Todd Ward, Todd Ward LLC
Todd Ward combines his design background and general contracting experience as an independent owner’s representative and project manager. He assists his clients with their building projects — anything from development, to new construction, to remodeling. Todd attracts repeat customers because he knows the only way you can reach a win-win solution is if you know what winning means to the other side.
Episode 40 – Todd Ward, Todd Ward LLC
[00:00:55] Sanjay Parekh: Todd Ward started his business as an Independent Owner's Representative and Project Manager 21 years ago. Todd assists property owners and tenants with their building projects — anything from development, to new construction, to remodeling, or tenant improvements. Since owning his business, Todd has worked on projects in multiple states, but primarily operates in the Seattle/Tacoma area.
Here today to share his business story is Todd Ward. Todd, welcome to the show.
[00:01:23] Todd Ward: Thank you. It's good to be here.
[00:01:24] Sanjay Parekh: So, I'm excited to have you on because I think we're going to dive into lots of, like minutiae about your business too, because I'm sure everybody that's listening is interested. And if not, at least I'm interested.
But before we get there, why don't you give us a little, background about you and you know, who you are, where you came from, and how you got to where you are now.
[00:01:46] Todd Ward: Sure. I grew up in California. I came up from California to the University of Washington. Graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Did that for a while, became a licensed engineer in Washington and California. Decided I wanted a little more client interaction, so, I started working in project management for a couple different contractors.
Got to a point where the stumbling blocks in my projects were really relying on owners to give me information. And I realized that there was a niche market there. There are large firms that do project management and program management, but there are not a lot of people that just represent small companies and individuals.
So, I thought it was a good opportunity and I jumped on that opportunity and kind of phased out of general contracting and into full-time consulting.
[00:02:50] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. I think, from what I hear there, that's the engineer's mindset. I'm an engineer as well. I'm an electrical engineer, by background. And it's like you, you saw the problem, you analyzed the problem, and then you figured out how to solve the problem, which is interesting. But in your background, had you seen anybody, or had you been entrepreneurial yourself before this, or was this the first time you decided to do something entrepreneurial?
[00:03:19] Todd Ward: I always wanted to, especially when I got into the contracting world, because I saw so many opportunities. So, it was kind of a gradual maturation of those thoughts. But I'm not an enormous risk taker. So, there's always that, you know, you get married and then your focus is, I need to provide for my family. So, that kind of throttles the risk a little bit. But honestly it just got to a point where it's a tipping point where I just had to do something and, you know, thankfully I had a supportive family that that said, yeah, go for it.
[00:04:01] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. So, did you, in thinking about this, and I know it's been, what is it, it's been 21 years since you started this. Is that right? So, when you were starting this, did you start this as like a side hustle? Did you keep your full-time job, or did you go all in right then?
[00:04:19] Todd Ward: No. So, the owner of the general contracting firm I was working with, he was frustrated with me because I was providing services to our clients that he thought I should be charging them for. And I thought, well, it's more, self-preservation because I need this information so I can complete their projects. So, I finally decided with him, look, I will work with you and close out the projects that I'm working on and continue to work on other projects, but I'm going to gradually diminish my working for you as I build up my book of business for myself. So, it was, I guess you could say maybe not the typical side hustle, but it was definitely working two jobs at the same time, phasing out of one and building the other.
[00:05:18] Sanjay Parekh: So, that gave you a nice, easy glide path into your own thing. And kind of building up that revenue. Was there like a point in time where you felt like, I mean, did it just become easy and you just kind of rolled off those projects? Or was there a point in time where you're like, I really need to get out of these projects because I've got too much work on the new thing?
[00:05:39] Todd Ward: That well, it became to that point. There was one project in particular, I just couldn't see it to the end, and it was going to be a complicated end and I just had to cut the ties and just go on. You know, as a sole proprietor consultant, you have to hunt it, kill it, clean it, eat it, and then start to process all over again. So, it's very time consuming to try to build up that pipeline of business.
