The Reality Of Building A Great Company

In this video, Jonathan shares his personal journey and the true reality of building a great company.

From chatting with some Service Autopilot members, chatting with some individuals that are part of the Service Autopilot Academy and then looking at some of the comments on YouTube, I realized that when I do a video and I describe what I went through or how I got here, it resonates a little bit more versus when I do a video that simply says, “Hey, here’s an idea that I’ve learned that you might want to try to see if it solves a problem in your business.” I don’t know how this will come across, but I thought I’d just, off the cuff, record a video and describe what my business was like in the beginning and take away some of the illusion that it was not so hard or that I just knew what to do.

You didn’t know me ten years ago when the business got started, and you didn’t see what we went through. Those that have seen the business, see where it’s at now and they’re like “I’d like to have that.” But, it was a long road to get here. I’ll give you an example. When I was in high school, 8th grade I guess, so prior to high school, my mom drove me around to mow lawns. I mowed lawns all the way through high school and into my freshman year of college when I got out of the business. I had a couple of people that worked for me in high school, but I was basically a kid mowing lawns and trimming bushes and pulling weeds. That was really the only thing I did, but I did it really well for a high school kid. I got out of the business when I was in college and I went into some other things.

I wanted to be in software, and I also wanted to start a vending business. My allergies were driving me crazy, so I got out of the business. That was the end of my lawn care career, but it influenced me enough to know that I wanted to be in business for myself. I didn’t have a role model that was in business for themselves, so that had affected me. I knew this was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to get there. Ultimately what happened is I ended up getting my degree. While I was getting my degree, I ended up working at a software company. Early on when I was 21-22 years old, I worked at a software company. I liked the company, but I really wanted to be back in business for myself.

Now I’m married. I got married when I was 22, and it was a little bit more difficult to go out and start that business. I bought a house, and I remember the struggle of trying to figure how I was going to get back out on my own and how I was going to afford to build the business and give up my job and all these other things. It was a real struggle to get there. I went through a bunch of stuff. I finally got back out on my own doing computer consulting with my business partner who is now my business partner in Service Autopilot, and then along the way ended up in a couple different service industries.

Fast forward to 2005, the end of 2004, on a complete fluke I ended up back in the lawn care business. Never did I think that was going to happen. I have to tell you the back story to explain that. In 2004-2005, the business really started going in spring of 2005. I didn’t know anything. Remember, I was this high school kid years earlier that just mowed lawns and had a couple guys working for me, so when I got in the business, I thought I needed to do everything. I started collecting flyers from others and I copied some of their flyers and I tried some postcards. I didn’t know my trees, my grass, my weeds, I knew nothing, but from experience thought, “I better go out there and start selling some work.”

I started walking into buildings and asking for commercial work, and that’s how I got some of my early commercial work. I ended up getting a big contract for $145,000 and ended up getting a bunch of smaller jobs that paid $3500 a year or $8,000 a year. I also had a whole bunch of small properties that I bought from a guy that was in his 60s and was getting out of the business and I bought about $50,000 worth of small commercial jobs that paid anywhere from $35 to $85 a week. That was the beginning of the business. Then I started to do these postcards and door hangers and I was mailing them out and I built a website. I knew how to do that because I knew technology, so I had some leads coming in. Now I’m doing small commercial, big commercial, big residential that’s 2 and 3 acres, half acre stuff, and some small stuff where the gross lot square footage may have been 10,000 square feet.

I was running around doing everything. I was going and seeing all the customers, I was selling, answering the phone, buying the trucks, and doing everything. It was just me. I started having all kinds of problems. I remember that I would work every night until super late. My desk was a complete disaster, and in 2005, it sounds crazy now, I remember in the very beginning I had an answering machine on my desk, and in spring I’d come back and there was like ten messages on this answering machine because nobody was answering the phone. That was the very beginning. I was completely scattered because I was doing everything. I’d have a guy that came in, I remember it clearly, at 1:30 and drops off the crew and everything and says, “I’m done today, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

I could just go down the list. I had guys that would call me on Sunday night drunk to quit and then on Monday they’d show up for work. It just never ended. A truck would break down because I bought all inexpensive cheap stuff because we didn’t have tons of money to throw into this business, or we’d be doing a landscape job and I didn’t know how to actually do a flower bed correctly so we wouldn’t dig out enough dirt and we’d do the job and then 3 weeks later they’ve got weeds and grass growing up in the flower beds and it was a complete mess. I’d have to go back and fix that, or something would go wrong with a flower delivery. I’d be running the errands to get flowers and I’d be going to Home Depot to get a shovel. I’d be going to meet clients for estimates and then getting home at 8:30 at night, starting my day again at 6 and probably doing some paperwork at night. It was just miserable, and I hated the business. I was still doing computer consulting as well.

