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Lawnbright and Craig Elworthy
Starting a lawn care subscription business after 15 years as a Saas product manager
Craig Elworthy spent 15 years as a product manager for various enterprise companies, including a stint in cyber security, before leaving it all behind to start Lawnbright, a DIY, natural lawn care subscription company. It was a difficult decision for him to leave his stable corporate job, because he started the business at 40, with all the usual trappings of family life – a spouse, three kids, a mortgage and the like. But after years of wanting to get out from behind a desk and work for himself, the pandemic gave Craig the push he needed to start a business.
As he thought more about what type of business to start, his spouse reminded him of his passion for lawn care. Lawn care was a hobby and skill that his friends and family often tapped him for advice about. Craig started working on the idea for Lawnbright in the Summer of 2020 and officially launched it in February 2021. It started off slow, but they’ve started to see strong growth and as they begin their second Spring season monthly revenue is up 10x.
In our conversation, Craig talks about:
How he made the decision to leave his product manager career and go all-in on his own business
The challenges of starting a company with a physical product and sourcing the right materials during a global supply chain squeeze
How founders can get distracted by fundraising and forget the fundamentals of their business, like product-market fit
The marketing investments he’s made that have helped lay the groundwork for their growth and benefit from the advertising dollars of competitors
After speaking with Craig I signed up for the service, received my first box, and reviewed my soil results… TL;DR: too much phosphorus. I was pleased to hear that my next shipment is being adjusted to account for the high phosphorus along with some advice on how to adjust my mowing and maintenance. All-in-all I’ve been happy with the product and I’m excited to see how my lawn fares this year.
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you give me a quick overview of how Lawnbright started and what gave you the push to leave your job as a product manager to start it?
Craig Elworthy: Yes, let’s see, so my entire professional career was spent working at mostly large corporations in product management. I think it was a bit unusual, because a lot of people grow into product management from another role, whereas I started in product management early in my career. I had done it for so long I was kind of burned out on it.
I really wanted to do something else that I could call my own. I saw a lot of decisions being made at the companies that I worked at that weren't necessarily the ones that I would make if I was calling the shots. When the pandemic hit, I started to reassess what was important to me. With a full-time job, a family, no childcare and a wife who also works, lockdown didn’t afford me a lot of time. It did, however, afford me some space to regroup and think about what I loved and was passionate about.
It was my wife who suggested that I should do something in lawn care because it's always been a passion of mine. I think you know you’ve stumbled upon a great business idea when there’s something that you love to do and others think of as a chore. And for me, that thing was lawn care. I grew up with a dad who DIY’d our lawn, and I spent summers working for landscapers and irrigation companies. When my wife and I bought our first home, our lawn was a sad brown patch; I spent two years making it lush and green. Friends and family also ask me for lawn advice.
So, as any product manager would do, I started with the market. Where are the opportunities, where is a gap in the market for a product?
I started digging in and discovered that spending on lawn care was skyrocketing during quarantine, for obvious reasons, and people were investing in their outdoor spaces. This, coupled with the fact that GenZ and Millennials are migrating to the suburbs, are accustomed to subscription boxes, and are particularly interested in using natural and organic products at their homes, led me to the idea for Lawnbright. Lawnbright is a natural lawn care subscription service that creates custom, DIY plans to build lawn and soil health and delivers customers boxes of the right products at the right moment in the season.
You mentioned that you started it as a side project. I imagine the lawn care business is seasonal. Did you intentionally wait until the busy spring season to quit your job or were you waiting for a certain number of customers before you went all in on Lawnbright, or was it something else?
CE: It actually wasn't as clear in my head about when to launch and when to quit. I didn’t start working on Lawnbright until late summer when the lawn care season was winding down. In many ways it was perfect timing because it gave me plenty of time to build it before the spring launch. I was able to do that building while still working my product management day job.
We officially launched in February 2021 and didn’t get much traction. I was not thinking that I would leave my job. But, all of a sudden as Spring started we began to get a ton of orders. With a DTC business it was really hard to balance both jobs. I really wanted Lawnbright to be successful, so I decided I should go all in based on the traction of that first season.
