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 until it’s closed, and off she goes to visit a client.
That was how Two Women and a Hoe operated eight years ago when Bills launched the Detroit-based firm.
“The wholesaler used to laugh at me all the time in that convertible,” Bills says. “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 full and part-time field personnel and a full-time designer. She hit a quarter-million dollars in revenue last year. Compare that to when she started the business in August 2006 and brought in about $8,000 in revenue 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 to what she thought was the ideal career ladder as the human resources director at a law firm. She had been in that industry for more than a decade when her brother suggested they start a business together. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs – my parents owned and managed restaurants for most of my life,” Bills says.
Transparency is important when you’re trying to build a national rep and three brands, “If someone wants to hire me, everything you want to know about me is right there,” says Bills, owner of Two Women and a Hoe in Detroit. “And, I think that’s really important with social media.”
Bills is a serial entrepreneur, and gardening is her passion – and she has a love affair with social media. That is, using social media to drive brand identity. She’s a stickler for running the numbers in her business, and she applies this rule to her social media efforts.
“If you post something and no one gives it a thumbs-up…the numbers are right there,” she says. Here’s some of Bills’ tips shared in her e-course online program called Numbers Don’t Lie and her website socialmediamillionairemakers.com.
1. You design your garden, you design your brand. They say that 80 percent of social media messaging should be “everything else,” and 20 percent should be sales. But Bills is a rule-breaker. “I never sell a thing, it’s a big turn-off,” she says. That tone is just not her personality, not her brand. “Instead, I have positioned myself to be a subject matter authority.”
2. Allow your garden, and brand, to bloom organically. Forget the short-cuts. Bills says a lasting brand (and landscape) must be given the breathing room to flourish over time. Same goes for a brand. “And then it will be allowed to flourish – if you force it, your brand will not be sustainable.”
3. Reduce the weeds (and reads). Forget the 800-word blog post. No one wants to read it, Bills says. “The average person has an 8-second attention span. I have a 3-second attention span. There is a whole group of people who have less of an attention span than that. Be concise about what you are putting out there.”
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.
Bills is the woman with the hoe – and the other woman she pays tribute to in her company name is her mom. “She passed away in 1998 and she was my inspiration,” she says.
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 acquired three trademarks in 2006: Two Women and a Hoe and the brands Green Hoe and Garden Hoe.
She wasn’t exactly sure how she would use them, but she wanted to put them “on hold” for the future.
She’s launched a new garden product available online – The Implant Lady which is a planter made in the USA from 100 percent recycled steel under the Garden Hoe brand, and has plans for a boutique of organic goods under the Green Hoe label.
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. 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.”
She isn’t so sure about the concept that to grow the business successfully she needs to step out of the field. “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.”
So, Bills is on every job to start it and she’s on site to ensure it is completed, to specification.
She runs a lean, focused operation she methodically planned before she plowed into Two Women and a Hoe full time.
“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.”
She purchased her first truck off 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: establish a strong core of customers and earn 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.
That said, she’s careful not to fill her plate too full. “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.
Cultivating a brand.
Bills always wants to stay on site, but she is also passionate about the financial freedom, personal satisfaction and empowerment she gains from running her own small business. She thought franchising Two Women and a Hoe might allow other women to experience that same gift.
“Initially, I thought, ‘I want this to be available for all women,’” she says. Bills received a $5,000 grant from a Michigan project to jumpstart small businesses in the state. After working alongside her mentor, she realized that franchising was not the answer for expanding her business. Bills’ mentor turned her on to the idea of developing one of her other brands – and so Bills began exploring the concept of creating products under the Garden Hoe and Green Hoe trademarks she had been sitting on for the past seven years.
She’s excited about what’s next for her ventures – she’s living a dream that her brother inspired her to make a reality.
“When I see my trucks with my company 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.”
Listen to Bills talk more about her social media program by visiting bit.ly/llsocialplan. You’ll learn how to get started on social media, how social media compares to marketing and more.
Photos courtesy of Two Women and a Hoe