This week on The Mobile Alabama Business Podcast, we sit down with Doug Johnson with Inspect Mobile. Listen in as we discuss how he started Inspect Mobile, and some common things to look for when purchasing a home!
Produced by Blue Fish
Doug Johnson: My name's Mr. Doug Johnson and I own Inspect Mobile.
Marcus Neto: Gosh, the Mr. Doug. I love you Doug. You crack me up. This man, I've known him for a number of years now, has actual business cards that say "Mr. Doug" on them. So we have to start with where did the "Mr." come from?
Doug Johnson: Actually, when I was in college, I worked part-time at St. Ignatius Church and School, and just part of the thing is the kids addressed everybody by a surname. So it's Mr. Doug, because I was just the maintenance department taking out the trash, but the teachers would be like, "Okay, kids, say hi to Mr. Doug."
Marcus Neto: So it just stuck.
Doug Johnson: Yeah. So I was ten-
Marcus Neto: So now you have business cards that you hand out that say "Mr. Doug."
Doug Johnson: Yeah.
Marcus Neto: It cracks me up. For those of you that don't know Doug, he is a very fun and wonderful individual, and I'm very excited to have him on the podcast today. I'm actually excited because there are a lot of questions in here that I don't know. We've not sat down and had this kind of conversation before. So I think it'll be interesting to hear what you come up with. But to get started, why don't you tell us the story of Doug. Where are you from? Where'd you go to high school? Did you go to college? And anything else that you feel pertinent about your backstory that might paint a picture of who you are?
Doug Johnson: Okay. Yeah. I was actually born in South Florida. About the age of five, we moved to Missouri, the whole family did, and grew up in Central Missouri in Columbia. And then about age 20 we moved down to Mobile. And so I actually went to high school at three different high schools. My first two were all-male boarding schools. My parents did not ship me off to those. I chose to go. At that point in my life I was thinking about joining the priesthood and the seminary life was the avenue. And so I went and was in seminary. Then in college I graduated from the University of South Alabama. Go Jags. Now I'm still a good supporter of them. That brought me to Mobile. But growing up we moved around a lot. My dad was not in the military. People asked me that a lot. He's in insurance, but just was in the position where he could write his own ticket, and when he needed to, he changed jobs and sometimes that included moving the family. So we moved around and brought me to Mobile. My parents now live in Atlanta, and I stayed around.
Marcus Neto: That's funny. Say you went to University of South Alabama, what did you study?
Doug Johnson: Business finance.
Marcus Neto: Okay. So kind of a preparation for owning a business in a little bit of a way.
Doug Johnson: Yeah. And kind of in college I knew I wanted to own a business, but I didn't know what business I was eventually going to own. I thought I was going to be a banker when I graduated.
Marcus Neto: Oh gosh. No slight to bankers. But Doug is not your guy. So you went USA, studied business, and you've gotten some notoriety for making a donation for the new stadium. Were you one of the first to make... I mean it was a fairly significant donation too.
Doug Johnson: And it was actually even before they solicited for private donations at the time. What happened was the city Mobile and the county Mobile were asked to make substantial donations, 10 million dollars each. And the city said, "We're not going to do it. We're not going to spend tax dollars. We have [inaudible 00:03:19] and we're happy with it." And that's a whole nother debate. But as soon as the city said no, I as a private individual decided that I would cast $10,000 towards the building of the new stadium. The very next day the athletic director was on the phone talking to me and we set up a meeting and myself and a couple other friends all donated the first $10,000 each. That's so I was the first private donor.
Marcus Neto: Well I just think anybody that knows Doug knows that he's dry as far as his sense of humor, but he's pretty funny guy. And so I love it because now when you go to a football game or something like that, when you check in, it's Mr. Doug's stadium. It's just little stuff like that that just cracks me up.
Now I want you to go back in time to your first job. This is not your first job after college. This is literally your first job. Tell us what that was and then tell us were there any lessons that you learned from that? Because I find oftentimes those workforce development jobs are instrumental in who we become, but we oftentimes don't look back to see that.
Doug Johnson: So I have an odd first job and an odd job sequence. So you can say, So my first job was about 14 years old and I worked Boy Scout summer camp. We were living at the scout camp and teaching other people how to build fires and those kind of scout skills that you know. I worked that from 14 all the way through 21, 22 years old, every summer. And that was really the only job I had to college, to halfway through college. And then I worked the part-time at the church, and after graduation from college, they made me full-time. But then I just didn't want be a glorified janitor the rest of my life.
