How to start-up a small summer lawncare business?
December 25, 2006 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Hi MeFi! I'm a motivated college student who wants to do more than just work for the man to earn my tuition this summer. I've decided I want to start up my own lawn mowing business but have no real business experience whatsoever. To the entrepreneurs out there, where do I start? Is this a worthy business venture? If so, how do I aim for success?

The business would be run by me and a friend. We currently have no supplies or equipment but have access to start-up capital to get things going. We are willing and able to do spring clean-up, weekly mowing, vacation mowing, dry fertilizing, aeration, and are open to more suggestions if it brings in the gravy. If this question seems daunting or a little too broad I apologize. I would appreciate even the smallest tip from your area of expertise whether it's how to market this, how to manage it, etc.

Should we obtain a business license? Bank-account? Cell-phone? How should we invest in marketing? And the biggest question of all, is this even really worth it?

Thank you very much!
posted by ageispolis to Work & Money (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
how about painting houses. a friend of mine started doing this in college and is still doing it during the summer to make a few extra bucks. i think there's more money in it, and once you're done with a job, your done. you can even rent the equipment.
posted by shoeman at 4:39 PM on December 25, 2006

Response by poster: Hey give me some credit here, I'm not all that crazy. As I stated above:

1. We have access to start-up capital. It is not an issue. Before I posted this question, I crunched some numbers and my estimations show that profit is more than possible. Of course this is subjective, but I wouldn't be asking this question on MeFi if it was some stupid pipe dream.

2. We won't just "exist" for the summer. I live in a city where your lawn is only growing from May to Mid-Sept anyways. Providing this business is successful, we will be back every summer running this business until we're done our degrees.

I live in a demographic of an ever-increasing amount of empty-nesters who are tired of cutting their own lawns. Instead of having them all get Billy down the street to do it for a couple twenties, we'd like to step in with a competitive rate and get the client base to be able to do make a summer job out of this. And while we're at it, we may as well take on spring-cleanups and dry fertilization as well.

I hope this clarifies things further.
posted by ageispolis at 4:52 PM on December 25, 2006

Best answer: Where I live, the lawn companies also do leaf-clearing in the fall. If I was to contract your company, you'd have to offer this service as well, because I doubt I'd be able to hire just leaf guys for a few weeks each fall.
posted by xo at 5:02 PM on December 25, 2006

My advice, don't do anything serious until you've recieved your first check. Once you have that check in your hand, everything changes. Fantasy becomes reality, mental paradigms shift overnight, etc.
posted by philosophistry at 5:03 PM on December 25, 2006

Best answer: This is rather expensive.

First you need three commercial mowers. Why three? Because one will break, and lawns don't wait. Other gear, at a minimum: a gas weedwacker, gas cans, hearing protection and a trailer. Can you do your own mower maintenance? The mower mechanic will take forever.

Why commercial mowers? Because the Sears $179 bargain brand isn't designed to run 12 hours a day, six days a week. And if you are doing anything bigger than 30'x30' yards, you really need one 36" wide mower, and these bad boys cost.

You will also need locking storage, either a rental garage or at least an enclosed trailer. Someone will try to steal your gear.

Depending on your town, you may need a contractors license. You will also need insurance, both for equipment theft and property damage.

If you plan to do spring clean-ups, you will need room on your trailer for the debris. You local dump will charge a tipping fee to drop the stuff off.
posted by Marky at 5:08 PM on December 25, 2006

The key to keeping your capital and maintenance expenses low, is to buy and operate good, used equipment. If you know something about small engines and basic machinery, and can spend the next few "off season" months shopping around, acquiring your equipment, you can get off to a good start come spring, and be in the black in weeks. You probably need to be able to do your own routine maintenance, like blade sharpening, oil changes, filter cleaning, spark plug replacements, etc. For other than basic repairs, you need a relationship with a reliable small engine shop, too.

Starting with new commercial equipment is prohibitively expensive, but you seriously cut into your earnings if you try to use household walking mowers, or light duty garden tractors, because they don't cut the wide swath of commercial machines, and because their blade speeds are so limited, that their forward speeds through tall grass must likewise be pretty slow. You may also need specialized equipment like a reel type mower, for certian kinds of grasses, particularly bent leaf grasses found around commercial buildings and golf courses.

Finally, dry fertilization is fine, but you may also need to be able to do pest and weed control, or sub-contract with services that are licensed for chemical application in your area, if that is a requirement. Most people signing service contracts for complete lawn care are going to want to know that your service is done in concert with other operations, so that your cutting and waste removal operations aid the penetration of chemicals, and work with the optimal watering plans and whatever reseeding and other maintenance that their lawns need in the way of corrective actions. You being the one that schedules chemical applications, even if you sub-contract that, puts you in control of the total maintenance schedule for a customer's lawn, making it possible for you to be more efficient, and keep their lawn looking better, than if they are trying to manage several different services and contractors themselves.
posted by paulsc at 6:03 PM on December 25, 2006

doesn't sound worth it at all. it's an equipment-heavy business with a market limited by weather. you'll need to buy a ton of stuff, lug it around town all summer, then store it all winter. it all sounds like a great big headache that won't make you much money anyway.

besides, consider rule number one: never start a business in an unfamiliar industry.

when i was in college, i briefly worked for a terrible burger joint with humiliating staff policies. i hated it. it was clear that i, and all the other teenysomething employees, were utter losers for being there. but one of the employees was different. he was in his late 30s, smart, friendly, keenly observant. he was good with customers, had a great attitude, and was a sharp dresser to boot. in every possible way, he was *much* too good to be flipping burgers for $6.10 an hour. curious, i asked him how long he'd had the job.

