A View From (Outside) the Corner Office

While his peers in consulting prepared for business school and careers in private equity, Chris Rall used his experience to start a cleaning company.

Chris Rall  (Rebecca Clarke )

For some people, working is, in part, built upon the pursuit of becoming one’s own boss—free to make their own schedule or follow a passion the way they see fit. Of course, this aspiration—and business-ownership in general—isn’t available to everyone. Often, only those with the capital to invest in a business or the safety net of a fallback plan feel that the rewards of ownership are worth the possibility of failure.

For Chris Rall, the owner of a cleaning business in San Diego, that opportunity came after a three-and-a-half-year stint as a global consultant. Having used his salary to pay off his loans and save, instead of taking the prescribed career path of his peers—business school and then private or corporate equity—he and his brother looked for a business to acquire and grow.  For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Rall about the trials and errors of his first year of business-ownership, and how acquiring the cleaners freed him from the burnout of his consulting job. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What was your first career in global consulting like?

Chris Rall: I was a finance major at Boston College and knew I wanted to do consulting, so I got a job at a company called LEK Consulting. Their U.S. headquarters is in Boston, and I worked there for three years, running the gamut of accounts from health care to biotech to private equity. The last year of my employment, I worked on aviation projects. I got to about three-and-a-half years in, and like many people who are in consulting, I got a little bit of a burnout. I have an older brother who was also at a Boston-based consulting group in Europe, and he was feeling the same thing. I just had an itch to buy and run a business, so we started looking for businesses to acquire.

We looked at hundreds, maybe thousands of businesses across the U.S., everything from convenience stores to small manufacturers to dry cleaning. We settled on a San Diego-based cleaning company, quit our jobs, and moved out here, not really knowing quite what we were doing.

Green: Why did you pick the cleaning company over all of the other options that you explored?

Rall: Our goal has always been acquire a business, grow it, and then in three to five years sell the business, and do it again. My brother and I are not programmers. We're not inventors. We were just looking for something that we can actually understand—like cleaning—and put our energy into growing it. This business had a lot of things that we liked, including growth potential, and it happened to be based in San Diego. There are worse places to end up.

Green: You mentioned that you experienced some burnout at your previous job. What was the culture of your previous firm like that made you ultimately decide to do your own thing?

Rall: Near the end of my time there, I had spent nine months in the Philippines onsite with a client. It was fantastic, and I was able to do a lot of really cool things. Then I came back and got reintegrated into our office. Consulting firms, by and large, have an expectation of working 70-plus hours a week, which is great when you're young and you want to learn, but after a while, it becomes a grind and you realize that maybe you want a social life or you want to try something different.

That's kind of where I was. I definitely enjoyed my time there, and I learned an incredible amount. But there comes a point where you say, “Okay, do I see myself here for 20 years, or do I want to do something else?” I chose the latter.

Green: What's an average day like for you?

Rall: I'm based in San Diego, but we also have offices across the country in Phoenix, Portland, Detroit, and Cape Cod. On any given day, I might be in any one of those places to check in on the staff there. I can work from pretty much anywhere. I come in, 7 a.m., my inbox is full of questions or issues, and I'm usually talking to different people in our markets to figure out challenges we have operationally—equipment breaking or crews that are out, guys that are sick—and help deal with that.

Throughout the rest of the day, I might be on the phone with insurance companies to talk about a claim, or working on some of our websites. Usually, I'll leave around 6 p.m., and then log back on at home for a couple hours depending on what's going on that day.

Rall: Work never really stops, and so the work life and the personal life come together. We've got 120 employees, so there are people in place to make sure that things happen the right way. But at the end of the day, if it's Super Bowl Sunday and there's a major problem, it's going to come to me eventually. If I ignore it, then it's not going to get done. Your cell phone doesn't stop ringing at 5 p.m. It can be a lot if you're always on the clock. Every once in a while, you need a little bit of a break, but I think making our middle managers feel empowered has helped.

Green: Sometimes, when people quit their jobs at large corporations—as you did—they're leaving to pursue a passion project or a personal interest. What was it like navigating a new job and business that isn’t necessarily one you’re personally interested in?