[00:06:10] Sanjay Parekh: So, this whole time, that you've been doing this, has it only been you or do you have others that work with you or work for you?
[00:06:18] Todd Ward: It's just been me, and I made that decision for a couple reasons. One is it's, you know, especially like in the 2008 timeframe, it was hard to keep myself busy and let alone, you know, pay someone else first and then live on the remainder. And part of that is lifestyle decision as well.
I'm recording here from my home office in the basement of my house, so, you know, my overhead is nominal, and I like that. I like not being tethered to fixed costs. And I also like that I don't have to keep a certain volume of work. And if I look at a project and I want to do some pro bono work for a non-profit, I can do that, or I can vary my fee structure, for a particular project.
I don't have to have a strict formula. So, really the accountability for revenue is to myself and I just decided that was the way I wanted to go.
[00:07:36] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. It's an interesting way of looking at it. And I'm not sure I've heard many people talk about it that way, is that as you grow, now you’re kind of an accountant because you got to make sure that all those people are paid as well. Or that overhead is paid for. And that kind of implies something into your relationship with your clients. So, that's interesting.
So, moving forward from that, so you've been by yourself, so you know, then you do have to do all the jobs, like you kind of mentioned, you have got to go find the business, got to do the business, and, you know, rinse and repeat. So, how do you think about that and how do you go and find those clients? As you were starting out, I mean, you know, some of them might have been clients from the previous company, but how do you find clients now?
[00:08:24] Todd Ward: Yeah, so, I did have one of my clients that I've had for all 21 years. I was completing their headquarters building and, they had never owned their own building before. And so, as I was leaving, they said, great, now manage our building. Because we don't know how to do that. And so, it became a built-in client right there. And honestly, it was a lot of good fortune finding people, knowing people that were building or remodeling. I had an attorney friend who was a managing partner of his firm, was doing a multi-story remodel in a building downtown. And, you know, for an attorney who bills out at hundreds of dollars an hour, it doesn't make sense for him to make sure the paint color is correct. And, so honestly, I would say 90% of my work has been word of mouth or repeat customers. I have pursued a couple clients, but again, it was pursuing them for one job and now I'm on, you know, the eighth or ninth project with them. So, it's a lot of, in the general contracting world, I made a lot of relationships and so, you know, with other general contractors as well. And so, you know I get calls from general contractors saying, look, I have a client that's driving me absolutely crazy. Can you step in? I think they need some help. So, it's been a lot of that.
[00:10:11] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. Yeah. So, you're in a position where you actually work with general contractors to kind of manage the project that they're working on and manage the client as well. So, you're sitting in that interface there.
[00:10:25] Todd Ward: Right. And I think that the advantage that I've had is I have a good design background and I have a good understanding of general contracting and, you know, the only way you can reach a win-win solution is if you know what winning to the other side means. You know, if you realize that the design team, they really have time. That's just it. You know, they, they can't buy more pencils or fewer pencils or paper. It's just time. So, you have to respect their time. And if you have a happy design team, you're going to get a better product out of them.
You know, you have to understand what is it in the general contracting world that really separates success from non-success. And you know, a lot of it is timely answers and cash flow for a general contractor. So, if you know, if you can work with your clients to help satisfy the needs of the other partners on the team, then everything tends to work out much more smoothly. So, I think I've been able to integrate experience in other fields, to not just help my client, but help the balance of the team members, because ultimately that helps the client.
[00:11:44] Sanjay Parekh: Right. So, it's interesting because you said client a couple times. So, do you view the end owner of the building or the place as your customer? Or do you also view the general contractor as a customer because they're the ones sometimes bringing you new business.
[00:12:02] Todd Ward: I've never been paid by a general contractor, so, have to remember who's paying your invoice and your allegiance needs to lie with them. However, I've always been an advocate of, you know, I don't expect something for nothing, but I don't expect, to pay something and get nothing. So, I try to advocate for what I think is a fair and reasonable position. You know, I tell my clients that their general contractor is a for profit corporation, so you have to allow a fair and reasonable fee. But then on the other side, I'll tell the general contractor, yes, we're going to give you a fee, but it needs to be a fair and reasonable fee as well.
