As you know, lawn maintenance is a seasonal business, with downtime during the winter in about two-thirds of the country. Depending on your area and climate, the prime growing months run from about April to early October. You'll need to market your services aggressively in the spring so you'll have enough clients to carry you through the summer. Then, in the fall, you should be winterizing lawns, raking leaves and collecting past-due accounts. Still have energy left to spare? Then during the winter, you can offer services like snow plowing. If you decide to take a well-deserved break instead, you'll have to make sure in advance that you've budgeted wisely throughout the year and have sufficient funds to carry you through those income-free months.
The typical startup lawn care business services 20 to 30 residential clients a week and offers up to three types of services: mowing, fertilizing and chemical application. For the purpose of the lawn care part of this book, we'll focus on mowing and fertilizing, since chemical applications (herbicides, pesticides and fungicides) are a whole industry unto themselves. It's also a closely regulated industry that requires practitioners to earn certifications that permit them to handle these hazardous compounds.
Most lawn care service owners prefer to start out with basic mowing and add other services as they become more experienced and acquire more equipment.
Basic lawn maintenance consists of mowing, edging and trimming. Often, bush and hedge trimming is offered as an extra service, but it's more time-consuming and requires more manual dexterity than mowing. Lawn businesses sometimes send out two people to a job site so one person can do the mowing while the other edges and trims the areas the mower can't reach. But if you're a one-man (or one-woman) band, you'll just have to allot extra time on each site to complete both jobs. Fortunately, not all lawns have to be edged every time you mow. Sometimes only minor touch-ups are necessary, which you can do using a hand edger.
It's crucial to the survival of your business to keep all your equipment in peak working condition. That means cleaning the mower blades at the end of each day and using a grinding wheel regularly to keep them sharp. You should also use a balancing weight to prolong engine life and to help prevent white finger, a form of Raynaud's disease caused by exposure to constant vibration from equipment like lawn mowers. Clean oil and air filters regularly to keep engine wear to a minimum and improve performance. The oil should also be changed often-as often as once a week, since the high heat of the mower causes lubricants to break down fast.
It goes without saying that you should take every precaution possible to protect yourself while working. Always wear safety goggles and ear protection, and always remember to let your mower cool down completely before you gas it up. Because the cutting blade can rotate at up to 200 miles per hour, never put your hand into the discharge chute or turn the mower over while the blade is spinning. In addition to the obvious injuries it can inflict, that razor-sharp blade can catapult projectiles like rocks, metal or even compacted grass that can do a body some serious damage.
Guesstimating Your Worth
Another important part of the job is providing estimates to prospective clients. Unfortunately, this is an inexact science, at best. Most of the owners we spoke with "guesstimate" how much time it will take them to mow a homeowner's property, then multiply that by a price per hour. The problem with this method is that land features like slopes and ornamental landscaping can affect the time. For example, let's say it will take you 70 minutes to mow a 10,000-square-foot property using a 22-inch mower. But toss in a backyard that's landscaped with driftwood and rocks and has a raised vegetable garden, and your estimate is no longer quite as accurate.
Experts recommend pricing based on lawn size. It's less arbitrary to set up a pricing structure this way, plus you'll seem more professional to your prospects if you have an established, formal price structure. You can compensate for unusual land features by building an extra amount-say, 10 percent-into your price.
Before you can make an estimate, you have to know how much to charge per square foot. Since the lawn care industry is so competitive, it's important not to overprice your services. The professional organizations and publications that serve the lawn care industry may be able to help, because many of them conduct annual member studies. In particular, you may find Lawn & Landscape magazine's State of the Industry Report, which appears in its October issue, to be particularly enlightening.
But you can also figure out how much the market will bear by calculating the size of your own lot and calling a few of the lawn care companies in the Yellow Pages for an estimate. (Typically, owners of lawn care services calculate their prices based on the total square footage of the lot. They can usually estimate roughly how much of a lot is landscaping.) Then recruit a few family members and friends to call for quotes on their lawns, too, so you can get a feel for prices on lots of different sizes. This will help you determine the acceptable price range in your community, and then it's easy to figure out where to price your services. This method works especially well if you're doing business in a community with uniformly platted subdivisions or other similarly sized lots.
Incidentally, while you don't want to be the most expensive service in town, you don't have to undercut the competition to get jobs, either. Pricing your services somewhere in the middle or toward the top of the range is a good rule of thumb. Then it's up to you to demonstrate that your professionalism, quality service and reliability set you apart from the competition and justify a higher price than the cheapest kid on the block.
The owners interviewed for this book charge anywhere from $20 to $85 per cut. Others charge a flat rate like $100 per month or $40 per hour. All of them base their estimates on a visual inspection of the property, and some measured the mowing area as described above.
Weathering the Storm(s)
Then there are weather issues to contend with. Even in the sunniest of climes, you are likely to have days when you can't mow or plant or prune-like when the winds reach hurricane speed or you notice your neighbor is building an ark. There's not much you can do when grass and landscaping are wet-except maybe catch up on paperwork, lust over equipment catalogs and read e-mail. That's why many green industry service providers choose to work a five-day workweek, leaving Saturdays (and Sundays, if necessary) unscheduled just in case the weather wreaks havoc with their work plans. Alternatively, you can work longer hours on a regular maintenance day to catch up-chances are people won't even blink if you're out merrily mowing or trimming as the sun is setting because it means they don't have to.
There's one more weather phenomenon you may actually welcome, at least in the northern tier of the country. Snow plowing can be a very lucrative mainstay for or sideline to add to your lawn or landscaping business. It doesn't cost much to launch a snow removal service-basically you need only a snow blade for your mower or truck and some extra advertising efforts. (Food for thought: Michigan landscaper Michael Collins, who runs Celtic Lawn & Landscape with Karen Deighton, reports that he gets 70 percent of his snow plowing business through his website.) Best of all, offering such a service means you'll have a regular income stream even during the slowest part of the year.
You also could get creative like Albert Towns Jr., a Detroit lawn care service provider who supplements his wintertime income both by putting up Christmas lights and by shoveling sidewalks for a number of elderly people. Then, in the spring, he does in-ground sprinkler system work to get his revenue stream off to a good start.