Mobile technology at your fingertips could change your business

August 4, 2014 -  By

How Uber-like mobile technology could change the way you find, communicate with and bill customers.

bryanClayton

Bryan Clayton

When Bryan Clayton owned Peach Tree Landscapes, it focused on commercial maintenance. The Nashville, Tenn.-based firm didn’t offer residential mowing. That’s why his staff always kept a list of other landscape companies by the phone to give referrals to homeowners who called the office for quotes. Even though Peach Tree didn’t do business with residential customers, Clayton wanted to help them out.

“We’d take 10 or 20 phone calls a day from homeowners,” he says. “We’d give them a referral and many times they’d call us back and say, ‘That guy didn’t call me back.’” 

Clayton, who sold his landscape company last year, had no doubt that the landscapers he referred clients to wanted to return every phone call they received.  But they couldn’t. They were working in the field, giving estimates or taking care of the many other things that come with owning and operating a small business.

“I thought, ‘Man there has got to be a better way to do this,’” Clayton says.

When he saw marketplace-driven, location-based technology pop up in other industries, he realized it could work for landscape services, especially residential mowing. He points to ride-sharing/car-service app Uber and Airbnb—a website that allows people to rent out their homes to travelers—as two inspirations. 

In the landscape industry, there are homeowners who need their lawns cut and, as Clayton says, “There are hardworking guys out there busting their ass and trying to make ends meet, and they do a lot of things that don’t make them money.” (To name a few: marketing, driving from job to job, giving estimates and collecting payments). 

“I just know this is a problem that needs to be fixed,” he says.

Clayton set out to do so last year when he founded GreenPal, a company designed to make it easy for homeowners to locate, communicate with and pay landscapers via a mobile app. 

“There’s no reason why a lawn care professional should have to pass out fliers to get lawns scattered all over town, have to mail out an invoice and then wait for a check,” he says. “He should be able to have visibility, get lawns close to the ones he’s already doing and get paid every day.”

Clayton’s not alone in his pursuit of streamlining the landscape and snow services market with mobile technology. A handful of other startups, including PlowMe/Service Route, Plowz & Mowz and LawnStarter, have popped up around the country with similar missions. 

Their approaches are all slightly different, but their motivations are the same: Improve customer service for homeowners and reduce the headaches associated with running a landscape or snow removal company. 

“In the back of my mind, Uber was always a thought,” says Wills Mahoney, cofounder of Plowz & Mowz. “I love how efficient it is and the quality. We’ve been coined by a lot of people as the Uber of on-demand snow removal and on-demand lawn mowing. That’s a compliment and we hope we’re on their level.” 

Consumer demand

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Clayton surmises that within five or 10 years consumers will be able to push a button on their smartphones and “get everything done you need to get done.” The technology is there; it just hasn’t been built and distributed yet for most industries, he says.

Consumers are already supporting Uber and others to get rides, HomeJoy for house cleaning, Postmates for delivery and Taskrabbit for errand running. Those services and changing demographics are likely to propel the landscape industry platforms’ success, their founders say.

Consider that the financial struggles of the smartphone-wielding millennial generation—about 83 million of them born from the early 1980s through 2000—are expected to end within the next few years, Bloomberg Businessweek reported in June. Millennials are more educated than any generation before them, says Richard Fry, a senior economist at the Pew Research Center in Washington. “All of those college degrees will sooner or later pay dividends and they will buy homes.” 

With homes come lawns that need to be mowed and driveways that need to be plowed.

At the same time, many aging baby boomers (77 million of them born between 1946 and 1964) are staying in their homes longer—either because of personal preference or financial need due to the Great Recession’s housing bust. A 2010 AARP survey reports 84 percent of baby boomers would prefer to live in their current houses for as long as possible. These folks will need property services in droves, says Yeh Diab, founder of PlowMe and Service Route. PlowMe is a website/app where customers can request on-demand snow plowing services. It’s powered by Service Route, which is a software service designed for property management businesses to manage customers, schedule/track work and get paid.

Diab estimates 45 million homes will need some sort of property maintenance by the year 2020. Compare that to about nine million single-family properties getting snow or lawn maintenance currently, according to his estimates.

