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How to Start a Commercial Painting Company

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If you’re a hands-on person with attention to detail, you might want to consider jumping into the world of commercial painting. As long as our planet has weather, buildings will need to be painted and repainted. Sun is a killer when it comes to fading, but how much money can you really make with a painting business?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, building contractors pull in a mean of $40,400 a year. That might not seem like a lot, but it is when you consider the fact that most painting businesses have a fleet of employees and contractors. It’s also far more lucrative than residential painting, which typically runs between $2,000 and $5,000 per job. Alternatively, commercial painting can rack up $100,000 for a single project or $2 million for a large contract.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Commercial painting can be a relatively low-risk business. You don’t need to find some big investor, and you can get started for less than $2,000. Since most commercial painting jobs operate outside of traditional business hours (when offices are closed and employees don’t have to hang around wet paint), you don’t have to quit your day job. In fact, you shouldn’t until you have a steady stream of customers.

According to Hector Lacayo, owner of the commercial and residential painting company Fairfax Painter Pro, availability outside of traditional business hours is a necessity. “Commercial painters must be able to work nights and weekends,” he said. “So if you are a Monday to Friday, 7-4 guy [or] gal, this is not for you.”

Diversify Your Business Model

The painting industry is competitive, and only focusing on working with businesses may be a little limiting to your growth. Beverly Kruskol, who owns the painting and construction company M.Y. Pacific Building Inc., believes that every painting company should diversify its offerings.

“If you're opening to only do one aspect of painting, you may be successful,” she said. “But I think the broader the scope of the work that you do, the more chance you have of it succeeding. I would tell anybody if they are looking to go into the business, they really need to diversify their company in order to be successful.”

Kruskol, who focuses on high-end clients like multimillion-dollar homes and celebrity restaurants, admits that contractors don’t always follow the rules. This makes competing even more difficult for those who do business the right way.

“You’re up against many, many people out there in the industry who are not licensed, bonded and insured the way you should be if you want a successful business,” she said. “But then again, a lot of these people are out there, doing it, making money and taking away business from you because you can’t compete with the way they run their business.”

Consider Your Location

Location is everything when it comes to a painting business. You probably won’t get as much work if you’re operating in an area that's primarily cornfields and cow pastures. You need buildings to paint. If you’re launching a commercial and residential painting company, you can be a little less choosy. Any residential area or city will do. If you’re sticking to strictly working with businesses, you need to be in a place with a lot of businesses. Ideally, your location should be a stone’s throw from lots of offices, manufacturing plants and industrial complexes.

Get Your Supplies

Painting businesses need a lot of supplies. Andrew Hecox, a general contractor who works in Wichita, Kansas, recommends a van, a good collection of ladders, a high-quality sprayer and a variety of drop cloths to protect the area around where you paint.

“You definitely need a good, reliable work truck or cargo van to haul your equipment and materials with you,” he said. “You are going to need a commercial paint sprayer, preferably a Graco Sprayer. You will need all sizes of extension ladders, folding ladders and smaller step ladders. Having a few smaller sets of scaffolding will come in handy.”

Money is always tight when starting a business, but there’s one area in which you do want to splurge: paintbrushes and rollers. “Be sure to not skimp on the quality of paint brushes and paint rollers you purchase,” said Hecox. “This can have a drastic effect on the quality of the finished workmanship.”

Figure out the Legal Structure

Before you can get a general business license, you need to define your company structure. Painters fall in the construction and maintenance industry, which means they’re usually general contractors. Contracting companies often opt to work as LLCs, or limited liability companies, if it's hiring employees or entering a partnership with another person. You may wish to start your business as a sole proprietorship if you’re the sole person painting and change your corporate structure later on when you expand. In that case, you can get a tax ID number from the IRS so you don’t have to use your Social Security number.

Get the Proper Licenses

All businesses need a general business license from their local municipality, but painting contractors may need extra licensing. It depends on the state. For example, Alaska has three different levels of painting licenses plus most contractors must have a general contractor surety bond. Arizona has different licenses for a commercial or residential painting business. In Arkansas, you only need a commercial contractors' license if you’re doing jobs worth more than $2,000, and Colorado doesn’t require licenses at all, but you may have to file a notice of emissions.

“If you are serious about starting a painting business you want to check with your local municipalities and address whether or not you need a particular trades license with the municipalities in which you are working,” said Hecox. “If you do, definitely get the required licensing. If the licensing requires taking an international building codes exam, there are plenty of people the city will recommend to tutor you.”

Along with the proper licensing, you’ll need insurance. This ranges from general liability insurance to workers' compensation, but you should always consult a professional to find out your exact needs.

Hire the Right People

You might start out your business as the sole employee, but to make significant money, you’re eventually going to have to expand. Unfortunately, the wrong employees can destroy your business's reputation. In the eyes of a customer, a painting business is only as good as its worst-performing employee, so hire the most qualified, professional team you can find.

“I’ve been in the business almost 30 years,” said Kruskol, “. . . and 99 percent of my work is word of mouth or repeats because I’ve been working with some companies for 20 years and stuff like that. So, [it’s important to] build that with your client – building that trust, that respect, the fact that they can come to you anytime, you’ll go in there, your guys will do the job, they’re going to do a good job, they’re going to take pride in the work that they do.”

Market Your Painting Business

After you’ve got the licenses, the supplies and the employees, it’s time to start painting. You just need to find customers. Though most businesses function on word of mouth, you start the telephone train.

“You may want to start contacting commercial real estate investors, HOA offices and property management companies,” said Hecox. “Let them know what services you are providing and if they have time you could briefly meet face to face and learn a little more about your company. You could also contact some of the heavy hitter large commercial construction companies and subcontract some of their work. Oftentimes you can get set up as a vendor right there on their websites.”


Mariel Loveland is a small business owner with an editorial background in lifestyle and technology. Her work has been featured in Alternative Press, Vice and HelloGiggles. When Mariel's not writing, she can be found swishing her hair on stage with her punk band and managing the ins-and-outs of self-employment.

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