[00:12:55] Sanjay Parekh: Right, right. Yeah.
[00:12:58] Adam Walker: Support for this podcast comes from Hiscox. Committed to helping small businesses protect their dreams since 1901. Quotes and information on customized insurance for specific risks are available at Hiscox.com. Hiscox, the business insurance experts.
[00:13:19] Sanjay Parekh: So, let's switch gears a little bit. You know, so the projects that you work on, I think we've all heard about these things, you know, in construction is that it never seems to hit the timelines that you hope for at the beginning, right? Things always go longer. You know, there's always issues with that. And you know, you're doing your own, booking a business and, figuring out all of this stuff. How do you manage, the stress of that? Because, you know, obviously, clients are happy in the beginning of a project and then when it's going wrong at the end, they're probably less than happy. And then how do you manage that with life obligations like family and all of those things because hey, I hoped these projects would be done so that we could go on vacation at this time, but they're not done. And you know, now it's impacting things. So, how do you deal with all of that?
[00:14:11] Todd Ward: Yeah, I can say my wife and I have had a lot of conversations about that because, my provider instinct tells me one thing, and as a consultant, if I go on vacation, not only do I not have any billable hours, but I'm also spending money. So, it's like a double negative. And so, it is like that, that can get me a little stressed. But then you have to have some level of faith too. Like it's always worked out in the past, so why am I all of a sudden realizing it's not going to work out now? And that's not a truthful statement that I tell myself and, but I fall into that trap. And I think over the time I've learned also that not every email needs to be responded to right away. I think when you're starting your business, you, at least, I felt like if I don't respond immediately or exceptionally, then they'll find someone else. They'll find someone to take my place. But that's, again, another mistaken belief because. I don't think people expect, to every email, expect an immediate response. And I think that, other people are trying to work on their work life balance too. And so, if it's 6:30 in the evening and they have some stream of consciousness email that they just have to get off their mind, you know, they're not expecting an answer by 6:45. But it has taken me a while too, because, you know, I've had a home office this whole time, so working remotely is nothing new to me. The downside of that is that work can always be in front of you if you want it to be, and it takes some level of real consciousness to just step away and say, I'm not going to answer email. I'm just not. I'm not going to respond until Monday morning or whenever it might be.
[00:16:34] Sanjay Parekh: What have you done to, to make sure that is the case for you? Like how have you, gotten to that place? Because I'm sure in the beginning of starting your journey, you were probably very responsive, and I think most people are because they are worried about that. So how did you shift your mindset to get to this place that you are at now?
[00:17:00] Todd Ward: Spending a little more time identifying what is, you know, the whole quadrant thing, urgent and important, versus just important and spending a little more time identifying, is this something I need to respond to right now, or can I just say, received it, received your email, I'll get back to you tomorrow. Whatever that might be. So, a lot of it is learning when is a response required? Like I said, not, you know, I'll send out an email because it just happens to be something I'm thinking about and I don't necessarily need that answer right away. And realizing that other people are the same way too. And I think if it's really important, someone might call you. Well, more in this time and age, someone might text you instead.
[00:18:03] Sanjay Parekh: Exactly. Is there anything that you do to, like really kind of manage your stress? Like is there an exercise routine that you do or, you know, what do you think about in terms of sleep? Things like that to help you kind of manage the stress of being a solo entrepreneur.
[00:18:22] Todd Ward: I find running to be really, really helpful. For one reason or another, I find it very clarifying. I can work through issues while I'm running and maybe it's because I don't have any other distraction. So, I’ve found that very helpful. You know, I spent a lot of time in, just being contemplative just on my own. For me is prayer, it doesn't have to be prayer for everybody, but I think just spending time, just kind of prioritizing, what do I need to do today? How can I be the best version of myself today, versus just trying to get everything done. I fall in the trap of trying to get things done too quickly, and then sometimes I'll make mistakes and I really, really don't like to make mistakes. And so, it's been trying to throttle back a little bit.
