Bryan Clayton is CEO and co-founder of “GreenPal” an online marketplace that connects homeowners with local lawn care professionals. GreenPal has been called the “Uber for lawn care” by Entrepreneur magazine and has over 200,000 active users completing thousands of transactions per day.
Before starting GreenPal Bryan Clayton founded Peachtree Inc. one of the largest landscaping companies in the state of Tennessee, USA, growing it to over $10 million a year in annual revenue before it was acquired by Lusa holdings in 2013.
Bryan‘s interest and expertise are related to entrepreneurialism, small business growth, marketing and bootstrapping businesses from zero revenue to profitability and exit.
What you will learn
- How to transform a traditional business into an app
- Overcoming the challenges of supply and demand in an Uber inspired business
- How to create a predictable sales funnel
- The importance of input and output metrics for achieving sales goals
- The formula for business success
- How to use LinkedIn to grow a B2B business
- Why you should be using a CRM in your business
- The vital truth of moving forward to keep growing
- Retirement is overrated
- The importance of pivoting when business isn’t working
- The inspiration provided by the book “The Startup Owner’s Manual” by Dorf and Blank
- The danger of assumptions
- The playbook for conquering an industry
- Why convenience rather than cheap was the problem to solve for customers
- Solving the chicken and egg problem for an Uber-style business
- Recruiting with a Google Ad
- Creating demand with organic Google search
- The importance of Google authority for a digital business
- How local search drives the success of this business
- Why they created 3,000 individual pages on their website to drive sales
Jeff Bullas: Today I have with me Bryan Clayton. Now, Bryan Clayton's a little bit of a lawn garden guy. That's one thing I really actually hated is lawn mowing. Because I remember when I was doing lawn mowing, Bryan, I had to mow the lawn before we went water skiing. Lawn mowing was always a barrier to fun. Really?
Jeff Bullas: I'm just going to tell a little bit about Bryan for those of you, because I'm sure some of you may have heard of Bryan, and seeing we're doing this from Sydney Australia and the USA, we're being very well distanced here, physically distanced. There's a term which I've heard before, all the time, social distancing. This is not social distancing. This is physical distancing. Thanks Bryan for being on the show.
Jeff Bullas: He is the CEO and co-founder of Greenpal, which is an online marketplace that connects homeowners with local lawn care professionals. Greenpal has been called the Uber for lawn care by Entrepreneur Magazine, and at least count has over 100,000 active users competing, thousands of transactions per day. Bryan, before you started and founded a company called PeachTree, which was a very large landscaping business in the State of Tennessee, which is a beautiful state, by the way. I have been there. Growing it to over two million a year before selling it to LUSA in 2013.
Jeff Bullas: Bryan's interests and expertise are entrepreneurialism, small business growth, marketing, and bootstrapping businesses from zero to profitability and exit. Welcome to the show Bryan.
Bryan Clayton: Hey. Great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Jeff Bullas: I had a little look at your history, and you seem to have an affinity for the green stuff, and I'm not talking money. I suppose that really is, it's also part of the equation. What I mean by green stuff is lawns and mowing them. How did this all start, Bryan? What was the motivation?
Bryan Clayton: I've never had a job. I've always ran my own businesses, and in this one industry. It all started when I was probably around 15 years old. My dad interrupted me playing Super Mario Kart on a hot summer day, and he said, "Hey, listen, we've got a job to do. We're going to go mow the neighbor's yard." He forced me to go cut the neighbor's grass. He and I both mowed the yard, and we made 20 bucks. We split it $10 each. Ever since then I was hooked on owning my own business and running my own landscaping business.
Bryan Clayton: By the end of that summer, I think I had somewhere around 10 or 12 lawn mowing customers in the neighborhood. I just loved the idea of getting to be able to buy whatever I wanted as a kid, whether it be a new pair of soccer cleats, or whatever, and if I was going to work hard enough for it. By the time I graduated high school, I had something like around 100 customers. I kept on doing that business. Little by little, throughout college, and then after college I stuck with it. Over a 15 year period of time I built that into a company that did $10 million a year in revenue, over 150 employees.
Bryan Clayton: In 2013, sold that business to one of the largest landscaping companies in the United States. Going from just myself and a push mower to hundreds of employees and multimillion dollars a year in revenue, it was a hell of a journey. Did it all just through trial and error. It was a hell of an experience. I took everything I learned from building and selling that business to now building Greenpal, which is like an Uber for lawn mowing. It's the platform that makes the entire lawn mowing business run smoother.
Bryan Clayton: Now I had to reinvent myself as a digital entrepreneur, which has been a journey in and of itself.
Jeff Bullas: It's interesting that you built the original business out of being dragged off a Super Mario game.
Bryan Clayton: I'm glad he did it.
Jeff Bullas: One of my first experiences with lawn mowing was I had to mow the lawn before we went water skiing growing up as a kid. I've got this real hatred about lawn mowing really. I don't know why you don't have one of those as well. For me, lawn mowing was the barrier to fun. I had to mow the lawn before we went water skiing on the River Murray. You seem to have overcome that trauma, which is really good actually.
