Episode 265 Featuring Alex Bond

Grassroots Scaling with Bryan Clayton

Grassroots Scaling with Bryan Clayton

Bryan Clayton is the CEO and Co-Founder of GreenPal, an online marketplace that connects homeowners with local lawn care professionals. GreenPal has been called “Uber for lawn care” by Entrepreneur magazine and has over 200,000 active users completing thousands of transactions per day.

Bryan has been in the lawn care industry his entire working life starting with mowing neighbor’s lawns in high school to ultimately founding Peach Tree Inc, a market leading landscape company in the southeast and growing the firm to over 125 employees. In 2013 he navigated the successful acquisition of Peach Tree to Landscapes USA a national provider of commercial landscape services. 

On this episode, Bryan and I discuss the ins and outs of GreenPal, how he built a trustworthy brand, how he was able to scale, and much more.


What is GreenPal

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, green pal is an app that works like Uber or Instacart or Postmates, but for lawn care. So if you're a homeowner and you need to get a lawn mowing service, rather than calling around on Craigslist something, you just download, download GreenPal, you pop your address in and someone comes out and takes care of the chore for you.

And GreenPal is a 10 year, I think now 11 year overnight success. We have been at this thing for a little over a decade and now we're nationwide in the United States. So if you live anywhere in a city with over 15, 20, 000 people, you can use GreenPal to get a lawn mowing service. 

Exploring the Efficient and Automated Bidding Process: From Email Inquiry to Instant Lawn Care Quotes

Alex Bond: And it's pretty cool how easy it is to do. I don't often do this with a lot of guests and products that I interview, but I was kind of curious. So it said get a quote now. So I did. I literally put in my email said, you know, put in my address. And within, I don't know, honestly, 60 seconds, I had two different people contact me to mow my lawn and gave me bids almost immediately.

And I thought that was really fascinating to kind of see it from my side. So I'm curious how that bidding process works. Do landscapers kind of automate these bids or how does that process from me putting in my email and my address to getting these bids, how does that kind of work? 

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, no, they don't automate it. It's a very manual process. And so normally, you as the consumer would have to manually do all of this. So there's no shortage of places you can go for names and phone numbers and maybe reviews. So you could go to like Angie's list, home advisor, thumbtack, Craigslist, Facebook marketplace.

And you could get 10 or 20 names and phone numbers for long care services nearby you. But then you have to manually pull them. You have to call them. You have to say, Hey, here's my address. Come out and take a look at it. Give me a quote. And sometimes they will. Sometimes they won't. 

And it's a very manual process. And for the vendor, it's a manual process as well. They have to maybe they might look it up on, on Google Maps or something like that, but it's still, they have to like deal with it in a manual way. 

They have to take the phone call. They have to call you back. And so that process can normally take hours or days if you're lucky. And so with GreenPal, we have simplified that quoting and discovery price discovery process by taking everything we know about your property and your needs when you sign up. 

Getting the lot size in terms of how big the property is from the from the city or county records collecting the aerial imagery the street imagery and any other things that you might say about your property. 

And then also comparing that with okay, here's the average price for that zip code for that street and keying that up or service providers nearby you so they can look at Alex's quote request and say, okay, yeah, no, this is a 42 lawn, 42 bucks. And then they send that off. 

And so what normally takes hours or days we can simplify in minutes for you, the consumer, but also for the service provider. So they can quote 10 or 12 of these in 10 or 12 minutes rather than having to drive all over town or pay an estimator or something like that. 


Navigating the Bidding Process and Choosing the Right Lawn Care Professional for Your Needs

Alex Bond: In my example, right? I had two lawn care professionals contact me and give me the exact same quote, 50 from this guy and 50 from this guy. So how would you recommend that I kind of personally vet those guys? Which bid should I take in that scenario? I mean, how are customers supposed to navigate that bidding process?

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, that's a great question. So normally you would just shoot from the hip. You don't know. You might get a recommendation from a friends and family. You might see some reviews on Yelp or Angie's List or something like that. But it's very much like okay, I guess i'll go with this guy, but with green pal we offer you a lot more rich information about Who you're hiring and why you're going to make which selection for who you want to work with.

We score them on a, what we call a reliability rating. So how often do they show up on the day they're supposed to? And if you hire them for Thursday, are they going to actually show up and mow the yard on Thursday? And so they're scored on that. So. Nowhere else in the world. Can you get that kind of information about service providers?

The other thing we score them on is an ongoing rating, which means how often do people they work with book them for a second, third or fourth visit. And that's a very good indicator of, are people happy with their services? And then you can, as the consumer say, okay, you know, I got two quotes here for 50 bucks.

