Damien Sanchez started his business, DC Mosquito Squad, in 2007. Now it’s booming with 47 employees, but there was a time when he lost 30 pounds in two months trying to handle office admin tasks by himself all while he was still working as a firefighter and being a new dad. “If I had known how much work and time was involved when I started, I would have been discouraged,” he says. But he turned it around, and grew his business over the years to the point that he was able to take his family on a 30-day vacation. Clate and Scott talk about how he did it, his business journey, and how other small businesses can emulate what Damien did faster, smoother growth.
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Mentioned during this podcast: “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.
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Damien Sanchez: We didn't know anything about culture, actually but we did have a culture, and it was called get by. That meant we had one value, and everybody exhibited this, and that it almost tanked the company.
Clate Mask: That was Damien Sanchez of DC Mosquito Squad talking about how he graduated from a culture of just get by to a successful company with nearly 50 employees. Keep listening for the full story.
Scott Martineau: Welcome to this episode of the Small Business Success Podcast, I'm Scott Martineau.
Clate Mask: I'm Clate Mask, and we're cofounders of Infusionsoft. Today we've got Damien Sanchez of DC Mosquito Squad with us. It's great to have you, Damien. How are you doing?
Damien Sanchez: Very good, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Clate Mask: Great. We're excited to have you here too.
Scott Martineau: I'm starting off with radio voice envy. You'll hear Damien's silky, smooth, deep voice. I'll try to not be intimidated today, Damien.
Clate Mask: Damien, we're really excited to have you here. You've got a really cool business that's probably – I think listeners – I know our listeners are always fascinated to hear what people do. Sometimes we'll have very traditional businesses, but you've got a pretty interesting business. Tell us about what it is that you do? Let the listeners in on what DC Mosquito Squad is.
Damien Sanchez: We're a public health pest control company, and so we specialize in the eradication of ticks and mosquitos. So mainly disease vectors, and we concentrate on residential properties. We do a little commercial, but our bread and butter are the residential properties, and our purpose is we're connecting people that have outdoor spaces. So we want to make it happen so that people can go outside, they can have their kids, enjoy the outdoors, and we like making that possible. I never would have thought I would have been in the pest control industry. Twenty years ago I had no idea. I was a fireman for 18 years.
Clate Mask: Yeah. That's super interesting. So you – broadly it's pest control, but you've created a specialty that's really all about mosquitos and ticks and in the D.C. area then. Is that…?
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. In – probably around 2005 or late 2000 you started to have a movement of outdoor pest control versus doing indoor pest control. Now that market has started to develop more, and we've seen the growth within our own business, and within the category as a whole; so outdoor pest control is now becoming – I see it as being something that supplant indoor pest control. Because if you can eliminate the pest from the outside, then there's no reason to do applications on the inside. So it's a growing category, but it is a new category in the market.
Clate Mask: Got it.
Scott Martineau: So our listeners love to hear the founding stories of different businesses. Tell us how this whole thing came about. Started as a fireman.
Clate Martineau: By the way before you jump into that tell us – so how – when did you start the business, and how many employees do you have today?
Damien Sanchez: We started the business in November of 2007, and today we're seasonal so when winter is in season we have about 47 employees right now.
Interviewer: Awesome, and several million in annual sales, and it's awesome. Very good, sorry, let's go back to Scott's question. I just wanted to set the context for just how fricking successful you are. [Laughter]
Damien Sanchez: You've contributed to my success, so I'm appreciative.
Scott Mask: Thanks.
Damien Sanchez: I got my start – I graduated high school, I wasn't ever keen on college, I didn't – I did junior college for about 10 years one class at a time. But it just wasn't my thing. I love reading and I love learning; so when I started I was in the forest service as a firefighter. I got out of high school, went into firefighting instead of the – I wanted to join the Marine Corps, but my dad convinced me not too so I was like I want to be a fireman. I did – I was a fireman for 10 years with the forest service, and in that time I had
during the pre-housing bubble, I decided to buy a house, and I needed to buy that was just enough for us to live on, and my wife didn't have to work. So it was a little 800 square foot, small place, and we were – it was providential because we were able to sell that house for a lot of money, and get out right when the property market tanked. So that's – and I tell that story because that's how we had the – I had – I needed to be a good steward of these resources that I'd been given.
I didn't know exactly what to do so I sat on it for about two years after I got a job with Fairfax County Fire, and – but I didn't want my wife to work. Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country; so it's really expensive to live, and so I needed a second job. I was thinking there's nobody, this is 2007 going in to '08, and I'm like there is no good investments. So I'm – I trust that I think if I work hard I think I can do something.