Jeff Bullas: Before we leap into your transition from, I suppose, a typical business to a more digital business, which is an interesting area. Because I had to reinvent myself when I was 50 from traditional sort of businesses into a digital business, which was more a passion project that escaped the lab. That's another story. How did you get your customers when you're a young kid, teenager? You obviously are not a retiring sort of guy, so how did you get your other customers? Dad dragged you over, you mowed one lawn, then you get 10 bucks. How did you get the rest, get your customers back then?
Bryan Clayton: Growing a residential lawn mowing business is one that if you do a good job, show up on time, and you work hard, you'll grow through word of mouth. It's almost do as much work as you can handle. One of the hard things in that type of business is finding and keeping good employees to grow that type of business from just yourself, to maybe you and a helper, to multiple crews. That was one of the challenges that I faced, was not necessarily finding enough work, because there was always work to be done.
Bryan Clayton: My company did good quality services, and so we had good word of mouth. It was finding good help and keeping them and paying them well, and growing the business in that fashion was one of the more challenging things. Fast-forward about five, six years later, I had to reinvent that company from one that did just residential lawn mowing to one that really tackled the commercial space. Restaurants, apartments, office complexes, things of that nature, because in order to scale that type of company you can't do it on $30 lawn mowings. You have to have these big six figure, sometimes seven figure contracts in order to scale that type of business.
Bryan Clayton: It's very hard to break into the commercial space, because nobody really wants to take a chance on you. One thing that I was able to do was I knew somebody in one of the neighborhoods I mowed for that he was a franchisor of McDonald's. I begged him and begged him and begged him to let us have a chance at one of his restaurants. He would never let us let me do it, but he did let us take care of his personal residence. It wasn't after five years of mowing his personal residence that he said, "I'll tell you what, I'll let you have a shot at this one McDonald's restaurant that I have."
Bryan Clayton: One thing that we did differently, I knew that we had to do something differently, because this guy owned 20 different McDonald's. One thing that we did differently was we picked up the cigarette butts in the drive through every time that we mowed the yard there. I told him, I said, "Hey, listen, we think that if we pick up the cigarette butts in the drive through that if somebody's sitting there in line to order their food, if they see a clean drive through they might be more willing to put a apple pie on, or super size the order."
Bryan Clayton: I said, "We're not just mowing your lawn here, we're really figuring out ways for your business to be more successful and be more profitable through a beautiful landscape." That really resonated with him. He really liked the idea, and he gave us a shot at three more restaurants. Then before we knew it, after two or three years we had all of his restaurants. Then he's introducing us to McDonald's corporate and other franchise holders.
Bryan Clayton: 10 years later, McDonald's is still a client of that business up until the day I sold it. The idea was in order to develop customers and to acquire customers, we had to align what it is we were doing with their business goals. How do we use our services to make your property look better to where you can sell more food. If you're an apartment manager, have less of a vacancy rate, or things like that.
Bryan Clayton: We used to really align what it is we did with what their objectives were. That was a business philosophy that just carried me all the way to today, is how do we align whatever it is our value proposition is to whatever the wants and needs are of our target. That's the simple thing that's always helped me with building my company.
Jeff Bullas: What you're doing is you're actually evaluating and going beyond what is expected.
Bryan Clayton: Right. The other thing, too, is not falling into the trap of competing on price. Because in the landscaping maintenance business, it's very competitive. It's hyper-competitive. You're always tempted to say, "We'll just do it cheaper. We can do it 10 bucks cheaper." That's just a race to the bottom. It wasn't until we really figured out how to shift the paradigm and say, "We're not just selling the cheapest lawn mowing solution that you can hire. We're really partnering with you as a business owner and how to help you get to where you're trying to go."
Bryan Clayton: That was the thing that separated us from all the other people that they could hire to mow their yard.
Jeff Bullas: What were some of the other things that you value added around that apart from, so you're doing the cigarette butts. You're picking them up. Then you turn that into referrals to other McDonald's owners. I'm sure that had a lot of benefits for you in terms of the exit price, because you had some big corporate customers that gave you a gravitas, I suppose. What are some of the other things that you would do so you didn't compete on price?
Bryan Clayton: What we would do is, like you said, getting over that cold start and getting the gravitas of maintaining every McDonald's restaurant in Middle Tennessee. You've seen our work. Then we would develop case studies around those companies, those businesses and those partners of ours and say, "Listen, here is how we took this apartment complex and helped them reduce their vacancy rate by 2% in six months through an increased floral display at their office, or at their show unit."
Bryan Clayton: We would develop case studies about how we would help their competitors, how we would help our customers achieve their goals through the services that we offered. Then we would showcase those in our sales process to new people. It was two steps. It was, one, developing the conversation around that sort of thing, but then also having the evidence that this sort of approach does work. That just made it like a silver bullet in terms of sales.
Bryan Clayton: Then we became more of a sales organization and then a landscaping company second. That was how we went from zero revenue to $10 million in revenue in eight or nine years, which was unheard of in that industry and in that market. Because we really looked at here's our value proposition. This is what we do differently than our competitors, and then we developed a sales process around that, way better than any of our competitors were in our marketplace. That's how we competed.
Jeff Bullas: Let's dive a little bit into the sales process. Word of mouth's working well for you when you started out. Word of mouth is still going to work. I suppose you wanted to make the sales process much more predictable. Tell me a little bit about how you went to a sales organization? What were some of the ways you generated leads when you started to get into the bigger end of town? What did that look like?
