Joan Vienot moved to sunny Florida in 1980 after attaining a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art and teaching art for three years in a public high school in her home state of Colorado. She established and ran Pool Pal, a swimming pool service, from 1983 to 2015 before selling the business and embarking on a second career as a painter.
Joan now makes her home as a full-time artist in Santa Rosa Beach where she is active in the local arts community. Since 2015, she has been serving as the volunteer Coordinator for the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters and has been named a Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassador three times.
When I visited Pool Pal years ago, the strongest memory impressed on me was that one person—someone I knew!—created this business. It was my earliest exposure to a true entrepreneur and the idea that one person with an idea, skills, and some hustle could build a company from scratch. She learned some powerful lessons along the way and has generously shared them with us here.
You built a successful business from the ground up with Pool Pal. What would you do differently if you were to start
the same business all over again?
JOAN VIENOT: I would dream bigger. Any business should anticipate and plan for success. But at first, I did not even see my pool service work as a business, let alone that it would grow. I bought six padlocks to lock the equipment boxes at the commercial pool contracts I had acquired. I could not imagine that I ever would need more than six padlocks. Never did I imagine I would employ 12 pool operators, a store manager, an office manager, and an office assistant, and that my company would be maintaining 330 pools.
Had I dreamed bigger, I would have had a business plan, and my business plan would have considered tasks we did that made money, and would have eliminated the tasks that were time-consuming extras. Instead, I was selling the extras as a fundamental part of our service, promoting our work as a premier, fence-to-fence service, including hosing the deck, straightening the furniture, and emptying the trash cans, all tasks that could be performed by the property's unskilled grounds crew, tasks which did not require our specialized knowledge of water chemistry and training on the filtration systems. The unskilled tasks took a lot of time and made us very little extra money. The only thing that those tasks gave me was bragging rights.
To be sure, bragging and self-promotion are all well and good, but they do not make money. Later in my career, we competed against companies that were able to service three pools in the time it took us to do one by offering no extras. So I started also offering a "no frills" service, which eliminated the deck services. I made less money per contract but tripled the number of contracts, effectively doubling my income. It was proof of the business adage, "To make more money, you either increase volume, or you increase price."
If I were to start the same business all over again, I would dream bigger. Never did I imagine I would employ 12 pool operators, a store manager, an office manager, and an office assistant, and that my company would be maintaining 330 pools.
What drew you to swimming pool maintenance and repair as a viable business option? What other vocations
interested you at the time?
JV: I had moved to Florida to start a campground business with a friend. The dream was that I would be able to hang a sign on the door, "Gone to the beach -- pick your own campsite." I thought that would also leave me plenty of time to pursue my passion of being an artist.
My first pool service contract came about through a friend, a builder who needed someone to take care of a pool at the town homes he had just built. He knew I took good care of the pool at the campground I co-owned. I didn't really want the job, but I didn't want to say No to him. So I visited the site, figured out my time and travel, and then, because I didn't want the job, I doubled the price.
He said OK!
And that very moment is when I realized I could make some money at it, money I very much needed because the campground business was being swallowed up by its own financing, by the extraordinarily high interest rates of the early 1980's. I truly did not see pool service as anything other than a temporary source of income. Little did I know, the unbelievable growth and development yet to come to the area, and that I was in the right place at the right time.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to hire employees or contractors?
JV: Clearly write up the job description or task(s) you have in mind, and plan for possibility of advancement and business growth. Before hiring an employee, define expected starting skills. Due diligence requires a background check and calling references.
Consult with an employment attorney so that you are clear what you may ask in an interview and what you may not ask. Gradually you will acquire policy and procedure which will create an employee handbook to give to future employees. I had mine nearly all written before I contracted an employment attorney on retainer, who annually trained my supervisory staff on harassment and discrimination issues. He added a good bit on drug-free workplace and communications including use of phone while at work, and social media presence relative to work. He also advised me on offenses which should result in immediate termination, vs. those which would be addressed through corrective action prior to discipline, suspension, or termination. He also refined the agreement-not-to-compete-within-my-geographic-area that I asked my employees to sign, since I was training them to have valued skills.
As far as hiring contractors, get the task and terms of payment in writing. For large, complex jobs, final payment of the last 10% will be made upon your approval. You will build an ongoing relationship with your contractors -- burn no bridges.
Was there any emotional difficulty or attachment in selling the business after all your work building it?
