What got you into starting this business? Did you always want to start your own business? Or did you discover that you wanted to after a time?
I honestly fell into this business when I was 18 years old. I’d just moved to Bloomington and I needed a job to save up some money for some service work and for college. I had a buddy whose dad ran a construction company. They needed painters. My friend asked me if I ever painted before. I had painted my uncle’s garage before, and asked him if that counted. And he said “yeah, that’s good enough, I will teach you the rest.” So I started there, developed an instant talent for it, and loved it. For a while, I was pretty cool with sticking with this company and sticking with my buddy who got me involved in it. I kind of wanted to start a huge like painting empire with him and only be his key guy. But yeah, I never thought about starting my own business.
But it had never crossed your mind at the time?
No, I wasn’t even 20 yet. I painted on this crew for a little while until the company kind of changed. My buddy, who was the crew leader went off and started getting his own jobs. He separated from his dad and started his own business. That was right around the recession. When the recession hit, things got slim. I was in school so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me, but for my friend, he had a family to provide for and didn’t have that option. Once the housing crisis happened, many painters were struggling to find work. In the end, my friend ended up outlasting many competing business. Today he’s thriving under the current economy.
How do you think they managed to do that? Starting a business, like running a painting business in a hostile environment?
Part of it was that I was still in school, there’s a little bit of a safe haven when you go to school. So in that sense, I was safe. Bloomington was also a little bit safe because our economy is so dependent on the school. Business was slow, but it wasn’t as bad for the painting business. In addition to school, I had another part time job. I was at this point, twenty-two, twenty-three, somewhere around there, and I didn’t need a ton of money. So I focused on finishing my degree. By the time I finished it and had an actual business, and not a real job with an art degree, I decided to stick with it.
Since I graduated, my focus has been growing my actual painting business, with the next steps figuring out how to scale my business.
Scaling a service company is challenging. There’s no getting around through the challenges that come with it. It’s a people business, driven by the quality of people that you have. The quality of folks that we do have are great. But it’s very hard to find more quality people. It’s very difficult to teach these skills to a younger generation of people who aren’t thinking about painting as a career. Young people in general aren’t as interested in trades professions. There’s a huge worker shortage in the trades right now happening on both ends. Ten thousand baby boomers are retiring every day. Thirty percent of Baby Boomers represent the construction workforce. In the entire US economy, construction jobs, make up six percent, and only three percent of young people are entering into construction.
Ten thousand baby boomers are retiring every day. Thirty percent of Baby Boomers represent the construction workforce. In the entire US economy, construction jobs, make up six percent, and only three percent of young people are entering into construction.
That’s a lot to chew on. Do you feel there should be more opportunities for people to explore trades professions?
I could see a lot of young people only doing a couple summers of painting while in college, and only come out thinking that painting’s a dead end. That if they don’t get a degree, that they’ll be stuck in what they consider to be a dead-end job. But that’s not the case. There’s a path to grow in the trades. And those that stick with it often end up building a business. They learn those soft skills like sales, marketing, and leadership. All those business skills needed in any other company are present here. It’s just sometimes challenging to for people to make that leap.
Where was the moment that you actually took that plunge from taking something you were good at, to turning it into a fully-fledged business?
That happened for me when I had officially started the business and filed articles of organization. Before I did that I was just taking side gigs and trying to put my way through college when I decided to start a business. The moment I decided I’d make a career out of this industry, when I decided that this was the industry for me, came between getting married, and having my first child.
The moment I decided I’d make a career out of this industry, when I decided that this was the industry for me, came between getting married, and having my first child.
At that point, I think it’s safe to say, you have to make some major decisions about your life, right?
Yeah. I couldn’t tell myself that my business was a side project. Or treat it as a side project while trying to be an artist. It was time for me to step up and provide for my family. That was the big change. It put a fire in my pants. I’d never felt as driven until I knew that it was gonna be on me to provide for my family.
So those two moments motivated you to make some definitive choices about what you wanted to do with your career. How you wanted to provide for your family.
I think that’s a biological trait, you know? When you’re holding your child in your hands, you’re motivated. They’re not going to make it unless you make it for them. I’ve talked with a lot of people who’ve that moment in their lives where they’re holding their first child. It changes people. They realize the need for them to make a committment in their lives, rather than wonder about committing to something. Suddenly, you can’t not make these decisions anymore.