Bryan Clayton: One thing that I did then and that I still do to this day is I focus on what I call output metrics and input metrics. Let's say back then our goal was to increase monthly sales by 10%. If we were billing out 500 grand a month, how do we get it to 550? It's like, well, we have to sell this many contracts. How do we sell this many contracts? Well, we have to have this many meetings. How will we get that many meetings? Well, we have to email or cold call 500 property managers or restaurant managers.
Bryan Clayton: How do we get that many leads? Well, we have to go through LinkedIn and these trade organizations, and these Google searches and so on, so the input metrics every step of the way to get to the output. Focusing more on the input metrics, and with the output metric being there, but really focusing on the input metrics on a daily basis, the things that we have to be doing to get to the goal. Was one of those just plays, one of those just routines that constantly kept us grinding towards our goal.
Bryan Clayton: It's so easy just to set a goal but not really get granular about what the input metrics are to get to that goal. That's one thing on a daily basis that we still, even to this day at Greenpal, hold yourself accountable. This is where we're trying to get to this quarter. What are the things we have to be doing on a daily and sometimes even hourly basis to get there? It all adds up. Before you know it, you got to the goal.
Jeff Bullas: Basically if you want to get 10% more customers, you get 10% more leads or maybe it's just-
Bryan Clayton: Whatever it is. You got to put back into it.
Jeff Bullas: The database you used for this was LinkedIn. What are the top two or three places you went to find your customers?
Bryan Clayton: For us, when we were really, in 2013, 2014, humming as a sales organization, because we were B2B, LinkedIn was a great place for us to harvest. We would run LinkedIn ads, which was unheard of for anybody else in my market and for a landscaping company in Nashville, Tennessee to be running LinkedIn ads. We would target property managers, real estate professionals, restaurant owners, real estate investors. Anybody that was our target customer, we could target them on LinkedIn.
Bryan Clayton: In 2013, this was really cutting edge. Now here we are seven years later, it might be more commonplace for a landscaping company to be doing these sorts of things. Back then it was really cutting edge. Nobody was doing this kind of stuff. As a small business owner, always looking at how you can be cutting edge with your marketing and your lead generation, and really out-thinking your competitors is just one of those things that can help you become successful.
Bryan Clayton: Because a lot of times in small business, your competitors have been doing this for a generation or two. They're not going to be willing to adopt the new platform to look at, "How do we get the phone ringing by investing some money in this platform?" Always be willing to try those things, at least experiment in them. That was one thing, like the culture of experimentation with our marketing was something that was always a competitive advantage for me in my last company, and in my company Greenpal to this day.
Jeff Bullas: You go fishing for the fish, and fish where the fish are. B2B, LinkedIn. Perfect. One quick question on that before we leap into your pivot, or not your pivot, but your exit and then into the new business and the idea from there, which is from an analog style of traditional business into a more digital business. With LinkedIn, I'm getting hit up all the time with the people going, "Here I am. Buy my stuff." That's the first contact they have with me. Was that your strategy, like contact, connecting with someone and going, "Buy my stuff," or how were you doing it? I don't respond to any of those.
Bryan Clayton: Great question. One of my philosophies and values running business, really just in life is to add value before I ask anything. What we would do is we would come up with really, really, really, really good solutions, content, guides and just offer them. It might be like those case studies I was talking about. Hey, this is how we're working with this apartment group. We've reduced their vacancy by 8% through these means. Here's the case studies. Just thought you might like to see it. Yeah. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. Cool.
Bryan Clayton: Hey, glad you found it useful. When does your current contract come up for bid, and I'll reach out to you then? Well, we usually bid it out every year in November. Great. Then we put it into a CRM, reach out to them in November, and then talk about references. It's like adding some value and not just some BS, like something that can really help them solve some problems and questions that they have that's pressing for them.
Bryan Clayton: Then that's part of developing that discussion, developing that conversation. Adding value before you ask anything to me is fundamental in any kind of successful sales process. Otherwise you just become a taker, like what you just described. Like, "Hey. Hey. Pay attention to me. Buy my thing." It's like nobody really has time for that. Add some value, and then add some more, and then you might even ask for an opportunity, but not until you've established that you're willing to add value first.
Jeff Bullas: That's the reason I asked the question, because especially in the digital space you got so little time. You've actually got to convince someone that you're adding value. If you're just saying "buy my stuff" first point of contact, you're going, "Who are you?" I got no credibility and trust. You haven't added any value. I see it. It's mind boggling. I see it 95% of the time.
The first point of contact, LinkedIn, connect. I connect with them all but I don't communicate with them. I'm building a network as well, but for me it's mind boggling.
Bryan Clayton: It's mind boggling still. What a waste of time and money.
Jeff Bullas: I thought I was going to hear that answer. I didn't know whether I was. Great strategy. It's actually not rocket science.
Bryan Clayton: Right. It's harder. It's harder to do it the right way.