My dad was an entrepreneur and so I was like I'll just do what my dad, and I'll just work hard. I learned about an opportunity at a birthday party saying we got this in, we do mosquito control. I'm like let me look at that. I always heard it should be niche, and I was like this sounds like it's a niche business. So I looked into it and I'm like I did all my research, looked at census data, and I was looking at the competitors, and there really wasn't anybody competing in the market, and there were mosquitos everywhere.
Scott Martineau: So you had been – you said I'd always heard it had been niche, so you'd been – you had the idea of starting your own company. It sounds like you were in between a second job and maybe starting something?
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. I started working for a friend, and I was seeing his business, and he was running it, and they were doing $700,000 in sales. I was like that look – seems like a lot of money. I think I could do that.
Clate Mask: This is a mosquito business?
Damien Sanchez: No, it was lighting business.
Clate Mask: Okay. So you've got your firefighter job, you have some money that you're sitting on that came from the sale of a house, and you're needing extra income so you're – your eyes are peeled – you got your eyes peeled for different opportunities.
Damien Sanchez: Right.
Clate Mask: You see a friend that's an entrepreneur that seems to be doing pretty darn well.
Damien Sanchez: He's not that smart. He's making money, why not – exactly, and I'm – he's like do you want to work for me, and I'm like yeah. I could do that in the evening, and so I – with my fireman schedule I had – I only work 10 24-hour days a month. So I would go out in the evenings and sell lights for him. But then after a time I'm – it's I need to do something, and so this opportunity presented, and I looked at it, and it's – I don't think opportunity doesn't wait for you to make a decision. So I jumped on it and went down, learned about it, and then got started. But then I realized it was a franchise, but there really wasn't any – there was nothing set up, and so I had to go – I was doing QuickBooks, I was doing a spreadsheet, and then I was doing a routing software, another database, and then the CRM.
So I was putting in – I spent all my time doing database entry in the first year.
Scott Martineau: Just what you would imagine.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. I was like – and I was spending tons of time on trying to do the accounting, and so it was way more work than I ever thought it would be running a business. But we got started in '07, I bought the area, got started, and then I started figuring out how am I going to do this. Because what I was trying to do wasn't working, and so we slowly started making processes, and growing. I think after the first year we did $67,000 and I thought this is a lot of money. Then I realized, but I lost $4000. [Laughter]
Clate Mask: So the first year discoveries of one, just how much administrative work it is, and how many hours you have to actually work in order to create income. Two, that the net income after you pay all the expenses is sobering enough to make you want to go back and flip burgers at McDonald's or something.
You get those two fine lessons learned, but we're doing our business.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah.
Scott Martineau: So tell us – take us on the journey, and I think one of the things we really like to do is understand what were the hardest parts about getting this business started. Maybe take us to a low point where you – maybe it was that day you realized I'm just a data entry guy. But maybe take us a little further down the journey, and what was the hardest part? Remember the time in your business when you felt like I'm not sure if this was the right decision, and I don't if we're going to make it.
Damien Sanchez: I think that was – I had gone in with somebody to try and share an office admin, and this is probably year two, we're big enough, we needed somebody to answer phones, didn't have enough money to really hire somebody full time; so we were like this seems like a great idea.
Clate Mask: When you say we who's we?
Damien Sanchez: I had a friend that had a similar business. So we were like we can share an office in.
Clate Mask: Okay, got it.
Damien Sanchez: Two weeks into it I put all of my chips into this, and say they're going to answer phones, and they go, "Yeah, I think you need to go hire somebody, because we're going to use them full time." So then I'm just in the middle of my season, phones are ringing off the hook, and literally I lost 30 pounds in about 60 days just because of the stress of trying to answer these calls, and trying to find somebody to work for me, and not having the time to train them. So I just – I lost a ton of weight, and it was – that was the first time that I hit a point where this is really stressful. It was…
Scott Mask: It's all on your shoulders.
Damien Sanchez: It is, and then it's because now not only have I – I have all of my capital put into this business, and trying to grow it, and then now – and I still have a full time job. So trying to balance all of that, and then make sure you're home, spend some time with the family. We just had our first child at that time, and so it was just incredibly stressful.
So once we got through that phase the next time where we had – where it was just immensely stressful was probably in 2014 where we had – finally we're approaching that $2 million mark. Now the challenges started to change, and we didn't know anything about culture. Actually – but we did have a culture, and it was call get by. That was we had one value, and everybody exhibited this, and that it almost tanked the company. So we just had – it was just a disaster by – at 2014, because we had been doing well, we had our process, things were going smooth. Then we had one key employee that didn't do anything. I was gone for a week, and then I came back, next thing I know we had thousands of customers that had not been scheduled. So now we were going into – we had just – put us in a tailspin right at the beginning of the year, and I lost a bunch of weight.
