Before I get into it I want to mention I am extremely fortunate to have a full-time job as a firefighter that allows me to work at the business more than the average 40 hour a week 9-5. But with that being said, this business could be run by someone wanting extra money working on Saturday and Sundays.
Back in 2013 working part-time for a tree guy, I noticed the need for stump grinding in my area. It was the perfect business for me, the startup cost was minimal compared to other business and I could run it part time keeping it simple as owner operated. Also unlike other businesses, I could pause and start whenever I wanted, and at the time I was only looking for an extra 1,000 a month or so.
I purchased a used truck, used grinder, took out some craigslist ads and I was on my way.
My first year of full operation I grossed $15,000 – year 2 a little less (business got put on the back burner as overtime at the firehouse was booming and I had a wedding to pay for.) This year I made some big changes and am on pace for $30,000. I am setting my goal for next year at 50k
So here are some tips I have learned along the way.
First and foremost I wanted to do it. By that I mean I always had the entrepreneurial spirit and truly wanted to run my own business. I knew it would take hustle, I knew there would be bad days, and I knew there would be worse days. I could have kept working for the tree guy for side cash, but what I really wanted to do was stake my own claim and start a business.
First tip – Stick to what you know.
I had operated a stump grinder before and have done tree work. I knew what the average stump costs and what it took to grind it. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was easier for me to start this business being in the tree business vs say a paving business or something else that would require me learning additional skills. I also had some sales experience and knew what that aspect of the business would take.
Tip 2 – Talk up your business.
Early on no one knows who you are. You have to let family, friends, neighbors everyone that will lend an ear that you just started a business. Early on those were the people feeding me jobs. Adding to that I hustled. I talked to other pros in the area. Landscapers, other tree pro’s, general contractors, paving companies. I let as many people know I was in business and that I could be a strategic partner for them. When I found out one of the larger tree guys in my area didn’t offer stump grinding I made it a point it meet him in person and pretty much ask him for an audition. It worked and he for the rest of that year fed me a quarter of my business. I want to emphasize on the hustle as it was so important early on. I was even cold calling some people which anyone who has done it before knows how dejecting it can be. I would be grinding at a job, notice the neighbor has a stump and would knock on their door. I hated doing it, but I forced myself to because I knew it would help me grow. If you can’t see yourself doing this, rethink entering into a business because growth will become a challenge.
Tip 3 – Adopt amazon’s policy of customer service.
Okay, I don’t know what amazon’s policy of customer service is, but I know from personal experience that they treat the customer like gold, and they stand by their products. So that is what I did. I gave my work the white glove touch. I stood by my work, occasionally when you grind a stump you may miss a piece or leave an area high. If I found out that happened I came right back out and made it right. If I underbid a job, I stuck by my estimate and did the job for the quoted price. Early on I would even help people to get a better price. On a few occasions, I bid large jobs that would be hard on my machine but encouraged people to get other estimates telling them someone with a more powerful machine can do it better. Sure I could have “sold” them, but I knew if they found out they paid 100s more for a job, they may badmouth my service in the future. I treated every single customer like gold and it has paid off 10 fold in referrals.
Tip 4 – Bootstrap, but know when to spend money.
When I started, I fully bootstrapped the business. I spent 6200 on a used gas powered grinder with a trailer and 4400 on a used pickup truck. Plus another 200 or so on tools and I was in business. It was pretty much as little as you could spend to enter the space. I made money my few months but recognized early on that I could make some purchases that would save me time which saves money. I purchased the 2nd most powerful chainsaw on the market which ran me 1,100 bucks, but it allowed me to cut down massive stumps making my grind time quicker. I purchased a commercial leaf blower that allowed me to clean up 10-15 min quicker. These purchases allowed me to take on more jobs per day which made me more money. There was stuff I wanted to make my life easier, but in the beginning, I would only purchase stuff for the business that would increase my bottom line.
Tip 5 – Constantly work the business.
I spent countless hours staring into the abyss thinking of ways to retool the business. I constantly researched upgraded machines, new ways of operating, and new advertising techniques. I was a regular in the forums and talked to other professionals in the space. I set forth goals each year and smaller goals each month. I tested many advertising avenues and expanded the ones that worked.
Tip 6 – Find what works and beat it to death.
For me, I stumbled upon text message bidding and craigslist ads. People loved it, in the ad, I explained that they text me a picture and I text back an estimate. It is a little challenging sometimes and 1 out of 10 I underestimate a job. But even if that happens time countless hours saved not driving to bid jobs far outweighs abiding error. I made sure to update the ads and renew them as soon as I was able to.
Tip 7 – Ask for feedback and reviews.
I always ask how a person hears about me. I need to know what marketing is working and what ones need help. In doing so one day, a customer told me he chose me because of my positive reviews. I made it a point from that point on to make sure I had more 5 star reviews than anyone else in my area. Also, I found what people liked about me and made sure I kept doing it. I found that people love how responsive I was and easy to deal with. People loved that I actually answer the phone when they call and was punctual. I made it a point to keep doing these things.