JV: No. I had difficulty with the buyer's different management philosophy, which was all about maximizing profits, whereas my philosophy was more about operating as a team, the human side of the equation. But I very quickly learned that my loyalty to my employees was a one-way relationship. After that, detaching became easy. The biggest difficulty was having provided owner-financing, and never being certain that the buyer could make his monthly payment or whether I would have to resume operating the business.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome during your career? If so, how did you deal with it? And if not, why do you think that is?
JOAN VIENOT: I did not experience the imposter syndrome in pool service because I was an authority in my field. Except when taking classes at pool industry conventions, I always knew more than anyone I was talking with, and I had more experience. I also was an instructor, teaching the other area pool operators, maintenance people, and health inspectors a course they needed for certification to operate public pools in Florida, and continuing education credit for health inspectors.
The challenge was being gracious during the occasional "man-splaining" in the male-dominated industry, and also simply being assertive without being "bossy" or "strident." Being ignored because of being a woman was a constant challenge.
An interesting book on this subject is The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.
Joan Vienot's Recommended Read: The Confidence Code
Authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman provide an informative and practical guide to understanding the importance of confidence—and learning how to achieve it—for women of all ages and at all stages of their career.
Working women today are better educated and more well qualified than ever before. Yet men still predominate in the corporate world. Claire Shipman and Katty Kay argue that the key reason is confidence.
How did your pool business inform how you’re building your art business, and in what ways is Joan Vienot Fine Art uncharted territory?
JV: Joan Vienot Fine Art is completely uncharted territory. Because of the nature of how I paint, I face the imposter syndrome multiple times in every single painting, especially when starting a live event painting! Many live paintings go through an "ugly stage," when it can make me wonder what ever made me think I could be an artist. That's when I feel like an imposter. But success is achieved by doing the next small thing towards your goal, and that is as true in painting as it is in life. Sometimes we take the big leaps, but much of our progress is simply doing the next small thing.
The biggest challenge is that I don't have a single clue how to sell my own work. It is complicated by a common complaint in the resort area where I live, that most art sales are "decorator" pieces, and the most successful artists paint variations of the same theme and imagery over and over again. In their defense, they rely on selling art as a primary income source so they make what sells. Thankfully, I'm not constrained by the same circumstances. Enlisting the help of Briar Rose Consulting has been the most effective way to create a mechanism for selling art. A number of times I have referred people to the live event painting pages, and your work has done the selling for me. Having a good website greatly enhances my professional presence. And my reputation is building with each event I paint.
But because money-making is not my goal, I have a very different approach to Joan Vienot Fine Art. I want to be entertained and fulfilled by making art. Showing it, sharing it with others, is a close second. Selling it is simply a method to help me buy more art supplies and to travel, and relieves me of storage problems.
Many people find the idea of starting a business scary. You've started multiples -- the campground, Pool Pal, Joan Vienot Fine Art. Did you experience fears when getting started?
JOAN VIENOT: I experienced the most anxiety when starting the campground. The year before, I had prepared by studying basic accounting, business management, bookkeeping, and business law at the local community college. But starting a business from scratch, with financing such that a minimum income was needed in order to even survive, was very scary. I knew the statistics - most new businesses fail in the first year, and after that, most fail in the first 5 years. The campground failed in 5 years. The financing was simply impossible to meet -- interest rates went up to 18% and the financing on the campground construction was 3 points above prime. Our business plan projected an occupancy that would pay the bills, but that was no guarantee that we would actually have that amount of business—and we didn't.
I didn't have fears starting Pool Pal because I started with one pool, and then two pools, and then three pools. The growth was gradual and incremental. But I did have year-round contracts with consistent monthly rates. So I made more money in the winter when pool use and chemical consumption dropped dramatically, but I would wake up in a cold sweat on summer nights wondering if I could pay the bills. That's Fear. I learned to budget year-round.
Having retired after selling Pool Pal, and now being a fulltime artist with Joan Vienot Fine Art, I have the luxury of not having to sell my work to make a living, which takes away a lot of pressure. Any fear that I have now I prefer to call excitement, from choices that I myself make and am in control of, like my current contemplation of moving to an area with different scenery which I think would be interesting to paint.
One must be careful if fear takes the form of dread or paralysis. But fear can be a good thing, prompting preparation. And it can be reframed as a more positive emotion, such as excitement. Probably the best book I have read on the subject, which has helped me in my career as an artist, is called "Art and Fear", by David Boyles and Ted Orland. It covers every aspect of fear as an artist, even the fear of being creative. Because I don't rely on selling my work to support myself, I am relieved of the fear of being creative, but I see other artists in the area who repeat their successes because a particular motif or color scheme "sells". I do regularly face the fear of "what if my client doesn't like my work" when I complete wedding paintings. Fortunately, they always do like my work, and I have done enough event paintings that my clients know the style of work and the quality that I will be producing for them.
