From Grass To SaaS: The Evolution Of Landscape Management Network With Mark Bradley
It seems a long way from cutting grass to dominating an entire niche in the world of SaaS, but that’s exactly what Mark Bradley did over the course of his entrepreneurship journey. Before founding Landscape Management Network, Mark’s only means of employment was mowing lawns, but he had always known that he wanted more out of life. To achieve that, he started his own lawn care company. As his business grew bigger and busier, he searched far and wide for software tools to help him manage it – all to no avail. Driven by necessity, Mark created his own, marking the beginning of what would become the leading producer of management tools for landscape management. Listen in as he recounts his journey and the lessons that he learned from it in this conversation with Mitch Russo.
From Grass To SaaS: The Evolution Of Landscape Management Network With Mark Bradley
If you’re reading and have a business that’s in need of some love, revenues and profits, I want you to grab my product that’s called Profit Stacking Secrets. It started out several years ago as a new client assessment but it became more and more detailed as the years rolled forward. Hundreds of clients later, I’ve refined it to be what you need to grow quickly with little investment using strategy instead of cash. Go to ProfitStackingSecrets.com and get your copy. Onto my guest and his incredible story.
In 1999, my client was mowing lawns as his only means of employment, helping homeowners keep their yards looking nice but along the way, he discovered he wanted more out of life. He built a lawn care company and added enough people to serve dozens and then hundreds of clients as one of the top landscape contractors in North America. In the process he searched far and wide for software to help manage his busy company but found nothing that was useful enough that he could use. Being the entrepreneur he was, he decided to create his own. First out of necessity and then when others found out about it, they wanted to use it too. That was the beginning of LMN, which is the leading producer of management tools for landscape management companies all over the world. Welcome, Mark Bradley, to the show.
Thanks for having me.
It’s my pleasure, Mark. What a great story. Many of us started our companies out of having a need and then looking for a way to fill that need, couldn’t find it so we had to decide to do it ourselves. Tell us a bit more about how you got started.
You hit the nail on the head there. My company was growing fast and I started hiring more and more employees. Our service list and our customer list started to expand and I needed software that would help me run a remote workforce, track billing, job costing, timekeeping, all the things that you need to run a professional business and stay on top of the customer’s demands. I couldn’t find a tool that could do all of those things for a landscape company. That’s what led me to the project that became LMN, which was building software that would allow us to scale the landscape company efficiently.
Did you have any experience with software prior to this?
Not at all. I had a project management background. I started out in the nuclear industry and moved into the landscape industry, which is a big shift in itself. I thought that I could work with a software development team and clarify what I wanted to build and what the outcome would be. I was fortunate to have my CTO already working in my landscape company, he had a degree in Software Engineering. The role that he was doing in the company was a bit more of a tech support, connecting up many different things that we were attempting to use. The more we looked at doing that and the more we looked at other software, the clearer it became that we needed to build. I was fortunate to have somebody like that on the team to fill the void.When you put yourself out there looking to achieve something, you're much more likely to run into others who are on that same path. Click To Tweet
Is that person on the team before you made a decision to build the software?
He was working in the company, helping us implement other software that we were trying to stitch together. I found him while I was in pursuit of finding the perfect software. He came on board and worked in the operational side of the business for three years before we ever decided to build software. He had a good understanding of what the needs were and he had an eye for detail and a strong understanding of where the holes were in what we were attempting to use. That made it a lot easier for me to explain what was needed when it came time to scope out the project.
It’s interesting how the universe lines up who we need in the future before we even know we need those people. Don’t you find that to be fascinating?
I did realize that I needed somebody to help us become more tech-enabled but I had no idea that we would ever set out to build software. It was the furthest thing from my mind when I made that hire. I couldn’t agree more.
When I started my software company, I was in my mid to late-twenties. I live next door to an empty house and a new neighbor moved in. I went over to greet my new neighbor and found out that he’s a friendly guy. We decided to go for breakfast one morning and next thing you know, we’re chatting about this idea I had for some software. He went off and built a prototype based on my little sketch on a napkin. That’s how we started our company. You have to wonder, does the universe drop people into your life at the time you need them and give you the lead you need to move forward? Is that something that we can control? Is it based on the Law of Attraction? What do you think?
There is a repetitive cycle that I’ve noticed in life. When you put yourself out there looking to achieve something, you’re more likely to run into others who are on that same path. They don’t always align perfectly but when they do, great things happen.
