First Landscaping Job Post-Mortem

Day 49 | $31,450 paid | $59,267 till freedom

Before and After


  The Financials
Our first job is complete. We cleared out 650 square feet of sod, replaced it with mulch, planted ten plants, and installed some limestone borders and a flagstone path.We made $1,1110 in revenue. After direct material costs of $234, net income came to $864. We worked 10 hours on the first day and 2.5 hours on the second for a total of 12.5 hours, putting each of us at an hourly rate of $34. Not shabby.I will net $368 out of this first pay day because of some opex and capex that Michael funded out-of-pocket earlier, such as flyers, a pick-axe, and shovel.

The Job
Michael and I showed up at the house at 8:15 AM on Saturday for a a final review with Seema. In my rush to get out of the house on time, I completely forgot to print out the quote and the plans, so even though Seema knew how much the job was going to cost her, we didn’t have her signature on that number. We also didn’t have the exact end-product committed to memory–mostly due to its complexity–so we had to borrow Seema’s print-out for guidance. We looked completely unprofessional, like we were straight out of amateur hour.

We broke ground at 8:35 AM. Swinging the pick-axe into the ground to clear out the dead brown sod felt good. I finally had a second job where, relative to pedi-cabbing, I had more control over how much money I would make. On this particular job, there was plenty of work to do, and I controlled the pace.  And, unlike with the SAT prep tutoring gig, the upside on this job would be better than $25/hour.

The irrigation guy, Jake, showed up at 9:30. I let it slip to Jake that this was our first job, so he used that opportunity to tell us about his unexpected rise and tragic fall. He had dropped out of high-school, and when he was 20 or so, he started his own irrigation company. By the time he was 23, he had 75 people on his irrigation company’s payroll, and from there managed to put $1.2M in the bank by the time he was about 40.

While Jake was running his business, he had a practice of getting a new truck every six months and giving the old one away to his best salesman. One of the trucks he gave to a salesman was registered to Jake instead of to the business, so it wasn’t behind the “corporate shield” as Jake referred to it. Jake didn’t give any specifics, but before he could change the registration, the employee killed himself and four other people with the truck. The victims’ families went after Jake and took all of his assets. When we met him yesterday, he was working as a regular employee at a different irrigation company.

Jake was 52 and seemed bitter, but maybe not as much as I would have expected, and I told him something along those lines (albeit more eloquently and subtly). He replied, actually somewhat bitterly, that it had been ten years since he had lost all of his money, and he had already done his “fair share of roaming the desert.”

Later on, I told Jake that Michael was the brains behind our operations, and Michael replied back that he wasn’t the one with the Harvard MBA. Jake pointed at me and asked, “This guy has a Harvard MBA? I bet you can’t find a job, can you?” Later on, after Jake had left, Michael pointed out that Jake had enjoyed that question a little too much, and it seemed like he really wanted me to reply in the negative. I didn’t, though. I told Jake that I had a great job, made great money, but I was just doing this on the side to pay down some college debt early. He didn’t have much to say after that.

As Jake was wrapping up, he asked us to take 30 minutes off so he could test the sprinklers out. It was about 11:30 at this point, and as Michael and I stepped away from the yard, we realized that the five-hour estimate of the job was completely off. We still had a lot of sod to clear out, and we hadn’t even started thinking about the mulch.

We used the time off to go pick up mulch and rocks, an extra shovel, and lunch.

Our errands took an hour, and when we got back, we had the yard to ourselves. An hour into the afternoon’s work, I glanced at my watch and begged for time to slow down. The moment reminded me of when I was a carpenter during college summers, making about $12/hour. I would look at my watch and wonder how in the world time could move so slowly. Yesterday, however, I was looking at my watch and wondering how time could move so quickly. Being on somebody else’s payroll versus my own is a completely different mentality.

