What is the number one hindrance that prevents businesses from growing? It’s when the CEO’s mindset resists growth. Doug C. Brown’s wonderful guest in this episode is Bryan M. Clayton, Co-Founder of GreenPal. Bryan shares with Doug how every business goes through three phases: startup, grow up, and scale-up. You need to be transparent about whether you can bring your business through the phases. What should you do if you don’t have the needed skill for a specific level? Tune in to find out!
Listen to the podcast here:
How The CEO Prevents Businesses From Growing With Bryan M. Clayton
I’ve got a great guest. His name is Mr. Bryan Clayton. He owns a company called GreenPal. He’s at YourGreenPal.com. He’s a super-smart guy. He’s built a couple of companies in his lifetime. He was thrust into entrepreneurialism by his father. The bottom line is he’s doing quite well. He built his first company up and sold it off. He built it up to $10 million or above and sold that company at that time. The interesting thing about Bryan is he’s a no-frills, no holdback type of guy. He just lays it out there and says, “Here’s how it is.” We talked a lot about in this episode what prevents somebody from growing. We both agreed that a lot of times, it’s in the mind of the leader of the company. We go in-depth on a bunch of this. Enjoy and let’s go to the interview.
I have a great guy. His name is Bryan Clayton. He owns a company called YourGreenPal.com. We did an interview prior and I was dumb enough not to record it. He was gracious enough to overlook that. It was one of the best interviews ever. Bryan, welcome.
Thanks for having me on. Great to be here.
I appreciate you being here. You are in Tennessee, correct?
Bryan, you have an interesting story and I love it because I had a landscaping company early in my life. Your dad seemed to push you out one day and say, “Son, go make some money, mow a lawn.” Is that how it happened?
I was dragged into entrepreneurship and business ownership, kicking and screaming by my father. He interrupted me playing Nintendo on a hot summer day and said, “Get off your butt. I lined up a gig for you. You are going to go mow the neighbor’s yard.” Luckily, he did that because after I worked my butt off for an hour and figured out how to cut a lawn, I made $20 and I was just hooked. I was hooked on entrepreneurship from that moment forward.
The first thing I did after I’ve got done and got paid was as I went back to my little desktop computer. This was back in the ‘90s. That’s all we had in the past. I made some flyers and passed them out. At the end of that first summer, I had 10 or 15 customers. I was just bit by the entrepreneurial bug. I stuck with that lawn mowing business for fifteen years and built it into one of the largest landscaping companies in the State of Tennessee, where I live.
I think you are being a little modest. You’ve got it over $10 million a year, right?
That’s right. It wasn’t overnight but little by little, I’ve got it over $10 million a year in revenue, over 150 employees. In 2013, the business was acquired by one of the largest landscaping groups in the United States. Going from just me and a push mower to me and 80 or 90 trucks going out every day, I learned a lot the hard way on how to get a business going. After I sold that company, I plowed it all that into my second company, GreenPal, which is like the Uber for lawn mowing. It’s a technology-based company, a completely different world and I had to start all over again and reinvent myself. I love business and 22 years in one industry, and seeing it from every angle, you can see it from every 3 or 4 years, I have become a completely new person. It’s awesome.
You are doing it repetitively successfully. It’s not a fluke. You did it once, now you did it with GreenPal. The last time we talked, you are up to $20 million-plus.
Doing over $20 million a year in revenue through our platform. Luckily, I didn’t know that when I started the second company because if I had known how hard it was going to be to get a software business going, I would never have done it. I think naivete as an asset is a real thing. When you are first getting started, not knowing the complexities and not knowing how hard it’s going to be and how challenging it’s going to be is actually beneficial because that gets you in the game. Get in the game and keep moving forward. Don’t give up is how you get something going.
Do you find that most entrepreneurs get into the game and they find this? No matter what industry they get into, they are going to get some pushback. I love the quote. “Struggle is guaranteed. Suffering is optional.” No matter what business. I have been in 35 of them in my life. They have all had some struggles in one capacity. One of my mentors early on in my life, when I was a young guy, he told me, “One of the biggest reasons that people don’t make it as they quit. They get to a place and then they quit, and it becomes mediocrity or I will settle here or whatever.” What I’m hearing you say is to grow to eight plus figures or more, you can’t quit. You can’t settle for mediocrity. Do I have that right?