He says only a fraction of the available market for landscape/snow services is buying them now because of the perceptions that 1). They’re not affordable or 2). It’s a hassle to hire someone. The result is many homeowners say, “I’ll just do it myself.”

“There’s demand that’s going to increase even more, and there’s a bottleneck for supply,” Diab says. “Not a lot of young kids are saying, ‘I want to be a landscaper.’ And current landscapers aren’t operating at an optimal level.”

Mobile, location-based technology can help with both the demand and supply problems, Diab says. 

For Plowz & Mowz, which currently has the widest reach among this set (see chart on page 24) , the average consumer varies by market but is typically a homeowner between 30 and 50 years old and is split 50/50 between males and females, Mahoney says. The average contractor signing on to the service has between one and five trucks, has been in business for several years and is embracing technology. 

Ryan Farley, cofounder of LawnStarter, a startup that aims to be a customer service interface between homeowners and landscape professionals, says he only had to look at all the negative comments on business review website Yelp to know there’s a need in this market.

Ryan Farley

Ryan Farley

“The goal is to change the status quo for the customer service in lawn care,” he says. “We want to become the standard. A lot of consumers see the status quo as pretty low.”

Farley, who cites Zappos as an early influence for LawnStarter, sees relieving contractors of their customer service duties as the key.

“All of the customer-facing things are handled by us,” he says. “It takes the load off the contractors.”

Farley affirms his company doesn’t want to be seen as just a middleman taking a cut for “doing nothing.” His competitors in this space would agree.

“There are a lot of companies out there providing leads like Thumbtack, Home Advisor or Task Easy,” he says. “They only see the consumer side. They don’t understand the issues of the contractors. We see how important it is to help landscapers make their business grow.”

Contractor take

Shawn Sennett, owner of Sennett Landscaping in Waltham, Mass., is one contractor who says he could use this type of help. 

Sennett has been mowing lawns and plowing driveways full time for seven years. He runs one three-man crew and says he struggles to top 50 mowing accounts. Getting over that hump would allow him to add another crew, he says, and potentially step out of working in the field himself.

MOWZEvery time Sennett nears this level, he loses a few accounts. When he replaces them, he’ll lose a few more. He typically markets his business by knocking on doors and passing out fliers.

“I need a good chunk (of customers)—a good five or 10 all at once—not a few here and there,” he says. “Initially, it only took me two years to get to 40 yards and I’m like, ‘This is easy,’” he says. “And then that was it; it never progressed. I can’t seem to break past this plateau because there must be a thousand (mowing) companies in my town.” 

Sennett is excited, though, about the promise of mobile technology that could help him add clients to his current roster. He signed on with PlowMe last winter, adding about 20 regular accounts, bringing his total to 45 plowing customers.

After one season, Sennett’s sold on the platform’s ability to give him steady work and pay him quickly. He doesn’t bat an eye at the fee he paid PlowMe, which he estimates to be about 10 percent per job. He hopes to add another 20 PlowMe customers—and another truck—this winter.

The main benefit of the service for Sennett was the direct deposit into his bank account once he completed a job. He was relieved by the ability to make payroll immediately. Typically his snow customers take two or three weeks to pay.

“I took that (PlowMe) money, paid the guys and just waited for the rest,” he said. “That was definitely the key.”

MOWZJimmy Matweyou has tried Plowz & Mowz to make a few extra dollars for his two-crew landscaping and snow removal company, Jimmy’s Lawn Service, in Akron, Ohio.

“I haven’t gotten rich off of them and probably won’t,” he says.

Unlike the other platforms, which allow for contractors to acquire recurring accounts, Plowz & Mowz jobs are one-offs. Every time a customer needs service, he or she makes the request through the app or the site. Contractors then receive job alerts on the app, often with a photo of the property and always with the price, which is generated by Plowz & Mowz, based on information the homeowner submits. All contractors in the service area receive the alerts and have a chance to accept the job on a first-come, first-served basis.

Matweyou sees some benefit to these platforms and plans to continue to monitor the job alerts for occasional extra work, but he doesn’t believe they will become a major part of this business. It’s important to be picky with the jobs you choose, he says. He leans toward ones with acceptable prices in areas he’s already serving because the platform could take as much as 30 percent off the top.