This guy's got a hundred reviews. This guy's got 10 reviews. They both have a five star rating, but this guy's reliability rating is, is like. 89 and the other guys is only 60 and I actually need it done Thursday because I have a party on Friday and so that enables you to make the best hiring decision or on the flip side, it's like, no, this is a rental property.

I just need the city to not find me and I need it mode every like 14 days to keep the tenants happy and I really don't care what day it happens. This guy's 35 bucks. This one is 50. This guy has a little bit weaker reliability and maybe. Maybe he's just getting started in the business. So he doesn't have as many reviews, but I'm going to give him a shot.

So you can very fluidly look at what your options are and make the best decision for, for what you need, because it's not a commodity, you know, it very much varies on what your needs are and what, and what the service providers kind of tailored to. That's how I would recommend you approach it if you end up using.

Expanding Boundaries: GreenPal's Service Coverage Across States and Countries

Bryan Clayton: Yeah. So we're just in the United States. These invisible lines between us and Canada are very real. So we're in every major city, United States, every state, but we have like tried to like go into from Seattle to Vancouver or even like Buffalo to Toronto. 

And like, you would be amazed at how real that line is and how different you have to like modify the system to be able to operate internationally. So we haven't crossed that bridge mainly because we really have a whole lot more wide space to go here in the United States, we have 300,000 people, give or take using the app to get lawn mowing services. 

But the business, the industry is like a 99 billion industry. And so we're still just very much a drop in the bucket. So we're probably for the foreseeable future going to keep. Focusing on building more liquidity and more transactions in cities here in the US it's weird.

Like the distribution of activity on the platform follows what they call like the power law, which means like 20 percent of all or 80 percent of all the activity happens in 20 percent of the markets. We're trying to figure out, like, why does a Knoxville, Tennessee do more transactions than a Seattle? And so we have a lot of work to do there. 

Quality Assurance at Its Best: Unveiling GreenPal's Rigorous Vetting Process for Top-notch Lawn Care Professionals

Alex Bond: How do you ensure that you are working with the best lawn care professionals? I mean, how does that vetting process work?

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, it's a process. So the first thing we do is we make sure, are they a real business? Do they have the equipment? Do they have a, you know, we match their name against an I.D. We make sure they have a legit social security number and bank account and all these things. 

So that's like step one. But that's just like table stakes. Whereas you as the consumer, you don't even know those things. If you're doing this the old way, if you're doing it in analog, you're kind of just taking a leap of faith on that stuff. 

But at least we check that and then the real process starts from that moment forward where we rigorously score these service providers on okay, this is their first kind of like appointment that they have on the platform. 

And it's kind of like an audition and did they show up on time? Did they make the consumer happy and if they didn't We really demote them and give them one more chance. And if they don't satisfy that appointment excellently, then we'd expel them from the platform. 

So there's a kind of like this process by which we weed out the service providers that aren't reliable, that don't take this business very seriously and promote the ones that are good and it really is tied to actual transactions where, whereas other platforms, if you hired somebody off of Facebook marketplace, it really still is tied to just a name and a phone number. 

They're not capturing the actual activity that's happening. They're not in the middle of the transaction, but because we can figure out who's good, who's reliable, who's getting hired again. And who's not and promote the ones that are good and demote the ones that aren't good. 

Alex Bond: No, that's great. So you get to create this kind of like the reliability score, you then get to create this system in which you are ranking and rating exactly and telling customers that you are at the same time.

Bryan Clayton: That's right. And you can't do these sorts of things unless you are an end to end solution. And it's really hard to deliver that. It's, it's hard to kind of deliver the push a button and something actually just happened. Type of experience. 

But when you do, you can then regulate all of these things and kind of be an invisible hand to help make the experience run faster, quicker, smoother as time goes on and you collect more data and you get better and better at it. 

Unlocking GreenPal's Revenue Model: Exploring the Profit Mechanism Behind the Platform's Success

Alex Bond: I'm curious how GreenPal, how y'all get a profit. I'm kind of assuming that you take a cut of what, of every bid that a lawn care professional gets. Do you mind explaining that part to me a little bit? 

Bryan Clayton: That's right. It's a simple marketplace model works the same as as Uber and Airbnb and Upwork and and Instacart, we just take a piece of the transaction and that varies depending on how much volume the vendor is doing through the platform. And if they're doing a lot of volume, it goes down. If they're just getting started, it's a little higher.

We are experimenting with premium tools that service providers will pay to use. It's really hard to be in the SaaS business and the marketplace business at the same time. There's very few examples of companies that have managed to pull that off. But we are experimenting with that. 