When you’re holding your child in your hands, you’re motivated. They’re not going to make it unless you make it for them.
Who were your role models? Who are the people that you reached out to that were that were really helpful to you, both personally and professionally?
I asked my friend’s father for some guidance. He told me, “Torlando, some of the most wealthy people I know went to school for art. It’s just that after they graduated, they started their business in something else. A lot of times it wasn’t related to what they studied in school. If you want to do this, if you want to pursue this, that’s fine, you should do it. But take the time to learn from my son on how to be an entrepreneur. Learn how to start a business.” He hadn’t finished college, and he said that it was one of his biggest regrets. It made him feel like he didn’t have good ground to stand on when he told his sons that they should finish college.
I took his advice. I followed his son’s lead. I kept up with him all the way up until he passed away earlier this year. He always gave the best sales advice. He was a man who I just wanted to be like. And when he passed away, I realized that he had a profound impact on me. Not only as a businessman, but as a human. He was so generous and so interested in people. Anytime I would meet him and we’d just chat, I’d get an email a day or so later just thanking me. Just valuing that time that we had together.
What do you think was the most important lesson that he ever taught you about sales?
I think that he just had a genuine enthusiasm for people. He always tried to make them feel good about themselves, you know, in some way. He had this way of making everybody he met feel good about themselves. That’s a good sales trait. It’s something I try to do when I talk to a customer for the first time in their home. I try to make them feel good about it. I want them to feel good about their lives. I think in sales that’s the whole point. In sales you’re not gonna get very far if you’re only trying to get somebody to buy something from you, right? The point of making a sale is to enrich somebody’s life through your product or service. If you believe in your product or service, then it doesn’t feel like sales. It feels like helping. And it feels like serving.
Sounds like service is a big part of your entire ethos with Color Theory.
Yeah, I would say so. It’s important to me. When we don’t deliver on the service end. Making money is okay, it’s fine, but if you’re only taking a buck from somebody, you know, it feels cheapened. If you can benefits somebody’s life, and make them happy by what you’re doing, that’s enriching work. That’s meaningful work.
I can tell because of the time that I’ve spent with Pat, that he believes in what he’s doing. That’s a really big part of his ethos to The Mill. It’s like you said, we’re building something complicated and communal. A lot of it is coming together very fast. It’s been a whirlwind to say the least.
But you’ve always gotta look for that end goal, right? Like what, what type of community do you want to build? That’s the service that The Mill’s bringing to the table. There are a lot of startups and small companies that don’t have the resources rent a whole building or office. They aren’t going to, if they intend to stay in Bloomington, which the city desperately needs. There’s a lot of our talent in Bloomington that needs to stick around. They need to have that support network of people who are just in the grind with them. Starting a new venture is hard. There’s not a lot of money there at first. It can feel terrifying. But if you’re in an environment where you’ve got other people around you who are feeling that same exact pressure. They’re winning and losing while you’re winning and losing. And that sense of community you encourages people to keep moving forward.
Is that what excites you about a project like The Mill? That aspect of community where you’re with your peers?
Yeah, I think people need that. Founders need that because it’s very lonely. You’re in my building right now. It’s a good size building. There’s nobody here. Most of the rooms are dark. But it’s a successful business. We use the other parts of the office from time to time. Sometimes we have shop work here. Sometimes we don’t. It’s not like we’re wasting space out here. But for the most part when my folks are out on job sites, it’s me here, alone. I’m an extroverted person. I get energy from being around other people. So there are days when I’m here by myself and it’s draining to me. It can be a solitary grind, like starting any business, or maintaining it. With the current iteration of my business, I’m more in maintenance mode. But with some of the new stuff I’m a little bit more in startup or venture mode. So that’s exciting stuff. But the maintenance stuff can feel like a grind.
Definitely. You went to IU, and once you graduated you decided to stay in Bloomington. What made you decide to stay here?
I love Bloomington. I didn’t know there was something about this town when I moved here that made me feel like I could stay here for a long time. I don’t know what it was. I liked the small town atmosphere too. I like small towns compared to big cities. That’s a big thing for me. Like anytime I go to a city it doesn’t feel right to me.
But then I also feel Bloomington’s not rural either. There’s a lot of amenities here, a lot of great food options, a lot of great entertainment. This past weekend, my wife and I went to the Comedy Attic and we saw Chris Redd from SNL.