But, you know, in terms of, and this is something I've learned through doing, interval workout on the track. If you do a really hard interval and then you have your recovery period. If you don't actually have a recovery period, then your next intense performance is not going to be as good. And so, you have to really focus on that recovery period. And I find that same thing with work. If I just go, go, go, there's a point of diminishing returns and my efficiency falls off. But if I allow myself that proper recovery, then I find that everything else I'm more product. Yeah, So, I've always been very, I wouldn't say strict, but I'm very cognizant of how many hours of sleep I get. There's this, you know, this idea of bragging about, well, I can get by with four hours of sleep, or five hours of sleep, and, maybe people can, I think I can, but it's not good for me if I do. So, I don’t. I think it's just better for me to focus on getting at least seven or eight hours of sleep, and I think that does lower my stress level a bit as well.
[00:20:53] Sanjay Parekh: I'm right there with you. I need my seven to eight because anything less is, it's tough. You just feel run down and tired, or at least I do. I’ve got to ask you a question about your runs there. Are you listening to anything while you're running or is this in silence so that you can think about stuff?
[00:21:13] Todd Ward: You know, for a while, I would listen to music and then I realized that I was being competitive with myself, like I had to run so long, or so many miles per song, or, you know, songs per mile. And it was distracting me, and so, now I don't listen to anything. I just go run.
[00:21:42] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. It's interesting. So, definitely during exercise I kind of think about stuff, but I also have the same, as I'm driving around in the car a lot of times, with just music on, if there's a podcast on or something like that, I obviously, my mind doesn't get to wander, but also getting ready every day, you know, in the shower and brushing teeth and things like that. It's always a great time for me to kind of think about problems that are presenting themselves.
[00:22:10] Todd Ward: Well, you know, sometimes when you have a difficult conversation ahead of you, or maybe you have to respond to the difficult situation. For me, just having that conversation between me and this fictitious figure, just out on my own, it allows me to say things out loud and realize, okay, that didn't come across right, or I need to say that differently, and I think we run into this problem of not fully listening because we're already formulating our response. So, I feel like if I can almost play devil's advocate with myself and work out some of the particulars, then I can listen better as well.
[00:23:02] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. I want to go back and touch on something that you mentioned before you were talking about how you weren't really somebody who takes risks. And, you know, I like to ask about what were you or are you worried about or fearful of in being an entrepreneur, being a founder, and doing the things that you do? Because a lot of the stories that we see about founders and the companies that they build are about the shiny ending, right? And we don't talk so much about the fears that all of us have, even as founders, even if we're successful, that we have. So, what are the fears that you've encountered, or you know, had in the past or have now? And how do you deal with those and grapple with them?
[00:23:54] Todd Ward: Yeah, cash flow is big, especially if I'm the only one generating income. If I have clients that don't pay or pay slowly, that this is definite stress. Again, back in 2007, 2008, when things were really, really slow for me, I realized, okay I need to have an appropriate cash reserve. Just to kind of smooth out anything that may happen. So, I would say in the last 13 years maybe I have more cash reserves now than I would have previously, because that truly is out of your control. You know, I didn't have any control over the housing crisis or the ripple effect through the economy. Just like, I really don't have much control over inflation right now. But I can tell you that all of my friends on the design side are absolutely feeling the impact of that. So, I think it's learning the cycles, the business and just being ready for them.
[00:25:20] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah. There's a story, and I don't know if it's a true story or if it's a myth. But there's a story that Microsoft, back in the day, they used to keep a year's worth of overhead expenses, payroll, everything, in cash, assuming that they would make no money whatsoever. So, with no revenue they could run for a year, and still keep everybody on, all the lights on and everything. I don't know if that's a true story or not, but to me it was, you know, that kind of idea was pretty telling of how you manage the business and make sure that you're resilient to anything that could happen. You know, we've lived through a lot of things like that, right? The dot com bubble, 9/11, the crash in ‘08. And then even the things that we're going through right now. So, let’s turn it to others that might be listening to this podcast, that are thinking about doing something similar to you, launching a side hustle or starting a small business. What piece of advice would you have for somebody like that?
