One day in spring 2011, Bryan Ring, left, logged onto the local Stillwater, Minnesota, Craigslist to advertise his lawn care services when another lawn mowing ad caught his eye. It wasn’t the prettiest ad. In fact, it was quite the opposite. For some reason, Ring felt compelled to help the nearby competitor who posted it – a man named Richard Hansen from Woodbury, Minnesota.
With 15 miles between Stillwater and Woodbury, Ring was close enough to help Hansen, but far enough away that he didn’t consider him direct competition. Ring didn’t even service Woodbury, but if Hansen was willing to travel to Stillwater, Ring would share some of his customers. Ring called Hansen, offering him 12 lawn care accounts in Stillwater. When he didn’t hear back, he called again to assure Hansen he didn’t expect kickbacks.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to help somebody out,” Ring says. “This wasn’t to gain money. There was no agenda. It’s just in my nature.”
When he found out Hansen only owned a push mower, Ring also offered to front him a 36-inch commercial walk-behind mower until he could afford to buy it.
“I couldn’t grasp why someone who was capable of handling these jobs wanted to give them away with no strings attached. It didn’t make much sense,” he says. “But I thought if this guy was willing to loan me his equipment to mow his lawns, he trusted me to take care of his customers, so he’s got to be a guy I can trust.”
To smooth the transition, Ring visited many of those 12 accounts personally, and called others on the phone, to explain that another contractor would be mowing their lawns. Initially, customers kept paying Ring Lawn Care, and Ring paid Hansen as he performed the work. Ring checked on the properties regularly to ensure that Hansen performed to his expectations.
Eventually, Ring handed those customers over entirely and Hansen invoiced the accounts himself – at least, until he built up enough business that he could pass those accounts back to Ring.
Ring knows you’re still wondering: Why help a competitor, even a few towns away? He knows that what goes around comes back around. Loaning those 12 accounts was critical to launching Hansen’s Lawn Care, but Ring had no idea it would benefit him, as well, through a new referral network.
Under Ring’s wing.
Hansen started Hansen’s Lawn Care just one season before meeting Ring on Craigslist. Though fairly green in the industry, he brought leadership experience from the military, having served six years of active duty with the United States Air Force, achieving the rank of staff sergeant, and deploying to the Middle East with Operation Iraqi Freedom. He relocated to Minnesota after his military career ended and, with a wife and a newborn daughter to support, sought a career in lawn care.
“Not having many accounts, there wasn’t a lot of money coming in to provide for my family,” says Hansen.
When Bryan lent me those jobs, that meant the difference between continuing on with my business versus going to work for someone else.”
Besides the 12 accounts from Ring, Hansen only had a handful of his own that first year. Within the next year, after Ring built his website, Hansen had 45 jobs.
But it wasn’t just the accounts, the equipment or even the website from Ring that helped Hansen grow. It was the mentor-like guidance from Ring, who learned the hard way how to build a business. He has started in 2002 with 20 accounts and a John Deere ride-on mower that he hauled on a tilt-bed boat trailer behind a minivan.
“Watching him model his business and adapting those lessons into my business made a significant difference in how I progressed – the way I’ve seen him interact with customers, the way he answers calls, knowing how to bid jobs properly,” Hansen says. “He told me, ‘You’re not going to encounter as many roadblocks as I did because you’re learning from my mistakes.’”
Circle of referrals.
The serendipitous Craigslist meeting in 2011 was the start of a referral network now comprising seven contractors located just far enough away from Ring’s headquarters to avoid direct competition. They regularly refer business to one other, and have even become close friends.
This model allows each contractor to focus on the services that are most profitable to their business, and to pass on other jobs in a way that builds rapport among local competitors.
“This network has actually helped me keep my passion and drive high. They’ve helped me take my business to a different level because I’m in a position of mentoring,” Ring says. “I didn’t seek out people to build a network; it just happened because good people that I trusted came together in a circle that could actually benefit each other.”