The comedy scene here always surprises me. A lot of big comedians will come here to just workshop material. The Comedy Attic’s always struck me as kind of the Midwestern version of the Comedy Cellar in New York.
Of course. Right next door to us is Russia and recording. And a few years ago Tig Notaro came and recorded like one of her early albums here. I’ve been friends with the owner since I’ve moved here and so I got a special invite. It was cool, because it was such a small, intimate show. But at the same time, Sarah Silverman was opening for Tig. Sarah just had a huge show in an auditorium, and she also opened for Tig in the studio.
So that’s what still draws you to Bloomington. It’s special because it’s a small town but there’s tons of interactions like that.
Exactly. When I first got here I was really into the music scene. Especially like when I first moved here, it was like a weird scene, but the bands were very new to me. I was coming from a midwestern high school where you only know what’s on the radio on the top forty. It took a lot of digging to find anything unique. When I came here it the music scene was strange and exciting. So I ate it all up.
What’s the most important aspect from art that you’ve brought into your business?
In one of my early classes I had at the end of the semester, I sat down with the instructor, Greg Scott who was an MFA student. He had been in Chicago and ran a graphic design firm for like 25 years, and sold it to pursue his MFA and become an artist. He works in Chicago now, and is doing very well. I asked Greg, “I heard somewhere that one out of one hundred artists actually make it. Is that true?” Because I’m looking at my classes and there are a hundred people in this class. It seems pretty presumptuous that I’d say, “I’m the one who’s going to make a living here, I’m the one who’s going to be successful.” It felt very zero sum.
This piece of advice got me through college and it’s gotten me through my career […] “No subject is irrelevant to art.”
Whatever you do, that means that you’re going to be creative in the way that you do it. You need to be inventive in the way that you do it. And you’re going to be able to make something happen out of nothing. And that is as an entrepreneur is exactly what I’m doing. You have to take everything that you’re absorbing from the world and compile your own manual of procedures and create a business. You have to make your own rules. That’s also what an artist does too. Both have to defend their work and explain it. They have to be able to take criticism, it’s all the same thing. While I regret the student loans that I might’ve taken out, I don’t regret the education I received. It was a very good business education. It was an indirect business education, but it’s propelled me to be creative in the way that I approach it.
I don’t regret the education I received. It was a very good business education. It was an indirect business education, but it’s propelled me to be creative in the way that I approach it.
I majored in creative writing and got my master’s in creative writing. So I definitely know that anxiety of whether you’re good enough to actually get somewhere with your work. Then that can be a very indirect education into that business mentality. If you want to pursue that, you can also pursue the artistic side as well. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive to one another. Was that your biggest realization when you were finishing up?
I think the way that I approached making art lent itself towards entrepreneurship. I became, especially towards the end, very collaborative. In digital art, which, you know, it’s a tough study track. Your professors are great artists and technicians in their own right. But the technology advances fast. It’s very hard to be ahead of the curve. Unlike a painting professor, you have to upgrade your tools every single year. The professors were constantly having to rewrite their curricula. The painting professors don’t have to rewrite their curriculum every, every year. Starting over every year is challenging. We’d get the basics from the professors, but a lot of the inventiveness came from us, the students. I’d ask a professor “hey, can you come and teach me how to do this?” We had a 20 minute conversation and asked me, “You think you got it?” So I was doing what I wanted to be doing, but it was a research-level course, where you’re not sure where you’ll end up.
Of all the artists and art that you learned from, who’s your biggest role model or inspiration?
My professor, Arthur Leo was totally influential. He is a great technician in his own right, and a phenomenal artist that produces immersive work. You get ensnared by his work and spend a lot of time with it. He was a personal mentor for me as well. I went to him a year after I graduated. I was considering pursuing a master’s. Arthur told me that, even in school he thought he thought that I would be a good teacher and I agreed. But he did suggest that I take a little bit of time in-between, undergrad and graduate school.
To take the next step in my life, I still had to empty myself out and say, “I’m completely open to whatever happens next.”
That also seems to be a guiding principle for you. You had to be open and willing to change and adapt. And even with the new venture that you’re working on too, you seem to demand that of yourself.
Of course! Even with this new venture, I have this full vessel of a painting company that is running well, and it’s a lifestyle business. But if I want it to move beyond that to something bigger, I need to empty myself again. I’ve got to throw away the things that I once knew and be open to some big possibilities.