That’s exactly right. A lot of it, the slog, the grind, the first 2 or 3 years is going to be a slog. A lot of what the slog is expectations. We expect it to go faster, therefore, it feels like a slog. We expect it to be easier, therefore, it feels like a grind and it feels like it’s not fun. Whereas if we can manage our psychology and manage our expectations, and understand that the first year of any business is going to be hard, it’s going to be a year to figure out where the hell you are going. Year two is going to be a little better but not much. Year 3, 4, maybe you get something going. It’s not until years 5, 6, 7 when you start to get some compound interest rolling it does start to get interesting and fun.
It’s a combination of being patient and trusting the process. Also, on the other hand, literally getting stuff done and executing, setting small, attainable goals, celebrating those wins, rinse and repeat. Keep the progress and momentum going because a lot of times you will see folks that waste five years, don’t go anywhere and it will still take five years. It’s that and you’ve got to be hitting some numbers that are doable over a long time. Those begin to compound like a snowball.
I agree with you there. It’s interesting to me what you are saying because a lot of people don’t think long-term with the business. They think, “I’m getting in it. I’m going to replace my income or I’m borrowing a bunch of money. I can take the investor’s money and I can make an income and if it goes where it goes, great, if it doesn’t, great.” The bottom line is it is a long-term play. In fact, an attorney said this to me once, “If you are going to get into business, you better plan on marrying that because you never know if you are going to be able to get out or sell it.”
My Cofounder and I in my first business used to say we were married to the front door of the shop and it is very true. It’s going to be very much the business is you? It’s scaffolding around you. That’s the way business has been for me. It is an extension of myself. It is part of my soul, part of my DNA. I’m pouring my soul into it. That’s what it takes to get started. I heard a quote by Sean Parker, who in the movie The Social Network, he was played by Justin Timberlake. He was the first CEO of Facebook. He says, “Starting a business is like eating glass. Eventually, you get to like the taste of your own blood.” We are throwing out all these scary analogies and anybody reading this will be like, “Why the hell would I do that? Why would the hell I subject myself to that?”
On the other hand, he can be one of the best things you can do with your life. What an amazing thing. We all have access to make something of ourselves. We all have access to YouTube University and we can learn how to do this stuff. We can all listen to podcasts and learn from other people who have been down the path to do it for ourselves and literally make something interesting in our life. Business is the thing to do that. One of my favorite books by a guy named Donald Miller is called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. The point of this book is to live an interesting life, you have to live an interesting story.
There has to be an interesting story to your life or else it’s going to be a pretty dull life. You’ve got to do interesting stuff. I read the book and I’m like, “That makes perfect sense.” My business is the storyline of my life. It is the thing causing me to do interesting things, to overcome these obstacles and challenges. Without the business, my life would probably be pretty dull. That’s the way I look at it. That kind of reframing takes care of a lot of the low parts that we all go through.
We are with Mr. Bryan Clayton from YourGreenPal.com. If you want a lawn person to come by and mow your lawn, go to his site. If you are somebody who has a lawn mowing business and you want to pick up additional business for yourself, go there. I can tell you from owning a landscaping business in the past and now, I live in Florida, you don’t want to mow your lawn at 94 degrees outside by yourself and have gasoline stored in your location.
Bryan, what I love about this conversation is, it gets down to the crux of what makes or breaks a business from growing, which is the mindset of the leadership that’s actually driving the business. It’s so important. I remember when we talked before in your first year because you went from one industry to another and thought, “I was successful in this other one. I will be so successful. I will give it time.” The company made $10,000 or something.
I know I have had that as well. I have transitioned from even one industry that I had experience in into the same industry but I went into a different facet of the business. I was expecting to do gangbusters year 1 or 2 just like you were talking about but then all of a sudden, I lost $60,000 in the first four months. How do you recover from that? How do you keep yourself going? Can you expand upon that for us?
