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The Tale of an Underachiever

Discussion in 'Introduce Yourself' started by mtdman, Aug 4, 2003.

  1. mtdman

    mtdman LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,143

    When I was a little kid, one of the best things I got to do was help my dad mow the lawn. In my earlier years, I was in charge of picking up sticks and debris in the yard. As I grew, I got to actually push the mower for half the yard, and help my dad empty the grass catcher. The best part about it wasn't the actual cutting, it was the time I spent with my dad. Father and son bonding time. He taught me how to mow a yard, and it was a cool thing. Along with listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey do Tiger's games on the back porch, mowing the lawn with my dad is one of my favorite childhood memories.

    When I was in Jr High School, I was cutting for a few neighbors and making a modest amount of $$ as well. I started with a few, but was soon doing a half dozen lawns on the block. I soon gave that up for the better income of a paper route, but I always enjoyed mowing our yard at home, and doing a few folks when they were on vacation. After my grandpa died, I was in charge of cutting my grandmother's lawn. Again, the best thing about that wasn't the cutting but the time I spent with her talking and eating the sandwhiches she made.

    Fast forward to college, early 1990s. I came home from school for the summer after freshman year and found that my best friend was working for a landscaper in town. Didn't know much about that kind of stuff, and never thought that people could actually make money mowing lawns. Up until that time, it had never occured to me that people would pay an actual company to take care of their lawns. Most of my neighbors were still using the kid down the street and giving him $5 to cut the lawn. This whole idea of a lawn care company was new to me, and very attractive as well. I started paying attention to the lawn crews that would cut the mini-mall down the street, and quickly became jealous of the big mowers and cool machinery. 'What a great job', I thought. But the summer job I did have and the classes I took during the spring term kept me from taking any lawn care jobs for the summer.

    Fast forward 4 years to the end of my 5th year at U of M. I was bored to death with school, it had become apparent that I was not going to med school with the grades I had in college, and I couldn't stand the research job I had at a cancer lab at the Hospital. A life devoted to science and biology wasn't exactly what I thought it would be, and certainly didn't pay that well. Everything I thought I wanted to do in life was not working out, and I dropped out of school with 3 classes left to take to graduate.

    That summer a friend that I met working at a local grocery store and I started a lawn business. The idea, at first, was to make a few $$ on the side by mowing a few lawns in the area. Advertise in the paper and get maybe 10 or so old ladies that needed the help. I wanted to start small with push mowers and cheap equipment. He wanted to go out and buy all brand new big stuff before we even had a contract. We ended up with a mixture of small equipment at first, then buying a walk behind after a month or so. That summer saw us doing everything from mowing lawns to (badly) landscaping to installing brick pavers. That partner and I never quite saw eye to eye, and eventually we agreed to call it quits. He bought me out for $500 and kept the company. I went back to working at the grocery store and wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life, and if I would ever go back to school???
  2. mtdman

    mtdman LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,143

    That following winter was a bad one for me. I was young and pissed off. Didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. The job I had sucked, my car died, and I was pretty broke. I wasn't real happy with the way the previous year's attempt to start up went, and I was convinced I could do much better. It was a long, cold, angry winter for me.

    When Spring arrived, it was like a rebirth. I managed to get the vehicle running, and I was determined to start again with my lawn business. I decided to enter into a new partnership with a different coworker who I had known for quite a while prior to working together, and considered a friend. We started out by buying a craftsman mower, a ryobi trimmer and a hand held blower. We worked out of the trunk of my car, and managed to hold a whole 12 customers through the year. It wasn't a very fruitful enterprise, but it was a great learning experience. We made enough to add a second push mower and pay off all the equipment. Not bad for part time work.