So I was looking for something else. And we can get into how I got into home inspections, but when I first started my business, I was no longer working for the church, didn't have any income, and I had my job and I was still trying to market myself, and I went and got a minimum wage job at McDonald's to pay some of my bills. I had roommates, and as a business owner, I had a second job to make things. And luckily in six months I was able to quit that. But at my first job as at the Boy Scout camp, it was learning how to work in a community, and it was... you're living with these people all the time and you can be the young guy and they can learn something from you and you can be the old guy and you can teach something. It was all circular in that and it was a cool little brotherhood.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, it's really cool. But I thank you for throwing that bit in about the McDonald's thing because I think so many people think that they're going to make the decision, start a business, and immediately it's this hockey stick growth that happens.
Doug Johnson: It's not that easy.
Marcus Neto: No, I mean I can't tell you the number of business owners that either have side hustles or that they have a job and their business is their side hustle. And I oftentimes quote, and if you're tired of hearing me say this, like the Chamber oftentimes quotes that there are 30,000-ish micro businesses in Mobile, and those are mostly people that have side hustles. And so it's not to be looked down upon. It's something that you had to do in order to get to where you are today, and small price to pay. Right?
Doug Johnson: Right. And luckily it was six months. So many businesses fail in those first two years, but I was able to put in the hours and turn it into something.
Marcus Neto: Well then we haven't really talked about what Inspect Mobile is, but I'm imagining that people can get what it is. But why don't you tell something? Tell us a little bit about Inspect Mobile and the business that you own.
Doug Johnson: Sure. So in Inspect Mobile, we're a home inspection services company. We help people buying houses, people selling houses, as well as commercial. If you're buying a commercial space, renting it with a triple net lease, those kind of things, we can go in and tell people what's going on with the property. From the roof to the piers, we'll squash your fears and tell you what's going on. But really just go system by system and inspect. We founded Inspect Mobile in April of 2012, so this is our 10-year anniversary year. And started just me, more or less out of my house with a Hyundai Elantra for getting the ladder into the back seat it was on.
Marcus Neto: I was going to say. How did you get a ladder into a Hyundai Elantra?
Doug Johnson: I would pull up to houses and people like, "Do you need to borrow my ladder to look at the roof?" It was something else, and I didn't have the image of the home inspector. And now here we are 10 years later, we just got our fifth inspector on board, we have company vans that are wrapped, and it's a whole nother ballgame.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, you've gotten quite the operation going and I love seeing it. You talked a little bit about having to have a second job, but talk to us about how you started that business. I mean, how did you even decide that inspections was the route that you wanted to go?
Doug Johnson: Sure. And so again, it was just by chance, really. So I learned, while I was working at the church and school, how to install light fixtures, install air conditioners, fix toilets, all that kind of maintenance that you'd see in a commercial structure. And then my best friend bought a house, and he wanted just some can lights in his living room. I was like, well I know how to do that. So I was up there in his attic installed some can lights, did the wiring, and I saw that one of his roof rafters was cracked. And I asked, "Did your home inspector tell you about this? Why didn't you get the seller to fix it?" Well, he's like, "No, my inspector didn't tell me that." He said "I had a couple dead light bulbs and we got them to replace the light bulbs."
Well, my friend and I, we walked around the house, found maybe two or three other little things around the house that could have been improved. And my friend was like, I just paid this guy a few hundred dollars and you told me more for free than this guy did. That's the professional. So he motivated me to go get the education that I needed to be able to get the license and start the business.
Marcus Neto: I was going to say, because I know you have to have a license, so you have to go and take a test and I guess it's score above a 70. Is it similar to all the other tests that the state puts on like that?
Doug Johnson: No, it's out of 800.
Marcus Neto: 800 questions?
Doug Johnson: 800 points. So it's weighted questions, some-
Marcus Neto: Oh 800 points. I was going to say "Golly man, that's a hell of a test."
Doug Johnson: Yeah. A passing's 500 and above. It's crazy.
Marcus Neto: So yeah, that's 60-ish percent or so.
Doug Johnson: Probably. And it's a national home inspector exam put on by a review board that makes the questions and keeps it valid.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, that's cool. And I don't think many people know that much about what it is that you do, and so just find it interesting. I mean guess that's kind of what pushed you in that direction. So I guess you go through the process of formalizing that and getting the licensing and doing all that stuff too.