Discovering GreenPal's Marketing Strategy: Leveraging Word-of-Mouth and Beyond to Reach and Engage Customers

Alex Bond: How do you advertise? What kind of marketing channels do you use? Because I was kind of surprised that I'd never heard of you and it seems like you're everywhere. So part of me guesses that the model is very word of mouth because that's kind of like the community of workers, long care professionals, people talking to each other.

Hey, this guy did really well on my lawn. You want to hire him? I mean, that just feels like the guts of the business even before you put green pal on top of it. So I'm curious what marketing channels are at type of advertising GreenPal does.

Bryan Clayton: It's an important question because lack of distribution kills more startups than anything, especially more marketplaces than anything. And so the primary way we people discover us is just through organic SEO. I need a lawn mowing service nearby me and Virginia beach, Virginia, or in Lincoln, Nebraska, you name it, any city in the country. 

We have over time developed a strategy and, and have developed a playbook to, to have our landing page. And one of the 10 that you can consider when you conduct that search on Google, and that's how we get about half of the users that use the platform. The other half come from, like you said, word of mouth. 

And there's no like one silver bullet that we've implemented to juice that other than just try to make as many people happy as possible. That's basically it, like building a product that solves people's problems. That people got value from and want to tell their friends and family about, I don't know, like for me, whenever I save money on something or take time on something, I want to brag about it. 

Hey, you know, I ordered an Uber at the airport the other day and it was only 18 bucks to get home, whereas the cabs were 47 and I want to like brag about that. And so people will tell other people about it if they were satisfied, if, if it actually solved the problem and made their life a little easier. 

And so that's how we have built word of mouth over a decade. It didn't start off that way. The platform was really hard to use. It was cumbersome. It didn't have the tools that needed in the early days. And so as time we've just focused on making it better and better and better. 


Conquering the Winter Challenge: GreenPal's Approach to Seasonal Adaptation and Service Expansion

Alex Bond: I'm extremely curious though, because I did some navigating on your website. What do you guys do in the winter? You know, I mean, not a lot of people are mowing their lawn come November or December. So is that something that you kind of just grin and bear it or what's the solution there? Cause that's my immediate obstacle that I see. 

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, it's challenging. The business does doesn't flatline in the winter, but it goes down by, you know, 70% 80%. And the thing about being in a seasonal business is you just have to, you have to embrace it. You have to plan for it. The thing that makes it hard is the thing that makes it valuable.

The fact that it is a seasonal business, it kind of in a way wards off competitors because that's this one more dynamic that makes makes it makes the nut hard to crack. But what do we do to mitigate that? You know, we really try to focus on dominating the year round markets. So everything in Florida, we do pretty darn well at Southern California and Southern parts of Texas.

We do darn well at, and year round. And so that helps keep the lights on, so to speak. The other thing we built about two years ago was a snow plowing. We added on the ability to order snow plowing on the platform. We thought it was going to be a simple thing. We thought, Hey, you know, we've already got the system. 

We got the vendors, we got both sides of the marketplace cause a lot of guys that cut grass also plow snow in the Northern markets. And little did we know that it was basically like launching a whole new business. We had to build the system almost from scratch just for snow plowing and the messaging of consumers knowing, okay, now I'm ordering a snow plowing service.

This is my lawn service. Keeping those separated, making all that real clear and clean was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, but that helps us generate some revenue. But what it does more than anything is it keeps us relevant and in the press year route. And so local earned media is a big part of our SEO strategy. So news channel five, you know, Fox news channel six or, or your local paper talking about, Hey, we're about to get a foot of snow here in Buffalo. 

Did you know that there's an app for that? And, you know, talking about green power and that keeps us in the press, keeps signups occurring, keeps the property vibrant and also helps our service providers, helps them make money so they stay in business and maybe helps them earn some revenue so they can buy a new boat over come springtime and really crush it on the platform when the grass starts growing again. 

Alex Bond: I love the idea of the snowplow and that's kind of why I asked is because I was curious it looked like it was baked into or more like an addendum to the business model. And I was curious how it was working. And I thought, I think the same thing as you, it's just change the weather and change the tool and it should be the exact same. And it kind of surprises me that it isn't. So I hope that you do find some success with that. Cause I think that's both of those things are things that I've done before when I was a kid, you know.

Bryan Clayton: It's a cautionary tale to anybody wanting to do something similar to this and any space it can really be helpful to focus on just one vertical at a time every service business has a million problems and they're all different and you have to build the tool set to be tailored to that experience, to that workflow. 

