Holiday lighting is a popular add-on for cleaning contractors for a number of reasons:
• You already have a ladder, safety equipment, and experience needed to get you to the roof line – and above – safely.
• You already have a customer base. The same folks who are hiring you to wash their houses and buildings, clean their windows, and scrub their gutters may very well also want you to hang their Christmas lights.
• It can keep your crews busy through the holiday season. “This is a huge motivation for a lot of cleaning companies,” said John Welker of Agent Clean University in Colombia, Missouri. “Even if you don’t make a huge profit, you’re keeping good guys busy during the off season.”
• The demand is there. “A lot of people don’t realize that these services even exist, and are thrilled when they find out there is help,”explained Dave Spiller of Dave Spiller Power Washing in Philadelphia, PA.
Dave Hancuff of Window Cleaning and More in Woodinville, Washington, agrees the demand is there, adding that he’s had people call as early as July to schedule their lights for the next holidays season. “If I would hang lights that early, people would take me up on it,” he added.
In actuality, companies tend to start hanging holiday lights around mid-to-late October (sometimes sooner) and the season continues until around December 10. According to Hancuff, a few “drastically smaller jobs” may trickle in around mid-December, but those customers often have a smaller budget.
Spiller says he usually has to schedule new customers near or after Thanksgiving. “I want to make sure I have the lights for my repeat customers up and ready to go by Thanksgiving,” he explained. “So I tell new customers that if they will be patient this year, they will be added to the priority list next year.”
Hancuff offers a 15 percent discount for customers who will let him hang their holiday lights the third week of October. The following week’s customers get a 10 percent discount. By November 1, however, their schedule is pretty filled up for the season.
Christmas Lighting Basics
Before adding holiday lighting as a new service, it’s important to learn some of the in’s and out’s of the industry and make sure it’s something you really want to do. The primary thing you need to understand, of course, are the lights. Everyone I interviewed agreed that these need to come from a professional holiday light supplier, not your local Wal-Mart, and not from your customer’s attic.
“Any light set that is sold with replacement bulbs is a light set you don’t want to use,” stressed Stiller. “Those are the ones that get water in them and cause problems.” Spiller said he purchases his lights through ChristmasDesigners.com. The lights he are epoxy sealed and water tight, and should provide repeated years of use.
When it comes to Christmas lights, there are two popular types of bulbs: incandescent and LED (Light Emitting Diode). It’s just been over the past decade that LED lights have taken off in popularity for a number of reasons:
• LED lights are more durable and last longer. Whereas most incandescent bulbs max out somewhere in the hundreds of hours of use, LED bulbs often run for tens of thousands of hours.
• LED bulbs produce a “truer” color.
• LED bulbs use up to 90 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs.
“I offer free upgrades to LED lighting, and I push them heavily to all new customers,” said Ben Orr of Northern Seasonal Services, LLC, in Chicago. “They last longer, they are brighter, they are easier to install, and my service calls are almost gone on houses that have LED lights. Plus, we can knock out an LED house in half the time it would take us to do the same house and design using incandescents.” As a sidenote, Orr said his two primary suppliers are wintergreencorp.com and www.reinders.com/led.
Additionally, Orr said because LED lights draw one-tenth the power, his extension cord use is greatly reduced. “Extension cords and timers are often one of the largest investments for new clients,” he adds. Quoting houses with LEDs is also a lot easier. With incandescents, a lot of math is involved, as you have determine what power is available, how many outlets are outside, how many lights can be placed on one circuit, etc. “The LEDs nowadays are also seal-molded bulbs, so you also have fewer GFCIs getting tripped.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that LED lights cost significantly more.
“I can buy incandescent bulbs for about nine cents each; LED’s cost about one dollar a bulb,” said Hancuff. “That presents a bit of a sticker shock for customers.” However, Hancuff adds that his customers have said they could generally tell an energy savings by the second year.
