Learning from your mistakes will often turn a good idea into a much better one.

After more than 20 years as owner of a remodeling company, John Sperath admitted that he didn't fully understand a profit-and-loss statement or what the numbers meant on a balance sheet. He remedied that by joining a peer review group. “It was the best thing I ever did for my business,” says the owner of award-winning Blue Ribbon Residential Construction, in Apex, N.C.

Like many who have seen the light, Sperath wanted to share his new knowledge “and create a better workforce” by teaching others. “A lot of guys think that if they have $100 in their wallet at the end of the week, they're making money,” says Sperath, who decided to offer business classes to his trade contractors. Easier said than done.

“[A series like that] would terrify me,” says Peter Olijnyk, a former electrical subcontractor who is now a project manager and software consultant in Rochester, N.Y. “Now that I'm out of [the trades] and in the business world, [I understand the need for] timelines and project planning; the importance of cash on hand, scheduling, managing people. [Back then] the idea of doing management, learning about public relations and bookkeeping was so foreign. I was getting the jobs done; I was so busy that I just didn't have time for that stuff.”

Olijnyk's fears —and other issues such as the inability to attend classes held during the day, getting to a distant location, and a resistance to showing financials — were exactly what Sperath found among his own trade contractors when he launched the classes.

Still, “it's a great idea,” says Victoria Downing, REMODELING columnist and consultant to the remodeling industry, who teaches similar classes for business owners. She suggests the following:

  • Offer classes to noncompetitive groups.
  • Make seminars interactive and use “fake” companies for exercises.
  • Have people work in teams so their lack of knowledge is not glaringly obvious.
  • Market the classes as something that will add value to a participant's business.
  • Start with one class rather than offering a series.
  • To further work out the kinks, Sperath held classes for his immediate employees and learned that “too much information can overwhelm people who don't work with these materials every day,” he says. “Now it's working well with the staff and we have graduated from the P&L to job-cost reports and estimates versus actual reports.”

    Not one to let go of a good idea, Sperath will try again with subcontractors. “My success is dependent on their success.”