Tips for Starting a Specialized Landscaping Business

The landscaping industry has promising opportunity according to recent statistics.  Nearly 1.25 million people are employed as grounds maintenance workers in the United States, and the Bureau of Labor estimates the industry will add another 250,000 workers by 2020.  This translates to 20% growth, beating the average for most other occupations.

As a result of these trends, existing landscaping and grounds maintenance businesses will continue to grow and prosper.  However, there is also opportunity for new businesses to tap into an expanding market.  The question becomes— how do you set yourself apart?  One key advantage is the ability to specialize.

In hilly and mountainous regions, experts in slope mowing are well-positioned to capitalize on a growing market.  Specialized landscapers can provide services to municipal and/or private clients for their sloped areas, which cannot be mowed safely with standard equipment.  As a result, these slopes are typically cleared using unsafe and inefficient methods such as weed whackers.  By investing in safer and more efficient technology, specialized companies have the potential to capture market share from traditional landscapers.

The same applies to experts in high-grass mowing.  Grounds departments, public works, golf courses and even hobby farmers and estate owners might have areas that are mowed only once or twice per year.  Owning the right equipment for the job is essential to delivering professional results that will impress clients.  By providing services in a time and cost-efficient manner, specialized operations can earn both consistent seasonal work and their clients' trust, the bedrock of any successful enterprise.

While not a comprehensive guide to building a business, the following 8 steps provide insight and a general groundwork to grow your own specialized landscaping enterprise:

1. Identify Your Goals. Create a Mission Statement and Value Proposition.

No matter the business, the first step is to establish your goals and manage expectations regarding what you want to accomplish.

Why exactly are you starting a lawn maintenance business?  How many hours per week do you want to work?  Do you plan on taking vacations?  Is this a one-man show, or do you plan on having a team to manage?  How large would you like the business to become?  Are you prepared and capable of handling the logistics involved in managing a business— invoicing, taxes, legal, sales and marketing?  What makes your business different from your competitors?  What are your sales goals and how much money will you need to get the business to a point where it earns acceptable profit margins?

It’s just as important to establish a mission statement alongside these goals.  Your mission statement can evolve as the business matures— however, the foundation should be laid with an unobstructed vision as to who you are and why the business exists.  This mission statement can have an effect on the culture you wish to develop and ultimately the employees and customers you attract.

2. Identify Your Target Market

Your target market should evolve naturally from your goals and mission statement.  Are you targeting corporate office grounds maintenance, or private landowners in your neighborhood?  What is your geographical focus— are you planning to open a chain of landscaping operations throughout the Mid-Atlantic, and if so, what niche are you looking to fill?  Are you a budget lawn care business or will you focus on high-end clients that require a certain level of professionalism and care?

In other words, what does your ideal client look like?  Your target market is who you plan to reach with your marketing efforts.  Many marketers choose to develop something called a buyer persona— a paragraph or two that provides a snapshot of your ideal buyer.

People often ask how they can tell if their buyer personas are accurate and actionable.  Questions such as “how do I really know if my buyer personas are right?” and, “how can I make sure they tell me what matters to buyers and prospects?” are common.  The short answer is that buyer personas work when they reveal how buyers think about the decision you want to influence.  While many companies use interviews to source their buyer personas, most interviews are conducted with the company’s salespeople or customers.  Instead of providing a factually correct representation of their buyers, these personas have a strong bias in favor of the company that develops them.

Avoid self-serving personas and focus on what your competitors are doing to formulate an objective and comprehensive target market.

3. Choose Your Equipment Wisely

Once you’ve developed goals, a mission statement and identified who you’re selling to, it’s time to invest in the tools you need to run your business.

First, consider your goals and the types of services you plan to provide.  Focus on equipment that will help you get things done faster (so you can do more jobs), professionally (so you provide a quality service) and that requires minimal maintenance (so you can limit the amount of time and money you spend on repairs and/or new equipment).

