My quick advice:
1. Don't listen to anyone who says there's too many people doing this. They're your competition! LOL I haven't advertised in years and turn away people every week who approach me. They say they can't find anyone RELIABLE.
2. Make Reliability and quality-for-the-price your selling points. Lowballing on prices just to get customers just results in customers you don't keep for long and lowers pay for everyone.
3. Related to the above, you can charge above-average rates on residential lawns if you are 100% reliable and do good work for the price. This means do NOT overbook your schedule on the assumption that it will never rain, you will never have breakdowns, and you will never just be not in the mood to work late. Only one or two "no shows" will destroy the customers' opinion of you. Once you gain their trust, you will find referrals easy to get and the customers less picky and demanding. There really is NO excuse for not getting a lawn mowed on time, short of maybe 3 straight days of rain (never happens here)
4. Spell out what you will do for what price, and be as specific as possible. A "mowing" is not always the same. Prices vary a lot based on how often you mow, and what you do on-site. Just talk to the prospect and find out what their expectations are, then price the lawn providing just a little extra degree above what they want. Just a little. That allows you to toss in "freebies" that they really appreciate, but you're really getting paid for them. Pricing low to get customers will result in you trying to cut corners, and they will wind up unhappy. They also may assume you're inferior in quality if you're much too low on price.
5. Always do what you say you will do, and return phone calls promptly. My customers at first always seem surprised that I call them back so quickly. I guess they're not used to it. You don't have to give out your cell phone number, but do call back the same day if you get a message.
6. Avoid hard-to-please people, and don't hesitate to drop them like a hot potato once you identify them. 5% of the people will cause 95% of your headaches. I find widows and single women generally much easier to deal with than Corporate office workers/professionals or old men. My theory about it is that some businessmen/professionals have a chip on their shoulder because they feel they should be doing it and feel unmanly because they can't. Some old men tend to have 1950's pay scales in mind, and in their era they saw manual labor jobs as super-low paying. They tend to also be guys who love working in the lawn but can't anymore, and they are bored, so they pester you with niggling requests, and often want to watch you as you work. Talk about a drag! Older women and working women seem to really be impressed and greatful that you've saved them the drudgery of getting all sweaty on the weekend. They also tend to value a professional looking lawn guy more than men do. I guess they're worried about some scroungy guy being there.
7. Dress sharp (hiking shorts and t-shirt with company name as a minimum), and keep your equipment sharp looking. You'd be surprised how much more you can charge with a late model truck and good equipment. My brother is an electrician and switched from an old white van to a new Dodge Ram 4x4 with special walk-in top, professional signage, etc, and he said people instantly quit haggling on price. They just assumed he was better because he had a nicer vehicle. People are superficial, so use it to your advantage. It also indicates to them, true or not, at quotation time that you're a sucess, not someone who mows lawns because he can't hold a 9-5 job due to his drug habit.
8. Buy the best equipment you can afford, but do not overbuy. This means that if you're only mowing 8 lawns a week, don't invest $10,000 in a diesel zero-turn mower. That said, I love ZTR's and working full time, it can pay for itself in a year in added income. Do NOT show up with your homeowner equipment, you will immediately be seen as a pretender. It will also break down constantly. Minimum equip for 1/2 acre lawns would be a 36" commercial walk behind mower w/ bagger, straight shaft string trimmer, backpack blower, and a 21" trim mower if you need one to fit in tight areas. Trash barrels/tarps for clippings may be necessary. A stand-on sulky is a good investment too. It's more expensive to buy junk and replace it soon than to just buy good stuff to start.
Remember, a 36" walk-behind will mow about 3 times faster than a typical 21" mower, and also handles heavy grass much much better. It would almost pay for itself in a season in terms of added productivity. Even part time, it pays to buy a real commercial mower. Consider a used model if you're on a budget, for about $1000. New models range from $2500 to $3500 and more.
9. For part time work, consider a nice full size pickup and a ramp system so you avoid hauling buying, and storing a trailer. Better systems will speed you up and pay for themselves. The truck can double as your personal-use vehicle and usually is a better bet than buying an old truck only for work. I think a used full-size truck is a better bet than a new compact.
