Michael Schiestel of Gutter Sense: 5 Things You Need to Know to Run A Highly Successful Family Business
An Interview With Jason Hartman
Solid Family Foundation — Maybe I should start with a patient wife. Working in a family business definitely bleeds from work to home frequently. Sitting on our sofa as a family fulfilling orders or packaging insert packets has become a family activity. I think we make it fun, but time and future counseling will answer that.
As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Schiestel.
Michael Schiestel, owner of Gutter Sense, is a champion of small business, creativity, and entrepreneurship. After starting his career in aviation and working for wilderness, state and federal firefighting crews, Mike rejoined his family’s Chicago-area business as a contractor and project manager on kitchen renovation and construction. In 2011, he transitioned to the front office side of the business, which eventually led him to becoming a mentor to local high school students through Buffalo Grove High School’s IncubatorEDU entrepreneurship programs.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
This story does not start the way most entrepreneurial businesses begin. Three years ago, my daughter Paige was looking for a way to make some money while in high school. As a volleyball player, the time commitment can be large. We set out to start a business that would fit within her schedule. One of our dear friends and neighbors, Bob, was the inventor of the Gutter Sense Tool. Paige talked to him and asked if he would be willing to let her set up a company that would sell his great tool on the internet? After a couple of very successful years selling and fulfilling the Gutter Sense Tool, Paige and I were approached by Bob to acquire his company. We jumped at the opportunity to own and operate his business and are having a blast with the product.
Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?
As the President of Segal Mfg. Inc. my roles vary greatly from working with the injection molder, processing orders for our large retailers, developing improvements to the product, and finding local vendors to supply the parts for our tool.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
This is going to sounds silly, but when I started doing this, I had no idea what an injection mold looked like let alone how they worked. You would think that I might Google it or find it on You Tube, but no. I am still so fascinated at the precision, and the mechanics of how injection molding works.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A couple years ago, we decided to find another injection molder to make the tool. To save money we decided to deliver the molds ourselves in my Dodge pick-up truck. Because Gutter Sense is pretty small, I was thinking that this would be an easy thing to haul. I was sadly mistaken when the weight of the injection molds pushed my truck all the way down to the axle. I drove it, slowly, and realized after that having the right tool for the job is always the right answer and I just can’t do everything alone.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Besides the fact that Gutter Sense tool works remarkably well, and you can avoid going up on a ladder to clean your gutters, we are really proud to say that all aspects of our product are made and assembled locally. It brings me great joy to know that all the parts and the people who put this product into the market are from within an hour of our location. This comes at a cost though. The price of the tool is more than teaching my daughter how to build and run a business is so much easier when we can simply drive to the vendor we need to talk to or learn about. The springs on the tool that open and close the tongs are made at a spring company in Elgin, IL. The first time I needed to go there and pick up an order I was not able to go, so Paige, 17 years old at the time, headed down to pick up 10,000 springs. What she found was the spring manufacturer was owned by a woman. A fellow female entrepreneur.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have gotten some feedback from our customers that they would like to be able to see inside the gutters while they are cleaning. We are prototyping a new attachment that will allow you to see in the gutter using a lightweight mirror. So far, we are getting great results with this attachment and it works well. Our customers are loyal and send us great feedback and stories about how they have used the tool.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The man who invented the tool, Bob Segal, is the person who I am the most grateful towards. His engineering mind, relentless perseverance, kindness towards my daughters endeavor to start a company, and finally acquisition of his company. Bob had an interesting personality and some say was a difficult guy to get to know. When I met Bob in 2010 during a major power outage in our neighborhood, we seemed to click perfectly and became close friends thereafter. We spent hours together and learned so much from each other. He passed away a few months ago and is dearly missed after a short battle with cancer.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I became involved at the local high school with a hands on entrepreneurship class called IncubatorEDU. This high school business class takes students and pairs them with mentors in the business community, like myself, to guide them through the startup process. I have been working with this program for the last 4 years and love passing on my love for business to high school students and have made some wonderful friends in doing so. The young people that I have had the opportunity to work with are amazing, smart, and passionate people who will do amazing things in the future.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?
For the past 38 years I have been involved with a family business. It is the business that my parents began in 1984 and a business that I currently still work in now that they have retired. In my experience, a family business is one where not only do we work together on a day to day basis, but one that bleeds into who we are as a family and one that almost defines us and becomes our identity (for better or worse). I have found that there is a much more connected feel to a family business. One where we adopt employees rather than hire them. They become family as well and they share in the joy and struggle of a family business.
In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?
I find it humorous when I talk to friends about different aspects of where they work and how to get days off and what to do about Dr.’s appointments. In our family business, our employee’s family truly comes first. If someone is sick and you need to take them to a Dr. of course you go. If something happens in the middle of the day and you need to run home, we will reschedule what is happening. Family comes first.
What are the unique drawbacks or blindspots that family owned businesses have?