Scott Martineau: So a weight loss program.
Damien Sanchez: It was, my head would throb, and I'd sit there rubbing my head.
I was making everybody work 14 hour days, and just because we could not get caught up. Because as soon as we finished something it's like you don't get back to somebody right away, then they call three more times. So now you don't know where things are, where our email – we had 500 emails back up. We were getting hundreds of phone calls a day, and it just – the work kept piling up and we could not get ahead until we changed. I finally sat down and said, "We have to change our system and how we manage this." So once we implemented a new system now all of a sudden we got through the backlog in a week, and then everything was smooth. Then last year we went through a rebuilding year, and really trying to invest in the leaders. We removed some people, which was very difficult. People that have been with me for a long time, but it just – they weren't up to the task of dealing with the business at the size it was.
Scott Martineau: So tell us about the emotion you felt when you first realized I got to go let that person go. You imagine the conversation; what was that like?
Not that thought hadn't crossed your mind before, but you made that decision. You were like I'm going to go do it.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. No, it was very hard because you – I had this sense of loyalty of saying we've gone through all these difficult times, you've done this, you've been there, and you've been helping. But then trying to deal with – but you have this entitlement added too; I don't have to, we come and go as I please, and then I had zero control over them. But I didn't have anything set up or in place as far as to deal with if I let them go then what's going to happen to me. Then Now I'm going to have to do this, and so it was I can't let them go. So it's this vicious cycle, and it was just a very emotional year for me, because I'm – we went through – once we changed, made culture a priority. We really lost about 85 percent of the people that had been with us before, and it was just you heard – I
would hear the coaching and saying you got to – you have to make these hard decisions, and when you're the leader you're that. I kept wanting to push it to the side, and say no – maybe it'll get better. So…
Scott Martineau: How long did take before your – you sat back and said why didn't I do that three years ago?
Damien Sanchez: It was probably about an 18-month process, and then it really wasn't until last year that we started to see the effects of having a new culture. What does it look like to have an A player, and I think that's the – one of the biggest take a ways was that you think somebody – you're looking up there and they're doing – they're 80 percent good, and it's but really it's not. They're working against you, and so it's now we finally – with focusing on hiring the right people, hiring to our values, that now we've experienced with somebody is an A player all of a sudden it's this isn't even work.
Clate Mask: They've _____.
Damien Sanchez: I know it's – I was – I'm able to do things, we're getting things done that have been on my agenda for years, and they're getting done in a week.
Clate Mask: Isn't that awesome.
Damien Sanchez: Hell yeah.
Clate Mask: It's so fun when you start seeing that. So a couple of things that you drew out there, and I think one a lot of people recognize that the tolls and the challenges of running and trying to grow a small business; they take such an effect on people, such a toll on people. You see it in health, you see in relationships, you see in finances, but we've certainly seen that. We had one of our cofounders, Eric, he got – there was a period of time where he just lost a ton of weight, got super – and it was in our early days when things were just really, really tough. But I think that's one thing that you draw, another thing that I think sometimes people – I think sometimes people don't realize, and maybe it's a little bit sobering for folks to hear this, but it's the reality. It's not like you get passed the hard point, and then there's never any more hard points. If you're going to keep growing a business you're signed up for some peaks and valleys.
That's just the way it is, and the peaks are exhilarating, and they're amazing, and the valleys are tough. I think there was a point that I got to several years ago where I just – I accepted that. I realized there's just going to always be some hard times. I think people – we want to believe that once we get to there everything's going to be perfect. It's just not the case; you're going to have some good times, and you're going to have some challenging times, and it's how you work through all those things that really determine whether you're going to be successful at the next level. Sometimes people just say I don't want to keep doing that, and that's why I want to sell the business at a certain point. There's nothing wrong with that, but I think you’re putting a fine point on the myth that you get to a certain point and everything is smooth and easy.
Scott Martineau: So I'm curious how your – how what you value and what you feel satisfaction for has change. It sounds like the first year just seeing signs of life, and you're 67, you're on that – wait – but yet it's – I know the feeling it's still great to know that you're bringing
revenue, you're on your – so that – but, maybe fast forward to today, what is it that brings you the most satisfaction personally with what you're created in your business?
