Matt Stock is a business owner who loves marketing and has embraced the unglamorous job of selling a pretty mundane service: basement waterproofing. He’s tried everything from Yellow Pages to billboards to Internet advertising at U.S. Waterproofing, his 60-year-old family business. But Matt faced one of his greatest challenges as a business owner and a marketer in 2012, when Illinois was hit with a drought.
[SOUND OF RAIN]
MATT STOCK: Music to our ears is when rain occurs. I was hoping on your way over here there’d be a raincloud follow you. My name’s Matthew Stock. I am the president of U.S. Waterproofing.
When there’s water in a basement, unless someone has prior experience, it’s not easy to diagnose it. Even for us when we come there, we’re not there the second it rains, we have to ask a lot of questions, use a certain process to figure out where it’s coming from. But a lot of times, it could be toilet leaking, sewer backup. Believe it or not, we’ve even been called out because the dog peed on the floor.
WAILIN WONG: The business of basement waterproofing — sealing foundation cracks, installing drainage pipes and sump pumps — is necessary but totally unglamorous. That makes the job of selling these services a particular challenge. You’ll hear how U.S. Waterproofing has done it, even through a housing market downturn and a literal dry spell, on this episode of The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong.
SYLVIA: The Distance is a production of Basecamp. I’m Sylvia, a customer support rep at Basecamp. Basecamp is the better way to run your business. It’s an app for communicating with people and organizing projects and work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by email, chat and meetings, give Basecamp a try. Sign up for a 30-day free trial at basecamp.com/thedistance.
MATT: My true passion is marketing. In a business like basement waterproofing, it’s not a really well known business. If you had a leaky faucet, you know you’d call a plumber and if you needed an electrical outlet installed, you know you’d call an electrician. But most people don’t naturally know what to do if you have water seeping into your basement, so we have to get the word out there.
BARRY SCHILLING: I answered an ad in the newspaper for an in-home salesperson and came in, talked to Matt’s father, Jerry, and next thing you know I was working here.
WAILIN: This is Barry Schilling, who joined U.S. Waterproofing 30 years ago, when Matt’s father was president of the company. Today Barry is vice president and the only non family member with an ownership stake. In 1987, he was an eager new salesman with a great idea about how to explain basement waterproofing services to homeowners.
BARRY: I built a model of a basement and I used to take that into people’s homes to show them how our system worked and it allowed me to sell a lot more jobs. It’s in the other room.
WAILIN: Really? Can I see it?
WAILIN: Okay, can we walk over and see it?
BARRY: Sure, let’s go walk.
WAILIN: Barry and I walk to the conference room next door to Matt’s office. We interrupt a meeting going on inside so he can get the model, which is sitting in the corner under a pile of stuff. It’s made of balsa wood and dark gray, with the approximate dimensions of a bakery cake box.
BARRY: This thing’s been around for 30 years.
BARRY: So this is the drain tiles, the sump pumps, the electrical outlet that the sump pump would be next to, the discharge pipe to take it outside. This shows a block wall, how it’s hollow and fills with water.
WAILIN: How’d you get that texture on there?
BARRY: Well, this is sodium bentonite that we use to seal cracks. So I wiped glue on the surface. I sprinkled the sodium bentonite on there and then I sprayed a clear sealer over it, so it looks like cement. People have sat on this thing, people have dropped it, so it needs to get rebuilt. It looks better with age, though! I mean, it doesn’t look like it was made out of balsa wood, does it? I’m telling you, this could outlast me!
WAILIN: Barry is one of the old timers at U.S. Waterproofing. He already had years of experience in sales and marketing by the time Matt was working part-time for the family business and going on his first customer visit at the age of 16.
