No one wants to help the new kid on the block.
That’s what Matt Hall, 28, found when he started his landscaping company, Deep Roots Landscaping, in June of 2015. While attempting to build relationships with suppliers to get products for his Merritt Island, Florida-based company, he found not everyone was willing to sell to a rookie.
“Because when you’re new starting off, you’re kind of bottom of the barrel,” he says. “So, at first, getting good material in was the tough part – with plant material, things like that.”
Hall also found other landscapers weren’t jumping at the chance to help him with suggestions, so that meant making cold-call after cold-call to potential suppliers.
“I ran into a few times where a few brokers are a little uneasy working with me because they supply a couple of the big guys in the area,” he says.
Eventually, his persistence paid off and little by little, he was able to find some vendors he could rely on. But, even with that problem solved, there would be more that popped up.
A rough start.
Hall got the itch for landscaping working on the installation crew at a nursery in high school and college.
In addition, Hall’s mom owns a landscape architecture firm in the area. “So, growing up, I’ve always been on jobsites, since I can remember,” he says.
“I didn’t really have the back for the work at first.” Matt Hall, owner, Deep Roots Landscaping
But after graduating from the University of Central Florida with degrees in political science and economics, he took a job selling materials to defense firms. When that company started closing branches, Hall took the opportunity to leave and start his own, full-time landscaping company.
“I split off and I wouldn’t say hit the ground running, but got real dirty for the first six months until I could kind of get my feet under me and took off from there,” he says.
And those first six months were rough, Hall says. The first challenge he noticed was how out of shape he was to be working in the industry.
“I didn’t really have the back for the work at first. The Florida heat mid-summer – it was brutal,” he says. “So, transitioning from a sales job to a landscape job was incredibly straining on me. At the end of the day, I was just drained.”
Along with the physical pains, Hall was mentally fatigued from the office work. Since he didn’t start Deep Roots as a side gig, he didn’t have a customer base to build off as a full-time landscaper.
“I was trying to find new work all the time,” he says “And I was – at night – I still do it now – cold-calling, calling people back, things like that, trying to line up more to keep moving forward. And since I was new, I was a one-man shop.”
Hall says connections with his mom helped, but most of the jobs she handled were too big for him. He would get occasional referrals for smaller projects from her, which, coupled with cold-calling potential customers and posting to Facebook, was enough to get a good start.
“I just dove in. So, it was a rocky start,” he says. “I was maybe a job or two a week at first, and then after a few months, it started getting a little more solid with the work. And then six to eight months in, I was pretty loaded with work.”
Name your price.
As opportunities for more jobs came in, Hall realized he had no clue how to bid them properly.
“At first, I just wanted the work,” he says. “I didn’t really have the confidence yet to start charging what, realistically, I should have been charging. Really underbidding jobs and getting myself in binds that way to where my profit margins were very slim was one of the big issues that I had.”
Unfortunately for Hall, he had to learn on the fly, which resulted in a few disasters early on.
“I fell on my face more times than I can count,” he says with a laugh. “It was a struggle. It was a big struggle. I got myself into binds that way. I needed X amount of this to finish the job, and I didn’t have it.
“And we have a signed contract. I’d have to eat that out of pocket, and then go to the homeowner and bring up the situation. If they wanted to make up the difference, they would but I couldn’t expect them to because we had a signed contract that they agreed to.”
Now, Hall says he bids competitively, which does eliminate him from a number of jobs. Once he gets into the bidding process and realizes the job is too big for him and his three employees, he has to move on to another project.
“At first, I was bummed by it because I said, ‘I really want this work.’ And then I just kind of realized maybe someone wants it more than me,” he says. “And maybe they went a little under, and I just bid as fairly and competitively as possible. My goal is to come in, do a good job at a fair price and build a reputation.”
A nice mix.
But Hall is very comfortable with where Deep Roots falls among the competition. Not only does he only do full landscape installations, but he’s also found a niche with jobs bigger contractors don’t want like fine grading and sod installations.
“I wouldn’t say hit the ground running, but got real dirty for the first six months until I could kind of get my feet under me and took off from there.” Matt Hall, owner, Deep Roots Landscaping
“There’s a lot of work out there that homeowners want done that they can’t find someone to do because it might be a little bit too small for a big grading company – just one-off jobs that we could keep busy on during the slow times. And we’ve had slow times for a couple week periods and I just line them up with one- to two-day jobs, and we get through them.”
Hall says he wants to keep his company 100 percent installation, and his customer breakdown is 70 percent residential and 30 percent commercial. He’d like to add one or two employees, but is having trouble finding reliable help.
“A lot of times, I’m waking up at 4:30 in the morning, driving trailers to a jobsite,” he says. “That’ll change. My foreman – he’s ready to get into a truck, and I’ve just got to have the next two guys on before I can go out and get him one.”
He doesn’t have a time frame in mind, but would like to be a multi-million-dollar company.
“I see these landscape companies that have just made a solid name for themselves,” he says.
“They have a nice office. They have a really good group of guys – a couple of crews running and doing installs.