Damien Sanchez: For – I think part of it's my personality type, but I'm great at initiating things and getting started, but I'm not great at the details and follow through and making sure that they're finished and completed. So what's been most exciting…
Clate Mask: I think there are a couple of listeners who are like that.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah, but what's exciting though is that because now that we have a team it's where I perform best, it's with the team and trying to work together, and really developing as a coach, and just really changing how I approach work. Because it's – and that's the other thing is that each year my job changes. So that makes it fun, it's hate – I don't like doing the same thing over and over again. But just the building of the team, and then seeing what we can do as a team.
I love sports, I loved basketball in school, and so to it's – I'm almost 40 and I get to be on the team, and we get to go down and we get to go when, and so that's where I get that – I get pumped about that. So then it doesn't even feel like work.
Clate Mask: That's awesome, and it definitely – when you've got 47 employees you obviously have to have a great team. Because you're not going to have 47 people reporting to you; by the way I've seen entrepreneurs try to have 20 to 25 people reporting to them, and it's – that's just – it's craziness. You can't – you definitely can't take a vacation; you can't leave for a minute.
Damien Sanchez: You don't have to worry about weight loss.
Clate Mask: Yeah. So you – and I – we always talk about this as we're coaching entrepreneurs saying you've – it all becomes about building that team. It really starts to become important as you get over 25 employees. From the stage, we call it a stage for business, from 10 to 25 you can do it with one or two people, and there's a two or three people leadership group.
But they don't tend usually at that point to really function like a high performing team. Once you start to get over 25 and you're moving towards 50 or up towards even 100 employees, you've got – it's all about the – now you've gone from being an entrepreneur to a CEO, and that CEO is leading a team of leaders. So you're doing that, and you're doing it well, and you're feeling the satisfaction of it.
Help our people understand a little bit what it looked like to build that team. How did you – was it one day all of a sudden I'm going get these two people? Did you have internal people that got promoted? Did you go look at people from the outside? But, number one, what does your team look like today? Two, give us a little flavor of how that developed.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. I think part of it was my team was completely broken. So I read Five Dysfunctions of a Team and I'm like we've got all of that.
Clate Mask: Great book by the way, Patrick Lencioni. Get that book if you've got more than 10 employees. It's amazing.
Damien Sanchez: It was awesome. So we had – so we were completely broken.
So I was still I was still at the fire department and I'd work out with my captain, Keith, and so I would just gush out about all of the problems that I had, and the trust issues are saying this employee's doing this. But I can't get rid of him because if I do that this is going to happen. So I would just worry about all this stuff. So finally…
Clate Mask: How many people did you have in the company at that time?
Damien Sanchez: It was probably around 25, 26.
Clate Mask: that's the point, by the way, Five Dysfunctions of a Team is good stuff when you're at 10 it becomes critical when you get around 25. Because you're dealing with starting to have to build a team, and you start to see all the issues. There's trust and vulnerability issues here, there's all kinds of lack of conflict things that are happening. That books' really great, it's called Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah. So it was key in what I told Keith while we were walking around, he's getting ready to retire, he had 30 years on the job. He's like, "Why don't I just come work for you?" I'm the firefight and he's my captain, and he's "I'll just come work for you. I can do that."
So I was like, "I just need somebody I can trust," and I was like, "If I can trust you then it's…" We've been on numerous fires together; we've been through all kinds of crazy stuff. So he retired and then two months later he started working for me, and then he brought another lieutenant that had 30 years on the job, he came in, Eric. That was how we started the core group of I can trust you, and then I had Olivia, and she'd been with me for a long time. Just – she's I lean on her for everything.
Clate Mask: I didn't realize that the DC Mosquito Squad was like the Firehouse Subs of pest control.
Damien Sanchez: Yeah, we have a firemen culture at our office. [Laughter] But that's where – so it was just finally getting to the point where it's I had people that I can implicitly trust, and still those three are the core part of our leadership team. Then from there then we really started working on what are our core values.
We looked at our mission and our purpose, and we really started to say, "This is important," and all of us agreed with what our values were. So that was a long process. It took us three or four months to solidify that, but then once we did that now all of a sudden when we started doing our hiring, and we brought on new people we actually did find – we always thought there's nobody good out there. We're not going to be able to find anybody. Then – but then we started getting people.
Clate Mast: Then you started having people like me and Scott say, "If you can't find good people it's all about you. It's your fault."
Damien Sanchez: Right. I'm the problem.
Clate Mast: That's right.
Damien Sanchez: But that was the critical point is just that when they came on board we finally had a core group that at least we can trust one another even though we may not all have the right skillset. But everybody was willing to learn. So that was the turning point, and really looking at our values. It just there's – it was a life changing event.
