The Striking Similarity Between My Son’s Lawn Mowing Business and Architecture Firms

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A couple years ago, my son started mowing our neighbor’s lawn. He really did it to help a neighbor out and to make a little vacation money.

Very quickly another neighbor noticed and asked if he’d cut theirs as well. It was great for my son because by the end of the summer he’d had a taste of what work was like (my opinion, not his) and what making money was like. 

Not surprisingly, he liked the flavor of making money.

By the next spring he decided he wanted to make more. He wrote a sales flier and dropped it in a select number of our neighbor’s mailboxes. My son suddenly became a business owner.

This year, the 13-year-old entrepreneur has all his own equipment and a stable of clients that cover his business expenses, fund his savings account and support his obsession with Jordan shoes.

This mowing season also brought with it his first real business lesson. 

Halfway through the summer one of our neighbors came to the door. Their’s wasn’t a house where he’d left a sales flier. They already used a commercial lawn service. A company my son says does “hack jobs.” He’s less than impressed with their quality and care.

Anyway, the neighbors asked if he’d be interested in taking over the care of their lawn. As it turns out, they were less than impressed with the the “hack jobs” too!

I walked to their house with him as the neighbor explained what they wanted. They said the service had been coming on Mondays. They were paying them $30 for about 5 minutes worth of sub-par work with big, commercial mowers.  To cap it all off, they didn’t even trim.

My son looked around, thought for a minute and said: 

“I can’t cut you on Mondays, but I will come by every Tuesday. I’ll give your yard the same care I give everyone else’s that I cut in the neighborhood AND I’ll trim everything for the same price you’re paying now. You know I live across the street so if you’re not happy with something, you can let me know and I’ll refund your money, but I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen.”

That was a proud dad moment!

The following Tuesday he mowed and trimmed as promised. The neighbors paid him $30 as agreed.

The next Tuesday he mowed and trimmed as promised, but the neighbors paid him $15 and said they couldn’t afford to pay him $30 every week.

To his credit, he was polite and respectful as he reminded our neighbor that that wasn’t what they had agreed to. They negotiated a new deal. Now, they would call when they wanted him to mow and they’d pay him $30.

My son EXPLODED when he got home! He took their slight personally. It was a harsh reality for a 13 year old.

Their relationship devolved from there. They had real communication issues. To be fair, I’m sure both sides shared the blame.

One evening, around 5:30 he got a call from the neighbor. Ironically, it was a Tuesday. They wanted him to mow. Several days earlier he’d left them a message letting them know that if they needed him, he’d have to get it on his schedule because we were leaving for vacation on Wednesday. He was cramming all his clients into the last day or two before we left so their lawns wouldn’t go more than about a week without his care.

They waited until Tuesday night to call back. It had to be done before we left.

He wasn’t happy. He felt like they weren’t respecting him, his work or his time, but he did the work anyway and finished as the sun was setting. They weren’t home and they didn’t leave a check for him.

My son EXPLODED when he got home! I’m still not sure if the lack of respect or the lack of payment hurt him more.

Over the next week or two, he left several messages for that neighbor, but received no payment or reply until they were ready for him to mow again. Thankfully, that call landed in his voicemail. Unfortunately, in the voicemail they also said they weren’t going to pay him for the previous time because he hadn’t completed the work (which wasn’t true).

My son EXPLODED when he listened to the message! He was already taking their slights personally, now they were attacking his character and reputation.

Again to his credit, he called the neighbor back and left a polite and respectful voicemail saying he’d mow their lawn again on Tuesday, but only if there was payment for the previous work and this new work on the porch when he got there.

He didn’t hear anything for several days.

Yesterday, he received two checks in the mail and a note that said “Have a great school year. We won’t need you any more after you cut the yard this week.” In short, he was fired.

My son CELEBRATED when he read the note! He’d long been “done” with this client. Cutting ties was a relief.

These days he’s one client shorter, but he’s happier, more efficient and more profitable. He’s not worried about last minute calls or not getting paid or having to manipulate his schedule for one rogue client.

He’s built a good little business, but he’s already talking about expansion goals for next year as well as a few years out. We’ve even noticed (and heard about) a couple commercial lawn services systematically approaching his customers. Apparently this 13 year old entrepreneur is a competitor!

The Takeaway

Can you identify with my son’s experience in his business and with this particular client? 

What should business owners and marketers learn from his story?

Where It All Started 

Let’s break it down:

How many architecture firms were born out of a single project big enough to carry that future business owner for just a few months? 

That’s exactly how my son started. He mowed one lawn. One quickly became two and before he knew it, he had a business on his hands.

In the early days, the growth of his business relied solely on recommendations, referrals and repeat customers. 

Does that sound familiar? 

Marketing For Growth

Eventually, in order to achieve the growth he wanted, he put a marketing system in place. He started by writing and distributing a sales letter. 

Do you have a marketing and business development system designed to meet specific business goals?

How A 13 Year Old Markets His Business … And You Should Too

Like I said, my 13 year old marketer wrote a sales letter. It emphasized the fact that he’s a neighbor and he cares about his neighborhood (his ‘Why’). He talks about the fact that with smaller equipment and personal attention to detail, he can deliver better quality and care than the big commercial crews (his unique value). 

Just as importantly, he targets his Ideal Customer: 

  • Neighbors within walking distance
  • Homeowners who are either young and very busy or aging and less capable
  • People who aren’t keeping up with their properties as well as they used to 

Most of that is Marketing 101. 

  • When you market your business, do you emphasize why you do what you do? 
  • Do you highlight your unique value? 
  • Do you concentrate on attracting just your Ideal Client?

Red Flags And NOT The Ideal Client

What about his struggles with his short-lived customer? What can you learn from that story?

  • Have you ever been approached by a prospective client who’s already working with another architect?
  • How many potential clients have come to you complaining about the fees one of your competitors charge?
  • Has a client ever made a partial payment of your invoice?
  • What happens when communication with your clients break down? 

There were plenty of red flags from the first conversation to the last with my son’s difficult customer. I’m sure you’ve been in that situation. The question is what did you do? 

Did ignore the red flags and … Take on a project just to be nice? Continue working out of some sense of pride or professional obligation? Continue to hope against hope?

My son did … on all accounts. 

Sometimes, you need to say ‘No.’

Sometimes, you need to say 'No.' Of course that’s usually easier said than done. If you need work, you need work. 

What if you considered the amount of time and effort that might be wasted in a case like this and instead of saying ‘Yes’ you spend a portion of that time and effort focused on building relationships with your Ideal Clients and searching for better opportunities? In a way, it comes down to a mindset.

What if you already said ‘Yes’ and you’re struggling like my son did? Sometimes, you need to cut your losses.

Again, that’s easier said than done. Read your agreements. What do they say? Hopefully, your contracts outline your clients’ responsibilities (as well as your own). Hopefully, they lay out a response to non-payment. Obviously consult with your legal council, but hoping against hope isn’t moving you forward. It might be time to cut your losses and work on profitable projects.

Summary

To wrap up my son’s story and the lessons you can learn from his experiences, let’s just say that it’s fine to start small and rely on recommendations, referrals and repeat customers, but in order to grow and thrive, you have to implement a marketing plan based on your purpose and unique value to attract what you consider your Ideal Clients. 

If you have any questions about how to develop a marketing strategy or how to identify your Ideal Client, click this link to schedule a call with me.