Bryan Clayton is the CEO and Co-Founder of GreenPal, an online marketplace connecting homeowners with local lawn care professionals. He’s a dedicated entrepreneur who began in the landscaping industry, started a business that was later acquired, and proceeded to excel in tech.
How I Work, Episode 22 with Bryan Clayton (GreenPal)
Bryan joins Josh Becerra in episode 22 of How I Work to discuss why he favors the one-channel approach to marketing, specifically in the early stages of a business, and the benefits of asynchronous mentors and learning from those who have already accomplished what you hope to.
- The SaaS Startup Secret Sauce – consistency and knowing your niche
- The importance of talking to users and not relying on data in the startup phase
- “First-time founders worry about product, second-time founders worry about distribution; distribution first, and then build the product.”
Learn more about Bryan Clayton and GreenPal: https://www.yourgreenpal.com/
Transcription: How I Work, Episode 22 (Bryan clayton, greenpal)
Josh Becerra: Hi everybody. This is Josh Becerra from Augurian. I’m here with Bryan Clayton, founder and CEO of GreenPal. Thanks for being here, Bryan.
Bryan Clayton: Josh, great to be on your show. Thanks for having me on.
Josh: Yes, this is awesome. You have a great story. Started as a service business, moved into software as a service. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about you story?
Bryan: Yes. I’m co-founder CEO of a company called GreenPal, which is like a Uber but for lawnmowing. If a homeowner needs to get their lawn mowed, rather than calling around all over Facebook or Craigslist, just download our app, pop your address in, and you can hire somebody to come mow your yard right through our app. GreenPal is a 10-year overnight success. My two co-founders, and I have had this for about a decade, and now we’re nationwide in the United States.
Anywhere in the United States with a city or town over 50,000 people. We’ve got service providers, and you can order lawn mowing services by pushing a button anywhere in the United States. Over 300,000 people use the app to get their lawn mowed.
Josh: That’s amazing.
Bryan: The first few years were challenging, getting the marketplace going, getting the app going, but we stuck it out. I think consistency and not giving up is just how we’ve gotten to where we are. Before GreenPal, I actually had a lawn mowing business. I ran a landscaping company for 15 years. I started mowing yards in high school as a way to make extra cash and little by little grew one of the larger landscaping companies in the state of Tennessee where I live.
Sold that business in 2013, after getting it over $10 million a year in revenue, it had 150 employees, and after I sold it, I took a year off, got bored, thought, “What am I going to do with my life now?” I decided to start this company GreenPal, and so here we are, 22 years in one industry.
Josh: Wow. That is the coolest story, and I think you talked about it a little bit, but this transition that you made from a service-based business, which sounds like it was super successful, you had an exit, that’s great, but you went from this blue-collar business to this tech enabled marketplace business. How did that transition go for you? What did you learn from that?
Bryan: Well, I was seduced by naiveté. This is the common misconception that a lot of people in the analog world I guess you could say have, and I certainly had it. I built a large landscaping company. It was organized chaos every day, over 100 employees. It was a hand-to-hand combat every single day, and it was challenging running that company, and when I sold it, I thought, “Ooh, that was really tough. I don’t ever want to do that again.”
Then I thought, “Man, you know what would be really cool is a software business. One that you just have bits and bytes, and you don’t have atoms, you don’t have people, and it’d be a lot easier. It’d be a lot less headaches and that’s what I really want to do, because all those guys are getting rich and that’s what I’m going to go do.”
Josh: No headaches.
Bryan: Yes, no headaches. Boy, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Quickly was confronted. I had the idea for an app should exist to make it easy just to order a lawn mowing service, and I didn’t really understand how challenging that was going to be to build that, and as it turns out, my second company, GreenPal has been 10 times harder than my first company. 10 times more challenging, which is great, because it’s caused me to level up, caused me to grow, caused me to evolve, learn new things I never would’ve learned.
I liked that, but I hear this a lot from new founders, it’s like, “Oh, you know what? I just want a business like yours where it’s just all software-driven.” I don’t have all these headaches, and it’s like, “That’s not actually how it is. It actually is a lot harder than it looks.”
Josh: One of the things that you talked about when we were prepping for this was how second-time founders think differently than first-time founders. You had your successful first business, you got into your second business. Can you tell me a little bit about those thoughts that you have about the difference between first-time and second-time founders, since you just touched on that?
