This spring, Nick Shaw began his fifteenth season as a Lawn Doctor owner. In his decade and a half with the lawn-care franchise, a lot has changed, both for his operation and the brand. What began as an opportunity for Shaw to leave the corporate world and work outdoors has become a million-dollar business. Meanwhile, Lawn Doctor has become one of the most recognized brands in lawn care.
Shaw grew up in Saint John, Indiana, a suburb just outside of Chicago. For years, Shaw worked as an IT professional in an office in downtown Chicago. He was good at it, but it never felt quite right. Shaw says he always had an entrepreneurial spirit and he wasn’t satisfied to work for someone else, particularly not in a cubicle.
“Growing up, I had a paper route, I sold popcorn in the boy scouts, I even sold cookies for my sister's girl scout troop, and I was their top seller,” Shaw said. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business.”
So, in the early 2000’s, Shaw began looking for opportunities to own his own business. An avid reader of Entrepreneur, he had long kept an eye on the business world, and he says he knew what to look for in a business.
“I knew that most businesses fail within their first seven years, so I started looking at which businesses tended to survive past that mark, and I found most of them were franchises,” he said. “So then I started looking at which franchises I could afford and which fit my interests.”
Shaw’s interests, he says, included working outdoors and working with people, two things he was not getting in IT.
“In the office world, I was working with machines instead of people, and I wanted to change that,” he said. “I wanted to get outside, and I wanted to meet people and help them solve problems.”
Shaw started researching franchise opportunities, but most of them had one troubling catch: “you had to open multiple to make a living,” Shaw said. He wasn’t interested in signing a large, multi-unit contract that would take multiple years to turn a profit, so Shaw says he narrowed his scope to franchises with lower costs of entry, and that’s when he came across Lawn Doctor.
“When I discovered Lawn Doctor, it immediately seemed perfect,” Shaw said. “It was inexpensive to start up, it would get me working outside and it had been around for 30+ years, so it had a proven business model.”
To learn more about Lawn Doctor ownership, Shaw went straight to the source, reaching out to franchise owners in nearby markets. What he learned was encouraging.
“Across the board, they all said the same thing: ‘you are buying a plan, and it’s a good one. Stick with the plan, and you can’t lose.’ That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” he said.
In 2002, after two weeks of comprehensive training at the franchise’s headquarters in New Jersey, Shaw opened his first Lawn Doctor territory.
In his fifteen years as a Lawn Doctor owner, Shaw says the biggest changes have been in the brand’s marketing, which has expanded from traditional paper ads and flyers in the early days to a diverse range of digital tools today.
“When I first started, I asked another owner what the best way to get people to start calling would be, and he told me to take out the biggest ad I could afford in the phone book. That kind of thing is completely outdated now, but it actually worked. Today, if you asked me to write down where all my leads were coming from, I’d need ten pages to write it all down. There’s pay-per-click, Yelp, Angie’s List and many others.”
As those changes have occurred, Eric Martin, Lawn Doctor’s vice president of franchise development, says Shaw has remained a dependable and flexible operator.
“We knew in the beginning that Nick didn’t have aspirations of being a multi-unit guy,” Martin said. “He wanted to build a manageable and meaningful operation that gave him some flexibility while providing for his family. He’s still that same single-territory owner today that he was years ago, with the same positive outlook, demeanor and vision. Even with all of the success he has had here, Nick’s always stayed grounded and humble. The only thing that’s changed, frankly, is the size of his team and customer base.”
One thing that Shaw says hasn’t changed is the support he receives — and relies on — from other Lawn Doctor owners.
“The real value of franchising, to me, is the network of owners you have access to,” Shaw said. “Even in the early days, the corporate team was always there to help if I needed it, but I always went first to other owners. [The system is] an amazing resource. You talk to people who have been in the system for decades and others who are brand new, and you get this wide perspective from people who have dealt with every issue that could ever pop up.”
For Lawn Doctor’s part, Shaw says the corporate team has made great use of that resource, taking the best ideas from owners across the system and working them into the franchise model.
“The best thing about Lawn Doctor as a franchisor is that they are really paying attention,” he said. “They work with the franchisees and they take ideas and best practices from owners all over the country, take them home, refine them a bit and then spread them to the rest of the system. A good franchisor knows that the best ideas come from the bottom up and are disseminated from the top down, and that’s exactly how Lawn Doctor is run.”
Martin agrees, and he says Shaw’s success can largely be attributed to his application of those best practices that the brand gathers and institutionalizes.
“Franchising 101 comes down to the duplication of systems and best practices,” Martin said. “Nick would be the first one to tell you, there is no need to reinvent the wheel when the model is proven. Nick’s success is a result of finding the right system, a lot of hard work and doing a great job of executing on the model in his market.”
Looking back over his tenure with Lawn Doctor, Shaw says it first clicked that he’d “made it,” just about five years ago, though he’d surpassed the level of financial security he’d originally set out for long before that.
“It was about five years ago when I realized I’d made it,” he said. “I had taken my family on a skiing trip in Colorado for vacation. As soon as we got back, my wife said, ‘honey, I think we should take a Disney cruise.’ Now, I know exactly how expensive those are, and we had just gotten back from vacation, but without batting an eye, I said ‘that sounds great. Let’s start planning.’ That’s when I realized how far I’d come. I don’t drive a Ferarri, but I’ve got a beautiful house, a million-dollar franchise and an amazing team of employees. This is a lifestyle I never imagined for myself growing up.”