"oh, just a few weeks. i'm about to buy a franchise of this business, and i thought it would be good to see how it all worked."

this guy was wearing a hair net and barely clearing $40 a day, but seen another way, he was a genius. he was being paid to learn how the kitchen, staffing, ordering, suppliers, marketing, and customer service worked in the business he planned to own. he was able to breeze through the menial aspects of the job because he had the satisfaction of knowing that he'd be the boss in just a few months' time, and then he could change the rules, correct the inefficiencies, and make his own business run smoother. he was guaranteed less headache and more profit down the line. genius.

so... why not take your startup money and just invest it at a decent interest rate. then pick a business that somehow relates to your interests or field of study, and work for them all summer. watch them closely and see what you'll do different when it's your turn to be in charge.

don't think of it as "working for the man", think of it as "taking advantage of paid training to become the man himself".
good luck.
posted by twistofrhyme at 7:02 PM on December 25, 2006 [5 favorites]

Before I posted this question, I crunched some numbers and my estimations show that profit is more than possible. Of course this is subjective, but I wouldn't be asking this question on MeFi if it was some stupid pipe dream.

It's not a stupid pipe dream, but you'd be amazed at how things you didn't put in your calculation end up taking center stage. So many businesses look good on paper -- even really good, well thought out paper -- and end up not working so well.

Also, you'll want to have insurance in case you accidentally mow over something valuable on the person's lawn or cause some other form of damage (i.e. the mower falls out of the truck and hits someone's mailbox). Many people will expect you to have insurance and other credential before hiring you.

It looks to me like the lawnmowing business has a lot of overhead with minimal pricing--people need lawncare, but they don't value it.

Also, what is the long term effect of starting this business? If you're not in it for the long haul, is it worth it to learn the ins and outs of lawncare just to move on to something completely different? Keep in mind that running a business -- no matter what the business is -- will cut a lot into the doing what the business does time.

You can learn the skills you want by working for another company, as twistofrhyme suggests. You can also choose another startup business with fewer up-front costs, so that it makes more sense for a short term business.

Also, you need to think about your future and setting up connections. Will anyone be genuinely impressed that you started up this business? Many people casually do lawncare over the summer, and it will be hard to present this on your resume as something unique. Are you likely to get good networking going by doing lawncare? Possibly, because you'll be going to a lot of different households, but will people see you as a business owner, or as someone who cuts lawns?

If you want to run your own summer business, why not become a food vendor, selling ice cream or hot dogs or something similar? You have fast turnaround, relatively low costs (I believe you rent the carts), you get to meet many more people, and it's probably less strenuous than yardwork.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:51 PM on December 25, 2006

A tip on marketing your business:

If you're going to target your service towards "empty-nesters" and the like, be sure to advertise in methods that will reach the greatest number of likely customers. Even though a lot of older people use the internet for email and entertainment, they may not be accustomed to using it to purchase services or products. They're probably more likely to see your ad on the bulletin board in a local store or community center, than on a site like Craig's List. So think about places in your target service area that are frequented by the people you want as customers.

After I graduate from college I had three months before my new job began, so I decided to make some money helping people fix basic computer problems. I knew there was a popular deli near my house that catered to an older, affluent crowd -- like rich old people who needed to know how to communicate with their grandchildren through email. So I regularly plastered their bulletin board with simple, eye-catching posters and scored a number of lucrative calls!

If I had been planning to stay in that business the work I had that summer would've hooked me up with great referrals from rich old person to rich old person. So think about that too: not only target places where your likely customers go, but think about locations where those people gather for social purposes. The deli was good for me because my customers had long traditions of meeting friends there, and could refer to my nearby poster as it came up in conversation.

I guess it's like "social marketing" or something, but it seems to work!
posted by jk252b at 9:45 PM on December 25, 2006

There is an old saying about carpenters where business is booming: "Give an idiot a pickup truck and a Skil saw and he becomes a carpenter." So true.

There is lawn-care and then there is lawn-care. It sounds to me like you want to make a minimal investment in time and money prepping yourself to just go cut grass and you really don't know nor care what care bent grass needs as opposed to Kentucky rye grass. Are you prepared to advise clients about weed control? Fertilizing schedules? Do you know how to adjust a sprinkler system and replace a sprinkler head when you mow over one? Does it matter? Only if you want to be little more than a competitor of the plethora of "idiots with pickup truck with lawnmowers in the back."

People about have given you a lot of really good advice above about what is involved in lawn-care and what it costs. You can take umbrage at what they say as you wish and at your own peril. But when that mower chucks a rock through the $1000 windshield of someone's Jag, you may regret not having insurance.