I have definitely been there, building my first company, over $10 million and 100 or some odd people, selling it, that doesn’t happen a lot in the landscaping business and all of that. I’m riding high. I feel like I know everything there is to know about small businesses and start the second business. It’s a big punch in the gut. That’s one of the cool things about entrepreneurship is it’s a feedback machine. You want something humble to do with your life, start a business. It will keep you humble because the marketplace does not care who you are, doesn’t care what your connections are.
The marketplace doesn’t care where you came from, where you went to school, what your skin color is, what your ethnicity is, what your gender is. The marketplace is going to give you unvarnished feedback as to how good your product or service is relentless. One of my favorite quotes is from Jeff Bezos. He says, “What I love about the customer is that the customer is relentlessly discontent.” Meaning there’s always wanting something better, faster, cheaper, more convenient, seamless. For you to succeed in getting your business, your product or service off the ground is going to be hard. It’s going to be humbling. How do you get through that? Here I am, I had a business doing multimillions of dollars.
I started this little app that was clunky and it was hard to use. I’m just begging people to use it for a $27 lawn mowing. That was humble. It was humiliating but what I did was I set little goals. Business is full of these dichotomies. One is you have to have this huge audacious goal, the vision of the future that doesn’t yet exist and you are going to bring it to life. You then also have to think and act very small. The first 4 or 5 years of GreenPal were very much that. We knew that if we could just get 100 people to use it in one week, we can make it work nationwide. That’s all we focused on.
We needed 100 people in one week to use it in one neighborhood in Nashville. We knew we could expand from there. We worked our butts off for a year and we ended the first year with 57 people. Twenty of them were my friends and family. That sucked but we saw enough validation to keep going. Where we’ve got the validation from our user, our customer, we would meet with them and they would always tell us where we sucked. “The contractor didn’t show up or prices were too high. They showed up but did a crappy job. I signed up, I didn’t get any quotes.” A million problems.
What we never heard was, “I don’t need this.” We never saw apathy. We never saw, “Meh.” They wanted it to work. They wanted it to solve the problem that they had. We used that as validation to keep going. To get through those early years, the early tough parts of the journey, look for those little points of validation, set small goals to where you can get 100, 1,000, 10,000, 100,000. That’s how we looked at it. We just kept sticking it out and treating it as like a 20-mile march or a marathon. That’s why we are here now. We are an eight-year overnight success.
There are a couple of things that I wanted to go back on that you brought up, which is unvarnished feedback is humbling. I find in my clients and too many people in business in general that unvarnished feedback that you were talking about is the gold to be able to adjust but people get their ego in the way. They go, “That hurts.” They don’t take a look at that as something positive versus something more of an attack against their side. Have you run into this with entrepreneurs as well?
I get it because here’s why. You spend 3 to 6 months a year pouring your soul into something. It becomes a part of you. It’s almost like an artist with a painting, a musician with their album or whatever. An entrepreneur with their product or their business, it’s very much the same thing. When somebody attacks your baby, you are naturally defensive. That’s happened to me and it took a while for me to reframe it. It’s not happening to you. It’s happening for you. That feedback is the only roadmap you have to figure out if you are going in the right direction or not. If you don’t have that feedback, then you don’t know if you are on track to build something that people want to use or not.
I think a strategy in the early days, particularly if you only have 100, 200 or a handful of users, you want to make it dead easy for them to contact you or to speak with you. Remove all the friction for them to tell you where you stink because that is what you need. You need that feedback. Once you can reframe and understand it like, “This is something I need. I don’t know it all,” then you can leverage it and use it. You can then build something that is making more people happy and not getting all the negative feedback all the time. It’s not happening to you. It’s happening for you. That helped me reframe it.
Time changes things. Sometimes technology changes things and people have different wants, needs, fears and desires over time. One of the mistakes I see a lot of companies make and I’m going to single out GEICO for this, I have been with GEICO for many years, which is unheard of in the insurance business, to hold a client for many years. In one week, both my windshields on my two company cars, rocks went through the windshields.