Doug Johnson: Yeah. And it's fun. I started it with the intent to improve the industry and so I didn't want someone to have that bad inspection experience. And so here I am, I'm on the State Board of Home Inspectors, I'm on the National Board of Home Inspectors, and even just next month I'm leading a class for other home inspectors to help train them so that there isn't that bad experience as often as there was.
Marcus Neto: I'm glad that you threw in your involvement cause I know you do get quite involved with those larger organizations. You just answered my next question, which was do you remember the first time that you inspected a home that you might think that there was something to this and you just provided a perfect answer. So now if you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Doug Johnson: Have a mentor. That's probably the biggest thing. I did not have a good mentor, and probably my first two years would've been easier had I had a local inspector friend that could have helped me. But also, a good CPA, a good lawyer, a good insurance agent. Those three can help keep you out of trouble more than you think. And paying a hundred bucks thousand bucks, well worth it in the business relationship world, because you don't want to be in trouble with the IRS. You don't want to have someone else start an entity in the state with the same business name that's just one little different, and then you can't do anything because you're both the same name now. So you've got to have the right people in your back office per se, to help keep you going.
Marcus Neto: I'm laughing because Randy and I literally... I had a conversation similar to that with Chris Anne from Infinite 30, which was our first podcast that we recorded today. And then Randy and I had another hour long conversation afterwards because he's in a similar situation. He's getting started and I see a lot of good in what he's doing. And so I was just trying to offer him some explanation as to why those people would be good to having your, you said back office. I just said in your board, because I call it an informal board for lack of better terms.
I can't tell you how. It's made a huge difference. As a matter of fact, I don't know that Bluefish would still exist if I had not listened to that advice a couple of years ago.
Especially the banking piece of it, because it's allowed us, having a relationship with a banker. Terry Harbin was the market president for Bank COR South and helped me get into this building, and then also the bank that we bank with, which I won't name because it's not worth, I don't want you banking there. For no other thing than to say they provided me with a line of credit, which has also helped us through this COVID mess, to help salary payments and stuff like that. But yeah, very, very sound advice. Who is the one person that motivates you from the business world?
Doug Johnson: There's not really just a single person, but growing up, my mom's three brothers, my uncles, were running a family business. They run a trophy shop out of Atlanta, Georgia. And so it was kind of cool to see in the entrepreneurial spirit when we're at Thanksgiving dinners as a little eight-year-old, and they would talk shop because they're three guys together all day, and then they'd come to a family gathering. So I'd say my family really helped be a leader and focal point as far as that goes.
Marcus Neto: Is that what kind of inspired you to be an entre- Because you said when you were at USA that you had an idea that that's what you wanted to do.
Doug Johnson: I think that that probably did plant a seed. Yeah. I don't know if it was a direct, "Because they did it, I want to do it," because my dad doesn't own a business. He's just an upper management type guy, and my brother doesn't own a business. He works for a nonprofit out of St. Louis. So it really wasn't so much... because I'm the youngest so I did follow my brother in a lot of things. So I think I did kind of break the trend in my local family.
Marcus Neto: But what was it about being an entrepreneur that was so enticing to you?
Doug Johnson: I want to say it was the freedom probably. But then, on the outside you see freedom.
Marcus Neto: I know we're laughing now, because it's like, well there is some freedom but man, it's like a ball and chain wrapped around your neck sometimes.
Doug Johnson: There's that joke now. Yeah. I love my eight-to-five job to have freedom and now I work 24 hours a day.
Marcus Neto: Exactly. It's like whether you go to Poor Baby, because I know we both love Kenny and Poor Baby is our favorite restaurant. Whether we go there and we run into people and oh guess what? Now he's talking about business.
Doug Johnson: Yeah, it's a networking type event. Or you try to take a vacation, you're still answering your phone, you're still checking emails. And when my employees go out on vacation, I tell the office staff, forward their calls to me, let me handle it. Let them enjoy vacation. I don't want them to be stressed like I am.
Marcus Neto: Yeah, no I can hear that. And good on you for as a boss that you do that for them because nobody's doing it for you.
Doug Johnson: Exactly.
Marcus Neto: Are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward?
Doug Johnson: Yeah. I don't really read books. I'm probably like the worst-read person you've ever met. I think I've finished two books in my life. Cheated a lot on essays when I was in high school on literature stuff. Just wasn't my thing. But I do enjoy some podcasts. Karen Simmons has that little business podcast. I've listened to her.
Marcus Neto: Cheers.