Bryan: This is something that confronts you and surprised me when I was building GreenPal. First-time founders worry about product, second time founders worry about distribution. What I mean by that is if you build it, they will not come. As a first-time founder, you worry about what the product should look like, and what problem you’re solving, and you really obsess over these details. Then you launch it, and then you realize it’s pushing on a string to get anybody to try it, to use it, and nobody gives a crap about what you’ve just spent a year building, and they don’t care how well it’s designed.
Actually what you come to understand is distribution and marketing and getting awareness around the product and getting people to try it and use it and keep using it is actually 10 times harder than just building the product in the first place. If you’ve done this and gone through all of that pain, as a second-time founder, you over-index on distribution than products. It’s like, “Okay, yes, I know you have this product idea that’s great, but what is the innovation around driving people to the product?” That’s what I care about, because if we can’t solve then none of the other stuff matters, and I see this a lot.
Second-time founders know that distribution is more important than product is, and so you see, for example, I was talking to a guy who started a marketplace around connecting people with roommates, and the first thing he did was he started building up Facebook groups in major cities that he wanted to launch his service, and he spent three years building up a Facebook group in St. Louis with 80,000 people, a Facebook group in Seattle with 100,000 people. Now he’s got distribution. Now he can layer in whatever little app that he has to get it in front of eyeballs, that’s the right way to go about doing these things.
Josh: Yes, I love that.
Bryan: If you’ve gone through the fire of trying to get people to try your new product, you understand start with distribution first, and then build the product.
Josh: Yes, love that. That is great advice. Talking about distribution, I know you’re a big believer in this one-channel approach. Can you talk about that philosophy, and what the one-channel approach is for you?
Bryan: I think as a new founder, new startup, a new burgeoning company, particularly if you’re going to be self-funded, you got do two things. You got to be the best in the world at whatever your problem solution is. You have to be the best in your market at that, 10 times better than the other solution. For instance, for us, for GreenPal, we are just the best way in the United States to get a basic lawn mowing service. It’s so much easier than any other. We’re not great at pool cleaning, home cleaning. We don’t worry about gutter collecting, lawn mowing–
Josh: You got your niche.
Bryan: That’s it. Oh, boy, do I have a product for you. You have to focus on that, and then you really have to be the best in your market, and your service at one channel in terms of marketing, in terms of how you’re going to compete in that channel, because all of these channels are oversaturated, and you really you have to focus on being really good at one. There’s product-market fit. It’s like I have a product that people are paying for, they like using. Then there’s product channel fit, which is I have a product, this is the channel for it, and I’m just throwing all of my weight into that one channel.
Let’s say you’ve got a new fashion brand. SEO is probably not a good fit for your new fashion line, but TikTok is, or Instagram is, and if you just focus on really understanding TikTok and really understanding influencer marketing, and really understanding how to create the best content around that, and not worrying about Twitter, Pinterest, IG, Facebook, Google, just really focused on the one, then you can create some traction and learn and iterate from there. The problem is, is a lot of new founders try to be half-ass good to all these things, and then they don’t get any traction in any of them, and they don’t win in any of them.
Then they stall and they lose hope because nobody is trying the product. Really try to test and then invest in what the best channel is and go all-in on one channel is my philosophy. Now, if you’re $10 million-plus in, five years plus in, maybe you’ve raised a bunch of money, you can have different teams on different things. Maybe that evolves, but in the early days you’re really going to have to focus on one channel.
Josh: Yes, and I think the other thing that really early-stage founders will do is they’ll start dabbling in all these different places, and then it’s really hard for them to actually understand what is driving the impact. Then you’re like, “Oh my gosh. We were growing. It’s awesome. How are we doing that?” Then it’s like, “Well, I’m not sure if it was the social influencer stuff or the SEO.” Then it’s not as valuable. I love the one-channel approach. In GreenPal’s approach, I think it’s content and SEO is where your focus is, right?
Can you talk a little bit about the content side of things, and what you’re doing with GreenPal from a one channel approach?
Bryan: Yes as I look back over the last 10 years. We have invested all of this time, money, resources, and effort into building the best system for getting quotes, hiring a lawn care service, getting them scheduled, them getting paid, them running their whole business on our platform. A tremendous amount of effort has gone into building that platform. However much work that was, we have put twice the amount of work into competing in organic search, developing content around the best landscape services in Wichita, Kansas, or the best lawn mowing services in Seattle Washington.