I call up and I’m trying to get through the glass department and it’s taking me a flipping hour to actually get somebody on the line. I’m questioning in my head, “Should I be here?” It used to be such a great communication mechanism. That’s part of the reason I stayed there because I don’t care about 10% here and there in insurance, it’s not going to throw me off. When I’ve got the person on the phone, I’m like, “Are you guys open to some feedback?” She goes, “Sure.”
I tell her and the second person, “Quite frankly, I still don’t feel heard.” I’m thinking, “Liberty Mutual.” Go out to see some other insurance company. The fact that you allow people to get to you and give you that active feedback, it’s going to allow them to adjust. I’m sure with GEICO’s case, I’m not the only person who’s not wanting to sit on a phone for an hour to get their glass repaired. It’s invaluable to get that feedback and have easy access. I see this mistake companies make all the time. They don’t have enough people in place, either in-house or outsourced, to collect that information so they can make adjustments along the way.
Here’s the problem. In big companies like GEICO, there are so many layers between that feedback getting to somebody who has the ability to implement change in the business. There’s this huge gap that exists between company logic and custom logic. Every business deals with this gap. You as a startup, as a smaller business, can run circles around the bigger businesses because you can close that gap and you can almost have it to where there’s no space between customer logic and company logic. That’s how you can create disruption. That’s how you can run circles around the big incumbents because you can close that gap but it doesn’t happen automatically.
The way you close the gap is removing all the friction between that feedback, that person who’s pissed off because they just have a simple claim and why has it taken an hour? That’s not the brand GEICO. That’s not what I know. The person at the top, the person in a position to make change around that doesn’t know that either. There’s a gap. The way you close that gap is making it easy for customers to talk to you, that’s one. Two, use your product. they call it dogfooding your own product. Use it. For us at GreenPal in the early days, the three Cofounders and every family member needed to use the product. Mom, dad, brother, sister, cousin, everybody had to use it. If not, we are not going to do this because only when you are your own customer, especially in the early days, can you see those opportunities to close the gap between customer and company logic.
If somebody is out selling, that’s important to do the same exact thing. Even people out in the sales arena or field, when they want to grow their revenue, having that active feedback mechanism from the field, adjusting their sales, their marketing and their messaging is so critical. I’m not here to signal out my insurance company. I’m still with them and all. The bottom line is that you are absolutely right from my perspective that when we are smaller, we are nimble and we can do these things. When we get to a certain place like GEICO or whatever, some of the stuff is going to the feedback mechanism. It’s not going to be as easy to do. Why do you think people don’t adjust, Bryan? They get the feedback but they don’t adjust.
It’s not natural. It’s not easy. It’s hard. It’s easier to just keep your head on the laptop and work on what you think you should be working on and hope that it works out than to listen to that feedback and take action. If you do things that are hard, a business will be easy. If you do things that are easy, a business will be hard. A high leverage hard thing to do is to collect that feedback, do the customer support no matter how big you get.
GreenPal, as we speak, has tens of thousands of people on the app. I still do 1 or 2 hours of customer support every day because I don’t want to lose. I want to close that gap. One of my favorite books is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Dr. Stephen Covey. One thing he talks about in that book is doing things that are important but not urgent. In business, we are dominated by the urgent and unimportant and we stay there so it’s constant chaos because we are always doing things that are urgent and unimportant.
Where you need to focus is things that are important but not urgent. These are things like running customer surveys, doing customer support, soliciting customer feedback, signing up for your own product. You don’t have to do that on Monday morning to keep the business open so you never do it. If you can spend time in that high leverage quadrant, over time, it begins to build and the compound interest around that begins to build and in a five-year time, you can build a completely different business. It took me a long time to figure that out. I thought working hard was just coming in and doing the same stuff day in, day out and answering the same 100 emails and dealing with the same customer complaints and not getting to the root cause of these things. You’ve got to break out of that. You’ve got to make time for the things that are important but aren’t necessarily urgent at this moment.
