When David Ovando started mowing in 2009, he was just trying to make his $600-a-month rent.
He wasn’t thinking much about a long-term business plan. Ovando had just gotten married and also found out he was going to be a dad. He needed to find a way to make ends meet, and he knew he’d always enjoyed yard work. But after a couple months of mowing lawns, he realized he had created a business—and it was a pretty successful one at that.
Ovando began educating himself about small business and landscaping, reading whatever he could get his hands on and watching online videos. While his passion for the industry grew quickly, it would never surpass his love for his family. So when his mother-in-law became ill, and it was obvious he needed to move the family closer to her, that’s what he did. Unfortunately, the move almost destroyed his business.
Building a business
When he started mowing in Bentonville, Arkansas, Ovando found homeowners there pleased with his service. In three months, Ovando grew his Mower Man Lawn Service to more than 100 mowing clients, including 30 monthly landscape maintenance clients. He was bringing in as much as $4,500 monthly—more than he needed for his $600 rent.
“Growing up in Virginia, I’ve always loved being outside and doing yard work,” Ovando says. “But I never really thought of it as a job. When I started mowing it was just something I was doing to make ends meet until I found something else. But I became so passionate about it. It sounds funny to say, but I love mowing. And I have so much drive for growing my small business and being successful with it.”
After mowing for a year, Ovando still wasn’t sure how much opportunity the industry offered him. The answer depended, in large part, on how many customers he retained heading into his second season. The results surprised and delighted him.
“Not only did my customers roll over, they also started referring me to others,” Ovando says. “I built the business from the ground up with a combination of word-of-mouth and social media. Sharing photos of my work through Facebook helped me grow my business, too.”
Ovando grew his customer base over the next four years, and hired two part-time employees to keep up with production. Independent We Stand, a national competition, also twice recognized him as a nominee in its Independent Small Business of the Year Award. It seemed at the time that everything was lining up for even more success and business growth.
That was until 2013 when Ovando’s aging mother-in-law required round-the-clock care. Family coming first, Ovando and his wife knew they had to be with her. In June 2013, they moved to San Diego so his wife could care for her mother. Since moving, Ovando says he’s struggled to recreate what had been so successful in Arkansas. He quickly discovered that San Diego is much different than Bentonville, Arkansas. He was surprised about what he describes as an oversaturated lawn care market in San Diego. But that wasn’t the only challenge he faced.
“Everything is different now,” Ovando says. “The work simply isn’t available the way it was in Arkansas. I’m trying to get my name out there, but it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Changes to social media also hurt Ovando’s marketing efforts. He grew his business, in part, through Facebook. But after the social media site began charging businesses, he became disheartened. “Even though you have fans on Facebook, in order to let them see your posts now you have to pay Facebook or otherwise they limit the amount of people who are seeing them,” he explains. “The rate starts at $5, but goes up from there. It’s not a one-time fee. I did the $5 rate before; it was only for seven days. And that’s just for marketing your individual posts, not your whole page. If customers see that post, you hope they will click on it and see your whole page.
“Taking away the free marketing from small businesses has really hurt the little guys, like me, who can’t afford to have a website or a fancy marketing campaign,” Ovando continues. “Using Facebook to show my work was one of my best tools. Clients loved looking at pictures and sharing them with friends. So much of my business came through those efforts.”
Struggling to make ends meet, Ovando recently picked up a part-time job at Lowe’s. “I’m trying to do what I can for my family, but I’m really struggling to make a landscaping business work out here,” says Ovando, who admits he’s lucky if he brings in $1,000 a month now.
In an effort to try and stay afloat and ultimately rebuild, Ovando recently launched a crowdfunding page (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-keep-my-passion-alive) through the online company Indiegogo. Crowdfunding is an opportunity to fund a project or venture by raising small amounts of money from a lot of people, usually online. Ovando says he doesn’t have the credit to be able to secure a loan, so crowdfunding was an option for him. He hopes to raise $1,500 with the goal of starting a website.
“I never wanted to become rich with this business,” Ovando says. “I see some of the big companies out there like BrightView, and I’m in awe. It’s amazing what they do. But I just want to make enough to be able to support my family. My family is why I started this business so it was an easy decision to leave it behind to move here. I just didn’t realize how hard it would be to rebuild.”
While the circumstances may be different, Ovando is not alone in his struggle. A 2014 Gallup report shows that while there are 400,000 new businesses being born nationwide each year, 470,000 are also dying, according to a recent Huffington Post article on small businesses. Until the recession hit, startups were outpacing failures by a rate of 100,000 per year. The current rate of failure has been linked to money troubles. Small business owners are simply running out of cash, and since loans can be difficult to come by they don’t have the capital they need to keep going.
For Ovando, that lack of access to capital has been a huge blow. He hopes that crowdfunding will provide him the boost he needs.
“Sometimes I feel like it’s a last-ditch effort,” Ovando says. “I’m working so hard to get back on my feet, but it hasn’t been easy. I haven’t had any luck with crowdfunding yet, but I hope I can raise enough to help build a website and get my name out there again. It’s that initial start that is so hard. It came easy the first time so this is new for me.”
Ovando is also going back to school to pursue an automotive degree. He feels he needs a back-up plan. “If I didn’t love this industry so much, the decision to move on might be easier,” he says. “Some would say ‘it’s just not working out,’ but I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I am hoping that I can find a way to get back on my feet and keep this going—not just for me, but for my family. In the end, that’s what it’s all about. For me, everything is about my family and I want to do the best I can for them.
“I’m really passionate about making this work,” Ovando continues. “I just need a little extra help to keep going.”