Florida-based Lawn Doctor franchisees Greg Harkrider and Ralph Valle have a lot in common. Both are retired veterans—Harkrider retired from the Navy after 25 years of service, and Valle from the Army after 23 years—and both operate Lawn Doctor services in Florida. Furthermore, the two launched their respective lawn care businesses in late spring/early summer of last year, right on the heels of what might conventionally be considered the industry’s “busy season.” Rather than presenting them with issues, however, Harkrider and Valle say that opening mid-year was advantageous, and definitely brought them together as friends.
“It wasn’t so busy that, when we jumped in, we couldn’t handle it,” Harkrider explained. “We got in at the very tail-end of the busy season, so we were able to gain customers that were looking for lawn care [...] but our heads weren’t spinning.”
Harkrider, who operates in Jacksonville, Florida with the help of his fiancée, Sheri, said that this was a beneficial way to start because he made enough money to support the business throughout the off-season while he found his footing. This put him in the position to analyze everything he’d soaked in during his 2018 opening so that he could hit the ground running in early spring 2019.
“I am poised and ready to strike,” Harkrider said of the upcoming season. “I’ve secured my deals for fertilizer and products for the year; in the off-season I got my program built; I can tell you down to the penny what it’s gonna cost me per yard, per foot...I’m ready.”
Valle, who operates in Fleming Island, Florida, agreed that the mid-year opening was a positive experience.
“Opening during the non-traditional season really helped me,” Valle said. “I was very nervous at first — you know, you’re dealing with products that can burn a lawn. It was nerve-wracking.”
However, opening during a time with less-hectic demand let Valle get comfortable with the process and leveraged his learning opportunities. Now, as he looks toward the spring of 2019, Valle says, “I have so much more confidence.”
Since their openings, Valle and Harkrider have grown to be good friends, speaking regularly by phone to discuss business strategy and share best practices.
“Ralph and I talk every day,” Harkrider said. “If you don’t have someone in the business to talk to, to brainstorm with, to jump in the boat with your misery or to laugh about it all together, well, look for another franchise,” said Harkrider.
“It helps us. We were just bouncing programs off each other,” Harkrider continued. “On a couple, [Valle] said ‘I’ll go with what you’re doing,’ and on others, I changed my thought. That’s imperative.”
When asked if the friendship helped the experience of being a Lawn Doctor franchisee, Valle said yes, emphasizing that having another owner-operator who knows what it’s like to be in the weeds (literally) has really helped him.
“We actually met because he reached out to me before our training class. We’ve helped each other a lot. If he finds something that’s wrong, he’ll call me and we’ll see what a better route is. He has bigger lawns than me and I have smaller lawns, so if I have a granular problem, I’ll call him, and if he has a spray problem, he can call me.”
Knowing that the two could face down any concerns they encountered while opening mid-year was reassuring for each party.
“It was win-win,” said Valle.
Both Harkrider and Valle also knew that, no matter at what time of the year they launched, they could rely on Lawn Doctor’s industry knowledge and ongoing support.
“Lawn Doctor has been around doing franchising for over 50 years,” Harkrider said. “Everybody I’ve met is happy in the business; there are guys that have been franchise owners for 20 or 30 years and are doing really well. [Lawn Doctor is] on the Franchise 500.”
Harkrider further explained the appeal to Lawn Doctor’s proven business model by noting: “This isn’t flying by night; it’s not a fad. This is long-haul stuff. If you put money into retirement plans and investments, you’re betting on the long game. This is the same.”
Both Harkrider and Valle are focused on growing their business in 2019: Harkrider hopes to “quadruple what [he] did in 2018,” and Valle expects to end the year with at least 200 new customers. Given the knowledge and experience they had the opportunity to amass and better understand during last year’s launch, the two friends are well-positioned to hit their goals.
While Harkrider and Valle have indeed hit their stride after a mid-year opening, Harkrider takes care to emphasize that there’s no “one size fits all” approach.
“There are advantages to opening right in the middle of the heat in the season, and there are advantages to opening earlier,” Harkrider said. “It depends on the person. If you’re a person that wants to ease in, then maybe you get started in the off-season. If you say, ‘Light the fire and throw me in it!’, then, jump on it and strike.”