Jeff Bullas: That's right. Exactly. Let's move onto, moving from PeachTree which you exited from. 150 employees, that's quite an impressive result. You said that in 2012 you came up with the idea of creating the Uber for lawn mowing. This is more a B2C play, isn't it? It's digital as opposed to what you've been doing. The other thing for you is that you're running a traditional business. You've scaled it. You've got 150 people working for you, but because it's analog, because it's not online, it's a lot harder to scale, isn't it?
Bryan Clayton: Right. Yeah. Keen observation.
Jeff Bullas: You were only in one state, and you were bought by one of the biggest landscape companies in the USA. You must have had a realization saying, "This is going to be really tough to go national. How can we get bigger outside of Tennessee, for example, or Middle Tennessee?" Where did the idea come from to go into the digital space and become the Uber of lawn mowing?
Bryan Clayton: Great question. When I came to the decision to sell that business, it was the hardest thing I've ever done, because for 15 years it was my thing. It was an extension of myself. Really, really emotional painful thing to go through, but it was the right call. Because for me I had taken that business as far as I could. To your point, the next step for me was to start taking it to other states, other cities, other markets. After doing it for 15 years, I just didn't really have the appetite to do that.
Bryan Clayton: I saw an opportunity to let it get bought out by one of the bigger players in the game, and let them put it into their system, and let them take it and make it bigger. Because they had already been down that road. After I sold that business, I retired for six months. I literally got bored. I realized that for me business is like the thing. It's like my thrust in life. It's the thing that makes me happy. I'm wired to love business.
Bryan Clayton: I was just itching to get back in the game. I realized that for me my company was always the thing that caused me to be smarter, or sharper, to exercise, to eat right, to just be at the top of my game. I was like, "I got to start another thing." That was just, for me, it was obvious. I saw what Uber and Lyft were doing for ridesharing, what companies like Airbnb were doing with accommodation. For me, I knew a marketplace has to exist for this thing I've spent the last 15 years of my life doing.
Bryan Clayton: I recruited two co-founders and we went off and just started working on the project. Now, looking back everybody always says, "Well, you knew the problem, and you knew the solution. It was probably really easy for you." Really it was 10 times harder than I ever thought it was going to be, because I had to reinvent myself as a traditional analog, blue collar entrepreneur, trucks, lawn mowers, pen and pad, scheduling, customers, hand to hand combat. All of these things like a traditional business, go into making a traditional business successful.
Bryan Clayton: I had to reinvent myself and almost forget all of that, and now focus on things like code, software, pixels, design, distribution, digital channels, PR. All of these things that go into building a successful tech product. I didn't know what I didn't know. That naivete is almost what seduced me into starting the business in the first place. If I had known how hard it was going to be, I probably would have been scared and I never would have done it.
Bryan Clayton: Over many years, my co-founders and I started developing the skills and understanding how to build and execute and distribute software. It wasn't until three or four years into building Greenpal did we get to where we were actually competent at being digital entrepreneurs and reinventing ourselves from traditional analog entrepreneurs to strictly tech entrepreneurs. It was a excruciatingly long process, but I'm glad I did it.
Bryan Clayton: It reinforced the notion that I have, like the business is the thing that causes me to level up, causes me to grow, causes me to be at the outer edge of my capabilities. Because I never would know the things that I know to this day had I not started Greenpal.
Jeff Bullas: I want to go back a little bit to your six months retirement. You've sold your business. You've obviously got a little money in your back pocket. A lot of people, this is what they aim for their entire life. I'm sure it was a decent chunk of money. You started playing golf. Did your girlfriend or partner go, "I'm really sick of you hanging around the house watching the footie, the football, or basketball"? What happened there? Then we'll get back into the digital building.
Bryan Clayton: You realize that there's only so many beaches you can lay on. I was hanging out on a beach one day, and I realized that the only problem that I faced that entire week was that the little bar at the beach ran out of my style of vodka that I liked. I was like, "Holy crap. This is not what I'm made for." I'm made to be tackling and solving bigger issues than this. Then I started to really get philosophical about stuff.
Bryan Clayton: I came across this idea of a metaphor of a life being like a stream going through the woods. If that stream is flowing and if it's moving, it's a clean, nice place to hang out. If it's stopped up, and it's stagnant, if trash gets there, fungus and debris and it starts to stink, and it becomes all mucky, and it's just not something that's beautiful. You don't want to be around it. For me, you always got to be moving forward. You always got to be like a stream that's flowing cleanly. For me, the business is the thrust that causes me to do that.
Bryan Clayton: I thought, "Okay, man. For you to achieve your potential and achieve your capabilities, you're going to have to get back in the game. You're going to have to get back into the arena." The only difference this time is that now I'm able to do it from a position of this is what I want to do. This is what my passion is. This is where I want to be. Whereas a lot of times, 15 years starting that new business, there were many days and weeks where it was like just what I had to do.
Bryan Clayton: We had a $400,000 payroll we had to hit that week. If I didn't show up and make sure the trains ran on time, we were going to default on that. It was like I had to be there. Now, running this business now, it's where I want to be. I don't have to take a phone call I don't want to take. That's a lot nicer. It's still hard. It's still challenging. It's still tough, but it's a lot more fun in the sense of it's what I want to be doing. It's where I want to be.
Jeff Bullas: That's quite fascinating. Now, the real reason you started basically the new business, Greenpal, is that you ran out of beaches and you ran out of vodka.