    The next year I moved up to a pickup truck and we started early with advertising. We did the paper, made fliers, went door to door, everything we could think of to get work. By May we had a customer base of 50 clients and we were working 5 days a week, half days after work. We had a nice flow of cash, and saved enough to buy a 52 inch walk behind and trailer. At leaf time we added a back pack blower, and made even more doing leaf cleanups. Things were definitely looking up.
  3. mtdman

    mtdman LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,143

    The next season, our third, I quit my grocery store job to do mowing full time. I got a lot of slack from that. Many of my family and friends were giving me a hard time about going back to school, or looking for a 'real' job. They were sure I'd end up in the poor house broke by the end of the summer. No one wanted to consider that lawn care was a respectable job or that I could make a good living doing it. Why was I wasting my life and education doing lawn care? Why don't you go out and get a regular job, working for someone else? Everyone shook their heads at Tom, the lawn mowing underachiever.

    Well, that third year we went from 50 customers to 100 full time clients, and moved up to full time. We worked our butts off all summer, saved more $$ and bought more professional equipment. I made more than enough to support myself, and a little to get me through the winter. We also attempted our first snow plowing season, which was a whole story in itself. Underachieving or not, we were full time, making $$, and doing fine.
  4. mtdman

    mtdman LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,143

    The next three years was more growth, more $$, more stability, and more hassels. We reached a point where we didn't want to expand more, or start another crew, and just maintained our customer base. We added more services, tried a few things we didn't like, and gained experience. The whole time I kept hearing people ask me when I was going to get a 'real' job, and quit the lawn bizz. I just shook my head and told them I had a real job.

    On the advice of my now wife, I did go back to school and get my degree. But having a biology degree, and taking 10 years to get it, really didn't qualify me for more than maybe teaching. I was pretty happy with my business, and I was my own boss. I didn't see the advantage in giving up the lawn care bizz just to get a 9 to 5 job that maybe paid a bit more, working for someone else. The bottom line is, whether or not people believe that lawn care is a 'real' job or profession, I make a living and support myself and my family. I don't answer to anyone but myself and my customers, I am the boss. That's something that appeals to me, and when I look back at my employment history, it's the type of job and employment situation I've always enjoyed the most. I've also studied web design at the local community college, and I may be the most over educated lawn care pro in the area. Underachiever or not, I'm happy and I plan on keeping at it.

    My partner in the business quit this year, after 7 years together. I think he was not as suited to the life as I am, and not necessarily as enamored with the self-employed aspect of the job. I am still good friends with him, and he helps me out from time to time when I get behind. I've had to downsize to about 75 accounts per week (from about 110), but I am making way more money now than ever. I don't plan on quitting anytime soon, and I am unsure as to whether or not I will expand. It's all up to me, and it's all in the future.

  5. poconorudylawncare

    poconorudylawncare LawnSite Member
    Messages: 4

    your story should be put in book form I guess your living proof of what happens when people just listein to themselves
    awesome story
  6. PPLMike

    PPLMike LawnSite Member
    Messages: 48

    Great story.
  7. Mithrandir

    Mithrandir LawnSite Member
    Messages: 20

    Great story Tom. I agree with you that I would rather do something I love and be my own boss. Never let anyone tell you that you cannot do what you set your mind to :)
  8. leadarrows

    leadarrows LawnSite Senior Member
    from N/A
    Messages: 925

    I appreciate your taking the time to post your story. Being in business for your self is rewarding but scary some times. Your story is well written and inspiring. Thanks.
  9. mtdman

    mtdman LawnSite Gold Member
    Messages: 3,143

    Thank you all. I hope to keep adding chapters for quite a while. And I am always willing to answer questions from newbies.

  10. Ozi_Brisbane

    Ozi_Brisbane LawnSite Member
    Messages: 27

    I can relate to your story.

    I spent far too many years at university getting degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. None of them made me happy. Mowing does.

    Sure I'm overqualified for the job, just like you. But it makes me tremendously happy. I tried the 9-5 job. Money was excellent, but the work conditions weren't. I never knew how long I'd have my job. It all depended on some idiotic managers making the right decisions. No thanks. I like to direct my own life and not leave it in the hands of others.

    If I succeed it will be due to my own efforts; if I fail, this too is due to my efforts ( or lack of them).

    You made a good choice, mate! You must do what makes you happy, not something that just has prestige attached, but makes you miserable. Life is too short for that.


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