“Everyone has level heads and the right equipment. I think the direction that we’re going is very positive. And we’re building a lot of momentum very quickly.”
The local bar can be the site of a lot of great stories and chance meetings,but for Eric Ellington, 28, left, and Will Lane, 29, it was the spot where they began their dream of owning a landscaping company. “I was sitting there drinking beer,” says Lane, president and director of grounds management operations.
“Eric comes in with a computer and didn’t drink a beer. We probably talked for an hour to an hour and a half. It was just funny because I was all casual, and he was serious as could be.”
Even though the two went to the same high school and their sisters are best friends, they’d never met. But when Lane’s sister mentioned to Ellington that Lane was interested in starting a landscaping company, they decided to meet.
The meeting was a telltale sign of how the two would operate as a team at Glen Allen Grounds Management in the greater Richmond, Virginia, area.
“Will and I are on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, and that’s probably one of the main reasons we’ve gotten to where we are right now, says Ellington, vice president and director of landscape operations.
“Will is definitely more mechanically inclined than I am. I have a knack for analyzing data and speaking with customers.”
Ellington was working at a Caterpillar dealership and Lane was selling food commodities like sugar and starch when they launched the company. But they both had a passion for working outside and running their own business, so they started landscaping after 5 p.m. and on weekends to build a customer base.
The first year, they maintained five properties along with side jobs, and in the second year they reached about 25 properties.
“It was to the point where we were working 80 to 90 hours a week between our full-time jobs and the side gigs,” Lane says. “It was either dissolve, stagnate or go balls to the wall, if you will.”
Over the winter of 2014, Lane decided to focus on the company full-time in March of 2015. The first week wasn’t ideal.
“It snowed that first week, and we didn’t do snow removal, so we were like, “‘Oh, crap,’” Ellington says.
Lane continues, “The first day I actually went out, we had one employee working with me, and we went out and pruned a bunch of trees and shrubs with still, probably, 3 inches of snow on the ground. And then he quit that night. It was a kick in the shorts right off the bat.”
While Lane was working at the company full-time, Ellington was using lunch breaks at his job to answer emails and field some phone calls. By July of 2015, the workload began to interfere with his daily job.
Around that time, Ellington sold a hardscaping job, which was the company’s biggest at that point. In fact, Ellington told the customer he’d quit his job and join Lane full-time if the customer signed the contract. Ellington officially started full-time at Glen Allen in October of 2015.
“It was difficult because I’m leaving a full-time position in October when our season typically starts to wind down,” Ellington says. “Both my managers looked at me and they’re, like, ‘Do you really want to do this now?’ I told them, ‘If I don’t do it now, it won’t happen.’ And then I ended up selling what then became our next biggest job that took us all through the winter.”
Now it’s real.
When the company was part-time, the duo could use some of the equipment they used in high school that hadn’t been touched in seven years.
“Eric had a small trailer, a STIHL backpack blower, a STIHL weed eater and a very low-quality walk-behind lawn mower that we got rid of almost immediately,” Lane says.
But with Glen Allen as a career, they’d have to invest in newer equipment and find somewhere to put it.
“We had a customer who had a farm and we still maintain her (property) to this day,” Ellington says. “She let me keep my trailer at her barn. A lot of the lawn equipment stayed at my parents’ house. When we started to grow a little bit, we started to transition to Will’s garage, and that became our shop. And then on Feb. 1, 2016, we moved into a two-bay office.”
But finding capital to continue to grow has been a problem. Ellington has met with five to six banks trying to obtain funding, but hasn’t had any luck. All of the equipment they’ve purchased has been on zero percent interest rates, and last year they secured a line of credit, which Ellington says helped tremendously, but it’s nowhere near what they need.
“We’ve done a lot with cash and part of the reason we’ve had such trouble coming into capital is because of our pattern of growth,” Ellington says. “Our first to second year in business we did 2.5 times what we did our first year. Same again second to third year.
“And then this past year, with us both being full-time, we tripled. So, the pattern of growth is there, but banks don’t like to hedge their bets on lending us money based on a year or two of good growth.”
With north of $500,000 in revenue last year, Ellington says $1 million is a reachable goal in the future. But the focus must be on a quality work environment and customer service. “When you do that, the revenue comes and the profit comes,” Ellington says.
While Ellington has a clear vision of where the company can go in five years, Lane, true to their dynamic, isn’t as sure.
“I have no clue,” he says with a laugh. “I can tell you there’s going to be five years of hard work between now and then, and I’m excited to see what it looks like.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
Here at Lawn & Landscape, we often focus on established companies that have been successful for many years. But, this month, we wanted to focus on a few start-ups to find out the struggles (some sound similar to established companies) and achievements those owners are going through right now. While many of you are far past the days of buying your first skid-steer or ordering the wrong mulch on your only job, it’s important to remember those days.
Because, while those first years in business can be filled with many pains, there’s also a lot of excitement. If you take anything away from these stories, remember those early years barely getting by, and appreciate the hard work you and your team have done to get where you are today.
And if you’re a new company with a story to tell, we want to hear from you. Visit bit.ly/lawninfo to fill out our questionnaire. – Brian Horn