There are certainly drawbacks. The pay and benefits for employees can rarely match what a large corporation can pay.
Specialists in a corporation vs. one of us figuring things out the best we can. The bottom line is always on you. There is no one to push it off on. Those are the things that make a family business difficult and sometimes hard for friends in the corporate world to understand.
What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?
Keep it clean. I am talking about the bookkeeping. Piercing that corporate vail is so easy to do in a family business, but so essential to avoid. Friends who are not in business seem to think that everything is a “Write Off” and when I ask them to explain that, they prove that they don’t even know what a write off is.
My father has always said “The best part of owning your own business is that there is no one there to tell you to go home.” as a tongue and cheek joke, but burn out is real. Finding people to assist you is so critical to success and knowing when to call on them is important.
Share! So many family business owners think that everything in the business should be kept secret. I have found that if you build a network of other likeminded family business owners and you share your struggles, you find that most companies run almost the same and have the same issues. Share and collaborate as much as you can.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?
- Become a life learner. There are so many wonderful class that you can take along with incredible books. The more that I learn, the more I realize how little I really know.
- Devoting time away from the company is the best way to stay happy and energized at work. (This is harder that anyone thinks)
- Always put what is right above what is profitable. Like it or not, as a family business, integrity should rule your decision making.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?
My leadership style is to lead from the pack rather than from the front. One of the things I love about a family business is that I get to do all the different tasks in running a business. Everything from mopping floors to filing taxes. I believe that every person in our team is important and essential. Working side by side with everyone, regardless what they do is enjoyable and builds a strong team and relationships. At its heart, it is what shows like “Undercover Boss” have done in large companies to show how they are disconnected.
Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Solid Family Foundation
Maybe I should start with a patient wife. Working in a family business definitely bleeds from work to home frequently. Sitting on our sofa as a family fulfilling orders or packaging insert packets has become a family activity. I think we make it fun, but time and future counseling will answer that.
2. Passion for the product or service you provide.
Sometimes what you are selling might not be sexy, but knowing that the larger goal (in this case) is really keeping people safe from falling off of ladders. I spoke with a woman this morning that found us after breaking both of her wrists falling off a ladder cleaning her gutter. Those conversations and that purpose really drive me through the hard times.
3. You have to like your customer base.
I know that getting reviews online seems to be the ultimate goal for a company, but I really cherish talking to the customers either about problems, or successes that they have had. The one on one calls from customers is how we are able to improve or modify what we are doing.
4. Be ready to Pivot or change what you are doing.
If the words “That is just how we have always done it” don’t make you cringe, you may be doing something wrong. There are always opportunities to improve, or add additional products or services to what you do. If you close off that part of your mind you will either struggle, or end up eliminated from the market. I had a customer explain how he would like to see inside his gutters while using the tool. Well, we prototyped several ways to do that, and are now coming out with an attachment that makes seeing in your gutter easy.
5. Get involved in your community.
When you give back of your time to your community, you not only help the people around you, but you meet some of the most wonderful people that you may have never know lived right around the corner. I have had the opportunity to plan 5K races, Golf Outings, Serve on the Planning Commission, Serve as a Village Trustee, and help the local high school teach students how to start a business. Most of my fondest memories and closest friends have come from those volunteer opportunities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Some People dream of worthy accomplishments, while others stay awake and do them.” So many people ask me “How do you do it? Do you ever sleep?” Obviously I sleep, but I can tell you that I do not invest much of my time in things that are distractions. Those things for me are social media, sports, and TV. Making an impact in my world and finding fulfilment doing so has led me to wonderful things. There is so much to be learned by success, but more by failure. I have learned A LOT.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
The answer to this question may seem strange, so let me explain first. Over the years I have met so many wonderful people and have learned so much from those people. Because we all get so busy with life we sometimes lose touch or just don’t have the time to re-connect. One person was very influential early on in my career. He is a dear friend and my former employer/Mentor. We had such a good time together working and building his business. His name is Chris Silliman and he lives in North Carolina. I would love to have the time to sit and have a meal with him as we just don’t get to do as often as we should. He has helped and guide me more than he knows and I think I should tell him that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
It’s not about me, it’s all about WE. I feel that as a society, the talking points and focus is usually about one’s self. There is little talk about community or the people around you. Take for instance, your neighbors. I would bet that most people barely know the people next to them, or across the street from them. I would also bet that we would rather call a stranger for help, then to ask a neighbor. I believe strongly in collaboration and building on the shoulders of giants. I see the struggle in family businesses and would love to see a strong sharing/collaborative community that we could use to truly build and improve what we are doing, and I am not talking about sharing the name of an accountant or who does your landscaping. I am talking about deep sharing and collaboration that builds relationships and further builds the “Family” business.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have a pretty small social media footprint, but you can find me through guttersense.com and I always love to either talk on the phone or face to face across from a cup of coffee.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.