Upsell current customers to add revenue

The ABC crew works together for fast, efficient installation of lights.
Photo courtesy of ABC Home and Commercial Services of Austin.

Steven Ambrose of ABC Pest Control in Austin (www.abcpest.com) knows all about the challenges of installing holiday lights. His company has been at it for about 10 years. They started out in 1972 doing only pest control, then added the lawn business in the mid-’90s and then lights. “Lights is a perfect fit for us because it gives the mowing guys something to do in their off-season,” Ambrose said.

Of course, there are challenges, and there is definitely a learning curve. Each company has to figure out the best way to work.

A classic home in San Antonio, Texas, displays yuletide wreaths and trees in holiday colors, thanks to Outdoor Décor.

“One of the major challenges in holiday light installation is timing,” Ambrose said. “Everybody wants it done ‘right now.’ That tends to be the day after Thanksgiving. You’re dealing with a very short window of time (late October to early December).”

Another big challenge is dealing with power or electricity, he said. “You have to analyze the current to see what to use. You don’t want to trip a breaker when you turn the lights on,” Ambrose said. “You need to be sure that the homeowner has enough power to support the job you’re doing. One advantage we have is that we have a master electrician on our staff.” He is available to solve any problems installers may run into.

“We’re not franchised,” Ambrose said. “We do our own decoration, and our approach is to ‘keep it simple, stupid.’” In other words, the company does not offer limitless choices to its clients. The lights are ordered in May and include C9 standard clear bulbs with three color choices of mini lights, and pre-lit wreaths and garlands. “We can do a lot of different things with those, and it’s easier; it doesn’t confuse the customer,” Ambrose said. They can outline windows, doors and archways, decorate trees or simply light up the house and finish it off with garlands and wreaths.

Outdoor Décor started residential, then expanded to commercial customers like this Hampton Inn in Mansfield, Texas.
Photo courtesy of Outdoor Decor in San Antonio.

He learned a long time ago not to agree to install homeowners’ old lights, because you never know what you are going to get, and often the light strands are one big tangle.

“We sell the system,” Ambrose said. “The homeowner buys the installation from us and then owns the lights. We remove them and box them up for you to store in your attic or garage, then, next year, you get on the schedule for us to reinstall them. The second year, the cost is cut in half, because you already own the lights.”

He stresses that anyone wanting to get into the business should keep two things in mind: “Don’t skimp on quality of materials and start small. Don’t think you can be everything to everybody.”

At ABC, the average light installation runs around $900, Ambrose said. “So, if somebody starting out wants to make about $20,000 for the season, I advise them to start by scheduling 20 jobs. I’ve heard horror stories about people who over-scheduled and were still installing lights on Christmas Eve. Over time, you learn from your mistakes.”

Not everybody who tries lighting installation chooses to make it a big part of their business. Arturo Garcia of Nature’s Source Landscape and Maintenance in Austin (www.naturessource.biz) installs holiday lights for some old customers, but it’s not a part of his business he wants to expand. They’ve been doing the lights for about four years. “Where we do much of our work in the western part of Austin, a house may look like it’s two stories, but it’s really three or four because it’s on the side of a hill. That can create pricing and safety issues,” Garcia said.

“We don’t solicit additional holiday lighting work,” he said. “You need people who are qualified to do the electrical work safely, and then can help you with the regular landscape work. Some of the larger companies here get into it, but we’d rather keep the few people we have than to add temporary workers for the lighting. There are liability issues, too.”

Garcia prefers to stick to landscape design, something he’s been doing for over 20 years and feels comfortable with.

Kevin Lipscomb, owner of Outdoor Décor in San Antonio, started out as a landscaper, but says that now, “holiday lighting is all we do.” He sees himself as something of a pioneer, having been in the business since 1996. He acknowledges that many who start putting up lights get out of the business almost as quickly as they got into it.

Outdoor Décor brings holiday cheer to the Hilton Garden Inn in Denver, Colo.
Photo courtesy of Outdoor Decor in San Antonio.

“People who want to sell lights get into trouble,” Lipscomb said. “We rent everything, and that locks the customer in year after year. If you rent something and it breaks, you go out and fix it.”

Lipscomb added, “With the economy down, people don’t travel as much. They stay at home and spend money on decorating their house. Our business gets a boost when we’re in a bad economy.”

Outdoor Décor charges by the foot for residential decorations, and for commercial charges on a cost-plus basis. “We do a lot of guessing,” Lipscomb said, “but we’ve gotten good at it.”

He expected in 2009 that he and a partner would net $250,000 or $275,000 during the holiday season. They work hard during the holiday season, but afterwards can relax a little. “We go to the river. We go to the lake. We hang out at the bar,” Lipscomb laughed. “We start working 15 hours a day the second week in October,” Lipscomb said. “We’re slammed right up until December 15.”

Not everybody is that busy to begin with. Lipscomb said there are lots of “mow and blows” that go into the business without adequate preparation.

As the holidays approach, it’s not unusual to find homemade signs nailed to trees and telephone poles advertising light installation services, but don’t expect to find the same individuals doing the work year after year unless they are connected with a company. You can make good money putting up holiday lights, but you can lose it, too, if you don’t know what you’re doing when you start pricing your service. It’s important to remember that if something goes wrong, you’re responsible for fixing it.

Insurance, too, is a necessary expense that not every new entrepreneur bothers with.

Lipscomb estimated that most of the people who try this kind of work will drop out. Checking out phone numbers from last year’s lighting entrepreneurs, or even calling them off the web listings, will often yield phones disconnected or wrong numbers. For those lighting entrepreneurs who stay the course, the future can be bright.

ABC crew members put garlands around the doorways of this house to add holiday spirit.
Photo courtesy of ABC Home and Commercial Services of Austin.

Anne Morris is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Austin, Texas.