What changed from those early months to drive all those orders? Did you change the product or how you were positioning it?
CE: The physical product did not change much. What changed was how we talk about the product. We started learning from early customers what they've really cared about. For example, initially I thought the big benefit to customers would be that it’s a simple way to upkeep your lawn. We ship you a box that has liquid fertilizer that you can easily attach to your hose and spray on. So ease and simplicity were our value props at first. But after talking with customers we realized that it was the natural angle that they liked. They also really liked the fact that it was customized for their lawn. So we changed our messaging and marketing to focus on all natural lawn care that was customized for each lawn.
Ah, I see. Earlier you mentioned that before you started Lawnbright you leveraged your product management experience and dug into the problem space with customer research. Why do you think you missed the natural and customization value props? Were you not asking the right questions?
CE: I don't think I was asking enough people. Once we started to acquire some customers we began to send out surveys, product managers love customer surveys, right? These surveys really helped us to hone in on what it was that they were looking for in a lawn care product with a win-loss analysis.
These surveys help us to always be evolving how we position the product. Even now with what's going on with inflation, we're shifting how we talk about the product to emphasize how Lawnbright can help people save money. It’s more cost effective than a lawn care service.
You mentioned that you customize the product for each customer’s lawn. How are you doing? Is it based on the climate of their region?
CE: No, not exactly. We do use the customer’s zip code to determine how many boxes we send per season and how long the season lasts. So someone in Florida will get their first box in February, whereas someone in Boston won’t get their first box until early April.
The primary way that we customize it is from the soil test kit that customers get in the first shipment. They take a few scoops of dirt from their yard and we send that off to a lab. The lab analyzes that result and then we customize that solution for them. Meaning we change the mix of products that they're going to receive for the remainder of the year. We share those results with the customers since a lot of them love to read up on all the details and what it means for their lawn.
Stepping back a bit. What's been the most challenging part of the past year and starting a DTC business?
CE: Actually sourcing products was the most challenging part because we have a real strict requirement on the type of products that we want on our lineup. It needs to be sustainable and natural. We're very anti-chemical, which means we are not going to have any products with harsh chemicals. So always paying attention to how the underlying products are changing and which are most available has been quite the challenge.
Is inventory management also part of the sourcing challenge? In Shoe Dog, Phil Knight wrote that Nike almost went bankrupt multiple times in the early days, despite being wildly successful, because it was hard to manage the capital required to purchase inventory months before they were able to sell the finished product.
CE: It's a little bit of a knife's edge that you have to walk on. You can't buy too much because you have finite resources. Coming from a Software as a Service background I didn’t have any experience in inventory management. Moving to physical products, inventory management is something that I’ve needed to read and learn about. To be successful, you need to be smart about inventory, especially now with the supply chain crunches.
I’m sure that was a big transition going from a software product to a physical product. Let’s talk about your decision to go full time. How did you make it? Was there a specific revenue target you had in mind that would tell you it was time to leave your full-time job?
CE: When I initially started it, I did have a target in my head for the number of customers I wanted to hit before leaving. Looking back now, it was kind of an absurdly high number. I didn't hit that number in the early months, but later on as the Spring season started to get into full swing, I realized that the cash flow was such that it was covering a lot of the business expenses.
Thankfully, I can also fall back on my wife, who is doing great in her own business. So we had some flexibility when it came to our personal finances.
So in May or June, it got to a point where I said, “look, things are going well, we have product market fit. I understand why customers are buying and why they're not buying. I can make this work.” Once I had that confidence that there was a gap in the market and that I could make sales repeatedly, that helped with my decision.
Let's talk more about customer acquisition. What's been the most effective way for you to acquire customers?
