Making It

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Jim Vagonis wants his new company, Hassle Free Home Services, to build "relationships for life." That's why he offered to bury the hamster.

Small-pet disposal isn't one of the monthly household chores Hassle Free usually performs for its clients. But when Jim learned during a visit that the family's hamster had just died, he dug a hole and presided over the backyard funeral. "I said, 'Does anybody want to say anything?'" Jim recalls, "and the little boy busts out: 'He had a good life. He had a great cage.'"

It's a big change from Jim's previous field of information technology, which he never found very fulfilling, though, he says, "the money was good, and it helped me get my life established." In the fall of 2002, Jim, now 40, took a buyout worth a year's salary, giving him time and capital to come up with a new venture.

A Detroit native who moved to Maryland in 1991, Jim had always enjoyed home improvement and had renovated the Potomac house he shares with his wife, Pat, and three children. But whenever he would call contractors, "It was just an absolute nightmare to get them to come out," he says. "The ones who did come out gave me such a ridiculous price that I wasn't interested." Jim saw an opportunity, and, after surveying neighbors, developed the concept of a one-source service for home-upkeep needs. In January 2003, he started Hassle Free out of his house, with one van, 10 customers and one employee: himself.

For a one-year subscription that costs about $180 a month, Hassle Free handles 26 regular chores, from cleaning furnace filters to repairing caulking. It also tackles a few seasonal tasks (such as installing screens) and handyman jobs (hanging pictures, for example) each month. Other services, such as window washing, can be added a la carte. If something breaks between visits, Hassle Free fixes it (sometimes for an extra fee).

Subscribers range from widows to two-career couples. "This is great for people who are either too busy or are single women like me who don't know how to fix things," says client Andrea Eaton, who knew Jim through their work at the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, where he is a battalion chief.

In spring 2003, Jim added a partner, Mickey Taff, to handle the home improvement work he was turning away. In fall 2004, Hassle Free moved into a small office and warehouse. By late 2006, it had eight workers and 120 regular customers, and was making 500 calls a month. That year, it generated $1 million in revenue.

Starting a business has required "lots of time, lots of effort, lots of not seeing my wife and kids," Jim says. He went without a salary for a while and has run into unexpected costs in areas such as marketing. But in contrast to his information technology job, Jim can't get enough of what he's doing now. "I want to manage 1,000 homes."

Did frustration with the status quo help you come up with a great business idea? E-mail changb@washpost.com.


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