The truth is there is money in lawn-care. But it isn't easy money. Everything looks easy from the outside. My advice would be to spend the summer working for someone who has a lawn-care business AND who knows what they are doing. If you like the work and it still seems like a decent way to turn a buck, you will be in a much better position to go out on your own and far less likely to make big mistakes.
posted by toucano at 11:44 PM on December 25, 2006

You don't say, but it sounds like this is to be a temporary business. Or if its not, it should be.

If you're looking for temporary work, get a job.

Business developers need to be in it for the long haul. Or at least two to five years, full time, in order to recover start up costs and show a profit (which only happens about 20% of the time). If you're going back to college in the fall, you won't have time for both. Also you should ideally have the business up and running in the spring when people are first looking to get their lawns cut. Otherwise you'll have to rely on defectors from other services for your business which is... slow and unreliable.

You have some pretty heavy start up costs for a two man business. Mowers, trimmers, a trailer, etc. Most of which will loose most of their resell value after you buy them. Plus an advertising budget.

And you have some pretty big repeating budget items such as insurance and maintenance. If you're going to hire people you have their equipment, salaries and insurance, payroll, taxes, etc.

Not to mention most businesses take at least 6-18 months to show a profit. What happens when school starts? Are you going to abandon your clients for your classes, or the reverse?

Have you done your market research? Is there any demand for your services? How do you differentiate yourself from the other services in your area? Is that difference something that customers are willing to pay for?

I don't have the numbers on lawn service where you live, but I've seen a lot of business proposals. Yours is not inspiring. Business planning needs to be both realistic and pessimistic. You need to get as many real numbers on paper as you can, then you need to take into account contingencies (like that rock through the Jag, or someone loosing a finger, or a drought) and then double your expense estimates and half your income estimates. If you still come out with earnings, then you've probably forgotten something.

However if your start up capital is mostly risk free (ie: You can get away with never paying your dad back) then go ahead and do it. You'll learn a lot more than you would at college.
posted by Ookseer at 12:39 AM on December 26, 2006

We are willing and able to do spring clean-up, weekly mowing, vacation mowing, dry fertilizing, aeration, and are open to more suggestions if it brings in the gravy.

I did this for a whole summer when I was 16 - but mostly using the equipment already owned by those whose gardens I was doing. All I bought was some basics like shears, secateurs, a rake, etc. Much cheaper than setting up with all the overheads but doing much the same kind of work. But you don't learn even a tenth of what you might setting up your own business, I suppose.
posted by greycap at 2:37 AM on December 26, 2006

Toucano's point deserves to be marked as a best:

>My advice would be to spend the summer working for someone who has a lawn-care business AND who knows what they are doing. If you like the work and it still seems like a decent way to turn a buck, you will be in a much better position to go out on your own and far less likely to make big mistakes.

What about making contact with someone already in the business nearby, and offering to work with him to extend the service to your area? This would answer a number of the excellent objections listed above. It also has a decent chance of working.
posted by megatherium at 4:13 AM on December 26, 2006

I haven't heard anyone worry about insurance yet. All it would take is somebody to lose a few fingers, and suddenly everybody is suing everybody else, and IANAL, but it seems at least possible they could go after the investors' assests.

The other issue I'd be a little concerned about is the work experience. I have seen a lot of college kids work in a retail environment to put themselves through, and then get out of college and end up in retail jobs. Because it's where their experience is, it's the only job they can find. It might be better to take a little less money for experience in whatever your field is going to be. You wouldn't want to graduate and find yourself looking at a promising career in the Lawn Care Industry.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 7:23 AM on December 26, 2006

One thing I think someone in my neighborhood could make a killing on is a 'green' lawn service. Do the work with non-motorized mechanical mower, shears and a rake. It will take longer, but you can charge a premium because you are non-polluting and you will have eliminated most of the incidental expenses (gas, repairs, safety equiptment). Put together a neat little brochure documenting how polluting gas-powered lawn equiptment is and how many tons of carbon you will save by taking care of a lawn over the summer.

The idea is yours for the taking, just send me a teeshirt with your logo on it. :)
posted by jmgorman at 10:11 AM on December 26, 2006

When I did this I used the opposite approach. Instead of expensive commercial equipment I got the cheapest lawnmower I could find. None of that self-propelled stuff. Muscle is cheaper. I would go through a couple of these a summer but it was much cheaper than laying out a lot of cash for the expensive stuff -- cash I didn't have.

Your biggest problem will be establishing a client list, which for the professionals can take years. What I did was hook my gas can onto the handle of the mower and push it up and down the blocks, knocking on doors where the grass was long. This worked best in older neighborhoods where the houses are closer together. Most of my customers were seniors, single mothers and renters.

I think I got a buck and a half to two dollars a yard depending on negotiations. Of course this was a long time ago when gasoline was 35 cents a gallon and I was only 12. You probably have something more ambitious in mind.
posted by JackFlash at 10:22 AM on December 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

« Older What is the physically smallest and cheapest...   |   How do I perceive you? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.