Entrepreneurs have a special talent to be able to identify an important problem they want to solve, work on an effective and efficient process to make it better and create a new business at the right time.
Marianela Kramer, known to her friends and clients as Marie, manages rental properties in Philadelphia with her husband, Ken. The Kramers attended a lead safety training in 2020 with the intention of becoming certified as dust sampling technicians in order to test their own properties. The city had just passed a law requiring all rental properties built before 1978 to be certified as lead-safe or lead-free within a two-year phase. While Marie had been certified years before, she had not been active in the practice and had to renew her accreditation.
A guest speaker joined the class and asked a question: “Who here is thinking about doing this lead-safety testing as a business? Raise your hand.” He explained how difficult this process could be. Testers need to visit each tenant’s apartment, collect multiple samples in tubes for various rooms, package them carefully and accurately and expedite shipping them to labs. There is significant prep time, record-keeping and administrative follow up with property managers and landlords. Not everyone is a good fit for this type of small business.
This regulation was introduced October 1, 2020 around the time that COVID-19 shutdowns and quarantines were occurring. Rental properties all over the city were experiencing disruptions in their operations and considerable revenue losses. Many tenants could not pay their rent. Marie thought, “I could do this. I know people who could be our customers.”
Problem-solving and entrepreneurship come naturally to Marie. She raised her hand because she understood the urgency of this new law and the business opportunity. Every property owner would have to comply. This new business would generate an additional revenue stream with a repeat business model. Lead-safe certification is required every four years.
The Path to Success
In Philadelphia, over 30 established and new providers made up the competition when Marie opened her new business, ASAP Lead Testing and Locksmith. The challenge was finding a path to success in this crowded arena.
Marie is a resourceful, dedicated and hard worker. In fact, she has spent a good part of her adult life developing her skills on the job as a property manager since the time she met her husband. She calls herself a housing provider and feels that she is far more than a landlord for her clients.
By October 2020, Marie had become an accredited lead tester, set up an LLC and published a website she created herself. It was a basic website using WordPress, which she learned by watching YouTube videos. She was building her new company while also managing her rental properties.
This included attendance at numerous workshops and webinars to educate herself about company structures, liability, marketing, financing and much more. Marie reached out to many institutions for advice and help. She also applied and was certified as a minority-woman owned business by the Enterprise Center, a Philadelphia organization supporting entrepreneurs and owners with education and networking opportunities.
How SCORE Helped
In October 2020, she reached out to SCORE for mentor support, where she met Don Barber and Steve Traino. She was looking for guidance on how to set up a successful business now that she was certified.
SCORE mentors provided advice that helped Marie define the company’s positioning and pricing strategy to succeed in a highly competitive market by focusing on quality and service, not price, to generate sales. With her experience as a property manager, Marie could differentiate her offering vs. the alternative service providers.
Don utilized publicly available Philadelphia databases to help ASAP define the size of the opportunity to be approximately 200,000 rental units. This gave Marie the confidence that there were enough prospective clients for her venture to succeed. Don was also able to gather landlord contact data from these resources that was used for mailers. This market research was especially important to enable Marie’s business access to target customers.
Don and Steve advised Marie to upgrade the company’s website design and messaging. They provided feedback on her logo.
After attending a business bootcamp at LA21 in Philadelphia,* Marie’s business received free technical assistance. Temple University marketing also helped with an audit of her website, improving website design and further developing the company logo. The team at Temple also reviewed her Facebook communications and SEO (search engine optimization) metrics.
Steve helped Marie to understand how her business could use practical digital marketing tactics. Some examples included the priority of an easy-to-remember domain name for the website, the value of positive customer reviews, and the importance of Google ads and how to use them effectively by micro-targeting at the zip code level.
*Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association, whose mission is to promote economic development and support new business ventures in the city of Philadelphia.
Marie remembers her first customer in January 2021, coming from a link on the EPA website. Initially, she didn’t know how they found her business from such a long list of lead-safe testers in the Philadelphia area. She eventually learned that the EPA list was in alphabetical order. She says, “ASAP was right at the top – No. 2 on a long, very long list of providers! Sometimes, your brand is your best friend!”
ASAP continues to grow, turning a respectable profit in its first year, having sampled hundreds of rental units by the end of 2021. Marie has a steady flow of new customers with referrals from her clients who are reputable property managers and landlords. ASAP is receiving calls for testing from their nephews, brothers and friends who also own rental properties!
In addition to being a life-long learner, Marie is organized. To ensure her customers are ready for the test procedure, she has created a letter for landlords that outlines what is included in the visual inspection and suggests that window sills and floors be cleaned in advance. In addition, she has drawn up a lead-safe preparation checklist to make the process easier and more efficient for the tenants and property managers, her direct customers.
All the test equipment and paperwork are prepared in advance. Marie and her contractor-partner spend as little time in the apartment as possible, for health safety reasons and to minimize disruption for the tenants.
They divide the responsibilities and double check all the packets for proper details at the office before sending to FedEx for lab testing. This process is so streamlined, the ASAP team is able to complete testing in a large 65-unit apartment building in just two days.
If the apartment passes the lead-safe test, Marie notifies the property manager and, as a customer service courtesy, enters the certification on the City of Philadelphia Health Department System site. If there is a failure, Marie shares the specifics and makes recommendations to fix areas with issues. Most landlords are able to correct the problem themselves with cleaning and repainting. They call when the work is done and ASAP retests.
The company promise on their website is a testament to their commitment to the customers.
‘Being a landlord is not easy. Dealing with lead poisoning is not easy. After dealing with both issues first hand, we have come to learn how complex it can all be…our family was personally impacted by lead poisoning so we understand…the long-term behavioral problems and learning disabilities that lead poisoning can pose on children.
We are here to help…’
The focus on quality and service is paying off. As an example, Marie learned that customers value quick turnaround time so she switched to a lab that could provide it, even though it cost more. ASAP has 24 positive Google reviews, all of them five stars and praising her service, responsiveness and quality.
One reviewer sums it up nicely: “Great lead testing service all around! …quick and painless…timely and professional…making the whole process practically effortless…Definitely recommend.”
ASAP is booked solid. Based on this strong start to the year, Marie is expecting a doubling of sales in 2022.
Along the way, the Kramers further built upon this success. About the time Marie and Ken took the lead testing class, they learned that the local locksmith was retiring. They recognized this as another good business opportunity which fit nicely with their company mission of safety and protection for their clients. Marie's business model addresses the lead testing needs of the landlords and property managers who often need master locks, repairs and installations. The locksmith segment of their business has been growing steadily with the focus on prompt, personal and professional customer service.
Paying It Forward
As a young woman in Panama, her home country, Marie Kramer did not see a path to success after attending University there and studying International Relations. In 1994, she came to the US, the land of opportunity, and found a career in property management which took years of hard work, long hours, training, networking and multi-tasking.
She sets a new standard for small business owners, especially women. Her thoughts about business leadership sum it up:
“So, I learned price is not everything. The most important thing to set yourself apart is knowing what your services are worth, knowing your market, tailoring your services to your audience and most importantly establishing personal connections with your clients. Listen to your clients and you'll know what they are looking for and how you can meet their needs.”