Doug Johnson: Cheers to Business. And I think part of the name Cheers was the alcohol, and I definitely like to relax, and that that's a simple way. And when you're the business owner, sometimes that's the thing you need to go to and that gets you to the next day. But there's some people in my industry that this group wouldn't know, but Mike Casey is a big home inspector and he's been doing it 35, 40 years out of San Diego, California. And just really give some good inspiration, I'll put it that way.
Marcus Neto: Just out of curiosity, when you look to him, is it for the business knowledge that he has or for the inspection knowledge?
Doug Johnson: It started out the inspection knowledge and it was amazing what I could learn from him about roofing or air conditioners. But then when you really get deep into it, his business knowledge is uncomparable. He helped the state of Alabama write some training education recently, and so I got to work with him on those. He's now the expert witness for a lot of lawsuit and litigation stuff, and the knowledge that he has brought to me on the business side from that. We talked before this podcast about wearing body cameras. A lot of the CYA stuff that is out there, I learned from him and people like him as far as the saving the business from being in a bad situation.
Marcus Neto: Yeah. Just real quick, we were talking about the fact that he and all of his employees wear body cameras when they go out to houses just to make sure that if they fall off a roof then they know why. If the homeowner complains about something being broken then they can go back and review the tape and all that stuff. It's just a way of protecting them and protecting the homeowner and the folks that they're working for as well.
But how cool, that that came full circle, that you looked up to this guy and then ended up working with him on some legislation that moved things forward. And it's interesting because I find the same thing for me. I've been doing this for a while too, and it's like those folks that I used to go to, conferences and see and talk to them and on Twitter or in chat rooms about web development and stuff like that, those are now the people that also run agencies. And it's like, it's nothing for me to send them an email and say, "Hey, what tool are you using for XYZ, or how are you handling this, or do you know a good lawyer for intellectual property, or something along those lines. And it's nice to have those folks as a resource to go back to.
Now, you mentioned, or you said something just a minute ago. Would you have considered--and I'm going to go back to your schooling--would you have considered yourself a good student or would... Because I wasn't. I hated school.
Doug Johnson: I was always an A and B student.
Marcus Neto: You were.
Doug Johnson: And in my first high school, I was in the top two of the class. Now there were 10 people in the class, but I was in the top two.
Marcus Neto: About 20%.
Doug Johnson: Yeah. But no, I was a decent student. I really was. And it's funny because when you switch schools, sometimes you have to take classes that are very similar, but they fit into the different box for the next school. And so I just got better and better. And then when I switched colleges from Missouri to come down here, I went from a solid B student to a solid A student.
Marcus Neto: Because you'd already had all the material.
Doug Johnson: Some of those intro classes, they just don't transfer. So you've got to take it again. So here we are.
Marcus Neto: I'm looking back now and I don't think I've ever said this on a podcast. But looking back now, I wasn't a very good student but I was really good at facilitating conversation in the classroom, and I learned that teachers love that, because there's nothing worse for a teacher than standing up there and feeling like kids don't give a shit about what you're teaching them.
And so oftentimes if you just participate and you've read enough of the book to maybe even get conversation started and that's pretty much it, I learned that what happens is they may not realize it, but when you go to write that essay, they're going to give you the benefit of the doubt because you were the one that facilitated and they're assuming, well you must have read some portion of the book so they're going to give you a better grade. But I was a horrible student. Not horrible D's and F's, but I just didn't give a shit. I just wanted to get out.
This is how I learn. I learn by talking to people, I learn by doing. And I do now, because I have a choice of what I read, I get something out of it. But back then, ask me to read some chapters on algebra or something like that and it's just like, no, please just put a bullet in my head please.
Doug Johnson: My first two high schools, they had mandatory study hall. So it really did institute the studying. But I was happy to go to class, but I wasn't happy to do the homework. And so soon as I could graduate and be done with all school, I was so excited. Half of my friends went back to school and have master's degrees now, and I'm just like, peace out, I'm not doing any more education. But now with my job, we're required to do continuing education, and you never stop learning, and you're fooling yourself if you think otherwise.
Marcus Neto: And that is key. Understanding that you never stop learning. Especially as a business owner, there's always something that you need to learn. What is the most important thing that you've learned about running a business?
Doug Johnson: Just because you get it wrong doesn't mean you're failing. You can always overcome something, and it's how you learn from that negative and turn it into a positive that gets you to that next week, that next year.
