Innovative Outdoors founder runs a successful company despite his age

Not many landscaping companies are headed up by a member of Generation Y. Innovative Outdoors, an Atlanta-based company specializing in high-end residential projects that reeled in $3 million in revenue the past few years, is a rare exception. At age 25, Thomas Boyce, founder and owner of Innovative Outdoors, happens to be the tribal elder to the rest of his firm. His stable of 30 employees is all younger—either childhood friends or college buddies.

Thomas Boyce, founder and owner of Innovative Outdoors.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF INNOVATIVE OUTDOORS

“At first, working with friends was challenging,” says Boyce. “After all, we were barely out of college. I had to learn that there was a fine line to walk between professional and personal relationships. I had to fire guys that were my college pals.”

Boyce, who manages the business and sales of the company, knows he has to overcompensate on professionalism due to the company’s youth tag. “It’s a challenge for us to be taken seriously sometimes because of my age and the ages of our employees,” says Boyce. “Being younger, we have to prove ourselves more and continue to be extremely buttoned up.”

Early on, Boyce put several measures in place to overcome that hurdle. Estimation and bid sheets are prepared for clients, who must sign-off prior to any job. A project manager is matched with each client on a job site, and they e-mail progress reports each week complete with thorough timetables. The company’s Web site, www.innovativeoutdoorsllc.com, shows off various projects with all the techno flash bells and whistles available to Web designers. Printed marketing materials display top-notch visuals and professional designs. Interns from University of Georgia Architecture’s School of Environmental Design draw many of the intricate landscape designs presented to clients.

Landscape installation with water features, including pool and spillway, natural stone, and perennial and annual displays.

Being a Generation Y company, it’s no wonder that Innovative Outdoors is on the cutting edge of the latest technologies. “For our larger HSA communities, we have set up individual Web sites,” explains Boyce. “On their Web site they can see monthly maintenance schedules and post comments, and even ask for additional services. For example, when we put down groundcover mulch, people will know in advance. It’s also proven to be a great way to upsell our services.”

Boyce had the old familiar story of how successful landscapers begin their careers—a teenager-operated mow and blow. “I figured I could make more money doing that than by working a retail job at the mall for minimum wage,” he says. “It just kind of snowballed when our mowing customers kept asking for a little bit more. Landscaping projects were running up to a few thousand bucks here and there.”

Innovative Outdoors handles the property maintenance of this private sloped backyard, which includes a retaining wall, southern flowering foliage and lawn.

When he was a senior in high school, he landed his first big-time client quite by accident. As he was shopping at a local nursery for some other customers, he observed a man asking the clerk if he could recommend a landscaper to fix his yard. Boyce boldly volunteered his landscaping services.

“I started talking to this guy, spitting out ideas for things we could do, and he just said ‘sure,’” explains Boyce. “ I shared my off-the-cuff vision for a dramatic renovation that included a stone fireplace with built-in television, an outdoor kitchen and ways to incorporate the home within the landscape.”

Then and there, Boyce landed a $5,000 contract. With the help of his equally green-horned friends, that $5,000 job ballooned into a six-figure project. “That project paved my way into the backyards of the elite and effectively launched my career,” says Boyce. That was the formula he took to the bank many times over with other customers referred to him by his original big-time client.

After a while, Boyce also began studying industry trends, which pointed to opportunity for major residential projects around fast-growing Northeast Atlanta where he was based. He recruited his brother, John, and various friends to work for him when jobs started to ramp up.

There was one slight detail that got in the way of growing Boyce’s landscaping company: college. He took a football scholarship at the University of Louisville, later transferring to the University of Georgia. With his brother running the business while in college, Boyce had to decide whether he could stay with the landscaping business or move into something else.

“When I was in my junior year, I realized I was making good money at landscaping,” he says. “I could sell the business, move on and do something else, or I could really go for it and crank it up several notches.” He went on to earn his business management degree then came back full-bore into managing and growing the company.

Today, Innovative Outdoors client base is 90 percent residential, focused on the high-end, country club-style properties ringing the north end of Atlanta. Boyce estimates that about 80 percent of his new business comes from word-of-mouth.

A custom outdoor living area featuring a stone fireplace installed by Innovative Outdoors.

The major trend now is toward outdoor amenities that go far beyond planting a garden. “Our average project is in the $50,000 to $100,000 range,” says Boyce. “A couple projects are now in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, which entail high-end features, including pools, outdoor fireplaces and even outdoor kitchens.”

During the past couple years, Innovative Outdoors has relied on maintenance services to get by. “In this recession, maintenance is now providing us consistent cash flow,” he says. “It covers our overhead.”

The struggling economy has hit local landscapers hard, which makes Innovative Outdoors’ success for such young leadership all the more significant, according to industry experts.

Because Innovative Outdoors is such a young company, sustainability is part and parcel of the company culture. The company is implementing organic fertilizer programs for some clients, and when possible, eco-friendly equipment is used that doesn’t burn as much fossil fuel. Innovative Outdoors also incorporates sustainable design and planting materials in its projects when possible. “Especially in this period of prolonged drought here in the Southeast, we try to use plant material that doesn’t require excessive irrigation,” he says. “We try to be as green as we can.”

Boyce’s approach is simple and one that he learned from both his parents—one a teacher, the other an attorney. “I just try to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it,” he says.

And what are Boyce’s ambitions for the time that he moves into his 30s? “In the next five years, I just want to stay small,” he says. “It allows us to have flexibility. I want to work on perfecting a model of a $2 to $3 million landscaping firm operating successfully in a few different geographic locations.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.