He’s made about $500 from Plowz and Mowz on about 20 jobs over the last six months. “It’s money I wouldn’t have made otherwise, but it’s not a huge chunk,” he says. “Right now, it’s still new but I don’t think it’s going to be the way business is done from here on out.”

Chad Barlow, owner of Barlow’s Landscaping in Yorktown, Va., is more gung-ho about his experience with one of these platforms.

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Barlow signed on with LawnStarter last season. He founded his company last year when he graduated from college, after cutting lawns on the side for six years. A 23-year-old with an accounting degree, Barlow is a one-man operation, but he’s looking to expand next year.

“I don’t want to be the one cutting grass forever, but I want to stay in the landscaping business and have crews that do the majority of the work for me,” he says. “But it’s like any business, you have to put in the hard work the first couple years.”

He has about 50 recurring mowing accounts, a quarter of which came from LawnStarter. The rest he got on his own from word of mouth or advertising in homeowner association newsletters. 

Barlow, who signs over 20 percent of each LawnStarter job to the company, says he signed a non-compete type of agreement saying he wouldn’t solicit customers from LawnStarter. 

“The contractor doesn’t really have much contact with the clients themselves,” he says. And he’s OK with that. He was skeptical at first but is now sold on the platform, which he says eliminates many of the “headaches” he often faces as a contractor, namely, fielding customer phone calls in the middle of a busy day. In the case of a complaint or call back, LawnStarter’s call center takes those calls, relays them to Barlow and he handles them when he has time in the day.

“You spend less time managing customers, doing billing, scheduling and marketing because they do all of that for you,” he says. “I’ve told them, I’d like them to give me as much business as they can.”


How it works

Service providers apply to participate in a mobile, location-based technology platform. There are typically some requirements, such as commercial equipment and liability insurance. Once accepted, they submit their banking details for direct deposits and download a smartphone app to receive job information.

Homeowners enter requests for service into an app or on the web, along with their address and credit card information. Some platforms allow customers to add photos. They receive pricing either instantly or gradually via bids from contractors.

Depending on the company, the platform assigns a service provider based on geography or the customer chooses his
or her contractor based on the bid.

Service providers perform the agreed-upon work, often fielding all the job details from their app. When they indicate the job is complete, the customer is invoiced or billed automatically and the contractor receives payment electronically.

Homeowners may rate the service providers and may be able to choose recurring service from their providers. Customer service requests flow through the platform—not to the contractor directly. 


Meet the landscape/snow industry mobile tech startups

Platform SR-plowme LawnStarter-Logo GreenPal-logo PLOWZandMOWZ-Logo
Founded 2012 2013 2013 2013
Who’s behind it Yeh Diab, CEO, former lawyer and software salesman 20-something,Virginia Tech graduates Ryan Farley and Steve Corcoran Former landscape company owner Bryan Clayton and partners IT consultant Wills Mahoney and business partner Andrew Englander
App or web? Both Web (mobile-friendly) Both Both
Type of service One time or recurring One time or recurring One time or recurring One time, recurring in development
Pricing Set by providers; submitted to clients Set by platform; tiered rates, depending on property sizes Set by providers; submitted to clients Set by platform; based on property size and other factors
Fees Free initially; monthly fee after certain volume 10-20% of the transaction 5% of the transaction 20-30% of the transaction
Growth plans Honing its platform in Boston; in private beta elsewhere Currently in five markets; recently joined Techstars startup accelerator Focusing on nailing the Nashville market before expanding Currently in 30 markets; expects to be in 60 by the end of the year
Quotable “We’re an infrastructure business to help providers win. We lay down the ‘tracks’ and can help you market and sell tickets, but ultimately it’s your train.”
—Yeh Diab
“Many of our contractors have opted to put their entire book of customers on our software.”
—Ryan Farley
“We’re currently live in Nashville with a few hundred users validating and perfecting the product, our model and growth strategy. We’ll,be launching in six new markets next year.”
—Bryan Clayton
“Our customers can order a plow or a mow once or as often as they like. If a customer rates a provider highly, the provider gets to retain that customer when they order from us in the future.”
—Wills Mahoney

Photos: GreenPal; Plowz & Mowz; Service Route/Plowme

Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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