Jan. 17 2019 11:00 AM

His big idea to start the tech firm Lawn Love is giving a business boost to landscape professionals across the country.

I’ve interviewed a fair number of people in my career. It’s probably in the hundreds by now. Over the last 17 years that I’ve been writing articles, there are a handful of people who stand out. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed, I never forget interviewing them.

I have a feeling Jeremy Yamaguchi is one of those unforgettable interview subjects. When I was talking to him for this article, he had such business insight, I felt as if I could have been interviewing him for the next issue of Forbes or Fortune.

Maybe it’s because he started his first company at the age of 16, or the fact that he never had a formal education — his entrepreneurial abilities seem to have come to him naturally. Whatever the reason, Yamaguchi has a remarkable story, and his brainchild, Lawn Love, is providing business and support to small landscaping companies across the country. Here is that story.

From the beginning

Jeremy Yamaguchi’s life broke the mold from the very beginning. As the child of overseas missionaries, he got to see a great deal of the world starting at an early age. Much of his childhood was spent in Japan, but he also lived in Southeast Asia and East Africa for a while with his Australian mother.

As a homeschooled kid, he immersed himself in his education, following what Yamaguchi describes as a self-guided curriculum. Though his mother and some of her friends would step in and help from time to time, he says, “It was a heavily self-directed education, not totally dissimilar from something like ‘unschooling’ where you move at your own pace.”

But he admits, “I don’t think that approach is for everyone. I can’t go to a parallel universe where I received a classic classroom education that I could compare it against, but I am overall reasonably happy with my educational background. It was definitely atypical, but I feel like I largely have what I need to navigate the world.”

His educational process seems to have worked out just fine. No matter where he was living or how old he was, ideas for businesses would just come to him. “I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life,” he says. “I believe entrepreneurship can certainly be taught, but for some reason I showed a bent for it at a young age.”

His first forays into business consisted of selling hand-drawn pictures to childhood friends and attempting to peddle candy he took out of the cupboards at home. He sold calendars online and started a business building websites for soon-to-be-married couples. Those are just few examples of what Yamaguchi calls his “tiny microventures.” “I was always looking for things I could do entrepreneurially from as early as I can remember,” he says.

At the age of 16, he moved to San Diego to live with his father, taking that entrepreneurial spirit along with him. He promptly finished his high school requirements and immediately started his first official company. What began as “doing some web development with a few friends” ended up scaling into a full-service digital agency offering product, design, marketing and growth work for businesses all around the country.

Yamaguchi had been running that company for almost five years when he spotted an opportunity in the home-services space. Searching for a housekeeper one day, he went online to try to find one. He quickly realized that all of his options came from what he termed “overpriced franchises” or someone advertising on Craigslist, an experience which he found to be “hit-or-miss.”

It dawned on him that he had both the product skills and the marketing know-how to build a technical solution to this problem. What he developed was something he now calls “an Uber for in-home services,” he named Golden Sunshine even though he says he conceived his idea about six months before the popular ridesharing service debuted.

“I ended up growing it very quickly,” he says of Golden Sunshine. “I sold it to a private-equity search fund in 2013 and started Lawn Love a week later.”

Spreading some love

Yamaguchi, now 31, says he realized lawn care is the industry he wanted to be in. “I’ve mowed my fair share of lawns over the years and know my way around most of your run-of-the-mill lawn equipment.”

His desire to develop technology for the lawn care industry didn’t grow out of any expertise about grasses or plant varieties, but more, “I just saw this huge opportunity where service providers in this space were not operating efficiently.” Having closely observed the way they operate — planning out routes on whiteboards or notepads and leaving invoices under doormats — he knew there was a better way.

Seeing that the technology available to lawn care professionals was radically underdeveloped, Yamaguchi saw an opportunity to bring more efficient routing and customer relationship management tools into the industry. “I realized I could build a solution that would be much better for the end consumer and deliver a more modern, delightful experience.”

And although he’s compared Lawn Love to Uber, he says his company is different in one critical way: it’s not out to put small lawn care companies out of business. “I think the Uber model has been appropriately criticized for coming into a new geography and steamrolling all over the incumbent legacy taxi companies and being fundamentally disruptive to their businesses. Lawn Love takes the polar-opposite approach,” he says. “The first thing we do is partner with a bunch of pros already in the market, and then give away all of our software to help make them better, more efficient versions of themselves.”

