call Pisani for advice on how to manage the situation. They'll also have access to continuing education programs and business coaching.
By the end of next year, Pisani says she hopes to have 20 affiliates. So far, interested people included retired police officers, flight attendants, laid-off professionals and others looking for a career change.
Taking it online
Pisani's ambition goes beyond the Naples market. “I see the big picture,” she says. “By 2015, we'll be offering it virtually.”
The business is dominated by one- or two-person operators, many of them doing it part-time. The industry is ripe for someone to establish industry standards, Pisani says.
Already, some people flew to Naples from Arizona to take her course. Like Naples, areas of Phoenix and Scottsdale have many seasonal residents.
But Pisani says she's careful about growing her business too quickly. She says she wants to perfect her system in Lee and Collier counties before making a big push online. “None of it matters if the next six to 12 months aren't solid,” she says.
Pisani says she's not concerned about a potential competitor beating her online. Gibbons agrees: “Everything she talks about is first-hand experience, that's where she has the edge,” says Gibbons. “There are very, very few Dianes out there.”