Bryan Clayton: Essentially. Essentially. I got scared that I was being a piece of crap, and that I wasn't going to achieve my potential if I didn't have a business as a forcing function. I didn't know how hard it was going to be. I never would have done it if I'd have known how hard it was going to actually be. I'm glad I did, because it's been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun building this thing. It's been more fun than the first one.
Jeff Bullas: That's great. We're moving on from lack of vodka and lack of sand now. We're moving into the future, which is digital, as we know. You needed to build, so you got the idea. Now, the biggest challenges for a lot of these is actually building the software. How did you go about building the software? Because that's your core asset really, isn't it?
Bryan Clayton: Yeah. That's what we under-indexed on. Here's how silly and naive my co-founders and I were. The first version summer of 2013, this is what we thought how we were going to do it. We paid a development shop in Nashville $180,000 to build the website. Then we thought we were going to sit back and get rich. Man, were we humbled. Because we spent six months building this thing and it was a total piece of crap. Nobody used it. We launched it, and I think we had 12 users after our first six months.
Bryan Clayton: It was a total, total, total disaster. Total flop. We realized, if we're going to do this, we're going to have to learn how to build software. We're going to have to learn how to distribute software. We're going to have to learn how to get some damn users. I didn't know what to do. Took a page out of my former playbook, we started passing out door hangars, fliers. We passed out around 100,000 of these things all over Nashville, all over the Middle Tennessee area.
Bryan Clayton: I think after 100,000 and a month passing them out, we got a few hundred more people to use it. We then did something that was kind of smart. We read a book called The Startup Owner's Manual, by an author named Steve Blank. One thing he talks about, he beats into your head in that book is get out of the building. By get out of the building, he means get out of the building and talk to your customers, talk to your users.
Bryan Clayton: We had a couple of hundred people try the second version that we built. We talked to every single one of them that would talk to us. We were able to ask them things like where did we solve a need for you? Where did we solve a problem for you? Where did we come up short? Where did we delight you, if ever? What do you wish it would do? It was all of these key learnings and key insights were the things that helped us build the next version of the platform that really ended starting to work.
Bryan Clayton: It wasn't until we did the hustle of passing out the fliers, getting in a few hundred people to use it, and then going through the motions of meeting with these people face-to-face in coffee shops, in their living rooms, in their kitchens, on their kitchen table, wherever, and talking to them. Getting to understand are we solving problems with this product or are we not? It wasn't until we started going through those cycles that we really started to develop some sort of flywheel effect, where we built a product that people actually wanted to use.
Jeff Bullas: What were some of the major things you were missing, that you discovered when you sat down with people? You got into the weeds. In other words, you got out of the digital space and got literally into the lawn. What were some of the major discoveries you found, the disconnects that you had between a digital space and the customer and the software you were building? What were some of the different things you were missing?
Bryan Clayton: When you build one of these tech products, the trap you often fall into is you just build on assumptions. You have assumptions about the problems that you think you're solving. Your tendency is to stay at your laptop coding or designing, or doing whatever it is you're doing behind your screen. One of the assumptions that we had was we thought we were building the solution for the cheapest way to get your grass cut.
Bryan Clayton: The way it works is the homeowner puts their address in, they get five quotes back in a few minutes. They can read reviews and hire who they want to work with. They can just pay them all on the website or the app. We thought the main value proposition was it's the cheapest way you're going to be able to get it done, because you're going to get five competitive quotes. These people are really fighting for your business. That's what we thought the problem we were solving was.
Bryan Clayton: It wasn't until after we started talking with users did we understand that that wasn't the problem at all. The problem was speed and reliability, and actually getting somebody to show up on the day they're supposed to is the problem we're solving. Because by the time somebody has tried a new product like Greenpal, they've already called 10 or 20 people. They've already left a bunch of voicemails. They've already asked for a referral at the church. They've already posted on Facebook. They've already exhausted every other means, because they keep getting stood up, and they keep getting let down.
Bryan Clayton: They come to Greenpal, they sign up for tomorrow, and somebody shows up tomorrow to mow the damn grass. That was the problem we were solving. Once we understood that and came across that discovery through meeting and talking with our users, we were then able to bake that into all of the copy, all of the positioning, all of the marketing, all of the advertising.
Bryan Clayton: Then the way we communicated was congruent with the problem that our user had in our head. We would have never known that had we not gone through the exercise and meeting with these people. If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't be where we are today. Fast-forward, seven years later, Greenpal has coming up on 200,000 active users that use it every week. We're going to do $20 million in revenue this year. We never would have come to where we are today had we not done those humble exercises in the beginning to key in on what the value proposition is. We would have never known it had we not talked to users.
Jeff Bullas: Your original assumption was the cheapest price was the problem to solve.
Bryan Clayton: Cheapest price.
Jeff Bullas: The answer was not that. Two problems you were solving, correct me if I'm wrong, were, number one, reliability, and saving people time, convenience.
Bryan Clayton: That's right. Exactly. Speed and reliability. We realized that we were basically selling time, because it was a waste of people's time to have to wait around for somebody to show up and not show up, or to actually have to do it themself. It was time we were selling. We weren't selling you a $20 lawn mowing when you're used to paying $24. They don't care about that. They want somebody to show up when they're supposed to show up, and that was the problem we're solving.
