My Business Beginning: Tips from the Trenches
Cars have always been a huge part of my life. My dad was an engineer and marketing manager at General Motors in Detroit. My paternal grandfather also worked as a Firestone engineer, and my maternal grandfather owned a service station in Dexter, Michigan. My family’s life was steeped in car culture, and we spent our free time going to car shows and events like AutoRama and the Detroit North American Auto Show.
My dad always drove a new car, and he made sure my mom had a newer vehicle, too. I learned at an early age from my dad’s example the value of preserving and protecting your vehicles. They are, after all, one of your most expensive purchases. My dad was very into washing and polishing his cars, and he took a lot of pride in their appearance. One of my earliest memories is handwashing his car outside in January—in freezing cold Michigan! We took our own buckets with warm water and soap to the car wash—any old-school car guy will appreciate this—despite the “No Bucket Washing” signs posted in the car wash. My parents were pretty strict, so I knew if we were breaking a rule, it must be important.
As I watched my dad work hard and succeed, I was eager to follow in his footsteps. I launched my first business at just eight years old—mowing my neighbors’ lawns. A short time after that, I realized an opportunity to grow my business, and I started to clean and detail my customers’ cars. I continued running my business through high school, figuring I was outearning my peers who were making minimum wage flipping burgers at fast-food restaurants.
Education, especially business education, was important in our family. My dad was an avid library-goer and reader. I remember there were always business periodicals like the Wall Street Journal in our home.
My first car was a 1985 Pontiac 6000 that had been owned by a group of nuns. There was something special about that car; it felt like it was protected. I buffed it out and removed the oxidation until it looked like new. In high school, the closest I ever got to a fistfight was when a classmate teased me about my car’s tires being too glossy. The rich kids might have had brand-new, custom-lowered trucks, but I kept my four-door nun-mobile as clean as possible.
After high school, I attended my dad’s alma mater, Kettering University, a private nonprofit STEM university in Michigan, majoring in industrial engineering, which is a very practical, marketable blend of engineering and business. Later, it would turn out to be the perfect fit for running my own business.
During my college years, I would co-op for Ford, and then I worked at several different companies in Michigan. My dad had relocated to Pennsylvania, and I moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2008 to be closer to family. I got a job at B. Braun Medical as a senior staff engineer. That’s where I met my wife, AnnMarie.
Even though I enjoyed working for large companies, the entrepreneurial spirit was still within me. They say, “Do what you love,” and so it seemed logical to start a business working with cars.
I identified a need in the Lehigh Valley for paint protection when my wife and I wanted to put it on our own vehicle. Our cherished Cadillac with 150,000+ miles was pockmarked by paint dings from all the highway driving. Before trading it in, I tried to touch up the paint, quickly realizing that was impossible. I thought to myself, “I’m going to put paint protection on my next vehicle.”
Next, we bought a Chevy, and I bought a DIY paint protection kit. It was my first try. It wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, but years later when I traded the Chevy in, I got top dollar! Even a subpar paint protection job by an amateur had paid off. And at the time, I was commuting from Coopersburg to Reading each day, logging more than 75,000 miles in 2½ years.
Along the way, my wife and I had a less-than-great experience with another paint protection shop. I spent a considerable amount of money to have the protection applied to her 2015 Ford Escape, but when I returned to the shop to pick up my vehicle, they had parked it outside in the bad weather! I understood my car wasn’t the most valuable car they had in their shop, but my car is the most valuable car that I have. It’s important to me. That reinforced to me the importance of treating every customer like they are your best customer.
That experience reinforced my belief that there was an opportunity for a paint protection business in the Lehigh Valley. So, I began to research starting my own company. My wife and I created a business plan, and we decided to boot-strap it and finance it ourselves. In 2016 and 2017, I went to many training sessions, and I began working on my family’s and friends’ cars to gain experience. Applying paint protection is an art, and I needed experience to become proficient.
In 2018, I set up my paint protection business in a tiny two-bay garage. The plan was that I’d continue working full-time while growing the business on the side, working nights and weekends.
The fact that I worked on cars nights and weekends turned out to be a fantastic benefit to my customers. Many of them were grateful to drop their cars off on Friday after work and have them back Sunday night. You can almost always turn a negative into a positive! The business grew, and soon we had outgrown the two-bay shop. We signed a three-year lease on a larger garage, full of optimism.
Then my life went sideways.
A week after signing that lease, I was laid off. My wife simply said, “Go make your business work.”
So, I poured my time and energy full-time into Immaculate Paint Protection. The next few months were hard—business was slow. When the money wasn’t coming in, I put in sweat equity. I spent any idle time cleaning and painting my shop until it was every bit as clean and shiny as the cars we protect.
The next few months were highly variable—one would be good, the next bad. Looking back, I believe that’s just part of the journey. As an entrepreneur, if you’re not brought to tears a couple times, you might not be reaching hard enough. I remember sitting on my back porch one night with my wife, with tears streaming down my face.
When things are dark, reach out and ask for help. I called the 3M rep, who was really good to me in those dark days. He introduced me to a couple who owned a paint protection business in Massachusetts—one of his largest buyers. They invited me to visit. I knew it would be a valuable experience, but I really had to scrape together the money to get there. I had about $200 to spend, so I stayed in a sketchy hotel that cost $100 and used the other $100 to treat the owners to Olive Garden.
It was $100 well spent. They gave me good advice, but even more important, they gave me reassurance.
“I don’t know if my business is going to make it,” I confided.
The owners assured me they had been in the same place eight or nine years ago. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” they advised.
That was a turning point for me. My newfound belief seemed to flip a switch. When I got home, the work started coming in. Each year since then, my business has grown, approximately doubling each year. Today we have a 12-week backlog of jobs!
About the author: Bill Fetter’s passion for cars started at an early age, as he loved anything with wheels. Through his childhood, Bill observed his dad’s work as a mechanical engineer turned marketing manager and proud lifelong employee of General Motors. During high school, Bill honed his passion for cars by hand-washing and detailing his neighbors’ vehicles. Knowing he wanted to be in the automotive industry, Bill earned a degree in Industrial Engineering from Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. He’s worked as an engineer in the automotive manufacturing, medical device, steel industry, and pharmaceutical manufacturing fields.