Lawn Love operates on the core thesis that the only thing that matters is the quality of its pros. “No bells or whistles or slick software really matters to the customer if he walks out his front door and sees that his yard is all hacked up,” Yamaguchi explains. “It truly comes down to the quality of the work, and the only way we are going to be able to get there is if we start by building with the lawn pro in mind. We designed a whole business model around partnering with the best lawn care companies out there and helping them thrive.”

This strategy seems to be working. Launched in April 2014 in San Diego, Lawn Love is now operating in 128 markets across 38 states. “We’ve partnered with tens of thousands of independent lawn care companies across the country and are moving very quickly.”

According to Yamaguchi, the lawn care industry, although a large, well-established part of the service economy, underutilizes technology. “As a result, customer experiences can be all over the map, the market is very fragmented, and pros aren’t operating as efficiently as they could.” Addressing this combination of factors is what has made Lawn Love so successful.

Lawn Love’s mission is to solve these problems.

It is a market platform that pairs vetted, prescreened lawn care professionals with consumers. It’s designed to make it easier for a homeowner to get a quote. All a customer has to do is punch in his or her address and fill out an online form. Then, through the power of satellite mapping and algorithms, Lawn Love can calculate a quote in just two minutes. “It gives consumers a much more modern, streamlined lawn care experience,” says Yamaguchi.

He describes the lawn care pros that use the service as experts that understand their domain well, but maybe don’t have strong marketing skills or experience using software. “That’s essentially what we help them with. We start by providing them with a huge pipeline of customer demand so they can pick up whatever jobs they want and spend more time out in the field. We also give them software to help make them more efficient.”

Lawn Love’s software includes job-clustering and routing optimization tools. Instead of a monthly billing cycle, payment is usually received within two days of a customer using Lawn Love. “We handle all the back office work, customer support and accounting for them,” Yamaguchi says.

“We are trying to democratize technology by leveraging software that has previously only been available to huge industry players, giving that technical capability to tens of thousands of small-time independent lawn care companies all across the country.”

Lawn Love is in nearly every major geographical location in the U.S. with the exception of dense urban areas like San Francisco or New York City. “We operate in every other major and not-so-major city down to the Boca Ratons,” Yamaguchi says. “We get pretty small, down to cities in the 100,000-to-150,000-in-population range, and we’ll probably keep going from there.”

The lawn care companies who partner with Lawn Love are typically owned by experienced landscape professionals with small companies who have been in the business for an average of eight to 10 years. Yamaguchi says Lawn Love doesn’t often work with firms having 20 crews; it’s typical partners range from one-person-in-a-truck outfits to ones with four or five crews.

“That is really our sweet spot,” says Yamaguchi.

“We’re able to bring these small firms the things that they are struggling to do on their own, like billing, marketing and customer support services.”

Pros who partner with Lawn Love can take on as much or a little work from it as they want. Yamaguchi says most lawn care companies start out by “dipping a toe in,” maybe filling in a couple of holes in their routes. “Over time, they start taking on more and more work to the point where many of our pros are doing substantially most of their jobs on the Lawn Love platform.”

Lawn Love won’t partner with just anyone. Pros that want to sign up must meet certain qualifications. They must pass a quiz tailored to their market and have all the requisite equipment. “The system is really designed to help us partner with the best pros in each market right out of the gate, and then give them tools to help them continue to do well over time.”

Lofty goals

Lawn Love’s ultimate goal is “to become the largest lawn care marketplace on Planet Earth.” And while there is still a long way to go, the company continues to take off. “We are far bigger than we were two years ago but much smaller than we are likely to be two years from now,” says its founder.

Entrepreneurship, says Yamaguchi, particularly when you’re involved in a hypergrowth startup like Lawn Love, “is kind of an exercise in blinking and being shocked about how far you’ve come each year.”

But then, it was never Yamaguchi’s intention to think micro. “The goal was always to build something transformative in the industry. We didn’t set about this to do something small.”

