Getting Started & Finding My Way
(Part 17)

This is part 17 in a series of essays about when I was a young man (30+ years ago) trying to figure out how to “make it” in the world. Click HERE to go back to the beginning of the series.

In the early summer of 1978 I was 20 years old. I was living at home, working full-time on a dairy farm, and had, over the course of ten months, saved enough money to buy my first car. My Grandmother Kimball had also just given me $4,000. It was money from a savings account that my grandfather had started for me when I was born. Some of the money would pay for college tuition in the fall. But there was quite a bit left over.

One of my goals in life was to go into business for myself. I had considered a lot of different ideas but, after reading an article in Mother Earth News magazine, I was convinced that chimney cleaning was the right business for me. With the money from my grandmother and my new car, I had what I needed to get into the business.

The man featured in the Mother Earth News article used a chimney cleaning “system” sold by the August West company in Westport Connecticut. I decided to motor on down there and check it out.

I ended up paying $1,385 for a complete August West chimney cleaning system. It consisted of a big red “Soot Sweeper” vacuum cleaner, flexible, fiberglass, snap-together poles, an assortment of different wire brushes, and other sundry items, including a very nice black top hat. There was an instruction manual too.

My Chevelle sedan served as my work vehicle. The big Soot Sweeper just fit in the back seat. Brushes and poles and drop cloths and such fit in the trunk. I bought a 32ft aluminum extension ladder and a 6ft step ladder and they were tied down on wood roof racks with suction cup feet.

I went to buy liability insurance but chimney sweeping was so new that there was no classification for it. The insurance company quoted me a price for a steeplejack. It was far more money than I ever imagined. So I didn’t have any insurance. All in all, I had around two thousand dollars invested in my new business.

I put an ad in the local “Pennysaver” newspaper. The phone started ringing. I had customers calling! I charged $29 to clean a woodstove chimney and $35 to clean a fireplace. I was driving all over the countryside, meeting all kinds of different people, and dealing with all kinds of different chimney cleaning situations. Every job was an unknown. Every job was a challenge. Every job was a learning experience.

When my town had its annual Fillmore Days celebration (Millard Fillmore, 13th president of the U.S., was a local boy), I walked up and down Main Street in a black tuxedo and top hat, holding a chimney cleaning pole and brush. I think I had a sign on my back. I handed out some business cards.

Another of my ideas to drum up business was to drive to a nice neighborhood in the suburbs and go door to door in my “uniform” handing out a business card and brochure about my services. Unlike my experience selling Shaklee (as explained in a previous part in this series), I actually knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of people.

Chimney sweeps were few and far between back then, and a lot of people were heating with wood. I didn’t get as much business as I had hoped for at the start. But around about August business really picked up. I was setting my own schedule and making what I thought was pretty good money. When I didn’t have a job scheduled, I sometimes helped the Badman’s with hay.

Unlike the previous year, when I was in such a quandary about finding a job and knowing my place, I now had my own business. It would succeed or fail based on what I put into it, and I put a LOT of effort into it. Cleaning chimneys was dirty and often dangerous work and I did the work alone. What I had learned from the summer after high school graduation, spray painting barns, using ropes and ladders, came in real handy.

Once a chimney was cleaned, I usually stayed and talked to my customers for awhile. Many of them were older and I would end up visiting with them for some time. I was making new friends along the way.

So I was free from the drudgery of taking care of cows. I was not worried about how I would pay for college in the fall. I was experiencing the independence that a car brings. I had my own business. I was performing a service that was needed and appreciated. The independence of self-employment was very satisfying to me. Life was good.

To be continued.....
Click HERE to go to Part 18 of theis series

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