Carpeting the internet with our content as it relates to lawn mowing services and landscape maintenance services. However much work it was building the platform, it was twice the work, and still is twice the work at competing in organic search. That’s what I mean by we’re not really good at TikTok ads. We’re not good at Instagram reels. We’re not good at Twitter marketing. We don’t do Pinterest marketing. We don’t do Facebook ads. We do one thing, we create the best content for what people are looking for when they need a lawn mowing service.
Then they’re exposed to the GreenPal app, the GreenPal platform as a solution to their problem. That’s inbound marketing 101, and that’s what we do. We try to look at the exhaust that the platform creates, and then use that to create content around what are the best lawn mowing services in Buffalo, New York and surface that information to people when they’re looking for a lawn mowing service in Buffalo. That’s our strategy, that’s what we’ve done for a decade.
That’s how we get over half of our users, the other half come from word of mouth, and it works for us. We’re just going to keep doing that until we reach the end, which it doesn’t, we haven’t reached a point of diminishing returns yet.
Josh: Yes. I love that idea of like pulling the exhaust off of what’s coming from the website to help you generate more. Hopefully like [unintelligible 00:12:03]
Bryan: This goes for every business, this goes for every business.
Josh: Yes. This little piece of content that we’re making today is just another drop in that bucket, right?
Bryan: Yes, if you have a hair salon there is exhaust leaving the shop that you can use to repurpose back into the flywheel to get more people into the hair salon. That’s people who come in with crappy hair, and leave with great hair like that is exhaust from what you’re doing every day that you need to be repurposing back into the flywheel in the business.
Josh: Yes. Love that. You’ve got a marketplace, right? You have all of your lawn service pros that of course, you need to have a fair amount of them to deliver the service, but you also need to bring in people like me who need that type of service. You’ve got like the two-headed monster which is a marketplace, so a lot of data I’m sure. What did you say? 300,000 users or something. You got a lot of data, so how are you leveraging all that data to make some of the marketing decisions, especially with this context of the marketplace.
Bryan: In the early days of building a marketplace, there’s an over emphasis on leveraging data, and AB testing and all of this stuff that I saw founders, new founders make the mistake. In a early– You have two customers. You have the chicken and egg problem. The way we got through that was just hand-cranking it. We’ve got 10 vendors in Nashville Tennessee, we need to get 100 consumers and nothing else matters until we figure that out. Okay, now we’ve got that, let’s learn from that, and let’s try to get to 1,000 consumers and 100 vendors, and it’s working our way through that.
We weren’t looking at data. We weren’t leveraging data. We were talking to users. That was the playbook for that stage of the game. A mistake I see new founders make is, they have 20 customers and they’re doing AB testing and it’s like, “You don’t need to do AB testing. You need an order of magnitude more traffic. You need an order of magnitude, more people using it. You’re wasting your time.” One quick point I want to make is that, I don’t want people to hear my advice around data and say, “Oh, that’s what I need to go do.”
Take an analysis of where you’re at in terms of the 10 levels of the game. Maybe if you’re on level one, you need to be talking to customers and less so worried about the data. Now that we’ve got hundreds of thousands of people using the app, as we speak right now thousands of transactions happening, now it makes sense. Maybe we’re on level six of the game. Let’s look at the data, let’s see what is telling us. Let’s see what happens– What does price really mean in terms of people hiring contractors?
Is it the lower the price the greater the activation, or is there a sweet spot? Are we really trying to drive the costs down, which was a hypothesis that we had at one point, which turned out to be false. It’s actually not price, it’s will the guy show up on the day he’s supposed to show up? That is the problem we’re solving. We didn’t really understand it until we started really looking at the data. It’s like, “No, actually people will book more and spend more money when the vendor is reliable, not when the vendor is $5 cheaper.”
That was an insight we got out of after a couple of thousand transactions. We never would’ve gotten to that point, had we not hand-cranked it in the early days. It’s important to know when to let the data speak, when to spend the time and invest into analyzing the data, and then using the data to drive decision making and what your value proposition is, and where you’re focusing your firepower. That’s how we do it to drive internal decisions. Then we also use data to surface content. If you’re looking for great landscaping services in Indiana, we have a resource that shows you buy zip code what the average lawn mowing price is per zip code.