MATT: So it was about 1991. I drove out to a customer’s house, recommended a repair, maybe around $500 or $1,000. The customer had to think about it and I remember to this day getting a page from my father asking me how it went. He was surprised I didn’t sell it. I had to go back to the customer’s house to convince him why they should buy today. We were probably more on the aggressive side of things, and I still believe that today. There’s nothing wrong with asking for business, but I was probably a little too casual and nonchalant and being only 16 years old, wasn’t used to asking and asking twice for business so it was something that the veterans such as my dad had become accustomed to, so I think it was his way of breaking me into the business.
WAILIN: In 1999, Matt joined the company full time and channeled his energy into marketing.
MATT: We were primarily doing Yellow Page advertising and relied on word of mouth referrals. It’s funny, my Yellow Page rep, who I’m still friends with today, refers to me as the melting ice cube as I’ve really cut back my budget on Yellow Pages. But there are still elder people that choose to use it. We advertise on TV, you may have heard U.S. Waterproofing’s commercials on radio spots, and we also have billboards, a dozen plus throughout Chicagoland, primarily on highways. You can only show so many things on a billboard, they say seven words max, and one of the ones we became well known for is “Basement Leaking Got You Freaking.”
AD VOICEOVER: Leaking got you freaking? For a free consultation…
WAILIN: Matt also hoped that embracing Internet technology would give him an edge over his competitors. U.S. Waterproofing got into pay-per-click advertising so that Google searches like “basement waterproofing” plus a zip code or town name would turn up ads for the company. Another big development, in 2012, was creating a section on the website with hundreds of articles about foundations and waterproofing that show up in Google search results. Matt writes a lot of the posts himself.
MATT: Pretty much anything you would Google on the Internet, you know, “why is my basement leaking in Chicago” or “what is the best sump pump.” We’re not necessarily going to show up number one. I can’t control that, only Google can. But more content is what Google likes. We find many of our customers will visit 10, 15, 20, 30 plus pages before we even go out to their home. It just makes the process that much easier for us. When we arrive at their home, show them our brochure, they’ll pull out all these articles, printed. It takes what could be four hours of questions down to 30 minutes.
WAILIN: But one persistent issue for the company, which Matt didn’t discover until he came onboard full time, was that U.S. Waterproofing didn’t own the URL uswaterproofing.com. That belonged to another company with a similar name on the East Coast. U.S. Waterproofing had to come up with something else.
MATT: A lot of people associate the problem, meaning water leaking into your basement, they call it seepage. And it also happened to be a seven character word. So we said, or they said, shall we say, my forefathers, if we can’t use “U.S. Waterproofing” in our URL, what is another way to accomplish that? So they took out the URL seepage.com, S E E P A G E dot com, and then we were also able to get the phone number, toll free number, 888-SEE-PAGE, again because it was a seven character word.
WAILIN: Seepage is a funny word. It’s kind of awkward to say. Try it! Seepage. Seepage. Also, not everyone knows how to spell it. This was not lost on Matt.
MATT: We actually had a radio spot about it, which I never loved but my old advertising agency did. It was a play on that word where it went something like, “Honey, there’s a note on the fridge? See page?”
MAN IN AD: What’s this note on the fridge?
WOMAN IN AD: Oh, it’s about the basement.
MAN: No, it says “see page.”
WOMAN: That’s seepage, Herb. Seepage in our basement?
MAN: See page. Is there someone named Page I’m supposed to see?
WOMAN: Herb, we have water seeping into our basement…
MATT: We realized after a long time that while people, when they were calling us and describing the problem, they would say “seepage,” but even to this day, if I say to someone else our old website or phone number, they still say “See Page.”
WOMAN IN AD: Okay Herb, I’m gonna call U.S. Waterproofing at 888-SEEPAGE, and they’ll send someone, probably named Page, to give us a free estimate.
MAN IN AD: I’m glad we cleared that up.
WOMAN: I’ll take care of it. Go watch the ball game.
MATT: Over time, we’ve evolved our branding from “your foundation’s enemy is seepage” to “a better basement starts with us,” the U-S being a play on U.S. Waterproofing. We wanted to be known for more than just seepage because we do more than just that. Seepage is described as water oozing through a foundation. U.S. Waterproofing has many other services, amongst them concrete raising, sump pump installation, window well covers, foundation repair, crawl space encapsulation, I could go on much further. During periods of drought, the soil beneath the foundation tends to shrink. When the soil beneath the foundation tends to sink, the house could then sink.