There’s a show out there. I can’t remember what the heck it’s called now. It’s like CEO Undercover.
They are always surprised. They are always blown away like, “Is this how it is?” That is a crystal-clear manifestation of customer logic and company logic. Even your own people, your employees are your customers in a way. This is so funny. I love that show.
Doing consulting work and things, many times I come in and I tell the CEO, “When I interview your people, they are probably going to tell me exactly what they have been telling someone in this company for a while because you are stuck. Don’t be surprised if you know 70% of what I’m going to come back with because it’s so true. People just get going da-to-day, they look at the top-line number. What they don’t realize is that there is erosion below. I could talk with you all day but I also know you are a busy guy, too. I do have one final question for you, which is in a lot of people’s minds, does it get easier when you are at $20 million versus $5 million or does it get easier as you grow the revenue process? Can’t you step back a little bit and coast? Does it get easier or is it one of those things that it’s just different?
Every business’ main chokepoint is the founder or the CEO’s personal abilities in terms of leadership, strategy management, all of these things. That’s one thing that can cause it to get harder. You as the owner, founder, CEO, if you are not evolving, not growing, not getting better, then yes, it’s going to be harder and it’s going to hit a wall. That’s the first thing. The business as it’s growing is going to cause you to level up, which is great. That’s an awesome thing about business. If you are doing business right, every 3 to 5 years, you as a founder should evolve into a completely new person. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is it’s almost like a video game, like old-school style Super Mario Brothers, ten levels. There are only 12 or 8, I can’t remember but every level is different. At the end of every level, there’s a new boss and new challenge that you are facing and it always gets harder and harder. It’s like playing Super Mario Brothers on Level 1 for the same level for ten years is probably a lot harder because it sucks and it’s boring than getting to Level 10 and finally facing Bowser.
Bowser’s actually harder than what you faced at the end of Level 1. It’s more difficult and challenging in some ways but staying stuck at a small level also sucks in other ways. Does it get easier? Yes, in the sense that you now have a team and some momentum. A lot of times as a founder, it’s your job to allocate capital. If you have a little bit of capital to work with, you can allocate it and make small, smart bets that are going to pay off. That’s fun.
On the other hand, it’s also harder because the implications are a lot more severe. You have to make more bets. You have to take on elements of risk that you didn’t have to do in the early days. It is easier in the sense that you can develop a team around you. It is harder in the sense that the stakes are higher and if you screw things up, you are not only screwed up for you and a couple of people you screwed up for, maybe you and 12 or 100 people.
It’s easier and harder but I will tell you, it’s more fun beating Bowser than it is whoever it was at the end of the first level Super Mario World. It’s a lot more fun beating the game. That’s how I look at it. The other thing too is to take inventory of yourself as the founder. I’m good at zero to $1 million and $1 million to $10 million. Now I’m getting from $10 million to $50 million but I may find out that when we get over $100 million, I may suck.
Every business goes through three phases. The startup, the grow up and the scale-up, and I’m proven and good on those first two. I’m not proven on the third. I may suck at that third phase. If I do find that I’m not suited for it, I will bring in somebody. Being transparent with yourself and understanding where you are topping out can help you get through, level up or understand when it’s time to turn over the reins.
Google did this. Sergey Brin and Larry Page started it up. They’ve got it to $80 to $100 million or something, then they brought in somebody who knew how to scale it from that.
Rarely does it have one guy see it through all three phases? That’s so rare.
I have actually only known three that have done it in that capacity. They said part of the reason that they were able to do that is that they hired better people and surrounded themselves with them.
It’s like Mark Zuckerberg. Whatever you think of him, one of my favorite quotes of him that he said is, “You cannot be a know it. You have to be a learn it.” You have to look at him, there’s $600 billion, $700 billion, one guy, that’s pretty impressive. It probably revolves around him and learns as much as he can about everything, and is insanely tenacious about it. I think it’s possible but you don’t see it often.
Whether people like them or I love him, he did change the world in a lot of ways.