Yamaguchi found the perfect pairing for his experience and skills, having both technological acumen and a background in lawn care. But don’t let Yamaguchi — or the entertainment industry — fool you into thinking that being an entrepreneur is easy. In fact, it’s getting more difficult by the minute. After all, it’s not every day that you can spot a massive market space where there is also a technological void.

“In reality, small business creation has been on the decline for the last 30 years thanks in large part to the Walmarts and Amazons of the world rolling over everyone,” Yamaguchi says. “It’s really exciting for me to build a business where we’re delivering a modern, elevated experience to the customer, while also allowing all of the pros on our platform to maintain their independence. Instead of laying waste to existing players, we’re partnering with them and helping them better compete and thrive.”

Yamaguchi says that what he loves most about his business is that “we are direct defenders of the American Dream for all of our lawn pros that we partner with.” With all the big-box superstores and online behemoths of the world putting the little guy out of business, he says it is “awesome to give these smallbusiness owners the tools they need to be successful.”

He gets to see these small companies scale up and grow once they join Lawn Love. They gain the ability to earn more money and “build better and more profitable companies to help provide for their families and their futures.”

This opportunity is possible because of the marketplace model Lawn Love uses, Yamaguchi explains. “Our marketplace model allows us to aggregate traditionally fragmented suppliers and in turn deliver a consistent, uniform experience to customers. It is better for both the customer and the lawn care pros on our platform. That’s exciting, and it’s not that often that you find that juxtaposition of huge opportunity, right experience and skill set, right team and right time.”

He describes Lawn Love as a hybrid, neither truly a lawn care business nor a true tech business; rather, it’s an entity that must execute elements of both types of businesses if it is going to succeed.

What’s the secret?

Yamaguchi says the secret to succeeding at anything is having a high rate of personal learning and an equal amount of intentional fortitude. It all comes down to grit, resilience and the desire to go out and solve problems.

“People tell this narrative of a lightning-strike entrepreneur who in a sudden stroke of genius, lays waste to all of his or her problems,” he says, “but in reality, it’s mostly just that you hung in there, ground it out longer and pushed harder than anyone else.”

Beyond that, though it sounds simple enough, you’d be surprised at how many people miss it — probably the biggest factor in success is making something people want. “It seems obvious and almost trite to say,” says Yamaguchi, “but if you can manage to do that, you can probably build a successful business. After that, it’s just a question of scale.”

How it works:

1. Go to www.lawnlove.com/apply.

2. Fill out the questionnaire and take the domain-specific industry knowledge quiz.

3. Make sure you have the relevant equipment.

4. Download the app and start picking up jobs.

5. Like Uber, both customers and pros submit real-time, quantified information after the service is delivered about their experience. High ratings are rewarded with preferred access and perks.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kristinsmithely@igin.com.

The chicken and the egg

One of the biggest challenges Lawn Love faces, according to owner Jeremy Yamaguchi, is getting a handle on supply-and-demand liquidity across all the different markets it’s in. The company could get a bunch of new customers, but may not have enough lawn care pros to service them in a timely manner. Or, the market could become saturated with too many pros and too few customers. Yamaguchi says there’s a bit of a “mini chicken-and-egg effect” the company must navigate. “As we get better at forecasting, using what we’ve seen happen in the past to help inform future decisions, we are doing a better job with that,” he says.

How is the decision to launch in a new market made? When a customer or a pro tries to sign up in a market where the service isn’t offered yet, he receives a prompt to submit his name and email. “When we show up in that market, he’ll get alerted,” Yamaguchi says. “Those emails act as a useful signal to us, because it shows us how many customers and pros are trying to use Lawn Love in a certain location. Depending on how many inquiries we get, we can make it a priority to roll out in that city.”

A tip from the entrepreneur
Jeremy Yamaguchi knows what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, having grown Lawn Love from being available in just one city to being offered in 128 cities across the country. “You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. According to him, you’re always going to be doing things you’ve never done before and will probably do them poorly the first time out. You have to be reasonably good at getting yourself up to speed, and then be happy about firing yourself from that first job. Then, you can hire someone else who is much better at performing that function.

“Your privilege for being successful is that you get to replace someone who is better than you at that thing,” says Yamaguchi. “Then you can go out and wrangle some other thing that you’ve never done before.”