By county what the average like shrub pruning price is by county. We use our data to create that content, to then generate the traffic to drive more sign up. That’s like a flywheel. Transactions occurring, data getting created, data being repurposed for content, content creating more homeowners, homeowners signing up to use a service, which creates more vendors, which creates more homeowners. You want to look for that flywheel that you can create in your business.
Josh: I also just love, like the example you gave, where it’s like it’s really about reliability, and so then you can take that learning, and go to the dev team and say like, “What are some of the things that we could do that would help customer Josh, who’s waiting to know hey, reliably, this person is showing? What can we do to set up reminders for the vendor, set up some sort of tracking for the homeowner?” Who knows what it could turn out to?
You can take those business insights and say, “Let’s try to build more reliability into the system.” I love that when you’re at a certain scale, you can actually make real decisions on really interesting business insights. Those early-stage people probably need to go and be belly-belly with the customer, and not worry so much about the data. Okay.
Bryan: That’s exactly right. That’s what I want to beat in people’s heads, because like you’ll know it, you’ll know when you have enough of the data to then make the switch. The problem I see with a lot of new founders is they want to skip all that, because it’s not fun. Sitting at somebody’s kitchen counter, or at Starbucks in a suburb of Atlanta talking with somebody, them telling you how much you suck is not fun, but you have to do it. You have to, it’s just part of it.
Josh: I love it. Yes. Last question when we were prepping, I heard you use the term asynchronous mentorship, and it was like the first time I’d ever heard this term, and I thought it was super cool. Normally I’m asking people about what books they’re reading and things, but for you, I think that this concept was super interesting. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you mean by asynchronous mentors and thought leaders?
Bryan: Yes. It’s something that I came across, I guess out of necessity. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee. This is not a bastion of consumer tech product successes. It’s not like I can go to a meet-up and tap somebody on the shoulder that built a consumer app with 1 million users and get their feedback. I don’t have access to those. I never have had access to those people, those types of people that have done that. I think when you’re taking advice from somebody, Mark Cuban has a great quote, “Never take advice from somebody who hasn’t already done what it is you’re trying to do.”
That’s step one. Step two is, okay so how do you get access to these people? I didn’t have personal access to these people. I had to rather than hitting them up on LinkedIn and saying, “Can I pick your brain?” That’s not the kind of person I am, and so I just consume everything that people are putting out that are doing, or have done what it is I’m trying to do. If you’re doing this right over a period of time, you can get mentored asynchronously from people who are doing things that you’re trying to do at a very granular level at the execution level.
I’ve got probably 30 mentors over the last 10 years that I have followed and consumed every fireside chat they’ve ever given on YouTube, or at a conference that I couldn’t afford to go to, or something like that. Every book they’ve ever read or blog post or podcast interview or whatever. These people are putting out content, not because they’re trying to sell you a course or anything like that. Maybe they’re trying to raise awareness around their brand or their personal brand or whatever, but the reality is the learnings and the content are there for you to consume and learn from asynchronously. A guy that I like to follow, his name is Casey Winters and he was the first marketer at GrubHub.
Why am I following the first marketer at GrubHub? Well lawn mowing services, push a button, and get lawn mowing services is where food delivery was in 2008. It wasn’t like you would choose from GrubHub or DoorDash or Postmates or Uber Eats. It was like you would still call the restaurant and then maybe you would discover GrubHub. That’s the same situation that we’re in today with trying to bring lawn mowing services online. I’ve learned a lot from this guy and how he talks about getting GrubHub from $10,000 a month to $1 million a month in revenue, and the things they did.
He talks about it, and he writes blog posts about it and how to create a marketplace to do these sorts of things. If you’re doing this right, your mentors are people that nobody else has ever heard of. They’re below the radar, but they’re still putting out content. They’ve done the things you’re trying to do, and you’re learning from them asynchronously. Maybe at some point, you hit them up and meet them. That’s how I’ve experienced it and over 10 years, I’ve gone from blue-collar entrepreneur, redneck grass cutting landscaping service to tech entrepreneur. That’s how I did it.
Josh: Well, you have an awesome story, awesome company. I really appreciate the time you’ve been dropping some awesome knowledge bombs on us, especially for those early-stage SaaS entrepreneurs. I want to thank you, Bryan, and all the success with GreenPal.
Bryan: Thank you, Josh. Thanks for having me on.
Josh: This has been great. That’s going to do it for this edition of How I Work. Thanks, Bryan. Bye