The second important thing to understand is the size of the bulbs. Most and gutter lines are lined with either a C7 or a C9 bulb. These are the big, old-fashioned bulbs that used to cover everything before minis came on the market. C7 bulbs are a little smaller than C9s, requiring a little less energy and usually last a little longer. “C7 and C9 bulbs go up easier, faster, and are impressive in general,” said Hancuff. “Plus they can be customized to fit perfectly.”
Customization is an important aspect of professional lighting, and the professional lighting suppliers can help instruct you on how to do this. (You can also find YouTube videos with instructions.) Custom lighting lets you match the cord to the exact length of the roofline (or whatever you’re lighting) without having leftover.
It also lets you neatly work around windows, roof lines, doors, etc., without having lights in unwanted spaces. There are times when mini lights are used – primarily around trees. “Mini lights are the least profitable. They take longer to put up, longer to take down, and cause more problems in the process,” said Hancuff. As a sidenote, he uses his Ettore waterfed pole when wrapping trees. “It works great.”
Orr said he carries hundreds of different types of lights, and particularly likes the M5 bulbs (5mm) mini bulbs on greenery bushes and trees. “They refract the light causing some to be more brilliant than others, which produces a really cool effect in greenery bushes and trees.”
Additional Holiday Lighting Considerations
Before you get going, there are a few more things you need to decide.
• Are you going to sell or rent the lights? Welker said that he has chosen to rent the lights to his customers, then takes them down and stores them for them after the holidays. There are a couple of advantages of this. For one, it’s easier for them to hire him next year since he already has the lights that were custom designed for their house. Second, if customers want to change up the look of the lights, or if they happen to move, he can put those lights into his inventory to use on other projects. “We do give a 20 to 30 percent discount on the second year to can put those lights into his inventory to use on other projects. “We do give a 20 to 30 percent discount on the second year to help motivate customers to come back to us,” he adds.
Orr, too, leases his lights. “I offer free, 24/7 warranty work through the season. I include these overages into my quotes so the price they see is the price they pay, period… no hidden fees,” he explained. What he has found is that some companies that sell the lights to customers charge to come back out if there’s a problem after they are installed. “With these companies, customers always feels like they are getting ripped off. If the strand goes bad at the beginning of the season, is it a bad string? Or is it bad because the company isn’t handling them carefully?”
Both Hancuff and Spiller sell the lights to their customers, but they both service the lights free of charge. There are couple of reasons for doing this. One, you’re not out the cost of the lights. Second, you’re not stuck having to store the lights. “I just don’t have the room to store 10,000 sets of lights all year,” Spiller explained. Hancuff sells his customers the lights, but then offers to store them for a “small fee.” (He has a “huge” attic he uses for storage.) He also warranties his lights for three years as long as his company is the one hanging them and taking them down.
Some other companies sell the lights but store them for free. Again, that’s because customers have to call them the next year to get their lights.
• How do you handle take down? “I used to include takedown in the original price, but I now charge for them separately,” said Spiller. “When it’s 12 degrees and snowing in January, it’s a painful job to have to do,” he adds. “Plus you get there and the lights are covered in ice. They have to be dry to store. Takedown can be a real pain.” He adds that takedown generally requires about one-fourth of the time it took to hang them up, so he charges about one-fourth of the original price.
Hancuff also waits and charges separately for taking the lights down. The cost depends on the project, but he has a minimum fee for any job, and that’s where most of his takedown prices fall. “That way, too, I don’t have to pay taxes on the takedown at the end of the year before the work is done.”
• Commercial or Residential? When choosing who you are going to target your holiday lighting to, there are few things to keep in mind.
First, most large commercial buildings have large, professional companies that they use for all of their holiday decorations. You are more likely to get hired by the small, mom-and-pop businesses than by large retail outlets.
Orr does quite a bit of shopping center and other commercial work. In Chicago, there are a number of regulations and permits required when doing commercial lighting in the city limits. “For some displays I actually have to hire an electrician to sign off on certain things. You really need to be aware of what you are getting into before you start these types of jobs,” he stressed. Most residential jobs in Orr’s area, however, do not require a certified electrician. “There have been a couple of residential jobs where we had to drop a temporary feed outside and ended up contracting with an electrical company to make the connections. Then we had to have it inspected by the city.”
