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LawnStarter’s road from TechStars to leading lawn marketplace
   

LawnStarter’s road from TechStars to leading lawn marketplace

After going through TechStars in 2014, LawnStarter has scaled into the leading online name in lawn care. Ryan Farley, LawnStarter’s co-founder and CMO, has led the company’s massive growth — scaling the business to over 10,000 customers. How has he done it?

On this episode, Ryan will cover the growth channels that have worked for him, why he experimented with biphasic sleep for a period of time, how to adjust for seasonality in a business model, and the shocking insights he’s had over the past few years as he’s sat at the epicenter of growth marketing. We’ll also do a deep dive into his customer acquisition funnel, and walk through exactly why he’s built it in the way he has.

This is an actionable episode — we hope you enjoy! Get ready to #ScaleOrDie…

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:

0:00 — Introduction
1:15 — The early days of LawnStarter: biphasic sleep, TechStars & the search for early customers
5:10 — Why seasonality is a huge factor for Ryan’s business
6:18 — What growth channels and growth strategies have worked well over the last 4 years?
9:34 — Which Test Won? The game show within Scale or Die
15:50 — “Focus on things that are going to be high impact relative to the effort”
16:41 — A deep dive into the customer acquisition funnel at Lawnstarter
19:28 — Younger audiences are so much more likely to convert online
21:05 — Building your product for the core use case
22:46 — What’s the most shocking or unique insight you’ve had?
25:58 — The Salty Six

Full Transcript:

DR: Welcome back, growth nation, to Scale Or Die. I’m Dave Rogenmoser and this is the show where we uncover proven strategies from CEOs and CMOs of some of the world’s fastest growing startups. Today we’ve got a lot to talk about. We’ve got a special guest, Ryan Farley, on the show with us. And Ryan is the Co-Founder and CMO of LawnStarter.

And not only does he think about growth pretty much non-stop from all my conversations with him, but he has also been behind the scenes, growing their company to tens of thousands of lawns in four short years. So, Ryan, we’ll just dive right in. Thanks for being on the show.

RF: Thanks for having me.

DR: So, I was doing a little research on you, doing some digging, and what’s this I hear about when you started the company, you doing biphasic sleeping?

RF: Yeah, so, early on it was just me and my co-founder. Neither of us were technical. And so we had to figure out how to write code and we were also dealing with the whole business aspect of things.

So, working for 12 to 14 hours straight is kind of hard to do, so we did some research and it turns out there’s this thing called biphasic sleeping, where you basically sleep twice a day for about three hour at a time. So, we would typically go to bed around 9:00, wake up at midnight, and then go back to bed around 6:00 or 7:00 a.m., wake up around 9:00 or 10:00. And the great part about it was that we could spend all night just doing nothing but coding. There was nobody around to bother you, nobody emailing you, and then take care of the business side of things during the day.

So, we did it for probably three or four months straight. And then when we launched, we actually had to be around during business hours.

DR: You had to be a real person.

RF: Yeah, and we were going through TechStars, a lot of times we were the ones answering the phones. So, I haven’t done it since, but I mean, it was fun.

DR: Was it helpful?

RF: It was definitely helpful, especially doing something like programming where you really need to be in the zone without distraction. It was perfect.

DR: That’s awesome, I love it. So, tell us about LawnStarter.

You know, how did it start? What’s the business model? Just give us a little bit of the back story.

RF: Sure, so it actually started, you know I think a lot of marketplaces start with a need on the consumer side. Ours actually started because my co-founder had done lawn care in college with a friend of his named Chad. And Chad had just graduated college, went through, got an accounting job, and six months in or so, he said, I hate this, I’m quitting and I’m starting a lawn care business.

So, my co-founder Steve was helping him out and helping him set up his website and figuring out which software to choose and things like that and we saw that it was incredibly difficult to actually grow and scale lawn care business.

And most of their businesses never make it past 20 recurring customers which is not enough to stay in business. So, we saw an opportunity there, and as we kind of thought about how can we help the lawn care professionals more and more. We also saw a giant need on the consumer side where there is this kind of an industry that was, great customer service and great customer experience wasn’t the norm. And it was because it’s so challenging to grow and run and operate and grow a lawn care business. So, that’s how we ended up with the marketplace concept.

DR: Very cool, so you launched, you did TechStars, did you kind of create it inside TechStars?

RF: So, we launched before TechStars. We launched in the Washington DC metro area, in northern Virginia, and we got to like 100 or so customers, which is not an impressive feat by any means, but it was enough to get us into TechStars. And then throughout TechStars we built, it was running on Google sheets at the time, so we built real tech and led to raising around the financing and then a year later we launched for real this time. Our whopping 100 customers, we called it a pilot, as if we had intended to only acquire 100 customers.

DR: There’s a reason it’s so small right now, we’re making it hard to sign up.

