Friday, July 15, 2016

What I learned about business by mowing lawns and selling night crawlers

It’s summer time, and a host of memories flood my mind, especially about mowing lawns and selling night crawlers.

Fortunately, growing up in eastern Idaho had its advantages. People loved to fish and needed bait, and they had big yards that constantly needed mowing. Plus, night crawlers love big lawns with lots of water. So, when you combine all of these, you conclude that there’s money to be made, and we wanted to make some to buy very important things like motorcycles.

Money was always hard to come by as we were growing up. No gave us an allowance for any of the chores we did. We did them because they were part of what our family did. Now that I look back, it was really part of the rent I paid in order to have food on the table, clothes to wear, and transportation to and from where we wanted to go. Plus, we fished a lot, and Dad covered most of these costs.

So, in order to generate revenue, we had to start our own business without the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and governmental intervention. We just did it the old-fashioned way: We decided on what we wanted to do and just did it. Along the way, we did learn a few things about being business owners. Here are a few we learned:

Business plan—As young boys growing up in a small town, we understood there wasn’t much we could do until we turned old enough to have a driver’s license. Thus, our business opportunities were basically lawn mowing and selling night crawlers by the dozen or in bulk. Our business plan was very simple and not written down: find people who wanted their lawns mowed and would pay for it and gather enough night crawlers several times a week to have enough inventory to sell, especially on the weekends. We also knew we had to capture money to help us get started.

Finances—Oh, yeah, that. Lawnmowers, gas, clippers, oil, night crawler boxes, and other stuff had to be purchased or found. Who knew? Fortunately, our Dad floated us our first round of everything. We had to decide what to charge, how often we cut a lawn, and how much we charged for the night crawlers and what type of box or can to put them in to sell. We saw other signs for night crawlers for $X amount, and we knew we couldn’t truly charge more than that unless we threw in something extra, like a baker’s dozen. The lawn mowing was what the market rate was and what some of our single widows could afford. Dad also made us mow a few lawns for free because it was the right thing to do. What spurred us on was the fact my brother and I wanted to buy motorcycles. We had priced them, and we knew the cost. Just willy-nilly spending money wasn’t going to cut it; so, we made financial sacrifices: not too much candy, pop, or too many Little Jack Horner pies at the Menan Market. Plus, we had to replenish the supplies and gas we used on the job. Fortunately, we understood that we had to earn/save more than we spent. After a couple of years, we had enough to buy each of us a motorcycle—Hodakas!

Equipment and Maintenance—Some businesses required equipment. Ours was one of those. We had to have lawn mowers, clippers, bags, a way to haul our lawnmowers, rakes, shovels, and other lawn mowing paraphernalia, and all of our night crawler things like milk cartons (from the elementary), gunny sacks that keep the dirt cool and wet. The mowers had to be clean; the clippers sharpened, and other tools cleaned. Plus, the oil and gas had to be checked daily on the mowers. The air filter on the mower had to be cleaned frequently. Eventually, things had to be replaced. Unfortunately, we didn’t know anything about inventory control or stuff like that. We counted our milk cartons or cans to make sure we had enough. Thankfully, some of the fishermen brought their own containers, and we saved money.

Employees—My brother and I were the employees and the bosses, and we had to learned to work together although we had some falling outs, a few punches, and few tussles on the lawn. Granted, I didn’t get to mow all the time, and he didn’t have to clip grass the entire time, using actual clippers. We didn’t have weed eaters in the old days. Plus, when we did night crawlers, we had up to four or five others helping us, including our other siblings and friends.

Customers—We quickly discovered that people wouldn’t just call us. We actually had to go out, knock on doors, and talk to people. Some of our customers came from referrals. Then, once we mowed their lawns, there was a certain expectations from them on how it all ought to be done. While I may have thought I knew the proper way to mow a lawn taught to me by my Dad, the customer also wanted their lawn cut a certain way, their edges clipped a particularly way, and their sidewalks swept. We had to adjust in order to have happy customers.

Marketing—Our marketing was weak, especially for night crawler sales. We literally wrote up a sign with our directions with arrows out on the main road. Amazingly, people came to buy night crawlers, and they bought a lot of them. We made a big plywood board sign, painted it, printed words in the best handwriting boys could muster, and placed it in from of our house. Lots of the marketing was just word of mouth: “Hey, Hammons have night crawlers for sale or the Hammon boys mow lawns.” Simple. Marketing.

The hours/scheduling—This might have been the most difficult. Boys have things to do in the summer: ride bikes, fish, play army, fish, play softball, do chores, and complete other tasks our parents wanted us to do. We had to learn to schedule mowing on certain days because our customers wanted their lawns mowed only on certain days of the week. We also discovered it was doggone hot around noon, and it was no fun mowing. So we tried to mow in the early mornings before it got too hot. The night crawler thing only happened when we had watered the lawn and the pasture and at night after the sun dropped way behind Saddle Mountain in the west. We somehow managed the scheduling without any help from an electronic scheduler because we didn’t own a computer; they hadn’t been invented for regular Joes like us. We used the calendar that hung on the wall. And it worked.

Lessons learned—We learned many lessons, mostly that nothing was ever handed to us on a silver platter (my Dad’s words). We actually had to earn money. Granted, Dad and Mom still let us live in their house, eat their food, use many of the tools—the “in-kind” from our parents. But overall, we had to work our tails off to make things work. We could make money if we didn’t spend it all. Diligence and consistency were our allies. Probably, the most important thing we learned was when we worked together, we were a much better team. Fighting between us was always problematic, and we didn’t accomplish as much. I think I am a much better person because I learned how to work. I still get up early, work hard throughout the day, and try to be the best person I ought to be.