Marcus Neto: If you just flip how you look at it, it's not a failure. It's a learning experience. And I've always told people, failure is when whatever it is that you didn't do correctly breaks you. If it breaks you and makes you stop, then you failed. But if it just causes you some discomfort and you grow from it, then it's a learning experience.
Doug Johnson: When I first decided to bring on additional employees, because I was a one man shop for five, seven years, something like that, I hired two guys at the same time, trained them, and then within six months, one of them left. Well, my job is very, very heavy in the knowledge in your head, and then there's the tools. So I spent a lot of money educating somebody, my time training, and a set of tools for a guy that I now had to start back over from zero. And I did the calculation, it's roughly a two year payback period to get the money back out of my guy, and then here I was having to start over, and it took me two years to feel better about that money because I was out for those two years. And now it's not as big of a hit, but when you're one going to three and then back to two, you're ramping up your marketing, you're spending all this money, and then that's just sitting on the shelf.
Marcus Neto: That is definitely a rough spot to be in. And I used to kind of scratch my head because when we first started this podcast, I mean it's been five years now or something like that, when we first started this podcast, I would hear people or business owners come on and then they would say people are the most difficult thing that they deal with.
At the time I was like, "I don't understand, I don't understand." But then as my organization started getting bigger, it was like, "Okay, I get it." And it's not necessarily because people are inherently difficult. It's just that life is difficult, and anytime you're dealing with 10, 20, a hundred, 2000, 200,000, whatever people, it can get convoluted at times. And this is a perfect example of hiring somebody and then having them leave. Most people are like, "Oh well he just left." And it's like, yeah, but you don't understand. All the time invested, all the marketing dollars that went into it, all the opportunity lost. We have a couple of open positions now that we need people in, and every day that they're not in that position is money lost. Those are the things as business owners that you think of. But how do you like to unwind?
Doug Johnson: The simplest thing I do is just go to Poor Baby, especially on a Tuesday night, and find the bottom of a bottle of wine.
Marcus Neto: There you go. What's your favorite bottle of wine?
Doug Johnson: I really like a good cabernet.
Marcus Neto: Today. What's your favorite bottle of wine today? Cabernet.
Doug Johnson: Yeah. And from Napa about the year 2015. Those are my criteria.
Marcus Neto: You don't have a favorite vineyard or anything like that then? No.
Doug Johnson: No.
Marcus Neto: And what's the special on Tuesday? I've been going there forever and I didn't know they even had specials.
Doug Johnson: So here's the funny part. Way back when Poor Baby was still a baby, they had a special on Tuesdays and there's half-price bottles of wine. And so I just got in the habit of Tuesday was my day. And I found that when I didn't go on Tuesday, I felt unfulfilled. Something was missing in my week. Even though that special is long gone, don't expect to get that deal, I still go back on-
Marcus Neto: Kenny would kill us.
Doug Johnson: By the way, everybody.
Marcus Neto: People showing up on Tuesday, like yeah, I'll have the special, one that Doug told us about on the podcast.
Doug Johnson: Yeah, we heard on the radio.
Marcus Neto: Yeah. This isn't a commercial for Poor Baby, but we both love that restaurant, because I think what Kenny has done there is he's created a Cheers.
Doug Johnson: Very much.
Marcus Neto: So when you walk in, it's a lot of the same faces. Everybody's happy to see the other person. You'll have some conversations. And it's funny because we went there, Chrissy and I went there the other night by ourselves. When we walked in, a friend walked in immediately following us. He joined us because we were like, "Hey, we haven't seen you for a while. Come sit with us." And so he sat with us, Glen, and... Glen went to go leave with us, and an hour later we walked out of Poor Baby. He left, and then an hour later we texted him and said, "Hey, we were just leaving. And he was like, What? Because there were that many people there that we knew that we just needed to stop and say hello to.
Doug Johnson: Every time.
Marcus Neto: It's a really cool thing. Tell people where they can find out more information about you and Inspect Mobile.
Doug Johnson: Sure, yeah. My biography is on my website, inspectmobile.com. Or you can just go to checkwithdoug.com.
Marcus Neto: There you go. And Facebook, Inspect Mobile?
Doug Johnson: Yeah, Facebook and Instagram, Inspect Mobile.
Marcus Neto: Okay. Very good. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Doug Johnson: If someone's giving you advice, listen to it and then make your own decision.
Marcus Neto: There you go. And call an inspector before you buy a home.
Doug Johnson: Always.
Marcus Neto: Yes, please. Well, Doug, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you.
Doug Johnson: Thank you very much.