Rall: It's true, I never really saw myself in the cleaning business and I'm not passionate about cleaning necessarily. But I've always wanted to own my own business and pave my own way. It was really different from what everyone else in my college classes or at my old job was doing. The majority of people my age at my firm, either chose one of three things: business school, corporate equity, or private equity. Those were all great opportunities, but I didn't see myself fitting in well with any of them, so I figured now is as good a time as ever. When I acquired the cleaning business, I was 26 and said, "If I fail miserably, I'm only 26. I can just start over again. It's not the end of the line. I have a good resume and I'll still have opportunities ahead of me.”

Because I had that [back-up plan], I could be a little bit more fearless and take more risk. The acquisition of a small business is totally different than anything I've ever done before. When I was consulting, it was all about high-level strategy. You get into the details sometimes, but for the most part, you'd be making these broad recommendations about market growth and consumer trends. You're not talking about getting payroll done on Tuesday so that your employees stay happy, or making sure that you have the right insurance to do this project.

Green: What were some of the difficulties that came out of not being experienced in business-ownership?

Rall: For the first six months, it was a trial by fire. We got in and there were more things we didn't know than things that we knew. In a small business, you've got to wear so many different hats. It's not consulting where you're making a recommendation to a client, and you say, “Increase web traffic,” and that's it. You're the one that has to do it at the end of the day, and you actually have to dig into the details and execute on them. Our first year was just getting started, making mistakes, missing things, and then fixing them and learning.

Green: Some people say that that first year of owning a business is a breaking point of success or failure. What did you do in that year that made your business successful?

Rall: One thing that we did was diversify our opportunities. We made several acquisitions in the first year. We didn't want to put all of our irons in one fire, because we weren't sure if what we were doing was necessarily the right thing.

We had a division that focused on housekeeping. We didn't know if housekeeping was going to be a horse we wanted to ride, so we also branched into residential window-cleaning and then residential Christmas light installation, which have been our best performing divisions. There were times when we got a little too diverse, but unlike a larger business, we didn’t have all these different people that we could leverage. There were just a couple people in the office, so the business depended on us.

Rall: Yes. I think coming out of college with student loans, consulting definitely allowed me to pay some of those off and build savings in order to acquire the business. Also, as an associate in consulting, you're expected to learn things very quickly. There’s no six months of training to get to the first step. When you're working 70-plus hours a week, you can learn a ton even when the learning curve is very steep. That is very similar to jumping into a small business. For the most part, it's not rocket science, but it is a lot of responsibility and new information. Especially for us, we are trying to grow really fast, and so we can't afford to say, “Okay, well let's experiment with this for two years, and then we'll see if there's a better option.”

Green: Is what motivates you as a small-business owner different than what motivated you as a consultant?

Rall: With both professions, there's a financial incentive. But as a small-business owner, there's also this sense of responsibility. You want to perform so that the business does well, and if the business does well, then everyone within it does well. We have 120 employees, and if I'm not performing to peak performance and something goes wrong, then people's jobs are at stake.

Green: How have your career changes affected your identity?

Rall: It's funny. I have a lot of friends from college and from consulting that are either in private equity, or banking, or corporate management—and I'm the guy that runs a window-cleaning company. My friends will call me “the window cleaner.” A lot of my friends respect that, because it's so radically different from the track that most people take when they come out of undergrad. Most people go to consulting or banking for two years, and then business school, and then it's private equity or upper-level management. This couldn't be further from that.

You have people looking up to you and say, “I applaud you for taking that risk.” At the same time, it's just you. You're always worried about, “Okay, am I going to get fined for this? Is this job going to fall through? Is this employee going to leave?” There are so many different risks that are inherent to running a small business, and those are the things that can consume you.

I think the best analogy that I've seen for small-business owners was if you imagine a person riding on the back of a lion, everyone looks at that guy and they say, “Wow, that guy is really brave. He must be really smart. He must be really cool.” And then you switch to the guy who's on the lion. He's terrified, because he's riding a lion. He's not sure when the lion is going to reach around and eat him.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a dog groomer, a pharmacist, and a parking-lot owner.