Time was moving so quickly that I had to reschedule the quote I had committed to giving at 5 PM. The customer, Simon, was understanding, and we rescheduled to 10 AM the next day, Sunday. I felt bad having to flake like that, but Michael and I agreed we needed both of us on-site–at 5:00, we thought we still had a fighting chance of completely finishing the job in one day.

We had put up some flyer’s on Michael’s truck and rented trailer earlier in the day, and a couple of neighbors showed some interest. The neighbor from two doors down drove past the house, then backed up to our yard, complimented us on a job well done, and asked for a business card. We didn’t have any of those, yet, so we gave her a flyer instead. A neighbor, Tyler, who lives across the street and a few doors down, was on an evening walk with his wife and stopped by to check out our work. Seema was out in the yard during their visit and she told them repeatedly, “These guys are good.” He asked for a flyer and then resumed his walk. A minute later, he came back and asked us to come by his house the next day to quote a project.

As the sun set and dusk set in at 7 PM, I thanked my lucky stars that Seem’s house was not equipped with outdoor floodlights. I work out five days a week, lifting weights and running, and I had always thought I was a “strong young pup” (Napoleon Dynamite). Well, at about 6 PM, I started hitting a wall. It wasn’t my legs or arms, so much, but my lower back. Driving a pick-axe into the earth, raking heavy dirt and clay off the yard, shoveling mulch and dirt, making countless trips with the wheelbarrow delivering mulch–it all took a heavy toll on my body, and by the time I left the site, I was walking hunched over. The day had been pleasant, but with a high of 87, it was a tad hot. Throughout the day I consumed over three gallons of water.

I managed to fight a good fight against the wall I had mentally and physiologically butted up against until the sun was completely down at 7 PM. The “only” thing left for the morning was to remove an enormous amount of sod and dirt in the middle of the driveway and put a few finishing touches on the yard.

I stopped for gas on my way home, and while I typically stand by my car to pump gas, last night was an exception. I put the pump on auto and collapsed onto the the curb while the fuel flowed.

I started Saturday morning with every intention of going out that night and making up for my Friday night absence, but I was way too tired, and anyway, we had to be back on the job at 8 the next morning. So I took a shower, ate a couple of TV dinners while watching an episode of Modern Family on Hulu, and got into bed at around 10. I was dead tired, without a single ounce of energy left, but my back hurt so badly that I couldn’t fall asleep. I finally dozed off, but at around 2 AM, I woke up and it felt like my hands–which had been wrapped around a pick-axe, shovel, rake, and wheelbarrow handles all day long–were swollen and felt like they were on fire.

I woke up again around 6:45 AM. As I lay in bed with only a few minutes to go before my alarm clock went off, all I  could think about was the huge pile of dirt on the driveway that would require 25 to 30 trips via wheelbarrow to Seema’s backyard for dumping. I really didn’t know how I was going to do it–my back was still aching. Then I remembered the bottle of Advil I had in my bathroom. I ate some breakfast, popped a couple of Advil, and went back to the site.

The Advil kicked in and worked some magic on my broken body. While Michael detailed the landscaping and hauled off excess rocks to the backyard, I devoured the dirt pile.

We took a break at 9:50 to meet with Simon. While Seema had been extremely prescriptive in her design plans, Simon was the complete opposite. When we asked him what he wanted, he said he didn’t really know, and that we should “pretend this is our house,” which he qualified later by saying, “I want it done right.” I asked him to give us a price range to help focus our vision, but he declined. We could easily give him a $5k quote,  but I don’t want to give the guy sticker shock.

This creative stuff intimidates me. I don’t have an eye for design at all, but Michael does since he’s been landscaping his own yard for five years, bit by bit. While he didn’t really have any genius ideas at the time of the interview, I have no doubt that he’ll come up with some very creative ideas once he sits down and thinks about it for awhile. At one point, Simon took us to the side of his house and asked straight-up for some thoughts. I immediately looked at Michael, hoping he had something in his back pocket. Crickets. I then blurted out that a flagstone pathway might make sense–it seemed like the right thing to say. Michael later validated the statement when told me how happy he was that I had come up with that idea on the spot since it seemed to buy us some credibility. Score one for the noob.