Now that I think about it, I was doing computer consulting at night until 2 o’clock in the morning. It was insanity, but I was trying to get this business going and I was just working these insane hours. I was miserable, I wasn’t happy, the business was hardly making any money. I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing and I was self conscious because I didn’t know how to figure out what to do. I didn’t know my plants, I didn’t know my flowers, I’d go out and see a client, she’d point out a bush and say, “Hey, what’s this bush?” I’d have to play it off like, “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” and then I’d have to go look it up when I get back to the office and realize oh, it’s a nandina or whatever. Then next time hopefully I’d remember that, and eventually I had to memorize my weeds and my flowers. I could never diagnose diseases either. You get the idea.

It was one thing after another, and then when I had this $140,000 account and I kept it for several years, and we sucked at fertilization and weed control. I couldn’t keep a good tack on fertilization and weed control so it got to the point where I wasn’t doing any of the physical work, I was doing everything else. It got to the point where now I’m getting up every morning at 5:30, getting the spray rig, and I’m out there spraying these properties because we have no spray tech. This went on for several months, and then I’m doing all my other stuff I have going on. What happened is we would get so far behind on stuff that we’d end up with weeds in the $145,000 account, and that account consisted of 8 properties. We’d do some really good work there, but then we’d drop the ball on fertilization and weed control and we’d get behind the 8 ball on it. Ultimately, after a couple years, we lost that account.

I had my own excuse for why I lost the account. My excuse was because the purchasing manager at that place gave the job to somebody that he knew from his church, and I thought, “That’s a scam.” But in hindsight, if I’d been kicking ass on that job, if I had had my ducks in a row and there had been no weeds and that thing would have been perfect, it wouldn’t have opened the door. I had my little excuse for that, but in reality it was my own fault. I was doing every service. I was trying to do everything, and everything was on me. I was slow to hire help.

I learned all these lessons in a matter of a year and a half. I didn’t learn everything I needed to know, but I started learning where I was really making some big mistakes.

I had some prior experience in another service business where we were doing things a little bit smarter, but it was bigger. Now I start this other thing and I’m not making the same smart decisions because I’m trying so hard to manage every cost, but yet I’m blind to the fact that by saving $10 or $15 here per hour on hiring somebody, I’m now doing all this $10 and $15 work, so it made my life miserable, made the company slow to grow. I just dealt with one problem after another. It was miserable. I kept running the numbers like, “I swear there’s something to this business, I know I can make money at this.” But I’m kind of ready to just screw it and throw in the towel.

You may have heard this part before, I think I’ve said this publicly, I basically got to the point where I didn’t care. I was so freaking burned out, I was so tired, I was self conscious in a sense like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing here, I don’t know all the things I need to know.” You get the idea. I think I’ve set it up good enough. The point I’m wanting to make is I basically got to the point where I was done. I was worn out, I was frustrated, I was stressed, I was questioning what I knew. I was really smart, I thought, in certain areas, but now this business is making me question some of my ability or time management. Out of this, I learned so many lessons, and I finally just said, “Screw it, I’m done, I don’t care if the business closes, falls apart, whatever, I don’t care but I’m trying something different.” Thank goodness I did.

I realized that I wasn’t managing my time as good as I needed to, so I really started working on that. But, first I had to make some major changes in the business and I’ll get to that in a moment. I also realized that I really do not know how to market. I can go out and sell an account, I can meet with you face to face and I can win the business, but I don’t know how to get you to come to me. I had no idea how to do it. I had all these great intentions about things I wanted to do with customer service or better ways to organize the business, but I realized that I’m too busy to do any of that stuff and one of my characteristics is I get it 40% done and then I move on to the next thing and that thing never gets implemented or never gets finished. I’m always moving to the next thing because I have 25 million things going on, or the next problem’s always hitting me in the face. I was almost done with this problem, but this one’s now more important, so I move to that.

I started to realize all these things about myself that I had to then work on. I started to really learn marketing, and through marketing I learned things about customer service and all kinds of other things. There was just all these things I had to learn. I already had a nice base set of skills and knowledge, and it was good for the other businesses that I had done such as the consulting and the other service business I was in, but it wasn’t good enough to get me where I wanted to go in this business. At the end of the day, I finally just fired all the clients, all the employees that drove me crazy, scaled the whole business back down to one crew, and it changed my world. It did a couple things.

I realized, “Wow, I can actually make money in this business.” My energy level went way up. “Okay, I can build off of this.” Suddenly I have all this time. I fired all the problem clients, all the problem employees, I became very focused on a small service area instead of running my trucks 35 miles away to commercial properties. I became very focused on a small area and I got very clear on what kind of work we wanted to do.

We didn’t want big residential, that was like doing commercial. I really didn’t want tons of commercial. I wanted more, but just the right jobs and I wanted a lot of really close together residential. I also realized that fertilization and weed control was really hurting us because I didn’t have the time to be an expert, so I got some help on that. I found somebody I could contract some stuff to temporarily, and then I got out of landscape because I didn’t know what I was doing. It was driving me crazy, it was taking me tons of time. I was the delivery boy for that, and I just stopped doing irrigation work and stopped doing aeration.