Jeff Bullas: You've basically stood back a bit. Your assumptions are wrong. You've learnt. Eaten humble pie, and discovered that you needed to pivot into solving those two problems. You're starting to get some traction. How did you take it to the next level? What were some of the marketing and sales approaches going forward?
Bryan Clayton: Building this type of business and my first business were very different, because my first business was a traditional landscaping company. I basically knew what the inputs were. One thing I would do growing that business is I would go to a trade show. One was in Chicago one year. I would look up the biggest landscaping company in Chicago, and I would beg them to let me come tour their facility and meet with them. A lot of times they were very gracious and they would do that.
Bryan Clayton: I would learn from these other business owners, and understand these are their processes, this is what they're doing. They're doing $40 million a year in revenue, and this is what I can do to learn from them to help me get closer to that. The playbook was set as my point. Now I'm building a business where I'm at the outer edge of anything anybody's ever attempted to do. There is no push button, get the lawn mowed button. I'm building that.
Bryan Clayton: Having to invent something from scratch and make up the playbook as we went was a lot more difficult than I ever knew it was going to be. Basically the only way to get there is through trial and error, trying things and failing, trying things and failing, and not giving up hope along the way. Because it can be, like you said, a very humbling process.
Bryan Clayton: How did we figure that out, is we would just be relentless about experimenting and trying new things. One thing we understood was, we're building a marketplace that is geographically constrained, meaning we have to take a homeowner, introduce them to five lawn mowing services within seven miles of their address. The only way to build that is from the ground up at a neighborhood by neighborhood level.
Bryan Clayton: We spent two years just in Nashville, Tennessee, developing that playbook, understanding this is how you can get it to work in one town. Then we decided to go to a second city the third year. Then it wasn't till the fourth year that we went to our third city. Now we're in every major city in the United States. It was a very slow process in the beginning of understanding this is the playbook for how we roll it out into a new town, how we roll it out into a new city. These are the 20 things we have to do when we come to a new town.
Bryan Clayton: The only reason we know this is we've tried the 200 things that are wrong, and these are the 20 things that work. It was a very iterative process that was governed by trial and error for years and years that we now have the recipe that works. When we want to launch San Jose, California, this is how we come to town. This is how we get it going. This is how we get the flywheel going.
Bryan Clayton: That was a lot harder than I ever thought it was going to be. It's just one of those things when you're a tech startup, you're inventing a new product, you have to be willing to go through that trial and error process.
Jeff Bullas: You really have two major stakeholders that have been using your app. Number one, you've got to get people that actually want to mow for you. Number two, you've got to get customers who need their lawns mowed. Tell me about how you go about both sides of that equation. Because you had to grow two databases effectively, or two resources. Tell us about getting people who are already lawn mowing, obviously, or want to get into it. Tell me how you actually acquired those, in other words the providers of the service just like an Uber driver.
Bryan Clayton: To your point, it's a chicken and egg problem that exists. There's a chicken and egg problem that exists not only on a city by city level, but on a town by town level. Take Los Angeles, for example, let's say you want to launch in Los Angeles. You don't launch Los Angeles. You have to launch it in Hollywood, Long Beach, Compton, Inglewood, Santa Barbara. You have to launch those little neighborhoods. You can't just say, "We're live in LA." You have to go on a neighborhood by neighborhood level. It's even more harder than you might think.
Bryan Clayton: First thing that we do is we recruit the supply side, the vendors, the lawn mowing services. In the early days, that was very much a hand to hand combat style of approach. We would go to Craigslist and we would dial for dollars every single lawn mowing service that was advertising lawn mowing. We would say, "Hey, listen. We saw your ad in Craigslist that you were mowing yards for 20 bucks. We've got a platform. You might want to try it. It's free to use. You just sign up, and we'll send you four or five opportunities a day. If you like any of them, just submit your quote for free. If you get hired, you pay a small transactional fee. What do you think?"
Bryan Clayton: It was a very compelling value proposition, but it was one that had to be done by hand, through hand cranking. We did that for years until we figured out, "This is how we communicate to service providers. This is the problems that we're solving for them. This is how we bake it into the ad copy. This is how we bake it into the landing page and the onboarding process." Now we recruit a lot, a big percentage of them just through Google search. Some through Facebook, but now we're a household name in terms of lawn mowing professionals in the United States.
Bryan Clayton: If you cut grass in the United States, chances are you've heard of Greenpal. A lot of the user, the supply side acquisition is taken care of because we get a lot of organic traffic. In the early days it was not like that. Matter of fact, the first 100 people that used the platform personally had my cell phone number. I would give them free coaching on how to grow their lawn mowing business as a means to keep their attention, and keep them active on the platform, so we could solve that side of the equation.
Bryan Clayton: Then we would go get the demand side, the homeowners to sign up. In the early days, anytime you're building one of these marketplaces, you're going to have to hand crank probably the supply side. Then you go out and try to find the demand side. That's what worked for us.
Jeff Bullas: You really had to get down and dirty, didn't you?
Bryan Clayton: Absolutely.
Jeff Bullas: If I wanted to visit America, you sound like you'd know every suburb in the United States by the sound of it, almost.
