Blake Hawthorn never planned to become a landscaper. He saw it as a way to fund an education in business for an eventual architecture career. With his high school graduation money and a co-signature from his father on a bank loan, he purchased an equipment trailer and a Gravely zero-turn mower and started his own business. Initially, he just cut grass, but with an admiration for building, he began experimenting in landscaping.
“I started watching shows like Yard Crashers and Curb Appeal, and I really enjoyed them,” Hawthorn said. “I saw from a design aspect that the same love I had for architecture played into the outdoors. So, I started doing things like flower beds and mulch just to dabble in it.”
With only seven clients to start, Hawthorn realized there was opportunity to grow the company by doing more than lawn maintenance alone. By applying his fresh skills in mulching, shrub maintenance and more, he could maximize visits to each property with expanded service offerings.
“I did some basic math and said, ‘I’m already mowing lawns for this clientele, but they also have these other services that they need done around their house, whether it’s planting trees, mulching, or something else,’” Hawthorn said.
Flower beds, mulching and planting trees were steady compliments to his business. However, Hawthorn wanted to reach the next level. He started by watching videos online, but he yearned for more.
“I started hanging out at the nursery in the afternoons when I wasn’t doing anything,” Hawthorn said. “I’d just go help load trucks. That’s when the owner started mentoring me. Basically, I volunteered my time for knowledge.”
Becoming more passionate about landscaping, Hawthorn shifted focus away from a business degree and towards a career with shift cycles that would allow him to operate his landscaping business on the side. With a degree in fire science and a job as an EMT, Hawthorn could work 24 hours on and 48 hours off, if not for one minor detail ...
“I graduated that fall and was 20 years old at the time. My birthday is May 1, but you need to be 21 by the April 30 deadline for firefighting. They wouldn’t let me test out, so I missed it by one day and had to wait an entire year to test out,” he said.
With a public safety career on hold, Hawthorn went full-bore toward growing It’s HIS Turf, the name of his business. With only 17 clients in February 2011, he needed more customers to turn a side business into a full-time job, so he went door-to-door in neighborhoods with existing clientele. In just minutes, he attracted 24 new clients. That strategy worked so well that Hawthorn continued knocking on doors, building relationships and most importantly, providing estimates.
“I provided estimates because they would all ask, ‘Well, how much?’ Then, I thought to make a brochure with a list of services on one side and a bid on the other,” he said. “That’s when we grew from 60 clients in April to 90 by August.”
Expanding the company’s territory provided the opportunity to not only showcase its services to more prospects, but offer free services in areas his crews hadn’t touched. Sometimes a free cut led to new contracts. And sometimes it didn’t. But in any case, the investment in time, energy and resources was always worthwhile. As a business with a Christian foundation, it was important for Hawthorn to help those in need — an effort that never went unrewarded.
“Our branding did well, and our reputation grew,” Hawthorn said. “People got very familiar with us, and word of mouth spread like crazy, but we still had to cover a large area. That’s when we started, very strategically, the cloverleafing method.”
Cloverleafing, or focusing business on highly concentrated area, enabled Hawthorn’s crews to minimize time spent traveling between clients and monopolize certain territories. “Everything was really tight, and that’s when my wheels really started turning about route density and keeping stuff close to each other instead of traveling across town,” Hawthorn said.
With a desire to continue expanding, It’s HIS Turf reinvested efforts into client acquisition. But this time, it didn’t experience the same level of success Hawthorn had in the past. “I sent two guys into a neighborhood of about 100 houses to pass out fliers,” Hawthorn said. “We had zero callbacks. I thought, ‘OK, what did I do in the past that got results?” The difference was personal relationships. This critical A/B test proved how far a handshake, a conversation and a personal bid goes toward success in the service industry. By ditching passive marketing and reverting to the original successful formula, It’s HIS Turf grew to 300 clients by the start of its second year. And though Hawthorn abandoned a career in public service, doing service work remains a major theme of his business.
“It’s great that we do this. But if we’re not doing it for a greater purpose, then there’s no reason for us to do it,” he said. “It’s not about cutting grass, getting a paycheck and going home. It’s about impacting someone’s life.”