I guess that this is a good segue into “What is that new venture?”
It still involves the painting industry. I want to provide a way for a painters that are struggling with the business. A common situation is that you get into a business because you have a certain skill. So you start doing it and realize that running a business is a lot more than doing the thing that you’re good at. We live in a gig economy, with Uber, Upwork, and other platforms. The people who use these platforms often don’t want to handle everything that comes with running a business. But they do like picking up these simple gigs. We’re creating a platform that fills that need for painters by using several different types of software that streamline the whole process. The platform makes it easy for consumers to find painters who are already independent contractors. They already have their own tools, they already have their insurance and they’re doing their own taxes.
The platform is for people who want to paint can get out there and paint. They don’t have to get bogged down with the other aspects of running a business. That’s kind of the big idea and it’s a matter of like putting it forward. We’ve already implemented, much of the platform into Color Theory itself. With automated appointment scheduling, I don’t have to make a single phone call in order to book an appointment. People who are wanting an estimate, they use the same appointment system that you used to schedule an interview with me. We use softwares to get accurate pricing. It’ll be easier, and take out all of this headache and guesswork.
The service is for people who like gigging. It doesn’t even need to be somebody whose a career painter. We hope this idea is scalable. The key for us is to empower independent individuals to get work done easily. The big challenge is having the people in the system that know what they’re doing. Maintaining quality is difficult. But if you break it down, segment it and give people the infrastructure to succeed, there’s a pathway to accomplishing those goals.
That makes a lot of sense. What made you want to start that part of your business?
I figured out how to run this business at a certain level and you know, in, in paint circles, but in a lot of business circles, they quote higher. But the basic idea that what got me here won’t get me there. There’s this certain bracket of revenue called Death Valley. Your systems get strained, your processes start to break down, and you have to reconfigure how you run your business. It has to operate in a different way. I was preparing for that about a year ago. I’m preparing for death valley. My hope was that I could hire a person that would come in and resolve those issues for me and it didn’t work out. It instead set me back a little bit. That growth was still happening. At that same time, I was having my second child. I thought there was no way I was going to be able to handle this without making some drastic changes. So I started to work on offloading some of the inputs and outputs of my business to software systems.
I’m basically looking at my system where I’m having issues and assessing what I can do to make that process easier. For example I often have 10 to 15 phone calls where I’m basically playing phone tag with customers, I’m essentially losing business. If I can fix that and I don’t want to use a person to do that work, what’s my solution? I’ve got to deal a lot of project managing. A lot of companies have a person that’s their only job. I wanted to know how I can do that with a minimal time of, 30 minutes a day, how do I do that in 30 minutes?
That’s an innovative way to think about how to automate functions and to get something predictable. Like asking yourself “what’s my typical template for my projects and tasks that gets me thinking about my business as a whole?”
Whenever I’m looking at my workflows, I’m always asking myself: What is this process? Can I do it in a couple of minutes? If not, can I delegate it or automate it? I’m always asking these questions because automating it is much easier and cheaper. Automation can happen whether you’re available or not. But if it’s like just beyond the science right now, then you know, there are certain things that people are still, like people need to be doing. But customer-facing aspects of the job though still need to face-to-face interaction. This is especially true when paint jobs can cost thousands of dollars. I still believe that there needs to be human interaction at that level.
So you’re a big believer in human interaction when it counts, rather than it being motivated by an algorithm or a computer?
I mean we can automate that process. But what we’re seeing is that people after a thousand dollars hesitate about purchasing things through a computer. So we’ve chosen not to.
So you chose not to do that because of the feedback that you received from customers?
Our customers can still do it. They just don’t. They can still do it if somebody wanted to put together a $10,000 job on our website and make a down payment. But they don’t, because it’s scary. Paying that much money without talking to someone beforehand is scary.
Having that human touch seems very important to you and ties all the way back to service as a core aspect of your business. It makes you feel as though you’ve actually helped someone and that’s what keeps us human.
Absolutely! A driving question behind any software decision is whether you’ll make money from it. But the other question is: does that software actually help make people’s lives easier or more complicated? Another benefit I have from having a humanities background is that I will pause and think, “okay, I get that we can build this, but what do we really get out of it? And what, if anything, do we lose?”