Bryan Clayton: Tampa, Florida, was the second market we launched. I know the inside of every coffee shop in Tampa Bay area, because I've been there. I've met with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lawn mowing services in that region to onboard them all onto the Greenpal platform. I intimately know every nook and cranny of Tampa Bay.
Jeff Bullas: Maybe an occasional bar with vodka in it, and the occasional beach. The next side of the equation is building the demand side. You got the supply side. You've got into the weeds. You've done all that. I don't know why the name weeds is coming up. Seems to go with the lawn or something, but any rate. How'd you build the demand side initially?
Bryan Clayton: When we first got started, fliers, 100,000 of them one month. We were passing these things out. I still to this day can hang one of these things with my eyes closed. I've the muscle memory. I'd still know how to do it. I got bit by a dog two or three times. We started to realize that 10 customers per dog bite was not a scalable user acquisition strategy. We had to figure out a way to digitally reach these people.
Bryan Clayton: Then, again, like my co-founder and I, we had to pore into how do we market this thing digitally? How do we unlock a channel to get people to use this thing? That took a couple of years to figure out, here's how we position the platform so Google will reward it and send traffic to it for people that are searching for "lawn mowing service near me, a lawn care service Tampa, Florida, lawn care service Nashville, Tennessee."
Bryan Clayton: For us, organic search is a big channel. Over half of our users come through organic search. It's one of those things, if you want to compete in SEO, it's almost a bet-the-company decision. Because so much of your time and effort is going to be spent on developing the content, acquiring the authority for your website, positioning your website in such a manner that Google rewards it and will show it when people are searching for certain things.
Bryan Clayton: For us, we bet the company on it. The first two or three years we received very little reward off of it. It was very much a leap of faith. Almost like dieting is what I would liken it to. It's such a slow start, but then you start seeing little glimmers of hope. Google starts sending more traffic your way. Then before we knew it, we had a sustainable acquisition strategy that now organically we're getting users coming to our website, and they understand what it does in three or four seconds. They understand that it solves their problem.
Bryan Clayton: They try it out. They use it and they get value from it. All of those things go into competing in search. You have to have a good product that solves the problem for the person that's searching for whatever it is you do. It took years to figure it out, but that's one thing we have bet the company on.
Bryan Clayton: The other thing is just word of mouth, which is people telling other people about it, because it solved their problem. One of the things we notice on a city by city level is where we do well, we do even better. Where we do even better, we do even better. Where we suck, it just always sucks. It's like these little flywheels can be an upward spiral, or a downward spiral.
Bryan Clayton: For a city that's tough for us, that we never got the critical mass sparked, it just stays dead. No amount of time will ever fix it. We get in there and figure out what's going wrong. A city that's doing well, just goes in an upward spiral. A lot of that is because of word of mouth. If people are using it and they're getting a good result from it, they're going to tell more people. That just compounds and exponentially grows. For us, organic traffic and word of mouth is how we grow.
Jeff Bullas: Let's have a little chat about organic traffic. You're trying to rank for keywords like cut grass, mow lawns, and name of a suburb or name of a city. What's your strategy to do that? I know, maybe you don't want to reveal this too much to anyone, but I'm sure you can reveal a little bit. What's the strategy for doing that?
Bryan Clayton: It's no secret. There's really no secrets to any of this stuff. It's all hard work. There's no shortcut. For us, the first thing you have to have if you want to compete in search is you have to have an authoritative domain. What does that mean? It means a website that Google thinks is authoritative. Let's say you just launched your website today, and then you have the New York Times. Which do you think Google is going to see as more authoritative?
Bryan Clayton: Well, of course they're going to think the New York Times is more authoritative. Well, why is that? Well, it's because it has age. It has a lot of content. It has quality. People click on it and they stay on it. There's a lot of other websites that link to it, that link to its sources. Google understands at a digital level that the New York Times is an authoritative website and that yours isn't because you just started today.
Bryan Clayton: However it is you have to do to get from here, to here, to here, to here to become a more authoritative website are the things that Google understands. It's things like creating great content, and that could be great blog posts, how to guides, videos, infographics, research, things of that nature. Then getting links to those things from other websites, because other websites, other bloggers might read your content, say, "That's pretty good. I'm going to cite that in my article."
Bryan Clayton: Over time, Google accrues value to your website and says, "I understand that this is an authoritative website, therefore when somebody is searching for lawn mowing service, Chicago, Illinois, and there's this landing page that they have that has all the lawn mowing services of Chicago Illinois, we're going to rank that number five."
Bryan Clayton: Then the next thing that happens is people are searching for lawn mowing services, Chicago, and then let's say they click on your result, number five, and then something magical happens. They don't come back to Google. What does that mean? It means when they clicked on your thing that their problem was solved. A lot of times if they click on other things, they pogo stick back. Believe it or not, Google measures this. They measure when somebody is clicking for something off of a search query and they don't come back, Google pumps that up the search results. Because they understand at a technological level, "This is actually what people are looking for, because they're not looking for it anymore after they click on it."