10. Since you're part time, working for EXTRA money, stick to doing what you like best and avoid getting drawn into stuff you hate. There are always lots of people who just need the lawn mowed and nothing else. If you start planting flowers, doing light landscaping, etc, you will find yourself driving back and forth and never getting much paying work done. Mowing pays the most per/hour, is physically easier than digging/etc, and since you've already got the equipment, you might as well max that out. It also is more, pardon the pun, cut and dried. It's either mowed well or it isn't. Not many complaint calls to fend off, unlike landscaping. Some guys do flowers and such because they like the creativity, but it doesn't always pay that good when you factor in drive time, shopping, call backs,etc. Keep it simple and mow, mow, mow until you gain experience.
Then expand if you want.
11. You'll need business insurance on your vehicle and liability. It's not always easy to get if you're brand new, but try looking online. It's a little more to insure your vehicle for business use, but if you had a serious accident, you could be denied coverage on a personal-use policy. I pay about $1600/year for truck and gen. liability coverage of $2 million. I was paying $900 for just the truck on a personal policy, but despite my agent's assurances, I found out it would exclude coverage if I had an accident while at work.
12. Open a "doing business as" DBA account at your bank. This allows you to deposit checks in your business name and keep your finances seperate from your personal account.
13. Use a simple financial program like Quicken to track your finances. It really helps at tax time and gives you a lot of info you wouldn' think you'd need.
14. Spend time looking at your customer base and figuring out which type of lawns pay best overall. Do you make more doing the ugly weedy lawns for undemanding customers, or the manicured, fussy lawns that pay a little more per mow, but take up too much time? Then go get the high paying ones and drop the money losers. I did this and make more money and work a lot less than I used to.
15. Don't bother with a sign on your truck, business stationary, etc, if you don't want to. I've never had anyone flag me down in traffic for a business card, which I do recommend. It also can look pretentious if you're a guy mowing a few lawns each week on the side and acting like you're some big company. Be professional, but be realistic. I suggest using a company name that shares yours. eg. "Holden lawncare" rather than some cute corporate name like "mows n gos".
16. Do your research, find out what you can charge, decide what you need to charge that's within what the market will bear, and stick to it. You may want to give small discounts early on, but be prepared to raise prices once you've established trust with customers. If you charge $24 at first because you're desperate, you can NEVER raise the customer to the $36 you should be charging. They simply wouldn't stand for it.
17. Read and learn about how grass grows. Even if you're not doing applications, it's nice to know what you're talking about if you spot problems and can leave a note for customers. I once tried to seed a Bermuda lawn for a customer, upon their request, years ago when I started part-time. Trouble is, you can't seed a hybrid Bermuda lawn! I got a polite call firing me later when rough, common Bermuda grew up in their lawn. I have since become a PLCAA certified turfgrass professional.
18. Don't do fertilizing/weed control. You can't do it legally without a lot of overhead anyway, and it is a huge source of customer calls with questions and complaints. It also screws up your routing and mowing schedule. Your insurance also won't cover you for this unless you pay extra. Many small timers out there fertilzing lawns may well be doing it illegally. It doesn' t pay that great, either.
19. Be prepared to be treated a little different by some people because you're the lawn guy. Don't be surprised if people treat you as if you're invisable, or they act condesending and assume you're borderline ******ed. To some, you're just "the help". Most people are nice, but some act as if you're not even human. I have a few customers who to this day don't realize that I'm the personable guy on the phone they talk to so nicely. They just glare at me when I'm out mowing their lawn! Watch the movie "Lawn Dogs" for a small taste of the general attitude in some subdivisions. Good luck
I agree and disagree with a lot of the stuff you wrote Bruce, but WOW!!
Are you sure your not the grassmaster?? LOL!!
Good post, and pretty good advise.
I think I'l copy that into word and re-paste it for all the new users when they ask for generic help with their first few posts. (with credit to you of course) if its okay.
TSgt David M. Famiglietti
United States Air Force
EarthWorks Professional Outdoor Services
North Las Vegas, Nevada