We just simplified so many things, and it was life changing. My crappy trucks, my decent equipment, my crappy marketing, my lousy phone system, all these things started to improve because I started to have a little bit more money and I started to be able to think clearly and I started spending a lot of money to go to conferences, seminars and I joined a business group that was pretty expensive. I ultimately spent some one on one money to go sit down with the really smart marketing people and just asked questions. I spent a lot of money, and it was money I didn’t have, but that was the catalyst that changed everything. It wasn’t that tomorrow I woke up and everything was rosy and perfect. It was that I continued to make improvements. I upgraded a truck, that got rid of some problems. I got out of fertilization and weed control because I contracted it, that took some more problems off my plate. I quit doing landscape, took some more problems off my plate. I started to learn how to do some marketing. I started getting more leads that I could already close so I knew how to do that so I had more business which gave me more money.

Then I hired another person, and then I said, “You know what? It’s time to have a phone person.” Actually that happened prior to the events I’m talking about, but I just kept making one more little incremental improvement over a number of years, and it took about 4 years from getting started in 05 to mid 2009. By mid 2009, I had a pretty big client account, and that was because my goal was wrong and I was just trying to get lots of clients versus make lots of profit. I was totally flawed in that. My goal was client accounts, my goal was not profit. Totally screwed up, but I learned that lesson. What I’m trying to say is in about a 4 year period, maybe 4 and a half year period, I do have a lot of clients but it’s not a very profitable business. Over that time, I learned so many things. I implemented so many things. I changed so many things. I got so many things off my plate, that every month there was a little more progress.

By about 4 and a half years in, things are getting decent. They’re pretty good. I’ve got a good business…I’ve definitely got a decent business, but not a great business. From about that moment in time on, because my team started getting better, I could get more help. I had an operations manager, that’s when it exploded. It took me 4 and a half years to figure all that stuff out. It took me all that time to quit doing the dumb things and start learning the right things and start slowly implementing the right things. It took me that long to become focused, and every year it got better. It wasn’t horrible all the way through 4 and a half years, but it wasn’t perfect and it kept getting better.

Every year I was doubling. First year I did 125, then 250, then just under 500,000, and then a million, something like that, and then boom. That’s when it took off, and that’s why I feel like and I’ve heard it with other people, that up to that first million, you’re just learning so many lessons. You’re figuring so many things out. You don’t have hardly any help, and now you’re starting to get help and now your help is starting to learn how your business works. They’re starting to get smarter, so by around that million dollar mark, things can explode, and that’s when you can see these dramatic jumps. Getting to the 2 million from a million, that happened in no time. That stuff happened fast because I now knew some things. I quit making the stupid mistakes. I was more organized and I had a team.

If I could show you what it looked like, and I actually did a video showing my original first mower, if you could have witnessed it, it would give you a totally different vision of where we’re at today. You’d probably be shocked, but that’s how it works. That saying of, that person’s a 20 year success, or the overnight success that took 20 years, you might have heard that saying. That’s really how it works. I started recording videos 5 years into the business, right at that place where I was doing over a million dollars, and I had 900 clients, I don’t remember now. About that time is when everything exploded because now I knew what to do and I was doing the right things, and it was all about continuing to execute the right plan over and over again.

I don’t know if that helps at all. I don’t know if that gives you any encouragement without you actually seeing what it was like. I don’t know if I’ve done a good job describing it, but your scenario is not unique. Your struggles, your frustration, your questioning of your ability, your frustration and you’re like, “Why can’t I figure this out, but all these other guys have?” All that stuff is completely normal. It’s what everybody goes through. Nobody wakes up one day, starts a business, and has all the answers. Nobody reads Ink Magazine like, “Oh dude I’ve been reading Ink Magazine for two years, I know how to build a business, this isn’t gonna be that hard.”

No way. Nobody knows what to do. Most of the guys that build a quick fast growing business, it wasn’t their first. It’s their third. They’ve already screwed up so many things. They already figured out so many things, that when they did it the third time or the second time or the fourth time or whatever, they know some stuff now, and maybe they even have a little bit of money that they can go hire some people to help them grow the thing fast. It’s normal.

You’ve gotta go through it. But, once you go through this business, if this is your first, and you build a real team and a real company and you grow it bigger, whatever your next endeavor is in life, it’ll be so much easier. It’ll have a whole new set of problems, a whole new set of things you don’t know. It’ll be so much easier because you’ve had some experiences and you’ve been through some challenges and you’ve been through the struggles and now you have some answers. You know where to look for answers. Most of us when we started, we didn’t know where to look for answers. When you know where to look for answers, you can find solutions, and when you can find solutions, you can solve almost any problem. I hope that is just a little bit of encouragement for you to keep going, keep pushing on, keep fighting through and keep looking for those answers, and keep simplifying your business and keep pushing on. It’s life changing. Good luck.

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