I love Instagram and Facebook. I know a lot of people don’t but in many ways, their platform is what’s enabled us to do what we are doing with our platform because they have connected the world in such a way that other networks like ours can come on top and do interesting things. It’s a net positive.
Bryan, if people are either a landscaper and want to get more business or somebody out there going, “That 94-degree heat, it makes sense.” Even in Seattle, it’s that hot out. I don’t want to mow my lawn.
Life is too short to cut your own grass. If you don’t want to mess with it or if you flaked on it, you can download GreenPal in the App Store or Play Store. You will get hooked up with a great lawn mowing service in less than a minute. Anybody who wants to make an extra $1,000 a week can be a lawn care service on top of GreenPal and can sign up at YourGreenPal.com.
Did I just hear you say anybody can go out, mow lawns and make an extra $1,000 a week?
It is the best side gig to put an extra $1,000 a week in your pocket. We have thousands of service providers that do just that. Firemen, schoolteachers, bartenders, you name it. Maybe they have their regular schedules but they have a few free days a week. They can go out, hustle it and make at least that, and some make much more. It’s hard work but we enable them to get started from zero and run everything through the platform. It’s our job to just get anybody who wants to work hard to that point.
It’s hard work for sure because I have done it. Being tethered to a desk or dealing in a retail environment with upset customers, that’s also tough work, too. If I was in that position again, $50,000 to $100,000 a year, I would go get a lawnmower and get ahold of you.
That’s the business of doing. There’s no easy way to make money, that’s for sure but this is a good one for anybody that wants to try it out.
Bryan, thank you for being here. I appreciate you. As always, you are a gentleman and you always bring great information to everybody. Anything that you would like to say in parting? If not, I will bid you a wonderful day.
Thanks for having me on. I do appreciate it. Anybody reading this that maybe they are in their first year or they are thinking about starting, in my opinion, owning and starting a business is one of the best things you can do with your life. Get in the game, be willing to stick it out for 5 or 10 years, make a plan, work the plan. The other thing I will say is this. If you are going to start a business, your living room must become a classroom. Your car must become a mobile classroom.
There are not going to be enough hours in a week for you to learn the things you are going to have to learn. That could be anything from around leadership management, finance, raising capital, product design, whatever. The good thing is these days, with YouTube and other places, you can learn this stuff. Be willing to put in 20, 30 hours a week of learning. If you are willing to do that, then this could be the best thing that you do with your life.
Bryan, thanks again. We will be talking with you soon.
Was that great or what? Bryan is a smart guy. I agree with everything that we talked about in this episode. One of the things that he talked about constantly learned and grow. Reinvent yourself every 3 to 5 years as a CEO. It’s mandatory when it comes down to it. I have always taught something called the 10% rule, where you take your income this year and figure out how to make at least 10%. A lot of people go, “It’s not that much. It’s only 10%.”
If you do this over the next five years, what you will find is if you can go 10% a year, you build new skillsets and new opportunities to actually start growing yourself in your business. It exponentially starts to grow. When I was a sales rep, I would be at $100,000 a year. I would be like, “How do I get 10%?” Within four years, I went from $100,000 to $494,000. Just 10% a year but you’ve got to get in the game, you’ve got to learn and stay with the game, and understand that the game is not personal.
As Bryan said, it’s giving you unvarnished feedback. I thought that was awesome because if we take that feedback and we apply it, we do great things in life. Until next time, if you liked this show, please go up and give it a five-star review. If you want to get my book, please go to WinWinSellingBook.com. If you have ideas for upcoming shows, please email in at Doug@BusinessSuccessFactors.com. Connect with me at LinkedIn.com/dougbrown123. Send your comments in and let me know what you want to read about next. Until next time, go out, sell some good stuff, grow your company and to your success.
- A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
- Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
- GreenPal – App Store
About Bryan M. Clayton
Bryan M. Clayton is an American mobile app developer who is the co-founder of GreenPal, a mobile app and online freelancing platform that connects homeowners with local lawn care providers. He is also the ex-owner of Peach Tree, a landscaping company that he sold in 2013.