What have I learned in my first 3 years of business?
The year was 2015 and it was late February, early March, where I had been working a job I didn't particularly love when I thought to myself, "what am I doing with my life?" - I had worked in the landscape construction field for multiple years prior and knew how much I loved it. Working outside everyday, getting my hands dirty, getting a workout everyday and creating outdoor living spaces for all different types of people and bringing them joy and new love of their homes is what I loved. Fast forward 3 years, a child, a wedding and a few address changes and we land here in 2018 awaiting opening day of our 4th season. Here, I'll explain my journey and a bit about what I have learned along the way. For any of you thinking of starting your own landscaping business, you'll want to stick around!
As I said, it was 2015 when I quit my full time job with the perks of company vehicles, credit card and job stability to enter the world of self employment. No more than a week or two after I had walked away from that and registered Lonestar Landscaping as an official company, my now wife, hits me with the big news "We're going to have a child" - I was speechless, literally, you can ask my wife! Not the best reaction, I admit, but running through my body was an overwhelming feeling of stress that I couldn't just pretend wasn't there. I had just quit my job, I had no income, no jobs booked, no clients or even potential clients at that point. I was terrified. It was that feeling of fear and responsibility that drove me to go out and get the work I needed to in order to support my family that was on the way. Throughout my life, I have learned the uncomfortable feeling of fear is and will always be the greatest motivator and you have to learn how to use this fear in order to become successful.
My first season brought a lot of ups and downs and a lot of learning experiences to say the least. At this point, I didn't care where the work came from or what I was doing I just wanted to make money. I started off by myself, picking up a few small manageable jobs along the way. Hired my cousin to work for me. Bought a truck. Bought a trailer. Quickly used up that line of credit. Subbed for a couple other companies I have close relationships with. I found out at the end of all of this, its really hard to make money! Materials, expenses, overhead, gas, employees, insurance, the list never stops. I quickly learned that I wasn't charging nearly enough for the work that was going into each job. I broke even my first year. Not a terrible thing to do in your first year of business but really, I came here to make money! This was my first big learning curve as a company, to know what your worth, and charge accordingly. A lot of potential clients may not understand, and that's fine, those are not the clients you want to work for anyways.
My first winter came and went extremely fast with the birth of our child and I was lucky enough to land a winter operator position with the town of Oakville to get me through the down season. Landscape season two started with a bit of a buzz in the air. I was very excited to get going, people were talking and recommending me to their friends and family and the referrals started coming in which was great. Accompany that with the typical advertising techniques of flyers and a few online ads and I was booking in a lot of work right out of the gate. This was awesome, I was going to make so much money this year. This season taught me two very important lessons. One, would be to never get lazy with your sales/quoting game no matter how busy you are. As I said, I was busy very early on in the spring. Booked a few months in advance. Then there was me being cocky and full of myself, wouldn't care if the phone rang or if it did ring I wouldn't get back to that person right away. Because hey, I was busy, I was working. What I didn't realize is there's going to be a time where I wasn't going to be busy, and that phone call I didn't return was money I would never see in my bank account. That might be okay if your still a teenager doing this for some extra side money, but when you have a wife and a child sitting at home counting on you, this laziness does not will not fly. The second thing I learned to be extremely important, being accurate with your labour time is the game changer when it comes to making money or losing it. Too many times on sales calls I would be asked, when are you available to start? In my defence, I was still new to quoting and maybe didn't know my timelines like I should, but all too often my answer would be "I'm not really sure, maybe late spring, mid summer?" Now we all know the weather does affect our schedules more than any other profession, but to a lot of clients a contractor that doesn't know when they will be available within a week or two is an unorganized contractor and that will cost you that job. My takeaways from year two, know your timelines and don't get lazy.
The winter of season two wasn't very long, I plowed a little and remained on a jobsite off and on for the winter. We then started very early in the season on a job we were subbed out for by another large company "project managing" type companies. Then again, the spring brought a whirlwind of phone calls and sales call and booking up very early. This year though, I wouldn't be lazy. I was returning every call, booking appointments, quoting everything and if they weren't willing to wait for me, well that was their problem. I learned very early on this season that, if your worth the money, the client will wait for you. If that means you have to take your time on projects to ensure your worth that money, then that's what you have to do. Not straying from your roots and quality of installation and what's got you to this point is what's going to keep your company turning for many years to come. Too many times, even in my short career, I have seen companies take on too much work and their quality suffers in the process. Guys will book a ton up front and promise the world the their clients just to land these jobs, forcing them to hire multiple extra staff (skilled or not) so they can handle the work load which ultimately affects the quality of work you are not providing anymore because your not the one on site as the business owner to at least oversee everything. This rapid growth can cripple very reputable companies solely because they simply are trying to get too big too fast. That is what I learned in my third season as a business owner, stay true to your roots and don't sacrifice your quality because you were unrealistic with your clients. Be honest and up front with your timelines and prove to the client your worth the wait. Each job you book should make you a little uncomfortable, because let's face it, the better your reputation gets, the more your clients are going to ask of you. But that's good, going back to my earlier point, use that fear and uncomfortableness to continue to grow as a company and as a person, just don't sacrifice your quality along the way.
So there it is - my first three years in a nutshell. Today, I am happily married, our son is two and a half almost, I've got a handful of jobs booked for the spring and I look back a short three years ago and laugh at myself like what was I thinking?! I love what I do and have learned a great deal of lessons so far. Being honest, hard working, true to yourself, your clients and to your family is the best advice I could give to anyone wanting to go into their own business adventure. The world is a scary place and it may always seem like something is not going my way. Being self employed isn't for everyone but I would go through it all again if I had to. I am not saying I am set for life or anything, there is still lots of work left to do, but with the lessons I'm learning along the way I feel as though I'm at least on the right path!