Josh Levin was raised on the wrong side of the rails. An unexpected call from his future mother-in-law – as well as his own fierce determination – led him to start Empowered Electric, which has what is probably the coolest Instagram of any electrical contractor. –As said to Zoë Henry
My mother got pregnant with me when she was 16. I had several stepfathers. They treated her badly. She did her best, but she had to make decisions based on survival. The question was not, “Is this a caring and loving person?” but “Does he have a house, so we don’t end up in a homeless shelter?”
Once we ate pork rinds for a week, because we couldn’t afford to buy groceries. Another time we fished in the pond out back to catch and eat the bluegills there – after our water was turned off.
I never felt safe or secure. No matter how well I did in school or in sports – and I was on the varsity wrestling team – I always saw myself as the poor dirty kid. To this day, this mentality is difficult to change.
I became an electrician because of my childhood sweetheart, Bridget. When I was 20, I knew I wanted to marry her. But I asked his father for his blessing, and he said, “No way.”
I needed to get a stable job. I started by answering the phone at a pharmacy hotline. Then Bridget’s mother called me, asking if I would consider becoming an electrician because she could help me get an interview. I gave my two weeks notice on the spot.
In my mind, an electrician was the closest thing to a real-life Power Ranger – the helmet and tool belt. I had no experience, but I was crazy about the girl, and I was going to work like crazy.
When I started, I sucked. Wrong. My first day, it took me two hours to put in three corks. It’s a to joke. So I volunteered to work late in exchange for lessons on how to wire a transformer or fix light fixtures. By my second year with the company, I had my first job as a foreman, at an athletic complex at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. By then Bridget and I were married and she had given birth to our first son.
But I didn’t like how this company treated its workers. We had very little vacation – a week at most – and I felt pressured by management not to take it. When Bridget went into labor with our second child, I had to decide whether I would be home for labor or the actual birth. I decided to go to work that day, knowing that our son might be born without me. He wasn’t, but Bridget would never let me go through that.
Building people talk about a labor shortage, but I don’t see it. It’s not that Gen Y can’t work hard, or that Gen Z would rather play video games than install conduit. I learned firsthand that you don’t have to have experience to be a great electrician. The real shortage is good construction companies.
Thus, in 2015, I launched Empowered Electric. At that time, Bridget and I had four children, and I had to earn money from day one. I had a few jobs lined up before, but most of the time I was knocking on company doors and laughing at myself. (I’m used to it. In high school, classmates made fun of me for being too poor to buy wrestling shoes – until a friend gave me an old pair, I wrestled in socks. ) I once walked into a general contractor’s office and announced that I had an employee and that I had been in business for three days–and that they should hire me.
They said no. And I called the vice president every month for nine months. He finally asked us to wire up a hair salon for just $5,000. But today, this contractor is one of our biggest customers.
Thought running a typical commercial electrical business my whole life honestly makes me want to vomit. Most companies are looking for highly qualified people who will work for low pay. I am looking for anyone motivated. So I turned to Instagram.
It’s laughable how construction companies underuse social media. Early on, we hired a camera crew to do badass (and shareable) commercials for us with killer music. We showed dope restaurants with guys spinning pipes, smiling and having a good time. Some candidates would call us outright, but I also spent a lot of time analyzing who had viewed our content and cold calling to see if they wanted to join. Our last 11 hires were from Instagram or Facebook; about half of our staff have been poached on social media.
To grow as I did, I know that for most kids ages 12 to 17, the biggest fear isn’t the prom or having unstylish shoes. It’s employment. That’s why I take risks with people with unusual backgrounds and spend a lot of money training them. We recently hired a chef. He’s one of the best apprentice electricians I’ve seen in my life.
Of course, not all hires was perfect. Once, our foreman on a big restaurant project just didn’t show up, three days before the opening. So I put on my tool belt and took control of myself.
We work hard to retain our employees: we granted leaves before having formal leave policies. We purchased counseling sessions for a worker struggling with his marriage. When we were only four people, someone’s daughter had to be taken to the hospital and he had to stay with her for several days. I dropped her a check for the whole week – and left some candy in her mailbox for the little girl.
Today, we have nearly 40 employees. In 2018, we generated $3.6 million in revenue and we’re on track to make at least $7 million this year. I’m still prone to depression from my childhood, and there were a lot of dark nights. A part of me is constantly looking over my shoulder, thinking that nothing good ever lasts. But I’m still going to wake up, take a shower, put on my fucking jeans and get to work.
Bridget’s father finally proud of me. He even wants me to give him a job in the Empowered warehouse. Eventually he will, but not yet.
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Excerpt from the September 2019 issue of Inc. Magazine