And the only reason why we're here a decade in and doing well is because we have focused on just one thing. We are the easiest, quickest, cheapest way to get a lawn mowing service, to mow your yard tomorrow. We don't do anything else other than that.

Exploring the Mutual Respect and Harmony Between Landscapers and Customers in GreenPal's Business Model

Alex Bond: And I want to kind of talk about that psychology of lawn mowing, and I'm curious if this went into your business model. So, you know, I feel like, as I just mentioned, almost every guy on the planet has worked for a landscaping company at some point, or at the very least has had to mow their own lawn. Right? 

So I think there's some sort of respect for landscapers, because people understand the workload more intimately. I mean, this is also why I think everyone should be required to work in the service industry or wait a table at some point in time to have that kind of mutual respect. But that's beside the point. My assumption is that with the reputation of landscapers as kind of, you know, quiet dignity and the relatability of their workload.

Does that mean that there's kind of less controversy and drama between landscapers and customers than with other matchmaking services, services like a Postmates or a DoorDash or an Uber Eats or Uber or Lyft or any of these things where people don't drive other people or don't get paid to. I mean, I just feel like, is that off base or was that considered when developing the idea? I'm kind of curious about that side. 

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, great question. First off, to your point, you know, one of my favorite things there was a guy named Chris Saka that used to be a real real good angel investor. And he said that. He wouldn't invest in people unless they've worked a crappy job in their life. You know, like he would not, he would not invest in a founder unless they waited tables or mowed grass or painted houses or something. 

So there is something to like correlated between working those grimy ground and pound hand to hand combat type jobs and, and, and an edible inevitable success in some way. And my background is actually in the landscaping business. I started a lawn mowing business in high school and over like 15 years, grew that into a bigger company and sold it and then took what I learned and the scars from the lawn care business and then applied it to starting GreenPal. 

And to your point, my assumptions at the starting block was that these service providers would be eager and hungry for the work and that they would, because I know I was running a landscaping company. Yeah, shoot, give me 20 opportunities. I'll close 10 of them and I'll show up on the day I'm supposed to, because that's how I'm going to grow my business. 

And one of the first things I was really shocked by and surprised by was that no, that is not the case. That's like 1 percent of service providers that the reality is, is that. Nobody teaches any of us how to run a small business. We're not taught how to run a small business in high school. We're not taught how to run one in college if you go to business school. 

And so you as the business owner are like left up to like your interactions in the real world in the marketplace to learn how to run a small business. What it means to be proactive, what customer service looks like, what what follow up looks like and what timeliness and scheduling and doing a thorough quality job looks like and nobody teaches any of us this stuff. It's kind of like up to our own to learn it. 

And so I was really surprised by the disparity of that and that actually, it really does suck as a consumer to get a reliable lawn lawn mowing service. That's just going to show up on the day they're supposed to and do what they say they're going to do. It's not as easy as you would think you would think you would just have people like banging your door down for your money, but the reality is it's like pulling teeth. 

And the case of the disappearing lawn guy is, is very real. They'll show up like one or two times and just drop off the face of the earth. And so all of the reasons, all of the reasons why that sucks are now my problem. Like as the platform, as the marketplace. I have to solve all of those. And so like, to your point, I thought, well, you know, these are professionals.

These are lawn care services that are in business for themselves, they're going to want to do a good job for these clientele. And that was not the case and still is not the case. And that's really the main value proposition we bring to consumers is we indoctrinate and kind of modulate these service pros into a system where they need to perform very well.

Or they're out and 90 percent don't make 90 percent of the service providers that come onto the platform, don't get through the step by step process of separating the good ones from the not so good ones.  And so the reality is, the barriers to entry are very low. Anybody can get into the business just with about 500 or a thousand dollars of equipment and nobody has taught them how to run a small business ever.

And so it's our platform's job to step by step. Teach them what it means to show up on time to do a good job to you know, they don't work for us. They're not our contractors, but we're kind of like a coach in their pocket. And because when they succeed the platform succeeds and so their success and our success are totally aligned And the reality is 90 don't Don't don't make it through that.

The Appeal of Autonomy: Exploring the Entrepreneurial Drive and Independent Spirit of GreenPal's Lawn Care Professionals

Alex Bond: I do have a follow up for you, Bryan. Do you think that's because people go into business? I mean, one of the greatest reasons people go into business for themselves is autonomy. So do you think that's because they like their autonomy? They decide to try to get some money from working for you realize that it's maybe more regulated than they would have liked and then they kind of just put their hands in the air and say I can do this by myself.