WAILIN: You should get sinking.com.
MATT: That’s funny you mention that. While we had seepage.com, we said well, that doesn’t describe a drought period, so we had sinkinghome.com and I believe even to this day, if you type that in it should still redirect to uswaterproofing.com.
WAILIN: Matt finally reached a deal to buy uswaterproofing.com from the East Coast company about a year ago. By then, U.S. Waterproofing was already several years into its strategy to market a bigger range of services, like structural repairs in dry times. This approach proved to be a smart move in 2012, when Illinois was hit with a drought. The busy period for U.S. Waterproofing typically starts in early spring and runs through late fall. That’s when there’s the most rain, and it’s home buying season. In Illinois, sellers have to disclose if they’re aware of flooding or leakage in their basement or crawlspace, so U.S. Waterproofing gets a lot of business from people fixing up their homes to get ready for a sale. The most recent recession officially ended in 2009, but the company was still seeing the effects of the housing crisis in 2012. Here’s Barry Schilling.
BARRY: So if the real estate market is down, people are not calling you to fix that type of a situation ’cause they’re not motivated to fix it to sell the house. So now when you take a downturn in rainfall, it has a direct effect on the business.
MATT: One missed rain in March or another missed rain in April, nine out of ten years, on average, eight out of 10 years, we’re gonna see some rains. But when we really started to get nervous was the summer…
WAILIN: In August 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated all but five of Illinois’ 102 counties natural disaster areas. The Chicago area fared better than other parts, but even so, by the end of that year, precipitation at O’Hare International Airport was almost 10 inches below normal.
MATT: And that’s when we started to make some small moves, such as pulling back on advertising. But the problem with pulling back on advertising is you could ultimately be cutting off your supply. It was less expensive forms of advertising such as truck graphics, mailings to our customers, email, but one thing that’s hard for U.S. Waterproofing is to spend a lot of money in a drought because our bread is still buttered with rain.
WAILIN: Matt had been through a drought before, in 2005, but that one wasn’t accompanied by a real estate downturn. This dry spell felt different. So Matt had to take other steps besides tweaking his advertising strategy.
MATT: During a period of drought, a basement waterproofing company can only do so many things. It can only cut costs in so many ways. The tone that my great uncle Al founded the company on was taking care of its employees. It just didn’t make sense to let go of people in mass scale because we always knew it would rain again, but it was also not the right thing to do to our employees. We’ve always been a financially healthy company, one that doesn’t really borrow much money. So what we asked our employees to do, the only thing we asked them to do, was take a voluntary day off, one out of 30 days. We asked our employees, hey we’re doing our best to try to get through this, we’re asking you to take a day off on your dime to help us get through that period and we’ll do our best to employ everybody. It’s a hotly debated topic about what would we do if it happened again.
WAILIN: There’s nothing Matt can do to predict or prevent the next drought, and there will inevitably be more droughts in the company’s future. Matt likes to keep a long-term view. He says U.S. Waterproofing has worked on over 300,000 homes over its 60 year history. There are a lot more to go.
MATT: We don’t exactly know when the rains are gonna hit. I do check the weather, but I don’t obsess over it. Obsessing over something you can’t control usually isn’t a good idea. There’s millions of homes throughout Chicagoland and the surrounding suburbs, so I’d rather do a little bit at a time than all at once, let’s just say that. I don’t want to be known as the company that hopes for problems for homeowners, but certainly we’re there to take care of them if they occur.
WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner, who will be thrilled if he never hears me say “seepage” ever again, and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are by Nate Otto. If you know of a business we should feature on our show, you can email us at email@example.com or tweet at us @distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Try Basecamp free for 30 days at basecamp.com/thedistance.