The seasoned freshman

Yard Tender is a startup powering through its first year with strong client relationships and a wave of design/build work.

November 26, 2013
Kristen Hampshire
Design/Build and Hardscape

After flipping houses for a few years and working closely with St. Louis builders and property managers to build or rehab homes, Charlie Winkler realized his favorite part of those jobs was creating outdoor spaces. “I always wanted to open up a landscape company, but I never pulled the trigger on it,” says Winkler, who is partner with Gregory Iverson in Yard Tender, a venture they launched in March 2013.

Winkler says he has been mowing lawns since he could walk (or close to it). His uncles all worked contracting jobs, and he always appreciated the hard, honest work – and results. It’s gratifying to give clients a final product that increases the value of their homes, something they can enjoy for years.

“The good thing about the St. Louis market is that there are a lot of people who are on the rebound economically and are still nervous, so they don’t want to sell their homes but they maybe have disposable income they saved since they didn’t get into that bigger house,” Winkler relates. “Instead, they are looking to spend money on making their homes as nice as they can be.”

Winkler and Iverson had a pulse on the market because they were already working in the construction industry alongside builders and property managers. They cultivated those relationships for several years and earned a reputation for getting jobs done, Winkler says.

Why not give the landscaping industry a shot?

Winkler and Iverson bought into a junk removal franchise together – College Hunks Moving and College Hunks Moving Junk – and they learned a lot about starting a business from scratch. “I think that gave us confidence that we could establish a new brand and understand what really goes into putting a company together,” Winkler says, adding that they also decided that they wanted to start a business where they could keep all of the profits rather than surrendering royalties and franchise fees.

So, Yard Tender was born. And the business is rounding out its first year, on pace to finish at $100,000 in revenue. “We were extremely busy our first year – that’s the best problem you can have when you open the doors on a brand-new anything,” Winkler says.

Starting up. There was nothing fancy about the Yard Tender upstart. The idea was born in the field, while revamping tired old sites into opportunity properties, and while starting a franchise business. The startup capital? Well, that was up to the partners and their personal savings.

“We wanted to keep our costs as low as possible initially, so we really began with the bare necessities in case the company did fail – we were looking at the worst-case scenario,” Winkler says. Practical beginnings meant a truck (wrapped with the logo), a trailer, a website, the legal fees to get an LLC designation and a lawn mower.

“We were growing on our own terms based on what we could handle, so luckily we haven’ had to take any bank loans out or take on additional partners,” Winkler says.

But don’t be fooled by the humble start – Yard Tender was no fly-by-nighter or scrappy upstart. The partners had connections, a reputation, experience with grassroots marketing (Facebook and Twitter were huge), and a track record in business after starting other enterprises together, including the franchise that’s still thriving.

The plan was to start selling a month before the launch in March. “It was just me initially,” Winkler says of the company. His partner held on to another job as a financial safety net. Winkler was the man wearing all hats: sales, production, customer service, you name it. But that wasn’t for long because the business grew fast.

In March, Yard Tender organized some meetings with property managers and builders Winkler and Iverson knew from previous business experience. That month, the company earned its first job. It was fairly simple, but a start – spring cleanup for a residential client. Winkler did the job himself and it took three days. “During that time, I got calls for three more jobs,” he says. And the pace continued like that.

“We have been lucky enough to work all summer long and there were only three days where we didn’t have any work, and that was because I needed to get caught up on bookwork and invoicing and doing estimates,” Winkler says. As of October, Yard Tender had about $40,000 in work to finish for the year and was estimating six figures in the books by year-end.

During the season, Winkler brought on a few other workers, who specialize in the growing niche that Yard Tender is pursuing: patios, decks and hardscaping, including retaining walls. The firm added manpower and equipment as its income allowed.

The good problem: Getting so busy so fast. The fallback to this “problem”: Dealing with accounting – and the business part of the business. Winkler knew from his franchise experience that he needed to reel in Yard Tender’s financial processes. But the work was flowing in faster than he could keep up with in the back room.

“We thought we’d have more time to get organized; we figured we’d spend some time in the field doing the work and we’d have free time to get things in order,” Winkler says.

The plan: Get the work and drive the sales – because that was the first concern. But since that component came quite quickly, the back-end of the business fell into catch-up mode. “Make sure you have a good invoicing system and accounting program that will work for your company’s needs,” Winkler advises, hindsight.

He went through some trial and error with accounting systems before he settled on an industry-focused format. Then there was a lot of midnight oil burned to get invoicing out and payments settled while days were jammed with jobsite responsibilities. (Again, Winkler says, this is a good problem.)

Building momentum. Now that Yard Tender spent a summer getting seasoned, Winkler and Co. have identified a niche to focus on as the firm expands. About 15 percent of the work Yard Tender does is maintenance. The rest is installation, and increasingly larger jobs like patios and retaining walls – outdoor living spaces. That’s the sweet spot Winkler wants to tap.

“When we started out, our target customer was, to be pretty vague, the residential homeowner,” Winkler says. “That still really is our target, but we have modified our services.”

This year, Yard Tender offered lawn maintenance from mowing to cleanups, snow removal, and projects like building patios and decks. As the business grew beyond Winkler’s manpower, he brought on professionals with experience in hardscaping and installation. Moving forward, Winkler wants to go after larger installation jobs – and the market exists in St. Louis, he says.

As for the other services Yard Tender might back off on a bit, Winkler says he’ll form partnerships with area firms that provide services like irrigation, mowing and “everything else we are not going to do.” The words Winkler uses are “referral partnership,” and, in fact, that is how Yard Tender has grown so quickly in a season – by good, old-fashioned word of mouth.