Bryan Clayton: There is some of that, you know, personality, the type of person who doesn't like to be held accountable is doesn't is not going to do well on our platform. You know, we're going to score you if you show up on time or not, and we're going to give you more or less opportunities based on that score. A lot of people don't like that.

They don't like somebody looking over their activity on a platform and making decisions based on that. And so That's good. If that's the case, you know, they're just not going to succeed on our platform and we demote or expel them from the platform and that you know That's a lot of people to be a business owner.

The problem is is a lot of people approach owning and running a small business From the mindset of being an employee and they're very very different. You have to self manage you have to be held accountable. You have to be proactive. I mean, even to this day, we've got 32,000 contractors. We'll get calls into our support.

Hey, my kid is sick today and I can't get my 23 lawns that I have on my account. Can you get somebody else to do them? And it's like, that's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. You are in business for yourself. You should have done them, you know yesterday or you should have a helper that's going to fill in for you but that's not how this works. 

Alex Bond: Or you call you pick up the phone and call them and apologize to them and reschedule it yourself. Right? 

Bryan Clayton: Exactly. And so, now I'm sounding very negative on on like the small business owner supply base in the law and care industry the reality is that it is comprised of some of the best, hardest working small business owners you will ever meet that actually do really well. We have a lot of providers that are making over a million dollars a year on our platform, but that is not everybody. 

And the problem is as a consumer. You have to go through this process of weeding through these small business owners that aren't serious about running a small business, that aren't giving it 110%, that don't know the difference between working a job and running a small business. And you have to go through those negative experiences as a consumer to figure out a good one. It's our job to help a consumer sidestep that. 

From Growing Pains to Success: Lessons Learned and Remarkable Growth of GreenPal in Over 11 Years

Alex Bond: What are some of those steps that you've had to, clearly there's been some growing pains along the way. What are some of those lessons that you've learned in the last 11 years, over 11 years, and how has the company grown since its inception? 

Bryan Clayton: Yeah, it really is just always looking at one thing. How do we make vendors more money? And how do we make them more successful and how do we build tools that do that? You know, the reliability rating is something that vendors generally hate. 

They don't like it because they look at it from a negative disposition and look at it as a derogatory thing, but actually it makes them more money because it's an opportunity for them to earn new business and beat their competition in a way that they never could before. And, you know, if you have a higher reliability rating, you then get a little bit of pricing power. 

You can charge five or 10 more a mowing for that customer that values reliability. And actually you can expand your margins on the platform versus in the wild west of home services. You don't have any way to sell off of that other than like your word that in a weird way is something that actually makes the top performing vendors more money. 

And so we look at one thing, make vendors more money because when we do that, the platform earns more money and then the platform has extra revenue to invest in other things around new tools, growth and so on. 

Alex Bond: No, that's great. I think that makes a lot of sense. What's next for you guys? I mean, we talked about Canada. We talked about expanding the snow plowing services. I mean, what, what is top priority for you? 

Bryan Clayton: It really is about doing more of what we're already pretty good at, making it even better and doubling down on that. We we're at 300,000 or so people using it. We need to get to a million. We gotta be out a million people using the platform to be in what we call like the lexicon of the English language. 

We want to be in the same conversation of you know. Jump on DoorDash, get your Chinese food, jump on Instacart, get your groceries, you know, get an Uber ride to the airport. And why are you going to mow the yard? Just get a GreenPal. 

And really trying to get into home cleaning or trying to do Canada or trying to, you know, expand the snow plowing. None of that aligns with the goal of how do we get a million people using it to cut their grass? And so in a way it simplifies things it makes things easier in our decision making. 

It's like no, we just got to figure out how do we get more transactions in every single city? How do we make more people happy? How do we make vendors more money? Because everything tracks back to that and it's doing more of what we're pretty good at already and doubling down and leaning into that.

Alex Bond: No, that's great. I love the idea of, I want people to say, I need to get my lawn, GreenPal, you know, instead of even mown or whatever. 

Bryan Clayton: So yeah, just get a GreenPal. Why are you going to mow your yard? Just get a GreenPal. 10 years ago that didn't exist. Now it does in some little way and we want to make it, you know, own a little small piece of that mindshare of the American consumer.

Alex Bond
Alex Bond

Meet Alex Bond—a seasoned multimedia producer with experience in television, music, podcasts, music videos, and advertising. Alex is a creative problem solver with a track record of overseeing high-quality media productions. He's a co-founder of the music production company Too Indecent, and he also hosted the podcast "Get in the Herd," which was voted "Best Local Podcast of 2020" by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, USA.

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