Secrets for a Successful Start-Up


Advice from an established LCO

Chris Camp says that to succeed in any service-based business, you have to love the work.
Photos courtesy of Divine Creations Landscaping.

Unlike many parts of the country, Clarksville, Tenn., is fortunate to be thriving in terms of jobs and commerce. The massive Fort Campbell military base is nearby and humming with activity, and Hemlock Semiconductor Company, a solar panel manufacturer, is undertaking one of the biggest development projects in the state’s history. There’s also a large marina under construction in town.

With this activity has come construction of new homes—and new lawns. For those in the green industry, that means more potential customers, and those outside the industry have also taken note. Chris Camp, owner of Divine Creations Landscaping, says he’s seen a number of new lawn care companies start up in the area, and a number of family members, friends and friends of friends have contacted him to get advice about getting started in the lawn care business. Camp, who also serves as a youth minister, is happy to offer his opinions in order to help others make the right decisions and avoid mistakes. “There’s just a tremendous amount of construction going on here, and there’s plenty of work in this area for all of us, so I’m happy to help people get started,” he says.

Chris Camp, owner of Divine Creations Landscaping in Clarksville, Tenn., is often asked for advice from others looking to get into the lawn maintenance business. His guidance includes starting small, standing out from the crowd (note Camp’s distinctive blue trailer) and identifying the types of customers you can best serve.

Camp started Divine Creations six years ago. Today, the company serves about 40 to 45 lawn maintenance customers, both commercial and residential, on a weekly basis. Camp handles the maintenance himself, and for landscape installation projects, he often hires additional crew members for assistance. Like some others eyeing a place in the lawn care business, Camp formerly worked for a corporation and wanted a change of pace. “Working outside was something I always wanted to do,” he says.

Now, others are seeking his advice as someone who has started and grown a successful lawn care enterprise. “Maybe it’s because I’m a minister that people feel comfortable talking to me, but I have so many people asking me questions, some of whom have already gotten started in the lawn care business, and others who are wanting to get into it,” says Camp. “I keep hearing the same four or five questions over and over.”

The most common question, says Camp, is “what single piece of advice I have to help make them successful in this business.” While that might seem to be a pretty tall order, Camp does have an answer. “I think it needs to be something that you truly enjoy,” he says. “If you hate mowing your own yard, don’t get started mowing other people’s yards. If you’re doing this just for money, then reality is going to set in sooner or later. In Tennessee, when it’s 95 degrees in the summer and you’ve got mulch in your fingernails and the sun beating down on you, the reality of the business is going to set in.”

Camp says that without a love or passion for the work, once the glamour of owning your own business wears off, so too will the willingness to go the extra mile and do a good job. “I always try to remember that I’m a servant to my customers. People often think that because I’m self-employed, I don’t have a boss. I don’t look at it that way. I have many, many bosses. Each customer is a boss who I need to serve. If you view your customers that way, I think that will make you successful, and I think you could apply this lesson to all service-based businesses,” he adds. “It’s got to be in your heart. It can’t just be a situation where you see an opportunity and hop on it to try to make a buck.”

Another area where Camp commonly hears questions is advertising/marketing in the lawn care business. “We have some large lawn care companies in this area, and they do a lot of mass mailings. And, everyone seems to gravitate toward radio or billboard advertising, but that stuff is not cheap,” he says. One way to limit marketing costs is to carefully define the customer pool, Camp says, “One of the things I did when I got started was to try to figure out exactly what I wanted in a customer, what type of customer I could best serve. So, instead of sending out mass mailings, I focused on individuals and businesses that fit my profile.”

For Camp, that meant limiting his customer profile to those within close geographic proximity with small to medium-sized lawns and those without ultra-high-end landscaping. “I didn’t want to get in over my head,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t ready to get into really upscale neighborhoods right away. I was looking for customers who might be a little more forgiving if I made a mistake.”

Finding specific neighborhoods and properties meeting that description “really helped me limit the size of my mailings and keep my costs down,” he says. It also led to a higher rate of return calls among those he contacted, and meant he wasn’t hearing from those on the other side of town or who didn’t fit his target customer profile. The approach was so successful that, after only a few years of this type of marketing, Camp says customer retention and word-of-mouth have led to enough business that he no longer needs to send out mailings. “I’m blessed that I don’t have to replace a lot of customers, and I think that goes back to the first piece of advice: If you’re serving your customers right, you don’t have to replace them. In fact, in six years, I can’t think of a single customer I’ve lost, other than those moving out of the area.”

Instead of conducting expensive advertising campaigns, the marketing he does comes mostly in the form of volunteer work, such as sponsoring local schools and churches. “Everybody you meet is either a potential customer, or knows someone who is, so I always make sure to have some business cards with me. It’s a simple thing, but it can really pay off. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that can make your business stand out from the crowd,” he says.

A case in point occurred several years ago. He was looking to upgrade his enclosed equipment trailer and went to the dealer to look at various models. “I saw a really nice metallic blue and gray trailer. It was the size and had the options I wanted, and I really like blue, so I bought it,” Camp says. “I didn’t really think about it at the time, but just about every other company in town uses white or black trailers. Over the past three or four years I’ve owned my trailer, I can’t count the number of people who, when I introduce myself, say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy with the blue trailer.’ It sounds silly, but it turned out to be a creative way to stand out.”

While many questions he hears relate to lawn maintenance work itself, Camp urges those interested in getting into the business to consider just that: the business. “People tend to think about this business as just mowing lawns, or doing the actual work, but it’s a business, just like any other business. So, there’s a whole other side to it,” he says. That means setting budgets and making financial plans. While the temptation among those starting out is frequently to take on any work that comes along, Camp advises those just starting out to go slow in terms of growing their business.

“When people go into business, they’re always concerned with not having enough business, but in my opinion, expanding too quickly and ending up with more work than you can handle is just as bad a problem,” he says. “If you want your name synonymous with quality, you don’t want to take on too much work and not do things the right way. That gives you a bad reputation, and word-of-mouth gets around really quickly.”

Camp recalls when he was just starting out and had to make such a decision. He was offered a lawn mowing contract at a large cemetery. “I really struggled with the decision. It was a huge job, and I didn’t want to turn down business, but I didn’t want to take on too much and develop a bad reputation, so I ended up passing on it,” he says. “It took me months to convince myself I had done the right thing, but I knew I had. It was just too much, too soon. Now, I’ve grown to the point where I have contracts that are just as big, and it’s no problem, but at the time, I wasn’t ready. Going slower isn’t as exciting, but sometimes it can keep you from making mistakes that are too costly.”

Similarly, he suggests that those just starting in the business keep expenses as low as they can. “I don’t like a lot of debt. I’ve taken a slower approach, but I think the mistakes I’ve made have cost me less than if I had jumped in and bought top-of-the line equipment when I was just getting started. Those payments can come back to haunt you,” says Camp. “When people do spend money, I sometimes see them spending it in the wrong place. They’ll pull up with a $40,000 truck and a $10,000 trailer and they’ve got a $3,000 lawn mower. They might look good coming, but it probably would have been smarter to have spend a little bit more on the lawn mower, which is what’s ultimately going to help you do a better job.”

Camp has one final piece of advice, which he learned from a former boss and seems to encapsulate all of the other insights he offers: “It’s been said that the best way to get rich quick is not to get rich quick, and the more I learn about business, the more I agree with that statement.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.