The Formula for a Successful Startup: See an Opportunity and Seize It

Oklahoma firefighter Jay Baker fans entrepreneurial embers to build a successful restroom business.
The Formula for a Successful Startup: See an Opportunity and Seize It
The 28 Rentals crew includes, from left, Jay Baker, Calvin Baggett, Levi Fieselman and Brian Sperle. (Photos by Nick Oxford)

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As a farmer and a former full-time firefighter, Jay Baker would appear to have an unusual pedigree for a portable restroom operator. But judging from the success of 28 Rentals, the company he started in 2011 with his wife, Misty, it turns out that a farmer’s work ethic and an ability to respond quickly under pressure are useful skills in building a business from scratch.

When combined with a frugal financial mindset, the ability to provide great customer service and a willingness to try different things to diversify his business base, those initial traits have served Baker well. Five years into his new career, the company has grown from 28 restrooms and one service truck to 160 restrooms, two restroom service trucks, a septic vacuum truck, five emergency shower trailers and four cooling trailers that provide respite for oilfield workers during scorching-hot days.

“It all just sort of came together and it’s still coming together to this day,” Baker says, noting how he continues to diversify to meet demand for niche services. Monthly construction rentals generate about two-thirds of his restroom business and the rest comes primarily from oilfield and pipeline companies. “My guys come in from the field and say, ‘Let’s try this.’” He’ll often take them up on suggestions.

DO SOMETHING

“You’ve got to be willing to try different things,” he says. “My motto is this: If you do something, something happens, but if you do nothing, nothing happens. And that pertains to just about anything. You don’t know if something will work until you try.”

A good example is the emergency shower trailers, made by Rich Specialty Trailers. Alert to new business opportunities, Baker was intrigued when a friend who used to work in the oilfields, Brian Sperle, mentioned that oilfield companies needed a contractor who could rent a reliable shower trailer. “It took me a while to save up the money,” Baker says. “But I finally bought one in early 2013 and then bought four more, about one every six months. I got to know the customers well, and if they added another crew, then I’d buy a new trailer.”

Baker still remembers his first shower trailer customer. The call came at 5 a.m. on a frigid December day; the wind chill was 12 degrees below zero. The shower trailer the oilfield company was using — out in the Texas panhandle, about a 1 1/2-hour drive away — froze up and work couldn’t proceed without an operational trailer. “All five of my trailers are heated — I didn’t skimp,” Baker says. “So I got out of bed and took care of the deal. They were sitting on me, waiting for me to get there. The safety director wouldn’t let them do anything until I got there. They’ve been a good customer ever since.”

That anecdote underscores another reason for 28 Rental’s success: Respond quickly to what customers need, when they need it, and repeat business usually follows. “You need to provide the service you tell someone you’re going to provide,” he says. “If you want to run a successful business, you work seven days a week, regardless of what time it is.”

PUTTING OUT FIRES

Baker is a busy guy. Along with 28 Rentals, he still owns a 1,400-acre farm that includes 85 head of cattle. Moreover, he still serves as a firefighter, this time as a part-time volunteer. The farm was the catalyst for establishing 28 Rentals (which is named after his firefighting badge number). With his back to the wall financially due to a prolonged drought, Baker started looking for a business that would mesh well with the farm operation.

“My friend Brian (Sperle) used to work out in the oilfields and knew that financially, we were just paying the bills,” Baker recalls. “He came into the firehouse one day and said I should buy some restrooms and rent them out. I went on the internet and did research on toilet vendors and startup costs.

“There already are other good competitors here that provide quality service,” he continues. “But there was room for us to grow, too. I figured if I kept costs low it might work out. It’s not like I was throwing a couple hundred thousand dollars at it.”

Baker still remembers watching the truck drive away after dropping off his initial delivery of — coincidentally enough — 28 restrooms. “I turned to Brian and said, ‘Now what in the Sam Hill am I going to do?’ And he said, ‘Rent them out.’”

And that’s exactly what Baker did. Using friends’ and family members’ contacts as well as his own, he started out with a very simple, old-fashioned marketing plan: phone calls to prospective customers. His first rental was to a neighboring farmer who also works as a contractor. “He’s still a customer today,” Baker notes.

ON THE RADIO

Slowly but surely, business grew, augmented by newspaper advertising, two portable trailer-mounted LED signs and word-of-mouth referrals — and hustling to go the extra yard to service customers.

To further promote his company, Baker started running ads last fall during radio broadcasts of Oklahoma State University football games. The ads cost several thousand dollars, and he says it’s too soon to gauge their effectiveness. “I’m just going on the premise that if people hear something enough, they eventually remember it,” he explains. “I expect it will pay dividends in the long run.”

The company’s marketing efforts also include effective branding in the form of fire-engine-red restrooms with white tops. “People see them and know they’re 28 Rentals restrooms without even seeing the sticker on the side,” he says. “Our service trucks are red and white, too. I think it (cohesive branding) has helped because people talk about it. It sure hasn’t hurt.”