Many great products come from individual entrepreneurs having a need and then not being able to fulfill it any other way so they have to create it themselves. As it stands, I too, at this age, I found that I needed software to help me coach my clients. I needed a basic session management system and I could not find one that was adequate. I decided to work with a development team and build my own and it’s going to be coming out as this is published, it should be starting to become available. It’s that way that the world works that fascinates me most. That’s what I love most about how the universe works. You decided to create the software for yourself. Did you start out knowing that you would offer it to others? Did you say, “Let’s create something that we could use,” and then later, the idea came to you that others might want to use it too?
That happened quickly but there was a pivot. My first inclination was to build software to solve our own problems and to allow us to scale up at a pace that would be comfortable when it came time to maintaining profitability and understanding costs and managing all of the operations of the business. I knew I wanted to build it for myself but then when we started looking at costs and started looking at specific platforms to build on and how it would interact in the future. When I started building, it was before tablets were released and the app stores were new at that point. There wasn’t much there. As we started to look at it and started talking about scalability for our own business, it almost naturally came into mind. If we’re going to build it to be scalable, why not sell it to others to help spread the cost out? I don’t know if I was excited about owning a SaaS company at the time. Not as excited as I should have been but I had that transition from building something that would serve us to something that would serve the industry relatively quickly in the budgeting phase.
You are a landscape architect, you were out there servicing clients and then you decided to offer this software to other landscape architects or other landscape service companies. How long did it take for you to pivot out of your service business?
I retired in 2018 from the landscape business. I had started that in 1997. We started selling software in late 2009. It was a ten-year window between when we started selling and when I retired from landscape.
That’s a great lesson in itself. The whole idea is that you did not burn the boats. You are able to maintain one business while it supported the new one. You reached a point where you said, “I would be better off if I ran the software company versus the landscape company.” Was it the money that you saw growing that led you to that? Was there another part to the decision?
It was a tough decision. It did take me about three years to decide. I’d gone through a phase where I felt that if I scaled back a little bit on the landscape company, which was doing about $50 million in revenue, I might be more comfortable running both. Over those three years, the software business was starting to take off. We were hiring a lot more employees, starting to refine the product, the marketing, the customer service. I found myself passionate on developing this industry standard that would help every contractor fix the typical problems that take place in a field-driven, remote workplace like landscape.
The more we improved it, the more excitement there was within our customer base and within the industry, experts’ eyes, consultants, and people that we were working within the ecosystem that we operate in. I had this realization after two years of thinking about what to do next. It became clear that I had to focus on one thing if I wanted to achieve everything that I could. Being a CEO of two companies is not a good idea. I would never recommend it. Both companies suffer and it’s hard to be as passionate as you truly should be as a CEO when you’re dividing that into two businesses. What drove my decision was I could see that both companies were starved for time with me as a leader. I felt that it wasn’t fair to myself, my customers, my staff, to continue trying to do too much in a day. It wasn’t fair to my family. That was the decision-maker.
You were doing about $50 million in the landscape business. Did you sell that company?Whatever you’re most passionate about is generally what you’ll be most successful doing. Click To Tweet
I sold off divisions of the company. The core part of the business is still run by the employees.
Mark, how would you advise entrepreneurs who are in the process of making the same pivot that you made? Where do you go with that?
I get the question quite often. Many people that I’ve come across in the past years since starting LMN have had great tack ideas, whether it’s an app or a software tool or a full suite of products. Many people have great ideas often to serve the business they’re in or to solve a problem that they face regularly. What I try to suggest is starting small with a proof of concept is a smart way to get started. It minimizes the risk. It provides a world of education. For us, it was 4 to 5 years of selling software before we identified what we needed to do to change the industry.
There are many pivots that take place in most businesses and even more so in the tech industry. Understanding the problem is step one but then understanding what that solution needs to look like to serve the customer is something that takes time. That’s a piece of advice that I often give to people. Before you spend a lot of money building a product, going to market, creating sales channels, a customer service strategy, training tools and all these things that are needed, there’s this overarching need to make sure that what you’re building is going to solve the problem at scale. That takes a bit of time. There’s a recipe there that I have worked on and refined, but I wouldn’t say I’m done yet. It’s a work in progress. Before going out and raising lots of money or selling off large parts of your company, starting with an idea and getting that proof of concept out there and then trying to scale up makes a lot of sense.
There’s got to be a point in every journey where you realize that there’s going to have to be a change where you could continue to do the same thing or you could make a change. There is an emotional component to that as well. There’s part of you that wants to make the change but there might be some concern about going forward. Did you have any concern about making this transition? Did you do it gradually that it didn’t matter?
