After turning a solo lawn care endeavor into a business with 125 employees and $8 million annual revenue, Bryan Clayton sold his previous company after 15 years in business. Now, he’s founded GreenPal, an online marketplace that connects homeowners in need of lawn care with a reliable lawn care service in their neighborhood.
Sort of like Uber for lawn care, GreenPal simplifies the process of hiring a lawn service. Users can get quotes from interested service providers in minutes, and then see reviews and pictures of past work. All scheduling and payment is also handled via the GreenPal app. In business since 2013, Clayton says GreenPal currently has more than 20,000 customers and more than 1,000 service providers using the service.
“Small business is a puzzle that’s worth spending a lifetime solving,” he says.
Why did you start your business?
I’ve been in the landscaping business my entire life. In high school, I started cutting lawns to earn extra money. I did it through college as a means to pay for school. In 15 years’ time, I grew that into an actual company with over 125 employees and over $8 million annual revenue. We were acquired by a national organization in 2013.
The idea for GreenPal was birthed out of my experience. I saw every angle of this industry and how hard it is for small business owners to grow their business. I also saw the flip side of how hard it is for homeowners to hire a good-fit lawn care service nearby. Our app is custom built to solve those problems I experienced for 15 years in the industry.
How did you get the funds to get going?
We really wanted to retain control and ownership of how we were building this thing, so securing angel funding and going the traditional route of series A, B, C, and so forth was never something we were interested in. We knew this was going to be so operationally intense that we would have to be in it for the very long haul and grow it from an organic standpoint, so we self-funded from the very start. We took a line of credit out on a credit card I had. Luckily, I had good credit from running a successful company for so long. That allowed us to fund the first six to eight months of building the beta of the app. From there, we’ve been able to grow this thing organically from the revenues.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. I have a very conservative philosophy on taking on debt to start and run a small business. I think debt can be used as a fulcrum to get started if you’re investing it wisely. But, so many small business owners get lured into using credit to finance day-to-day operations, and that will get them into trouble. We’re very debt averse. We feel that debt can compound and magnify mistakes. So, right off the bat, our priority was to pay our debt off. Since then, we have not used any sort of debt to run this company.
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Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
In my past business, navigating the regulatory environment was the most challenging thing. In 15 years’ time, I’ve seen it get worse every year. In this business, as a startup, there’s a different set of problems. Since we’re creating something new, we have to ask, “How do we solve a problem for people to keep them coming back in a way that’s economically viable?”
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
We have no accounts receivable. We have no negative cash flow cycle. The users who use our platform pay (their card is charged) right after services are rendered. The economic thrust is the transaction and we take a percentage of every transaction. Those funds are continually coming in, so we don’t have a lag in how long it takes to collect on an account. For the vendors who use our system, that’s one of the primary value-adds.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
No. We’re built to kill that. An advisor once told me that we need to get a float built in and make money on that float. That’s the way Warren Buffet built his empire. While that is alluring, our primary mission is to make life easier for our suppliers.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first years?
In tech entrepreneurship, they have a mantra, “fail fast.” For us, the biggest mistake we made getting started was that we underestimated how difficult the technology execution was going to be. We believed we could build a product, release it, and then grow that product. Once we built it, we thought it would be done for a while. But nothing could be further from the truth. When you’re launching a tech company, the product is literally never done. You are improving it on a daily basis. I came from a very analog style of business to one that is heavily technology-based, so I just didn’t understand that.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first years?
We knew from the beginning that if we made enough people around us successful, our success would come. We measure all of our success by the prosperity and growth of the business owners who use our platform.
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
The most rewarding thing is when it’s working. When you’ve got something where 1+1=3. When you’ve built something that’s creating prosperity for your stakeholders and employees, it’s solving customer problems, and it’s economically beneficial to you. It’s a win-win, for everybody.
What does the future look like for your business?
We’re in seven cities right now. We’re going to grow into three cities next year. In the last two years, we’ve grown 300 percent year over year. Our projected growth is 300 percent next year, as well. Our grand vision is that GreenPal will be the operating system that all lawn care professionals use to operate their businesses.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
Think small and never give up. Execute against something small that you can move the needle on and keep doing that over and over. If you think too big and think you’re going to achieve that in a year’s period of time, you’re going to get burnt out and you’re not going to be successful. Focus on things you can achieve on a weekly or monthly basis. The compounding effect of things will eventually drive you forward to the end zone.