I will straight shoot from someone that's been in business for 21 years now. Solo for 6, then 5-7 guys for 4, then solo again for 9 until I broke my foot, then 2 guys for 2 years, and now going back to solo. I'll break down the history of it all for you.
After you read this post, read the one from ProCut on "how to fail in this business from someone who has".
The margins are no longer there to run too many crews.
Everyone talks about how you're going to be big like Brickman, but then complains about how cheap Brickman is.
I was solo for 6 years, then started to hire. I hired a guy, then 2, and before I knew it I had 7 guys working for me and absolutely hated it. I was losing money left and right because the guys were screwing everything up.
I did that for 2 seasons, then year #10 I went back to being solo. I picked the best 40 accounts I had, put them all on a flat fee and made money hand over fist.
I did that for another 9 years, and broke my foot. Here's where it I thought I had everything figured out. I had contracts on all of my accounts, so we were getting paid whether it rained or not, whether the irrigation was turned on or not, whether it snowed or not, I got money.
I had 2 GREAT guys, or so I thought. One was 18, fast hard worker, but didn't care too much about quality. The other was 45 and exact on quality, but was a little slow. I figured they could balance each other out, but in fact they drew apart to the point where they wouldn't even talk to each other anymore.
This last winter I ended up having both quit. The older one couldn't take the cockyness of the 18 year old, and the 18 year old left to go to work at a small town's public works for $7 / hour less, but is paid benefits.
I was paying my guys $17 / hour.
I'm going back to solo. I cannot handle the random dents in the trucks. The "hey, where's the third trimmer?", the "yeah, hey, I know it's Thursday and it rained Monday and Tuesday, but do you think I can have Friday off because the gf has it off and we'd really like to go to the lake?".
You can plan for all of the wages expenses, the increase in insurance expenses, the additional fuel, maintenance, machine expenses.
What you cannot plan for is the addition "stupid" expenses, replacing a lost piece of equipment, fixing a dent in a tailgate, fixing a broken window, etc.
Don't listen to the people that say if you're running solo, you're not running a business.
"A business (also called a company, enterprise or firm) is a legally recognized organization designed to provide goods and/or services to consumers. Businesses are predominant in capitalist economies, most being privately owned and formed to earn profit that will increase the wealth of its owners and grow the business itself. The owners and operators of a business have as one of their main objectives the receipt or generation of a financial return in exchange for work and acceptance of risk. Notable exceptions include cooperative enterprises and state-owned enterprises. Businesses can also be formed not-for-profit or be state-owned."
No where does it say anything about having to have employees to be a business. If you're doing a service for someone, receiving compensation, you're a business.
If you're comfortable with growing a business and being an HR person, which, IMO, would mean that you still have a JOB that you have to do, the head of True Green Chemlawn has to go to his JOB, the head of Brickman has to go to his JOB, you're just running a BUSINESS where your comfort level rests.
I don't see the profit margins being there to run 2-3 crews right now. If you get national large, like Brickman, Scotts, etc., don't you think there's the next level of companies like USM, or others that are going to knock .001 / 1000 sq ft off of each bid so they in turn can show they can save Kohls, Walmart, etc., $1,000,000 on their lawn mowing bill?
It never ends, you will always have to WORK, whether on a mower, or on the phone trying to land that next bid.
If you're happy being in the field, stay small, keep your profit margins higher and you can live knowing you're running a small, personal business.
If you're happier being in the office, tracking down the next bid opportunity, selling selling selling, get 2-3 crews going and plan on living on 10-15% (on the high end) profit margins right now. Every other company with 2-3 crews is going to be cutting profits to keep everything else rolling.
IMO, find a niche, and exploit it. If that means you can get a decent one and keep 2 trucks running, by all means do it. Just remember. If something happens and that second crew doesn't get the work done, it'll come back to you.
I was happiest working 70-90 hour weeks by myself, but my family life struggled. I have an 8 year old and 5 year old and they need their dad around. I broke my foot in August of '08 and found out how nice it was to be home every night at 4-5 pm with the guys working for me.
I just couldn't handle living on the 10% profit margin right now. I do have a higher debt load than most and I'll be clearing that out over the next 2 years (knock on wood).
I'm going back to mostly solo, unless I can regain this $24,500 bid that should be decided here next week, hopefully. I was told I had it, but then it was told to me that someone else had put in a bid for $19,400.
So, we'll see.