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Updated: April 17, 2023 Shop Talk

Q&A: Northborough man eschews corporate culture for flooring franchise

Sean Donohoe stands with his hands behind his back, looking at the camera with a smile peaking out through his gray beard and his blue eyes glistening behind his glasses. Photo | Courtesy of Footprints Floors The owner of Footprints Floors of Central Massachusetts Sean Donohoe

Sean Donohoe was looking for something else. Something new. He’d spent roughly 20 years in corporate sales, selling telecommunications to midsize and large businesses, and it had burnt him out. Then COVID hit.

“Honestly, I had gotten sick of the corporate culture, of corporate life,” Donohoe said, “like so many other people during COVID.”

Donohoe started looking into various business ventures. He searched for something new. Would he buy an existing business? Would he start something new? He’d done work installing floors when he was young, and for whatever reason the idea stuck. Plus, he could piggyback on a franchise called Footprints Floors, which was started in Littleton, Colorado, by Bryan Park in 2008 after he returned home from serving in the U.S. Air Force. Today, the company specializes in installing hardwood floors, tile floors, backsplashes, and laminates and has more than 160 territories. Its franchises can use the company’s support system, which includes a call center and flexible hours.

Donohoe doesn’t do the installations himself. Instead he sells and coordinates them, and he uses a series of subcontractors he keeps busy. There’s no storefront and no set hours of operation. Donohoe is the team, and he’s running around helping people decide on how they could update their homes with new flooring. No more corporate culture.

A green box with Sean Donohoe's personal information such as when he opened his business (November 7, 2002) to his age (54) and where he grew up (Lynn).
Shop talk bio box

Why a franchise and not create your own thing?

For me, Footprints Floors does all the stuff that I don't like doing: marketing, scheduling appointments, all that stuff. If somebody clicks on a Facebook ad of mine or an Instagram ad or even if they call the number on the back of my truck, that actually rings to my admin out in Colorado, who works for the company. She schedules all the appointments, runs my calendar for me. All I have to do is focus on growing the business.

How do you grow a flooring business in this day and age?

It takes a lot of hard work. You need to make sure your customers are always happy, and they'll give you referrals and hopefully future business. At this point, even this early in my career or in this business at least, I would say about 30% of my business is either repeat customers or referrals from previous customers.

If you focus on people’s networks for referrals, do you still want to put out digital ads?

I absolutely do that, but those ads cost money. If somebody gives me a referral or asks me two days after I finish their second floor to do their entire first floor for them, that's free for me. We really do strive, not just me but all the franchise owners across the country, for 100% customer satisfaction. It’s a lofty goal to be sure, but so far we’re there.

What part of this business is different from corporate culture?

First of all, I’m doing it for myself. Obviously, I have the franchise, and there's kind of a business model you're supposed to follow; but it's a successful business model, so I follow it. What's different is it's entirely on my own. If I just decide, “Hey, I'm going to hang out with my kids for the day,” I block my calendar, make sure nothing goes on there, and I just take a free day without any worries. In corporate sales, you're always chasing that quota number, and if you're not, days off don't happen or it happens with a lot of guilt involved. Now, I'm not reporting to anybody. I mean, all my financial numbers go to the corporate office, but that all just happens automatically through my bookkeeper.

In the last few years we've seen a spike in people wanting to either buy, sell, or fix their houses because during COVID we all spent more time in our homes. Is there still that spike?

It has slowed. I’m not an expert, but the real estate agents I've spoken to and mortgage bankers who I'm in a network with, they keep telling me it is because interest rates are so high. A lot of people are saying, “We’ll take the house off the market. We're not going to go buy a new house cause we don't want to pay 6, 7, 8% interest. Let's just keep fixing up our house. We're going to stay here, so let's make it as livable as possible.” I'm running around right now, starting to hit the busy season. I'm running two to three jobs a week, whether it’s refinishing hardwood or installing hardwood, tile, laminate, vinyl.

I'm keeping nine guys busy every week.

What are the major challenges facing people looking to start a business in 2023?

The biggest fear for a lot of people is the economic climate, whether you think we're in a recession or think we're hitting a recession, regardless of definitions. That's probably the biggest amount of fear for people, especially as they're just starting out.

Certainly sometimes I go, “Oh boy.” I try to stay away from news in general, so I don't have to hear a lot of it. But to me, that's certainly what my number one concern is. Are people going to be willing to spend their money to upgrade their homes? So far they have, but it's still early in 2023. That's my biggest challenge.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Kevin Koczwara.

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