A FIT FLEET

As the company expanded, Baker invested in more equipment. In addition to the shower and cooling trailers, the company now owns about 160 restrooms, made mostly by PolyJohn Enterprises and a few from PolyPortables, and 15 hand-wash stations from PolyJohn and Satellite Industries.

For service vehicles, 28 Rentals relies on two Dodge 4500 pickup trucks carrying slide-in units made by Best Enterprises. One has a 300-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater stainless steel tank and also carries a 200-gallon plastic tank for brine water during winter to prevent restroom tanks from freezing. The other truck has a 400-gallon waste/100-gallon freshwater/150-gallon brine water stainless steel tank. Both trucks also carry Conde (Westmoor Ltd.) vacuum pumps.

In addition, the company has one septic service rig. Built out on a 2005 International 4300 by TexLa Services in Texas, it features a 1,100-gallon waste/300-gallon freshwater steel tank and a Jurop/Chandler pump.

Why pump septic tanks? Again, Baker spotted an opportunity to expand and diversify. “I saw there was a growing need for septic service in our area because more people are moving to small acreages outside of town,” he notes.

To clean septic tanks faster and minimize technician fatigue, Baker bought a Crust Buster. “It saves us time from flushing and backflushing,” he explains. “I’d say it saves about 20 minutes per job, which adds up over the course of a year. We don’t get paid by the hour, we get paid by the job, so the more efficient we are, the more money we’re making.”

A CAUTIOUS APPROACH

Baker buys new equipment only when he’s sure it can generate enough revenue to make the financing payments. That frugal mindset paid off recently as oil prices dropped, which has left his shower trailers sitting in the company’s yard, unrented, more often than not. But because he took revenue generated by the service and consistently applied it to paying off the loan, the equipment is paid off.

“It’ll come back some day,” he says of the slumping oil market. “But even though those machines are sitting here, it doesn’t bother me as much because they’re paid for.”

In an effort to keep diversifying his business base and generate different revenue streams, Baker recently invested in five roll-off trash containers made by Texas Pride Mfg. “They’ll keep a little cash flow coming in if other things slow down,” he says.

To differentiate himself from competitors, he purchased smaller, 11- and 13-cubic-yard units, while aiming to capitalize on an underserved niche market. “People don’t need a big (container) to clean out a barn or a house,” he explains. “A lot of companies rent big ones, but no one is renting little ones. I’m just trying to find a little niche and keep my costs down, as well as for my customers.”

MANAGEABLE GROWTH

How does Baker handle running a business and a farm simultaneously? He credits great employees and help from everyone in the family: Misty and sons 17-year-old Sketchley (Baker’s grandmother-in-law’s maiden name) and 11-year-old Charley. Even his daughter Malley, 8, helps out, assisting her mom in the office. “Between all of us, we get it done,” Baker says.

When asked about the company’s future, Baker admits he’s concerned about the oil industry downturn. “Where we live, this downturn eventually will affect every household and their decisions about spending money,” he says.

Nonetheless, thanks to diversified services, he still expects steady growth. That’s fine with him, because he believes that rapid, exponential growth makes running a business less manageable, plus quality control can diminish, too. “We might have to extend our core area just a little bit more — look a little farther out to pick up a new customer or two,” he adds.

In the meantime, Baker will keep putting out fires of a different kind — those little daily flare-ups that come with running a business. “I haven’t regretted it one day,” he says of his career detour. “I’m out and about all the time … In this business, the fun part is you never know where you’re going to take a restroom.”


Keeping it cool

To survive as a portable restroom operator in a small town, it helps to offer complementary services to customers. That’s why, along with providing portable restrooms and emergency shower trailers to oilfield companies, Jay Baker, owner of 28 Rentals in Clinton, Oklahoma, also offers four cooling trailers.

Built on 16-foot flatbed trailers, the evaporative cooling units give oilfield workers respite during scorching-hot Oklahoma summers. The open-air trailers include screen “walls” that roll up and down, and each seats about 10 workers.

“We rent them mainly to fracking crews on drilling rigs,” Baker explains. “At a certain temperature, companies are required to provide a place for their employees to cool off. The heat indices here get pretty high — in the upper 90s pretty easily and even the lower 100s. On average, the temperature inside is about 15 degrees cooler than it is outside.”

Units feature a 325-gallon water tank and a QuietCool portable cooling unit made by Quietaire. The cooling unit consists of a water pump, cardboard-like baffles and a 48-inch fan. Water from the tank gravity-feeds into the bottom of the cooler, where a pump sends water up a pipe that distributes it onto the baffles. The fan, mounted on the other side of the baffles, pulls the water across the baffles; as that occurs, the water evaporates and cools the air.

Baker points out that the water tank needs refilling regularly, which requires extra trips back and forth to drilling rigs. “If the air temperature is about 100 degrees, we have to fill it every day if it runs continuously,” he says. “The humidity gets so low that quite a bit of water evaporates. You need to charge customers accordingly because there’s a lot of time involved with hauling water out to customers every day.

“But the cooling trailers go hand in hand with the showers trailers — we run them off a shower-trailer generator,” he adds. “The profit margins on the cooling trailers aren’t huge, but it’s a great value-added service that helps keep our customers satisfied.”



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