What is a skill you have that you don't consider a typical "résumé skill," but which contributes to your success daily?
JV: Simply being aware, observing and absorbing, is my greatest "skill" as an artist and as a human being. So much of any effort toward finding Zen involves emptying the mind, whether it be through meditation, or contemplation, or simply taking a hike in the woods. I am fortunate in that I often have an empty mind. Many times in my life I have been asked, "What are you thinking?" and I literally have nothing to say, because there is nothing in my head!! That's not something I would put on a résumé. I thinking it's like a computer having a lot of RAM. Emptiness is open space for creativity and problem-solving.
I have long admired your pursuit for personal and professional improvement—whether attending workshops, meeting new people, taking up new sports or activities, or teaching others. What drives that?
JV: I suffer from insatiable curiosity. It is exciting for me to learn how things work, and I am constantly wanting to understand the bigger picture. But interestingly, the more workshops I attend, the more I realize that I only retain a smidgen of what I have heard, and the best way for me to learn is to simply paint. And the more new people I meet, I am finding that I only want to know them just a little bit—especially here where I live, where if you have a different point of view than someone else, there is an element of eternal damnation attached to their resulting opinion of you. Age is slowing down my pursuit of new sports, what with stiffer joints, longer recovery times, and pesky bone spurs. But teaching is a different story, because I find excitement and effort to be contagious. I get a huge kick out of a student's "aha!" moments.
With each painting, my intention is for the viewer to actually hear the sounds of the waves and the children playing, to smell the salt air or the scent of rain coming, to feel the quiet of the first ray of sunlight, or the sweetness of the last glow of sunset. My intention is for the viewer to feel what I feel, and to see the beauty that I see. Whether in memory or in imagination, I hope to ring a bell of recognition in the viewer’s soul.
What’s your best or favorite source of creative inspiration? Do you ever get "stuck" creatively?
JOAN VIENOT: My favorite sources of creative inspiration are backlit or nearly backlit scenes and dynamic angles. But to keep from getting stuck, creatively, I do best to keep the well filled by attending theater, musical performances, dance, even children's performances, and exhibits of top quality art.
My biggest challenge is to be self-directed, to keep from getting "stuck" on the couch. I don't yet feel like I have a routine for my life as an artist. I feel like it is still ahead of me. I envision waking at dark-thirty, having my quiet time / meditation or reading time, and then walking along the rocky shoreline with my sketchbook and phone-camera, followed by either a plein air or studio capture of an impression or two from my walk. A healthful lunch then would power me into my afternoon work on the current painting(s). That would leave evenings free for learning how to line-dance or throw a pot or go to the theater or have people over for dinner and laughs, or just reading or watching a movie.
How often do you get new ideas?
coming up with new ideas is a challenge
my brain is always overflowing with new ideas
How hard is it for you to follow through on your ideas and make them happen?
I have to force myself to follow through on things
I love carrying out tasks and completing things
How would you rank your work-life balance right now?
I live at work!
I NEVER WORK
I struggle to sit down and get work done.
What’s the #1 thing you recommend outsourcing so that you can focus on the parts of your business that really light you up?
Gallery contacts (I need an agent!)
Framing and deliveries
What’s your favorite non-work thing right now?
My current non-work activity right now is watching old movies filmed in New England, Nova Scotia, and the Pacific Northwest. I started doing this as part of my envisioning an ideal location to live, somewhere with a rocky coastline begging me to paint it!
CLOSING: Any other thoughts or tips you’d like to share with fellow business owners & entrepreneurs?
The success of a business depends to a great degree on simply being business-like: returning phone calls and answering emails promptly; treating each customer and especially the customer immediately in front of you as special and important, which can be as simple as letting interrupting calls go to voicemail and having text notifications turned off during meetings. But it can also be remembering their child's name or activity ("how did Junior's play go?").
Beyond that, offering a quality product or service at a reasonable rate is key. Adding bells and whistles delivers the level of quality appropriate to the clientele you want. And always remember, word-of-mouth is the best referral service, and it's free. So how you treat customers is of paramount importance.
Joan, thank you for taking a moment to set down the paintbrush and share your perspective, lessons, and motivations!
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