Mine was gradual that the confidence was there. I could see the path forward from the time that I made the decision to focus on one business and to grow that business. I had time to settle into the role as a CEO of a SaaS company. It was different than having that role in a construction-based landscape company. It was a different business. Beyond that, I felt that urge to do something different. I knew that my passion would lead me to make the right decision. I’ve always looked at life that way. Whatever I’m most passionate about, I’ll be most successful doing. I’ve lived by that in most of my decisions. That guided me to the stage I’m in.
There’s a difference doing business as a service company versus a SaaS company. When I built a software company, one of the key elements of how we grew was to create strategic alliances where we would co-market our product using the audiences of other companies similarly situated with similar client bases. Did you need to do that as well? Was that something new to you?
Initially starting to build software, my thought was I knew what I needed. I thought I knew what the industry needed. I sat on industry association boards. I thought I knew what was missing. As I got into the business, what I thought I knew and what I thought was needed was quite different. That’s where the pivots come into play. The difference between running a landscape company and running a SaaS company is the customer. At the end of the day, when I’m running a landscape company, I’m building something for a client whether it’s residential or commercial who has a need or a want and I’m there to solve that problem in the most ethical, professional way possible as a contractor.
It’s different than trying to help contractors run the most efficient organization possible and helping them enable their company from a tech perspective to improve their operations in every area. Although I felt I knew the industry wasn’t awakening because I had no understanding of how complex the industry was and how many different little niche markets there are. How different each company operates in terms of their style and their go-to-market strategy, services and whatnot. It was and still is a big learning curve because there’s a lot there, different than the contracting business.
When you’re talking to other entrepreneurs and they come to you and say something along the lines of, “I have this great idea. In my business, I have a feeling that we can create this incredible product.” What would you tell them their first steps would be? How would you advise them?
The first step is to make sure that you understand the problem clearly. Don’t mistake your problems for a problem that needs to be solved because it’s humbling to realize how many people have already overcome the problem that you’re facing. Sometimes these problems don’t need somebody to solve them with a new app or a new piece of technology. What people are looking for is a technology that solves many problems at scale and allows that to happen in a simple and automated way. What I hear a lot with young entrepreneurs or even seasoned entrepreneurs who have a tech idea is they see a problem that they think they could solve with an app or a simple piece of technology.
If we have the right type of dialogue and I’m comfortable with the person, I’ll challenge the idea strongly because many times the ideas are similar to another piece of technology that exists in other industries. Often it only hits a small piece of that. A lot of people have ideas that are entirely thought out so their first idea isn’t going to be the final idea. You’ve identified one piece of a big problem, if you keep focusing on it and going deeper and deeper, you’re going to pivot into something that’s going to be valuable for a larger ecosystem of people. Where that value lies may not be where you see it. Often people want to charge a monthly fee for an app, for example, and that app solves one problem. If you looked at that idea from a few different perspectives of other people who may benefit, the idea quickly pivots. I often try to explain that to people but the first idea is a seed and what happens next is different as you build on it.
Do you know the story of Fred Smith and Federal Express? Do you know he ended up getting a C on his Master’s thesis? As a result, he was surprised. He thought he’d come up with a clever idea. He goes to sit down with this professor, he says, “Why did I get a C?” “You didn’t think this through, did you?” Fred Smith goes, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Did you realize that the equipment you need to process checks on a plane?” Which is the purpose of Federal Express was to speed up the process of check processing. Instead of clearing a check taking eight days, it could take one day. The way he proposed doing that was by doing the processing in flight.
The professor is like, “Did you realize the weight of the equipment and the way that the checks are far exceeding what the plane itself can carry?” He never realized it. It’s important to think through all these pieces. For me, one of the greatest learning components of building a company is figuring out in advance and then being able to pivot. I don’t know about you but I reached a point in my business where we had created the entire product. We were ready to go when all of a sudden, the market changed overnight and we had to pivot or die. We pivoted, we had to figure out a different solution for the same technology. If it wasn’t for that, we would have never had a company. Did you have to go through that at all?Where value ultimately lies may not be where you see it today. Click To Tweet
I don’t know if it was that dramatic but there were a few things that happened on the early stages of the company that required an open mind. When we started, we put a strong emphasis around building training tools that would serve the industry using online learning as a component to the software. It was one of the areas that we were heavily investing in, it was a huge project, and it was chewing up a lot of money. As we went to market with it, we were underwhelmed with the demand. Although I thought owning a company with a couple of hundred employees, I thought online learning was the way of the future. We could train our staff. Most people have internet at home. I had lots of reasons why I thought this was the place to hang our hat and grow the revenue the fastest but it turned out that I might’ve been a little ahead of the curve and I may have been thinking more on my own needs and a bit less on the industry’s needs.