[00:26:24] Todd Ward: Well, for me, it's don't get into fee disputes. So, respect yourself enough to know that you should be paid for the work that you're doing. But in essence, you can fire your clients as well, by not working for them again. And taking that as experience and almost evaluating your potential clients as well as them evaluating you.
[00:27:00] Sanjay Parekh: To be clear, you mean fee disputes when you've already signed with a client, and then there's some issue that they don't want to pay.
[00:27:10] Todd Ward: Right, right. Or, you know, for me, most of my work is purely hourly. So, if someone says, oh my gosh, you couldn't have spent that many hours or whatnot. You know, let that go. Because, you know, some of my clients that have challenged me, they appreciate the integrity of saying, okay, I'll let that pass. If that's your impression, that's fine. And I'm still working with them because they have seen that as a sign of, I guess, non confrontation. It's not really what I mean, but they know that I'm there to work for the betterment of their business and it's turned them around. So, in the long run, you know, I have a lot, a lot, a lot of repeat customers, and it's a lot easier to retain a client than it is to go find a new one. And so, if a client wants to structure things in one way, you know, I just asked a client, or a client asked me if I would take a lesser rate. And I evaluated what I was going to do for that client. You know, in the long run it made sense to say, yeah, okay, I'll do that. Because I'm, looking at the number of projects that are out in front of me with this particular client. But everybody's different, you know. I'm not going to retire off of one client, So, it doesn't make sense for me to try to just, you know, extract as much as I can from them.
[00:29:02] Sanjay Parekh: Right, right. And again, to say, touch back on what you said before, you've got the benefit of not having that overhead. So, you have that ability to be flexible, when you need to be.
So, okay. So, now I've got probably the most important question, for all of us that are going through and, and you've seen now lots of these remodels or builds, probably more on the residential side. What's the biggest mistake that owners make? Or what's the biggest thing that we could do to make the process better and easier for all of us.
[00:29:42] Todd Ward: Decision making. I mean, especially on the residential side. You know, I can look at a set of plans and I can build a three-dimensional model in my head, what this is going to look like. And it's really hard for people that are not in the industry. On the residential side, it's rework caused by indecision or not timely decisions. And that's the biggest part of remodels. And I also think you get these, these people that say, oh, you know what, don't have the general contractor do this scope of work because I have a buddy that can do this, and that never really works out. You know, there's a rhythm to a project. Things have to follow along, and it's not always, as it seems to some of my clients. There are a lot more strings to be manipulated than what they see. And, you know, these tradespeople are, they're really, really good at what they do. But none of them like to do the same thing twice, you know? You get a guy that's just finished a wall and now you want to get into that wall and do something and he has to rebuild the wall. He doesn't want to rebuild the wall. He just did a really, really good job building that wall. So, I think ultimately indecision. I don't think you end up with a better product either.
[00:31:24] Sanjay Parekh: Yeah, yeah. That's great and that is great advice for all of us, that are on the other end of this. So, we'll try to be better decision makers. Well, Todd, listen, where can our listeners find and connect with you, in case they need help on their next build or remodel?
[00:31:42] Todd Ward: Probably to go to my website and connect with me via that. ToddWardLLC.com
[00:31:50] Sanjay Parekh: Okay, there you go. So, if you need help, on your next, excursion and make the experience a lot better, give Todd a call. Thanks a lot, Todd, for coming on the show.
[00:32:00] Todd Ward: You're very welcome. Thank you for the time.
[00:32:05] Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this week's episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, powered by Hiscox. To learn more about how Hiscox can help protect your small business through intelligent insurance solutions, visit hiscox.com. And if you have a story you want to hear on this podcast, please visit www.hiscox.com/shareyourstory. I'm your host Sanjay Parekh. You can find me on Twitter @sanjay or on my website at www.sanjayparekh.com.