CE: We did a lot of the groundwork last year. It was slow and a little bit painful at times, but we built relationships with review sites, such as Moonlight Reviews, and leveraged PR as a force multiplier. Those two things take a long time to get going but they really help us punch above our weight, so to speak. PR and review sites really help with SEO. All of that started to pay off towards the end of last year, and it's really paying dividends for us this year.
The review sites really help because some of our competitors are buying a lot of ads across the internet and airwaves which raise awareness of the subscription lawn care category. So a prospective customer instead of going straight to the competitor, does a little research and finds out about our product on one of the review sites.
Now, we have a marketing budget and have started to spend a decent amount of money on Facebook and Google ads.
That’s great that you are able to benefit from the awareness that they are generating. Looking ahead, what are your goals for next year?
CE: We're aiming to be a major player in the subscription lawn care industry. We want to be in the top two, for sure. We feel like we're close enough and have the ability to get there. We need to execute on the groundwork that we’ve laid and scale the business.
As you look to scale the business, what are the pain points or issues that you are anticipating that you’ll need to tackle to unlock the next level of growth?
CE: We're going to need to make some hires. We will need more operational help, our boxes need to be packed and shipped as orders come in. So those types of operational hires are on the immediate horizon.
When it comes to managing a subscription business and reducing your churn rate, have you learned any approaches that have been helpful? Were you able to leverage anything from your SaaS days?
CE: The nice part about the subscription model is that, assuming you’re keeping them satisfied, most of your customers are going to be back next year.
Most of my Saas career was in enterprise where churn is much more predictable. DTC can be much more finicky. We're actually just starting to learn more about our churn as we send out our renewals for the Spring season.
I had a target churn rate in mind and so far it’s been a bit better than expected, but it’s still early. The biggest thing we are doing is talking to customers who leave to understand why they decided to leave. The biggest reason has been that they had thought they’d be more motivated to do the lawn care themselves, but ultimately, they prefer to hire a lawn service.
But, for the most part we haven’t heard anything that worries us too much. We're cautiously optimistic there.
Let’s move to the quick fire round. What are you most proud of from the past year?
CE: I'm most proud of not chasing the shiny object. In lawn care, there are so many different lines of business that you can expand into. Part of the beauty of our product is the simplicity. We keep it as simple and straightforward as possible. I’m the most proud of that.
What book do you recommend the most and why?
CE: I'm going to give you two. One business and one non-business
The business book is called The Art of Profitability. If you ever take a pragmatic marketing course, they’ll cover this book. I like it because most businesses are built on the premise that they're eventually going to turn a profit, but it's really shocking to me how many businesses today don’t appear to have any plans to become profitable in the near future. The book outlines a lot of the different paths that you can take to get to profitability in almost every industry. It focuses on helping you chart that course
The non-business one is called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was written in the 60s, but it's just as relevant now as it was when it was written. It’s a very well written book about the Second World War. I recommend it because people that don't learn from history are bound to repeat it.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known a year ago?
CE: I wish I knew the extent to which the supply chain squeeze was going to impact just about every facet of business. I was small enough last year that I didn't really feel the pain as much as others. But it’s really such a drastically different world that we're living in now. All of the suppliers that we are talking to are saying the same thing and a lot of it seems to be out of their control as well. This supply chain squeeze has a huge impact on any physical product business.
Last question for you. What's your advice to someone that's thinking about starting a DTC company in 2022?
CE: I would tell them, don't assume you have to take investment to get started. I self-funded and built the business while I was working a separate, full time job. Now, I'm able to continue funding it from the cash flows of the business.
I'm not saying that every business can or should do it that way, but it feels like a lot of the conversation around founding a company these days starts with raising capital first. I think that founders tend to get enamored with the investment to the point that it distracts from making sure they have basic and fundamental elements in place, like product-market fit. Fundraising takes a massive amount of focus so it’s hard to fundraise and run a business.
Having less capital also forces a clarity of focus. You're more discerning with your spending and prioritizing your decision making because your resources are finite.
That’s a great point. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!
CE: Thanks so much, Tyler.
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Craig and learned a few things. If you did, share it on Twitter. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊 -Tyler