When it adds up

Joe Swett did the math and made the move from aspiring accountant to landscape entrepreneur.

Joe Swett, owner of Sunrise Irrigation, is focusing his efforts on the company’s bottom line.
Photos courtesy of Sunrise Irrigation

Joe Swett had just left a nine-year stint in the Coast Guard and was on track to become an accountant when he started doing the math on his career.

Unsure what to do after he left active duty, he started studying at the University of Tampa but he realized that he wasn’t ready to spend his life sitting behind a desk.

Then, while on his first spring break four years ago, he decided to fix a leaking valve at his house in Tampa. When he was done, he hopped online to see how much money he had saved himself, and he realized there was a pretty big market for the service. Plus, he really enjoyed the work and got a sense of satisfaction from fixing the problem on his own.

“I immediately jumped on Google Analytics to see how many people were searching for irrigation companies and it kind of piqued my interest. I realized there was a lot of volume going on there online,” he says.

His curiosity led him to look up how many licensed contractors were active in his county and he quickly found that it was a very under-served market. Then his wheels started turning trying to figure out how he could get into the business.

In order to get his license, he would have to get some real-world experience, so he asked his friend, the local mailman, what he knew. The mailman suggested he talk to an irrigation contractor who lived three doors down the street.

Swett went to meet him a few hours later. It turned out that his neighbor had been in the business for more than 20 years and was semi-retired, working two or three days a week and running his operation from an unmarked van.

“So, there was no marketing, no brand awareness, nothing.” Joe Swett, owner, Sunrise Irrigation

Swett started working with him at Sunrise Irrigation for free to gain experience and get the required number of hours under his belt.

“He thought I was crazy, but I told him I’d work with him for free to get the experience and the knowledge,” Swett says.

But when he started studying for both his contractor’s license and his accounting license, he had to make a choice. “I realized I would finish my accounting degree and my next path was to go work for a big firm and start an internship there. I realized how much money they make and what would it take to get the quality of life I wanted down the road for my family for myself,” he says.

It would take 10 to 15 years in accounting for Swett to get to the same income he could earn starting off as an irrigation contractor, making $80 an hour fixing sprinkler heads.

After considering the demand in the irrigation market through his research and weighing the pros and cons, he decided to make the jump.

“I realized it would pretty much be a walk in the park if you have your strategy right and to set yourself apart and be different from everyone else from the professionalism to the uniforms to the branding to the whole package,” he says. “That was just lacking from this industry locally.”

So with no money to speak of besides about $10,000 of family assets and a van, he got to work as a new business owner.

Joe Swett, center, stresses to his employees that they are in the business of customer service and time before they are irrigation installers. The Sunrise Irrigation team has grown from one man and a van to four service vans, eight employees, an installation crew, a full-time office manager and a part-time CFO.
Getting the word out.

Once Swett had passed his contractor’s license test, he planned to start his own business, but after talking it over with his neighbor, the pair realized it would make more sense for Swett to simply buy Sunrise Irrigation.

So at just 27 years old, Swett was ready to bust down the doors in his local market. But he had his work cut out for him. Sunrise Irrigation was only bringing in $75,000-$80,000 per year, and an online search for Sunrise Irrigation, didn’t even bring up his company in the results.

“The funny part was he was so old-school that you Google Sunrise Irrigation and the Sunrise Irrigation in Tucson, Arizona, shows up,” Swett says. “So there was no marketing, no brand awareness, nothing. I knew I had a challenge on my hands because I know that nowadays if you don’t have a website and you can’t find yourself online, you’re pretty much a nobody in business.”

So Swett got started on a marketing plan and a purchase agreement for Sunrise Irrigation. He talked to some friends who owned their own businesses and started picking their brains.

He wanted to understand his options like SEO and Google ad words, and what type of marketing would give him the best ROI.

“I had a loan payment to pay back the buyout and you have all the expenses of starting up, didn’t have a lot of money so I thought, ‘I have to make this work to cover the expenses,’” he says.

Working with an online marketing firm, he put together a plan he was happy with, and one that he could afford. “My theory is, ‘I’m not an expert in marketing. I’m an expert in irrigation so I need to sub that out so I can focus on working,’” he says.

Then, on the same day he signed the contract, he launched his plan into action.

Ninety percent of the company’s marketing is direct marketing online. And although he isn’t a fan of third-party sites like Home Advisor and Angie’s List, he has some presence there as well.

“My theory is, I’m not an expert in marketing. I’m an expert in irrigation so I need to sub that out so I can focus on working.” Joe Swett, owner, Sunrise Irrigation
Getting established.

When Swett was getting started, he was pretty much a one-man show and it wasn’t until February of 2016 that he brought on an employee, Ryan, who didn’t know anything about irrigation. “He just sort of rode around with me and was kind of my guinea pig,” Swett says.

After six or seven months, Ryan started servicing customers. And as more and more employees came on, Swett continued doing a lot of on-the-job and in-house training. He would also send crews to various supplier training sessions after they had been on board for five or six months.

But Swett says customer service is really what made Sunrise Irrigation stand out and start growing.

“It’s all about customer service and that’s what I realized people didn’t provide in this industry as much as they should, as a whole,” he says. “Back it up and making sure you know what you’re doing – that’s a given. But the biggest thing is customer service.”

Crews have checklists with tasks they must complete on every service call from the time they meet the customer to the time they leave the property. “You hand them a card; you introduce yourself; you walk around the property. I’m trying to make it pretty much dummy-proof for them,” Swett says. “They know this is what I expect from every job whether they spend $100 with us or they spend $10,000 with us.”

Technicians are all armed with iPads loaded with customer information, a description of what they’re asking for and other details. Crews collect customer information and do the invoicing right on the spot. Then, the review links are attached to each invoice.

To monitor how his team is doing out in the field, Swett solicits and monitors customer reviews on third-party websites and tries to do as many follow-up calls as he can. He also implemented a customer satisfaction survey this year that will go out to customers in a quarterly email.

Swett preaches daily to his team that Sunrise doesn’t sell irrigation services. They sell customer service and they sell time. “We just happen to be really good at irrigation,” he says. “That’s been my philosophy since I started.”

“It’s all about customer service and that’s what I realized people didn’t provide in this industry as much as they should, as a whole.” Joe Swett, owner, Sunrise Irrigation
Still growing.

Sunrise Irrigation hit an important milestone in December when Swett got his first line of credit. Before that, it was cash flow was financing the company. “Up until then, it was just a business credit card with a few thousand dollars on it and if I needed a van, I would go to the Ford dealership and I would buy a certified pre-owned van every time,” he says, adding that it was a line item in his operating costs.

Sunrise Irrigation is now 95 percent residential, with 50 percent of its revenue coming from irrigation repairs. The company added landscape lighting services at the end of 2016, working with local suppliers and learning the proper techniques. The company also added residential landscape services about six months ago after numerous requests from customers.

“I’ll design with the homeowners themselves and they typically have an idea of what they want a little bit, and then I’ll sort of guide them on what’s in the yard and what works,” Swett says. “I’ll coach them through the design process and take them to the nursery, and I’ve learned a lot, actually, from my clients.”

Despite his company’s successful growth, Swett is still pushing to go further. He just doubled down on his marketing and plans to grow 40 percent this year over last. And then he plans to control growth after that. “It gets a little crazy when you’re doubling down every year,” he says. “It’s mayhem.”

From a rundown van and no employees, he has built the company to eight employees with four service vans, an installation crew, a full-time office manager and a part-time CFO. Last year, the company closed just shy of $900,000 in revenue and Sunrise Irrigation is on track to hit $1.2 million this year.

Swett is still working 70 to 80 hours a week, with a few slow weeks in December. But then he starts to get anxious. “When everything is stressful and kind of in chaos – everything’s on the line – that’s what pushes me to work harder every day,” he says, adding that the reason he left the Coast Guard was because he had started to get bored.

Now, Swett is trying to focus on the bottom line as Sunrise Irrigation grows, making sure that he’s not focusing too much on sales numbers alone.

“With high growth, it’s a balancing act for growing revenue and sales – and keeping quality and control up to the same standard as when you started,” he says.

May 2018
Explore the May 2018 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.