Buying professional equipment will pay off in the long term.  While there may not be obvious differences on the surface, there are usually major mechanical differences between a $3,000 lawnmower and a $15,000 lawnmower.  Remember to think about the total cost of ownership as opposed to the initial price.  Just because a mower has a cheaper purchase price doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

Also remember that there are specific tools for specific jobs.  Zero Turns are great for flat areas— if your territory has steep slopes or uneven terrain, however, Zero Turns can be extremely dangerous.  Mowers with 4WD, locking differentials and a low center of gravity are much better suited for those jobs.  While machines from specialty manufacturers can seem a bit expensive, they easily pay for themselves over time because they allow you to do jobs other people can’t and therefore charge a premium.  For example, employing a whole crew to clear 30 degree slopes with weed whackers will quickly become more expensive than investing in a specialized machine.

4. Keep Your Machines Serviced

In most businesses, there’s nothing worse than equipment down-time.  You can minimize the frequency and extent of equipment failures by regularly servicing your machines.  Simple steps to maximize your machines’ ability to perform under pressure include maintaining blades and belts in good condition, following manufacturers’ service intervals and cleaning the machines after use.  Replacing filters and hydrostatic oil are part of the cost of doing business and should be accounted for.  Make sure to keep maintenance logs for each machine and stick to a service schedule, as this will save you time and money in the long run.  Hold your crew accountable for keeping equipment in tip-top shape.

5. Start Pounding the Pavement

In the past, one of the best ways to generate customers for a landscaping business was to simply pound the pavement by getting out and talking to your target audience.  That’s still a great way to drum up business, but don’t forget to use modern technology to add scale to your marketing efforts.

Having a robust online presence is worth the time and effort.  Build out a a clean-looking website and both a Facebook page and Instagram account with pictures and videos of your work.  These are all musts in today’s digital age.

The good news is that there is a wealth of information out there on how to get started and gain some traction.  These days it is relatively easy to target your ideal customer base with a good degree of accuracy.  Building a website on Wordpress or Wix does not require a computer science degree and even if you are completely computer illiterate, it’s cheap and easy to hire a freelancer to convey a professional image on your business’ website.

Furthermore, there are many services out there that provide satellite imagery and property information and measurements you can use to quote jobs, which can save you time and money misquoting projects.

6. Continuous Improvement

Once your business is up and running, you’ll need to manage your client and prospect information, schedule jobs quickly and easily, transmit and collect data from the field, and automate your billing.  Software designed for these tasks can help you avoid the headaches associated with operating a landscaping business.  Money spent in this department streamlines your operations and will not go to waste!

Moreover, these programs will also allow you to collect specific data related to your jobs— this data will help you make smarter decisions.  Did you quote too little for a specific property because it took longer than you initially thought?  How many jobs can you perform per day?  Can you save time and money by routing your crews more efficiently?  By analyzing the data your business collects you can answer these questions and optimize your operations for a more successful business.

7. You’re Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link

As your business grows you’ll need to put together a team to help you run operations.  From the guys in the field to back-office workers, make sure you have honest, hardworking individuals that won’t let you down.

One way to do this is by going back to the mission statement you created at the beginning.  Your employees should embrace these core ideals and believe in what your business stands for.

Furthermore, don’t hesitate to perform a background check— a number of companies such as Verifications, Inc., HireRight, FirstAdvantage and Sterling can perform an in-depth check for $100 or less.  Ask for references and don’t be shy to call on them!  Net Reference and Checkster automate the entire reference-check process, and provide a good indication of how reliable an employee is.  Spending a few dollars up-front can save your company a lot of money in the long run.

8. Leverage Your Clients

Word of mouth is always the best way to get new business, which is why it is crucial that you perform well on every job you take.  When someone does an excellent job, the statistics are that people will share that information with no more than 2 other people, yet when someone does a poor job that number jumps to 7!  Don’t be shy to ask customers to write a review for you on Google or Angie’s List when you know you’ve done a good job.  You can offer them a discount on their next job as an incentive.  In our digital age, online reviews are worth their weight in gold.

While not comprehensive of every aspect involved in running a business, these 8 steps can help you create and grow a professional landscaping operation.  The first step in becoming an expert of high-grass and slope mowing is having the proper equipment, so make sure you invest in the right machines to set yourself apart.  The grass is growing— good luck!