Bryan Clayton: For us, we literally have the best solution for somebody needing a lawn mowing service. They can click on Angie's List or HomeAdvisor, or Thumbtack and those are great websites, but they're just static lists of names and numbers that they could call. We're the only place where you can just push a button and get it done. That's how we compete in search. We have an authoritative domain that we have developed authority around over seven years, and we have just flat out the best solution to what somebody's problem is when they're searching for a lawn mowing service.
Bryan Clayton: There's no short answer. There's no silver bullet, but it's something that you do have to bet your company on.
Jeff Bullas: Essentially because everyone finds everything via search these days, isn't it?
Bryan Clayton: Yeah.
Jeff Bullas: Just one quick question on this before we move on to the next area. Do you have an individual page for every suburb in America? Is that part of the strategy? Because local-
Bryan Clayton: At a local level you have to.
Jeff Bullas: Because a lot of businesses are international now, because they're selling software as a service platform. You really live or die on being found in local search really, isn't it?
Bryan Clayton: That's right. Yes. Local search is totally different.
Jeff Bullas: You build an individual page for every suburb.
Bryan Clayton: That's correct. Let's use Los Angeles as an example, and you're saying what are some great restaurants in West Hollywood. You've got somebody that's just trying to compete for restaurants in Los Angeles. Well, there is somebody that literally has taken the time to write a curated blog post about these five best taco restaurants in West Hollywood, LA. Google's going to show that over somebody that is looking at it from a more broader standpoint, maybe Los Angeles.
Bryan Clayton: To compete in local, you have to put in the work of curating the best content for that neighborhood. It can go all the way down to a very niche neighborhood. Outside of Atlanta there's cities with 100,000 people. One's called Alpharetta, Georgia. We have a landing page for Alpharetta, Georgia. We also have a landing page for Smyrna, Georgia, which has 30,000 people.
Bryan Clayton: You can take it as granular as you want. Now the search traffic is not going to be as large, but it does aggregate. It does add up. It's like a long tail strategy, like a kangaroo almost. You think about the long tail. We're competing in these search results that are down here in the long tail, which might only get 100 or 200 a month. We have the best piece of content for that search query. That's how you compete in local.
Jeff Bullas: That's why I raised it, because local's a different game to global.
Bryan Clayton: It's hard.
Jeff Bullas: How many pages have you created for local search?
Bryan Clayton: Last count, I want to say we have somewhere around 3,000, which is not that much. There's websites that have millions of pages. A lot of those websites have programmatically generated those pages. They have just pumped out at a ZIP code level, or whatever, at a programmatic level they just pumped all those out. Every one of our pages was handwritten.
Bryan Clayton: We interview every lawn mowing service that comes to our platform. We write a biography about them, what makes them unique, what makes them different. How they relate to their local community. What high school they went to in their community. What neighborhoods they serve. What's their favorite part of town, things like that at a local level. We hand write that for every one of them. That is the content that we're putting on these pages that were handcrafted.
Jeff Bullas: Wow. It's really just turning up every day, isn't it?
Bryan Clayton: That's it. I don't care to tell people this stuff, because there's just no shortcut. You're going to write about lawn mowing for seven years to compete with me. Have at it. Have fun.
Jeff Bullas: Exactly. Knock yourself out. It's just a constant game of optimization. The other thing, too, is the algorithms keep changing. The tech keeps changing, and you can never just sit back and say, "We've arrived." Just like retirement really and vodka and beaches. Just to, I suppose, finish up. Your time's precious, I know. What's next for Greenpal? What's next for you guys?
Bryan Clayton: It's funny. Somebody asked me the other day, "Have you ever just looked back and seen how far you've come?" Just like, no, not really. Because we just have so much further to go. Greenpal has got a little bit of a name recognition in the United States. It's not in the lexicon of like, "How are you going to get there?" "I'm going to Uber there." We're not a verb yet. Until we're a verb, we're not done. We have a long way to go.
Bryan Clayton: One thing, again, at a strategic level, we're going into all of the small towns throughout the United States. We're in every major market, but any town with less than 20,000 people, we are installing the platform in those places. We have a long way to go as far as that's concerned. Then we want to expand into Canada, UK and Australia hopefully next year, maybe the year thereafter. Just depends on how things go. We got a long way to go until we're done.
Bryan Clayton: Luckily we're profitable and we haven't taken on any outside capital. There's no outside forces on us to go too fast and burn out. We just keep plugging away. To use a American football analogy, we don't throw any long balls down the field. It's all a running game. We go very, very, very incremental. We just inch our way to success. We'll be at this for several more years. Until we're a verb, we're not going to be done.
Jeff Bullas: It's more hand to hand combat in the small zones across America, is that correct?
Bryan Clayton: That's right. There's really no way to replace that, unfortunately. It's just gutting it out and showing up every day and doing the work.
Jeff Bullas: Good luck with that. It sounds like you've got the template sorted. You've been in the trenches and you really worked it out. It's been an absolute pleasure to talk to you, Bryan, and hear your story. You've told me that retirement is overrated, and doing something you enjoy and fun is where we all should be playing. Thank you very much for your time, Bryan. It's been an absolute pleasure.
Bryan Clayton: I appreciate it. I enjoyed it.
Jeff Bullas: Thank you. Thanks for joining us this week on the Jeff Bullas show. Make sure to visit our website, jeffbullas.com, where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS so you'll never miss a show.
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