Just like cleaning, commercial holiday lighting is more about the budget than anything else. With homeowners, it’s about the feeling of warmth that comes from the holidays. Keep these in mind when making recommendations and budgets. “Both commercial and residential have their own ups and downs but end of day they are both extremely profitable if done correctly,” Orr added.
Marketing Your Holiday Lighting Services
Spiller added holiday lighting to his repertoire somewhat accidentally about six years ago. His mother-in-law lives on a busy street, and every year she had Spiller put up her Christmas lights. Every year the display grew a little bit more. Then one year, as he was working on her house, a gentleman pulled into the drive and asked if he could hire Spiller to hang his lights as well. “Next thing I knew, I’d made $2,000 in the process.” Realizing this could be a lucrative add-on to his business, he had a few lawn signs made up that “basically said ‘We Hang Christmas Lights’ with our phone number,” he explained. “I placed about half dozen out in a few strategic locations. Within three weeks, I had more business than I could handle.”
Hancuff, too, uses yard signs and he advertises in seven different papers, but a direct mail postcard campaign is his big marketing push each year. “A few years ago, I hired a photographer and spent $1,500 on three photos,” he said. “It was expensive, but it was worth it. We’ve used those same pictures on the same postcard every year, and it works.”
Spiller, too, points out that taking photos of holiday lights is a very difficult thing to do. “I’ve found the best time is at dusk, right before it gets really dark. But even then, it’s hard to get a good shot.”
In addition to yard signs, Orr stresses the importance of truck signage promoting your services, which will go along with word of mouth. “When the neighbors see you doing someone’s house and you do a good job, you can guarantee you will get a call from at least one neighbor the next year.”
A Few Final Lighting Pointers
In addition to these kinds of marketing efforts, it’s also important to let your current customers know that you now offer holiday lighting services. Then go out and practice on your own home, and those of your family and friends. Spiller stressed the importance of starting slow. “Take a few jobs and make sure this is something you really want to do.” He adds that one of his technicians hates hanging Christmas lights so he sends him out to do gutter cleaning and other similar jobs rather than making him hang lights. Then he hires four seasonal workers – usually the same guys each year, who work for a landscaping company during the warmer months. “I normally just have two guys for my pressure washing business. My holiday lighting business has six.”
Before starting out, Orr recommends contacting someone who is already doing it to see if you can help out for a season. “There are a lot of tips and tricks when it comes to design, electrical layout, light choice, color choice, and of course, the actual installation itself.” As someone with stage lighting experience, the design elements came fairly easily to Orr, but he wishes he had a mentor when he was getting started. “There were a lot of hard lessons I learned along the way, the biggest of which was making sure I was charging right. A good job is a lot more expensive than most people think.”
You also need to talk to your insurance agency before starting. “Will your workers’ comp cover you if an employee slips on a ladder or roof line while hanging lights? Will your liability insurance cover your lights go bad and cause a fire?” asks Orr.
Which leads to one of Spiller’s points: make sure you charge what you need to make, and you don’t take on more work than you can handle. “You will max out. With the holidays, you’re working around an important deadline,” Stiller stressed.
Finally, do your research. While this article touches on some of the key aspects to consider when starting a lighting business, there’s a lot more to know. There are a number of articles online – particularly at ChristmasDesigners.com. (Look under the “Blog” tab.) There is also a book that was mentioned several times by those I interviewed – “Starting Your Own Christmas Lighting & Decorating Business” – and is also available at ChristmasDesigners.com. The book is available in a digital version for around $130 or a printed copy for around $200. That price may sound a bit hefty, but it’s a small price to pay compared to the cost of gaining a bad reputation. In fact, Spiller read that the primary reason holiday lighting companies go out of business is that they over promise and under deliver. “Once someone’s lights are not up in time for Christmas, it’s hard to recover.”