As I started to learn more about the industry in the years following and dive deeper, the data explained it. The average company is too small to need that type of training. It was tenth on the list of things to fix. It wasn’t a high priority for people to jump on board with that product. We could see that with the uptake as we were selling it. The amount of effort going into selling training versus selling, estimating and timekeeping software was high and the returns were low. We made some mistakes along the way and put too much time and money into things that the industry didn’t need.
We all go through that, at least in my experience. We all go through investing that time and effort into something that later turns out to have been a bad decision. I believe that that’s part of the process. You almost have to do that. In my case, it was essential to the evolution of our product and of our systems as we went forward. What advice would you give somebody? They hit a brick wall in their process. What do they do next?
The never give up concept is an important one. We need to have that tenacity to overcome these things but at the same time, knowing when to pivot and not seeing that as giving up is an important skillset. Oftentimes, we get into scenarios that we want to get out with some good old-fashioned hard work. We’re not relying on the data to tell us where to put our efforts. When those things become obvious and they should be data-driven, you need to have that confidence to step back and be humble enough with yourself.
There’s a more valuable place to spend your time and money. Often, that decision is hard, even though you may already know instinctively through the experiences that you’ve had where you should spend your time. It’s a matter of discipline but we all struggle with this. When you start something, you don’t want to quit or you don’t want to leave any stone unturned so you keep going and going. Having that ability to pivot when the time is right and when the data tells you to, that’s a skill that breeds success. I suppose I wish I had that one a little earlier in my career.
I wish I had that earlier too. That feeling and desire to say, “I’m not going to give up. I’m going to pivot,” is a key decision. That’s the most important point that I got from what you said. I feel the same way. It’s not quitting because when you quit, you failed. When you pivot, you create another opportunity for you to go forward in a productive and a more profitable way. That’s what we all want to do. It’s a great lesson. I’m glad you shared that. Mark, we’re at the point in the show where I’m going to be asking you a couple of questions that will help readers get to know you a little bit better. Here’s the first question and it’s all about what you value in particular the people that you think of as important to you in your life. Who in all of space and time would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
Henry Ford. I’ve found him to be an interesting individual. I would enjoy that deep conversation with him.
He’s been mentioned before. Other people have said that too. It’s a great choice. Tell me why you think Henry Ford would be a great hour for you to spend time with?
Understanding how somebody had taken a skill, mechanical know-how and then turned that into something that changed the world and developed an entire industry. It’s a huge accomplishment that I would love to understand what that looked like and felt like and how that came to be. It seems a huge feat becoming an engineer and turning that into an entire industry is amazing.
One of the things that I’ve always been impressed about when it comes to Henry Ford is his systems thinking. I loved his mind when he looked at a car and he looked at an assembly line, he realized that this was a way to rapidly manufacture in a way that was different than everybody else had ever thought of before. That to me was an innovative breakthrough. It changed the entire world, don’t you think?
The work that went into coming up with the concept of an assembly line did revolutionize manufacturing and many things have spun off of that since. Some things that I used in my own landscape business, which then translated into my software business with respect to the lean management principles. When you look back at the foundation of those things, they all roll right back to that. It would be a conversation that would be hard-pressed to squeeze into an hour but I would take that opportunity.
I’m about to ask you the grand finale, the change the world question. What is it that you are doing or would like to do that has the potential to change the world?
It would be LMN. One million employees. One in 300 people in the US work in the landscape industry. It’s a highly-fragmented industry that needs to be improved and organized. In the process, employees can earn much better wages and customers can enjoy all of the benefits that landscaping brings to the planet, including all of the environmental impacts and the things that come along with that. I feel passionate that developing a system that allows companies to succeed, that allows their employees to create meaningful careers has a lasting impact. That would be mine.
You are changing the world, Mark. Your software is enabling companies to be more successful and therefore you are helping not just company owners but the families of every one of those companies. This software that you’ve created, this system that you designed and built is having a huge effect all over the world. I want to thank you for doing that and congratulate you on your success.
Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.Pivoting is not giving up. It’s creating another opportunity for you to move forward. Click To Tweet
It is my pleasure. Mark, it was delightful chatting with you but before I let you go, I know that you have a free gift for my readers. What would that be?
Free software. Go to our website, it’s GoLMN.com. You can sign up for free software there and start budgeting, estimating and managing your business more efficiently.
This is specifically for landscape management companies?
Yes, it is.
Readers, if you don’t have a landscape management company but you would like to see what this software is like. If you’d like to see how a great software system is designed and built, by all means, it’s free. Check it out, play with it, see what it takes to create a SaaS-based company and be successful in this world. Mark, thank you for your time. It was a delight chatting with you and I can’t wait until we get a chance to talk again.
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you.
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