Clate Mask: Yeah. Getting the right team where there's trust is so critical, and that becomes in stage five as you go over 25 employees it's just crucial. So congratulations to you for doing that. It sounds like there was a lot of agony as you went through some of the turnover, and seeing people that had been in the foxhole with you and prior challenges needing to not be with the company anymore. That's really tough, but building your team, and getting to that place of trust, and getting your philosophy in place is really commendable. Great job.
Scott Martineau: So I imagine we have listeners who are probably in all phases of this, and some have just started and are feeling that rush. Some are in the – they have the single core value of get by like he said earlier. Some are maybe where you're at today. Give us your tip, wisdom by Damien Sanchez about maybe – I want to start with the early phases of the business. What's the most important thing in your mind about entrepreneurship in the early phase of business growth?
Damien Sanchez: That's a tough one.
I think as far as on the early phase it really was all about time, and like I've said before if I had known how much work and time was involved in starting the – I think I would have been discouraged and not done it. So it really just took so much time, because it wasn't even – and time and running the business, but then it was the time educating myself and reading books nonstop to try and figure how do I do this, and then reading five books about it, and then saying I think I have a grasp of this, and then going I have to figure out this discipline, and then doing that. So that's where…
Scott Martineau: While trying to serve customers.
Damien Sanchez: Exactly, so you're running the business, and you're trying to learn how to run the business at the same time. So it's like that's the biggest thing is I think reading and putting that time is, because it's – and just recognizing that everything else really has to be on hold, and you really have to focus, and to get it off the ground.
Clate Mask: That's awesome. We say all the time leaders are readers, and you've got to take in whether you're – readers we use that in a broad sense.
Sometimes people are listening to podcasts, sometimes people are – but that they're just learning, they're constantly learning. Great job in doing that, and building a company nearly 50 employees. My last question for you is what does the success – what has the success in your business meant for the success in your life? What are you able to do? What has it given you the opportunity to do because you've built the business to the point that you have?
Damien Sanchez: A couple of things. I've learned to say no. So one of the things that I did last year is I retired from the fire department so I could focus on the business. One of the results of that…
Scott Martineau: After pilfering several great employees.
Clate Mask: Right, you're right.
Damien Sanchez: After all you friends have left and gone to work for you. But then what – and then having that leadership team in place. One of the first thing we did, I think I was two months out of the fire department, I took the family on a 30-day road trip. We drove 9000 miles around the country, and I didn't have to worry about – I took some phone calls, stayed in touch, but for the most part I didn't really have to think about work through that period of time.
So I was able to focus on the family, and it just really – it's – I've had enough time now that because I've separate, gotten – left the fire department, I'm focusing just on one thing, and then so now all of a sudden I do have more free time on my hands.
Scott Martineau: So awesome, especially contrasting that with the week vacation you took before you came back and realized the house was in disarray, and just to hear your story of stepping up as a leader, establishing that team, and that's beautiful.
Clate Mask: Yeah, that –I think that you nailed it, Scott. That's the thing that is so – that we want so much for entrepreneurs listening is to be able to have that freedom. That's why we do into business when we start, and yet many entrepreneurs never get there. They never get to the place where they can actually go take a vacation, disconnect, and enjoy other aspects of life. They're constantly worried and fretting about the business, and it doesn't have to be that way.
So congratulations to you for being at a place where at one point when you left the house fell apart, and then to the point that you focused on team, built the team, and created the kind of scalable business, the kind of systems and process that you've mentioned that now gets you to a place where you can be gone for a month and not worry about the business. That's beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.
Damien Sanchez: No problem.
Scott Martineau: So if we have any D.C. listeners where can they go learn more about better outdoor environments.
Damien Sanchez: If you're interested in learning about – more about Mosquito Squad you can go to DCMosquitoSquad.com. We have all the information about our services there, and we help people connect in their outdoor spaces.
Clate Mask: That's awesome.
Scott Martineau: I hope all of you listeners have appreciated hearing Damien's story. It's inspiring just to – if you're sitting there in the middle of the early phases maybe you're in a rough spot in your business I think it's just great to hear another example of a business owner powering through, know that there is light at the end of that tunnel You can get through it, step up as a leader and find the ways to improve.
Look to your team and you'll be able to achieve the dreams that you've had your entire life.
Clate Mask: Absolutely. This is – we appreciate you being with us, Damien. It's been a lot of fun. This has been another addition of the Small Business Success Podcast, and we look forward to you joining us for the next one. Don't forget to rate on iTunes and share and subscribe. We look forward to the next podcast. Make sure you tune in. Thanks.