Tip 8 – SEO is important.
A few months ago I set out to improve this aspect of my business. At the time I was doing a lot of business, but I wanted more so I set my sight on improving my web presence. I have no idea what I am doing and still don’t as you can see by my website TheStumpShark.com but just following the simple guides in this sub and on youtube I was able to get on the 1st page of Google and show up 1 on the Google business map. This has been paying off big time the past month or two resulting in a boatload of leads.
Tip 9 – If it was easy, everyone would do it.
That became my motto on the bad days. There will be bad days. Hell, I broke down on my very first paying job. Cost $1200 bucks to fix. I hadn’t made a penny yet and I was shelling out what I had hoped to make that month. I could have quit that day but I said to myself if it was easy everyone would do it. Let the bad days remind you that if every day was great, everyone would try to do the business you do. It’s the hard sifts out the hacks from the people wiling to put in the hard work and effort to make a business successful.
Tip 10 – Look for the lesson in everything.
From the first job break down, I learned tip 9 – If it was easy everyone would do it. From the job, my rake broke and I had to leave the job and run to home depot I learned to carry a spare of vital pieces to my business. Even on the days where you have the worst luck, try to find the lesson in it. Let me tell you a story to explain. Early this year I had a godawful week. During a routine oil change I discovered that the motor on my machine was in the process of a catastrophic failure. I sent it to the shop for what would end up being a $1600 fix. In the meantime with work piling up, I rented a grinder. I got it to the first job and it too broke down. Not a huge deal, didn’t cost me money but it cost me a day of operation. While towing it back, my truck broke down on the highway. So if you’re keeping score, my grinder broke, rented grinder broke, and now my truck was broke. I felt pretty defeated that day. I shook my head when I got home and started the shower so I could wash off the stench of defeat. Standing in the water I chuckled as I attempted to hold myself accountable and see if I could learn a lesson from this. As I dunked my head in the cascading water asking could I possibly learn anything from this horrid day, it hit me like a ton of bricks. “you have to reinvest in the business”
Tip 11 – Reinvest in the business.
I was in year 3 when “the day of the breakdowns happened,” but after that shower, I had a clear understanding of the lesson. I let this happen. I had an old grinder and truck that I was squeezing every penny out. I know the business works, I had proof of concept and the profits to go with it. Because of this, I purchased a new truck, trailer, and upgraded grinder. These purchases have kept me on the road, cut in half my grind time, and streamlined my operation. It has given me a more professional appearance, allowed me to be more competitive and most importantly allowed me to bid and get bigger jobs. If the business is working, reinvest and make it bigger and better.
Looking forward to next year I am hoping to up my advertising budget, attract more tree professionals and take my business to a 50k gross. Anything more than that and I would have to hire someone which is a can of worms I am unsure of If I want to deal with.
Q and A
You said 30k gross without mentioning net, barring the breakdowns and initial investments, what are your ongoing costs? Fuel, of course. Advertising?
A/Great question. I quickly ran some numbers estimating on the high side. Since buying the new machine the increase in workload has increased what I spend on teeth. My fuel costs for the machine have stayed the same pretty much because that motor is so damn efficient on diesel fuel. The biggest increase is fuel for my truck. My 2500hd gets only 10 miles to the gallon towing my trailer. It hurts to just type that. Plus it’s my daily driver.
So quick numbers Insurance costs me 150 a month or so, fuel 200, grinder teeth 100, maintenance figure in 175 a month, fuel for machine at 60, and misc purchases about 40. throw in another 100 for advertising and we are at 825 a month. Again rough numbers. 30k equals 2500 a month so at the end of the month my cash flow is $1,675.
Pretty rough numbers I would estimate it closer to $2,000 a month if I really worked out the numbers.
I am sorry, I am not familiar with the term stump grinding. What is it exactly? (am not native English, hence IDK I suppose).
A/After you cut a tree down you are left with the stump.
My machine chips away the stump to below the surface so you no longer see it and you can grow grass where the stump was.
Taking the entire stump out would require a very large machine so grinding is the most cost effective method.
I got some follow-up questions.
- About how many hours do you spend on the core business part each month? (driving, grinding, maintenance)
- Have you run the math on expansion? The second set of truck, grinder, trailer and tools to go along with paying someone?
- Do you have enough work to justify expansion?.
A/I would say I put in an extra 10-20 hours each week. Maybe more during the peak months. Aside from the days where breakdowns occur, the long days where I return home exhausted filthy and drained the wad of cash/checks in my pocket make it worth it.
As far as expansion goes there is only so much work out there. There is a larger company that grinds in my area that I almost partnered with this year. If that happened I could see us capturing a greater market share and maybe expanding to what would be the 3rd crew. But as it stands right now I’m trying for the greater market share and haven’t maxed out what I can do alone. If I get to the point that I need to expand I’ll reevaluate the prospect of a 2nd crew. More than likely I would try to take on a partner though.