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Humor in the landscape

Design/Installation

Beyond the catchy name, entrepreneur Jan Bills is building three compelling brands while filling market niches for specialty landscape/gardening and women’s work wear.

Kristen Hampshire | September 26, 2013

Jan Bills pulls up at the nursery and lowers the convertible top of her Volkswagen Beetle so she can pile plant stock into the backseat, the foliage busting out in all directions. She reels the top back down, now it’s closed, and off she goes to a client’s to install annuals or execute the plantings specified in her plan.

That was how Two Women and a Hoe operated seven years ago when Bills launched the Detroit, Mich.-based firm.

“The wholesaler used to laugh at me all the time in that convertible,” says Bills. “They don’t laugh at me anymore.”

Today, the design/build and maintenance outfit has a small fleet of trucks emblazoned with the catchy name. (“We get tons of attention from it,” Bills laughs.)

The business has grown every year, even through the recession, and Bills employs nine part-time field personnel and a full-time designer. She hit a quarter-million last year. Compare that to when she started the business in August 2006 when she brought in about $8,000 for the remainder of the year.

“My brother used to tell me, ‘Can’t never could,’” Bills says. “That is my mantra in my business.”

Bills’ late brother inspired her to start Two Women and a Hoe. Bills was working her way up what she thought was the ideal career ladder as the human resources director at a law firm. She had been in the position for well over a decade when her brother suggested that they start a business together. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs – my parents owned and managed restaurants for most of my life,” Bills relates. She had toyed with the idea of doing something on her own, too, but her stable position at the attorneys’ office was too valuable to risk.

Then Bills’ brother suffered a massive heart attack in 2006 and passed away. He was 49. “I decided I would do my own thing,” she says, inspired by her brother’s dream to own a business. The siblings were just 18 months apart and shared a close relationship.

Bills did some soul searching and realized her “ideal” career was stifling. “Even though it was a great job, I thought, ‘I’m dying on the vine here,’” she says. “What I knew well was gardening, and I love being outdoors, so it made so much sense to me to start a landscape company,” she says.

Bills acquired three trademarks in 2006: One for Two Women and a Hoe, and the brands Green Hoe and Garden Hoe. She wasn’t exactly sure how she would use those trademarks, but she wanted to put them “on hold” for the future.

Now she’s developing a line of work wear using the Garden Hoe brand and has plans for a boutique of organic goods under the Green Hoe label. Meanwhile, her core landscaping business continues to flourish as she focuses on what makes her company unique in the market: attention to detail, a true gardener’s touch and personal service (with a sense of humor, of course).

“I love my small business – I am mixing work with pleasure,” Bills says of living out her passion.

Starting smart. Bills is driving to the office of the secretary of state in Michigan to get the title changed on a truck she’s donating to Kars 4 Kids. She’s got some windshield time to talk about her small business and how the creative brand she created has blossomed. Usually, she’s in the field. “I don’t ask my employees to do anything I won’t do,” she says. “I’m right there with them, and I don’t ever want to lose that.”

Bills isn’t so sure about the concept that to grow the business successfully she needs to step out of the field. In fact, she has no intention of doing that. “I have to be out there – I have to make sure I’m delivering on my promise to clients,” she says. “I have great employees, but this is not their business.” And she emphasizes this reality.

So, Bills is on every job to start it and she’s on site to ensure it is complete, to specification. “That’s my blood, sweat and tears out there,” she says of her business and why you won’t find her parked behind a desk in the office.

But then, Bills is also content with the scale of her operation. She hit a quarter-million last year and is on pace to match that revenue mark again this season. She runs a lean, focused operation that she methodically planned before she plowed into Two Women and a Hoe fulltime.

In fact, she planned her exit before she even launched the business. “Having an HR and business background was really huge for me,” she says. “It’s really important to keep your eyes on the numbers and know what the business is doing. I am debt-free. I did not go into debt to start the business – that is something I said I would never do. I did not go out and buy big, gorgeous trucks and tons of equipment that I still have to pay for in the winter.”

Bills purchased her first truck off of eBay for $2,700 while she was working her job at the law firm. “I would service clients in the evenings, on weekends, during vacation, and I built the business slowly – and then I knew it was time to go…” she says.

Her focus: establishing a strong core of customers and earning their trust by delivering on promises. Also, Bills has grown by being a “yes girl” and expanding her original maintenance practice into design/installation, and whatever else clients ask her company to do. “If I have a client that needs their gardens cleaned up and we need to put a four-person crew on the property for an hour, I’ll take the job,” she says.

That said, Bills is careful not to fill her plate too full. “We are really swamped and I did have to turn down a lot of business this year,” she says. “I always want to be able to give service with that personal touch because that is a win-win for us and our clients,” she says. “And, I always want to be the face of the company.”

Cultivating a brand. Bills always wants to stay on site, in the thick of field operations. But she is also passionate about the financial freedom, personal satisfaction and empowerment she gains from running her own small business. She thought that franchising Two Women and a Hoe might allow other women to experience that same gift.

“I just adore my small business, which is why I wanted to franchise because, initially, I thought, ‘I want this to be available for all women,’” Bills says. “I want them to be able to do their own thing.”

Bills received a $5,000 grant from a Michigan project to jumpstart small businesses in the state. She applied online and presented her idea to franchise the Two Women and a Hoe concept. Her mentor was the founder of Garden Fresh Gourmet, which makes specialty chips and salsa. After working alongside her mentor, she realized that franchising was not the answer for expanding her brand, or her business.

“He told me that franchising involves a lot of hand-holding and once you get a franchisee, you are stuck with them – once the toothpaste comes out of the tube, you can’t put it back in,” Bills says. “He is a smart, savvy business man who grew his company to over $100 million in 10 years. I respect him. I didn’t need to hear that advice twice.”

Bills’ mentor turned her on to the idea of developing one of her other brands – and so Bills began exploring the concept of creating work wear for women under the Garden Hoe trademark she had been sitting on for the past seven years.

“There is no work wear for women out there today in the green industry that is practical,” she says, adding that she is in the process of working with a designer to develop garden pants.

So, Bills went back to give her report, and rather than sharing positive findings about franchising, she asked for another grant because she wanted to take the business in a different direction. “Never in their history did someone come back for their update with a whole different idea,” Bills says. “They loved Two Women and a Hoe. They loved the brand. I think they know there’s something there. …”

Bills will give a fashion show presentation to the board soon – she’ll hire models to show off the Garden Hoe work wear designs. It’s a Shark Tank situation where she has a few minutes to pitch her plan for further funding.

Bills is excited about what’s next for her Garden Hoe ventures – she’s living a dream that her brother inspired her to make a reality and her family essentially trained her to do through their lifetime of running family businesses.

“When I see my trucks with my name on it, I get tickled all over again – it’s the best thing in the world,” she says. “I don’t take any aspect of running my business for granted.”

Bills is the woman with the hoe – and the other woman she pays tribute to in her company name is her mom. “My mother was my inspiration – she is the ‘other’ woman,” she shares. Want to see pictures? Go to twowomenandahoe.com and click on the boutique section. “Those pictures are my mother’s – this whole thing started out very vintage-inspired,” Bills says of the tone of her business, and perhaps the old-fashioned work ethic, too. “She passed away in 1998 and she was my inspiration.

“So when people ask me, ‘Who is the other?’ it is my mother, even though she is deceased. And the ‘hoe,’ how could you resist it? It’s a give me!”

For more on Bills, read Growing a Social Media Presence and Shine a Light.
 

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