Simon took us to his backyard, and while Michael and I were contemplating a flower bed stretching the length of the backyard, he asked us how long we had been in business. I have a nasty habit of being way too honest, and I told the guy one month. He looked surprised, and asked us how long we had been in the industry. Michael replied back that he had been doing it for five years, and I made up a white lie and said that I had been doing it for a couple of years. I mean,  lawnmowing  counts, right? Michael piggy-backed onto my statement by saying that I jumped into it “hardcore” a couple of years ago. So much for white lies…

While we were talking with Simon, he told us that landscapers need to have a “passion” for landscaping. That was a provocative statement, and it made me wonder whether I have a passion for this stuff or not. I definitely think a landscaped yard looks better than a yard with grass only, but I don’t know that I’m passionate about that opinion. Michael, on the other hand, definitely is. I think that’s why he’s doing this job even though he doesn’t need the money and has a wife and child who missed him this past weekend.

We left the interview with Simon promising him some designs and price tags, then we went back to Seema’s and finished up around noon. She wrote us a check and thanked us for all of hard work. We encouraged her to tell her friends and neighbors about us, and she said she definitely would. She seemed genuinely happy with our work, and that was a great feeling. I also got a great feeling when I turned around to look at the yard for a big-picture view as we were walking away. It really did look very decent.

We then walked across the street to meet with Tyler, who fell somewhere in between Seema and Simon in terms of direction. He knew at a 50,000-foot level what he wanted, but was open to suggestions on specifics.

When we showed up at Tyler’s house, his mother-in-law who was visiting from San Antonio told Michael and me that we looked like a couple of male models rather than landscapers. I wanted to tell her, “If you only knew…”

I think she might have been drinking.

Anyway, we took measurements and pics at both sites, so now it’s a matter of getting creative. The next two weekends for me are wedding weekends in Detroit and Ashville, so the business will be on hold for a couple of weeks. When I do get back, however, I’ll be fully committed for the rest of NMHD since I won’t be paying for any more weekend trips, excluding Christmas, going forward.

Final Thoughts
All in all, this was a decent weekend, and I think this venture is sustainable as long as we can keep the pipeline full. I’m not used to going to bed at 10 or 11 on weekend nights and waking up at 7 AM on weekend mornings, so from an entertainment standpoint, the weekend was definitely lacking. However, it was great to fully experience such a beautiful Saturday from sun up to sun down, and I also got in some monster exercise–my core is going to be insane after a few more weekends like this. It also felt good to work with my hands again.

That being said, I think we might need to raise prices. I’d be happy if we could get to an hourly rate of $45 rather than $35.

We can also stand to gain some efficiencies in certain areas of the business. If the only time we can quote is on the weekends when we are also staffed on actual jobs, then we have to find a way for one person to do quotes while another person keeps working. We also don’t need to pick up materials together, like we did on Saturday–although that was an odd situation to begin with since we couldn’t work at all due to the irrigation work. The bottom line is that we both need to be 100% utilized so we can make the most out of our time. Afer all, time is money.


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3 responses to “First Landscaping Job Post-Mortem

  1. Sarah L

    Wow, that looks great! Well done!

    And ya, ain’t no better workout than manual labor. I used to go Mexico every year in high school to build houses, and even though I do pull-ups every night, I would get so ripped by the end of the week (all that sheet rock!). It sounds like you’ve found a side gig that really works for you!

    Looking forward to reading about the next clients!

  2. Barbara

    So, that was a long day!!! I smile as I read!!

  3. Alex F

    Awesome! Love the insight about how you think differently about time when you’re an owner vs. an employee.

    This for me is the most inspirational post. Get ‘er done.

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