Blank canvas

Features - Cover Story

Brandon Serpette had no experience with landscaping but decided to take the leap anyway.

March 31, 2017

Anna, Brandon and 18-month-old Aidan braved freezing temperatures for this photo shoot in a unit where Brandon stores his equipment.
Photos by Ackerman + Gruber

“Oh, I just need a mower, a few items, and boom, I can start making money.”Those were the thoughts swirling through Brandon Serpette’s brain as he pondered a career running a landscaping company.

But that all changed after a few weeks in business.

“I don’t want to call it a nightmare,” says the 30-year-old owner of 3 Bears Landscaping, “but goddamn it was a nightmare.”

And the problems began immediately.

“Everything’s got to get delivered so you’re talking to your vendors and you’re trying to figure out how much mulch you need,” he says. “We need 12 yards of mulch, but I only said we needed 4. You learn as you go.”

Barking dogs.

Serpette had a steep learning curve since he had no experience in landscaping before launching 3 Bears. He did have experience owning a business when he lived in Seattle and operated a dog walking company.

He chose landscaping because he was intrigued by the ease of entry into the industry.

So, when he and his wife, Anna, moved to Minnesota, where she grew up, Serpette took the opportunity to start the company in March of 2015 with the help of Anna, who was two months pregnant with the couple’s son, Aidan, and working two full-time jobs.

“Even though I knew he would do whatever it took to be successful and support his family, I am the play-it-safe type so there was a certain level of anxiety on my part – especially since I knew that starting a family has enough uncertainties of its own,” she says.

By April, 3 Bears had a few mowing jobs, worked on marketing materials, handed out flyers door-to-door and developed his company’s website. Anna handled monthly accounting and, when she could, assisted Brandon when issues arose.

He didn’t get his first hardscape installation job until October of that year. And he needed it. He already had three employees on the payroll. He secured that job via an app called Next Door, where he would look for people asking for recommendations on patio work.

“That really jump-started stuff because it was all word of mouth basically,” he says.

Growth problems.

As jobs came in, Serpette began to realize how difficult it is to find reliable employees.

The three employees who were with him on his first installation job barely made it a season. He still relies on Craigslist and referrals for workers, and now has eight employees, including two new ones this season. To help retain employees, he will pay for their education like classes with the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute. Those who execute what they’ve learned will see pay raises.

While Anna says the rapid growth was a good problem to have, she was doing her best to keep up with back office tasks.

“For a while it was a struggle for me to try to stay afloat with all the new projects and make sure the business was properly set up from a legal standpoint, especially since I was trying to do it all in my spare time,” she says.

With the growth, Serpette was shocked by the amount of management he had to do. With his dog walking business, he only had to manage himself (and the dogs). But now with employees and large amounts of money coming in, he was being pulled in a lot of directions.

“That money is not yours,” he says. “It’s the business’s and you have to pay your vendors, and you have to pay your employees.”

Through the ups and downs of the first year, Serpette gained experience and things began to settle down, but he is still trying to grasp bidding. He leaned on a friend who had some experience in landscaping, who suggested charging $50 a man hour, but Serpette still didn’t feel comfortable with that number.

“You talk to guys that have been in the business for 25 years and they say, ‘This is the price per square feet we charge.’ And that can work as long as you know where your sliding curve goes to,” he says. “It’s like, how easy is a Bobcat to get in here and stuff like that.”

Serpette spends a lot of time studying the details of jobs (he learned how to measure from his father, who was a carpenter) and keeping good records to get the price right.

“I’ll just sit there at the job and sit there and stare at it for a half hour and just think through everything,” he says. “Write down every little thing that we’re going to do.”

All in one spot.

Serpette is focusing on hardscape installation but keeps maintenance to try out new employees and because it’s good cash flow.

“It’s nice to have lawn maintenance because when those new employees come in, it gives me an opportunity to evaluate them if I really want to spend the money on them with education and future development,” he says.

Focusing on hardscaping will mean he’ll have to decline some maintenance and softscape jobs.

“But it sucks because I’m losing business,” he says. “Or I bid it a little higher and maybe they’ll grab it. I don’t want to bid it too high though because then they’re never going to ask us for any work in the future.”

Serpette doesn’t want the company to get “too big” so maybe a few “nos” are OK, but he does envision growth in the next five years.

Anna is down to one part-time job, while serving as the bookkeeper and accounts manager. At the end of 2016, the company hit $450,000 and he hopes to hit $1 million by the end of his fourth year.

“Right now, I’m all mobile,” he says. “Our trucks are parked in a fenced-in parking lot with other contractors. “Two blocks down the road, we have a storage unit that we drive into, which is nice. It’s all locked up. My office is at a different location. It all works; it actually saves us a little bit of money, but it’d be nice to have my own office within the shop.”