Why Did So Many Contractors Once Fear ‘This Old House?’

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(This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur)

Nowadays you can’t turn on the TV without stumbling upon some type of home repair show, right?

“House Hunters Renovation.” “Flipping Vegas.” “Love It or List It.” “Rehab Addict.”  These shows are super-popular and pretty darn addictive, particularly to people like me who don’t have much of a social life and can’t hammer two nails into a board without risking a hospital visit. The programs have different stars and locales but they all owe their debts to a much older, groundbreaking show: “This Old House.”

“This Old House” debuted on a local Boston PBS station in 1979 and has since then won 17 Emmy Awards and spawned spin offs, a magazine and a few for-profit websites. It has been, and still is, a simple show where both homeowners and contractors (made up of various hosts over the years starting with Bob Vila) renovate an old house over a period of weeks or sometimes an entire season. “This Old House” was a first of its kind. And yet when it debuted, contractors…well…hated it!

A plumber who appeared on the show during its first year was nervous that trade secrets were being given away. Norm Abram, the master carpenter who soon became a fan favorite, began to get complaints from his fellow contractors. ““Why are you doing this?’ I used to hear that a lot.” Abram said in this 2009 Boston Magazine article. “I felt it was people being insecure.”

But Russell Morash, the program’s creator, got it. He believed that more information is a good thing, and good for business.

“This Old House” gave away something very big and for free: knowledge. Back then there were limited TV channels. Today, chefs share their secrets for making the perfect meal, dog trainers explain how to calm down an excited puppy, wedding dress merchants and fashion designers discuss the art of choosing the right outfit and real estate sales people disclose their secrets to closing a deal. Sure, the hosts of these shows get paid to do this. But they are also hugely benefiting thousands of small contractors, restaurants and service firms because they’re teaching a very important lesson: by educating, you will gain customers.

Although my company sells five software applications, most of our money is made from our services. We setup, customize, migrate data, integrate our products with other systems and train our clients how to best use these tools. And, like “This Old House” we educate. Every month we conduct online training classes for our products. We send out newsletters with tips on how to better use these applications. And each month we do a live in-person training class and meetups on a specific product. We do this for free.

Are there people who attend these things, take back the knowledge and never pay us a dime? Sure. But Abram hit it on the head in the Boston Magazine piece when he said “There are going to be do-it-yourselfers no matter what. For those who aren’t going to do it themselves, isn’t it better that they understand your skill and how much work it actually takes? I think contractors finally got that.”

The contractors that hated “This Old House” did not at first understand this. They viewed the show as a threat. They thought that by giving information away everyone would go and do the work themselves. It would put them out of business! Of course, the opposite happened. People gained an appreciation of just how tough it is to renovate a home and how important it is to hire an expert.

Educate your community. Be free with your knowledge. That model has worked for “This Old House” over the past 39 years, despite many initial objections. It can definitely work for your business too.

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