Many people are drawn to starting a business for the independence, creative freedom and personal fulfillment it brings. Add in the ability to work outside every day, and you’ll understand why Travis LaBarge pursued a business in landscaping. “I had always had an interest in starting my own business,” says LaBarge. “I saw my parents and some others in my life who were self-employed, and I always knew it was something I wanted to achieve.”
LaBarge grew up in and around the green industry as his parents owned and operated a landscaping business in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for more than 30 years. He had worked a few summers for his parents’ company during high school, and while attending college at the University of New Mexico, he decided to start his own landscaping company.
“I started out and never looked back,” he says. He bought his own lawn mower and a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, and he quickly realized how nice it was to have his own schedule and be outside all day. “I honestly just fell in love with it. It was one of those things where I never thought that I would do what my parents did, but once I got my hands-on experience, I ended up really loving it,” he says.LaBarge continued landscaping for the remainder of college, founding his company, ExtraScapes, in Albuquerque in 2005. As soon as he graduated, the business took off because he was able to focus on it full time. Today, he employs 10-12 people and uses another 20 subcontractors that work regularly for him. The company serves both residential and commercial clients offering landscape design/build services, landscape maintenance, irrigation, drainage, outdoor lighting and pest control.
On a day-to-day basis, LaBarge meets with clients, manages landscape installations and oversees the design work his team does. He says there were initially some challenges when transitioning from working in the field to managing a business with employees. “I actually really love the work itself, the labor part of it,” he says. “It’s hard for me to step away.” While stepping back and giving autonomy to his employees was an adjustment, he knows his strengths lie in management and customer relations. He may not be out in the field as much these days, but he says, “What I most like about my job now is the freedom of owning your own business. I like especially that each day is different, and I like all of the creativity behind it.”
In ExtraScapes’ early years, the company only performed maintenance services. “When we did that, our year-round work would go down significantly each winter, because eventually we would run out of things we could possibly do,” he says. ExtraScapes has since grown to perform about 90% design/build work and 10% maintenance work. “Since we’ve moreso been a specialized design/build firm, we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t slow down in the winters at all. We have a couple of team members that do the design work, but I am involved in the designs,” he explains. “I do a pretty good percentage of structuring how the designs will play out on paper.”
There’s one significant trend that has helped ExtraScapes grow in the design/build space. “Outdoor living is a trend that has grown exponentially over the years,” says LaBarge. “It’s also a big reason why we’ve moved from being a maintenance-based company to an outdoor living design/build company.” He says almost every client that calls now is after the design of an outdoor living space rather than maintenance or any other service they offer. ExtraScapes’ projects typically include a combination of hardscaping, fire features, outdoor lighting, water features, pergolas and outdoor kitchens.
“Based on the enjoyment that I hear from our clients about what we offer them in the outdoor living space, I expect it to just keep growing and growing,” he says. “It’s one of those things that’s becoming more and more popular. And the more outdoor living people do, the more it catches on to neighbors and friends.”Another contributing factor to the popularity of outdoor living in Albuquerque is the generally pleasant and mild weather. “We do experience the winter, but our seasons are far less drastic than most other areas in the states,” explains LaBarge. “We have really ideal weather here, to be honest. We only lose a few days a year here to rain or to snow, and I think that allows us to operate better year-round especially as far as scheduling goes.”
But the warm, dry climate brings some challenges when planning a landscape. “We are in the desert out here,” admits LaBarge. “We don’t have a lot of greenery compared to other states, and what that means is that we do a lot of xeriscaping.” These landscapes use a lot of native plants that require little to no water. Despite misconceptions that native plants are dull or undesirable, LaBarge says these plants can be colorful year-round, interesting, beautiful and very easy to take care of.
For landscapes that do require irrigation, LaBarge says there are a lot of water rebate programs that provide incentives for homeowners to use upgraded, water-efficient products. They also have a lot of customers who use xeriscape rebates for turf removal. LaBarge says on one of the last projects they did, “over half of the project cost came back as a rebate, which is pretty significant.”
A client-based approach
If there’s one piece of advice LaBarge would offer to those starting out in the industry, it would be to “focus on completely pleasing every single client that they interact with.” At ExtraScapes, he says their goal is to do anything to make sure that clients have an above-average experience. “As long as you have a client-based approach and make sure every client you interact with is more than happy with the services you provided, then I think that’s just going to be a really good business structure for anyone.”
While LaBarge learned this early on, he says it’s really something he’s perfected over time and come to realize the importance of. “Looking back, I think a lot of my growth was attributed to taking the time to be with each client until they were perfectly happy,” he says. A large percent of the company’s business comes from referrals, which relates back to giving clients an amazing experience.
“It’s really easy to focus on the shiny, fun things in business like websites and apps and certain things,” LaBarge admits, “but I think the old school approach of just having really happy clients will help you grow much faster.”LaBarge regularly plans goals related to how efficiently the company operates, putting new systems in place, finances and how satisfied employees are. But he says that creating change in your business should ultimately go back to two things: your passion and satisfying customers. “Change will mostly be a result of your passion in your business and trying to do what’s best for the outcome of your clients,” he says. “You have to change in the direction that is going to be client-based and increase their satisfaction.”
LaBarge credits his father with teaching him the ins and outs of the business and helping him grow into the leader he is today. “He opened up a lot of avenues and strategies that I would have probably taken years and years to develop,” he says. “His expertise was crucial in my development.”
After his business began to grow, LaBarge hired a few business coaches who helped him implement systems that have allowed him to run his business better. He also takes advantage of online landscape groups. “Just seeing the work that they perform and trading different techniques and different tips and tricks, that’s been especially helpful as well,” he says.
But the biggest teacher overall for LaBarge really comes from experience, both good and bad. “I think just being in business in general there are a lot of lessons learned. Each year we grow so much in so many different avenues, the experience is priceless.”
A lot of business owners have a planned end goal of scaling their companies into massive businesses. But LaBarge has a bit of a different target in mind. “I would like to, of course, grow this business a little bit, but I would rather instead increase the scale of our projects and expand the creativity on each project and the service that we put out.”
Instead of increasing the size of his business or number of employees on his payroll, he’s more focused on increasing the quality of each project. “The more detailed and service driven that we can get on each project, I think the more successful we’ll be.” He says whether it’s the type of projects they do, the locations they provide them or the services they offer, the industry rapidly changes. If someone coasts in business, it’s usually a bad thing, he says. That’s why he says you have to “constantly learn and never stay stagnant.”
LaBarge reflects on just how much his own business has changed over the years. “A few years back I would have never thought I’d be specifically doing what I am now with my business or doing the projects we are now,” he says. “I believe what we’re going to be doing in the near future is probably a little bit beyond what I could comprehend now.”
The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.