RF: Yeah.

DR: Very cool man. Let’s dig in. Let’s talk more about this growth and scaling up.

So, what has the growth of LawnStarter looked like since you guys launched? Have there been big stretches of good growth? Have there been valleys? What has that growth experience been like?

RF: Yeah, so there were a few interesting things. One, it’s seasonal, so everything we have to look at year over year and adjust for seasonality. The other thing is that there are so many edge cases in our business when it comes to growing that we’ve actually reduced our OPEX every year even though we’ve at least doubled our revenue every year which is because there are so many things that could happen when a guy shows up to mow your lawn, like weather for one, or there’s a rattlesnake in the yard, or the gate’s locked.

And originally, those were all just human handled and we’ve been kind of automating all that. So, that’s one interesting thing about our growth is that aside from just the acquisition side of things, it’s also, there’s a whole lot of automating human processes and handling edge cases.

DR: Interesting.

And what has worked really well as far as growth channels and actual growth strategies over the last four years?

RF: Yeah, so search is big for us, paid and organic because that’s where people go. Referrals are pretty common both through invite a friend and just, who do you use for lawn care, I use LawnStarter. And then we do paid social, as well. It works when you can find the right audience and what not.

DR: Yeah, I was reading your blog which you write about a lot of great growth strategies, really, really practical and a lot of it was about scaling up. And you were talking about four main scalable growth channels to target, paid acquisition, virality, SEO and sales. And then you had another category, as well. Could you just talk us through maybe some of the campaigns or some of the strategies you’ve seen in paid acquisition virality, SEO and sales? And are any of those that haven’t worked or you haven’t tried?

RF: Yeah, I mean obviously within each of those categories there’s a lot of things. One that works exceptionally well is paid search.

DR: Is that AdWords?

RF: Google AdWords, yeah. And so, as far as what we’ve done on it, we actually wrote code to generate campaign, so everything’s local. So, when we go to market, it’s city + lawn care, lawn care + city, lawn mowing + city, and we’ve invested a lot.

So, for example, a lot of times you get, in paid search you have giant spreadsheets and you have a whole person just messing around in Excel. And I got tired of that. So, one weekend, I just whipped up a Python script that would basically, like you say, hey I’m going to this metro area, and it will populate your campaign. And then if you want to run a test, it will populate the test group and report on it.

And then we do a lot of, especially with paid acquisition ’cause the higher you convert the more you can bid, which increases your position. So there’s kind of, it’s a multi-variant problem so, we do a lot of testing around pricing and around offering teaser deals and then measuring the retention after the fact so that we can make an ROI based decision versus just a straight up this copy versus this copy or this landing page versus this landing page.

Which Test Won?

DR: Love it, very cool man. Alright, well we’ll get back to talking about scaling, but first, we’ve got our first recurring segment of the show called Which Test Won?

And essentially what we’re gonna do, it’s a game show, a game show inside of an interview if you can believe that, and we’re gonna show you three different growth experiments. Some that we’ve done, some that we’ve gotten from other people, other SaaS companies, and in them, you’ve got to decide which variation actually performed better. For each one that you get, we’re gonna give you $20 and the third one’s gonna be worth double, so that would be $40, so you can win a total value of $80 and you’ve decided to donate this to charity, you chose Red Cross as your charity. And so it’s not a lot of money, but it will do some good out there.

RF: Everything helps.

DR: Yeah, everything helps. And so, are you excited, you ready to take a shot at this?

RF: Pretty excited.

DR: Are you feeling confident?

RF: Yeah, let’s do it.

DR: Alright, well we’ll go ahead and get started with Which Test Won? Okay, so the first test we’ve got here is right here. So the goal here, this is a software product called Bomgar, and the goal is to increase form submissions. So, on the left, the variation is basically just the form. No header, no footer, it doesn’t really look like it’s on a normal website, it’s just a form. So imagine, let’s try to be focused, let’s try to take away all the clutter, so people fill out the form. On the right is a more traditional website. It’s got the header, it’s got a footer, it’s got a little bit of information about the company, so it looks a little bit more like an official website. And then they’ve got the form on there as well, to help sign up for a trial. So, which one do you think got more form submissions?

RF: I’m gonna assume that nobody goes straight to this page and they probably learned about this product before. So, I would go with less distraction and better contrast and no nav and footer.

DR: So guessing that the form, just simple, direct, is gonna perform better and increase form submissions. Well, sir, you are correct.

Bomgar form submissions

RF: Jeez, 38%

DR: 38% increase in form submissions by removing the nav, removing the footer, and basically just going straight to the form and just having them sign up right away. So, a pretty cool test. Have you guys done any tests with forms and all that?

RF: Yeah.

DR: Yeah, and you got signups, what have you guys done?

RF: So, we asked for name address, name phone number, and we’ve tested common address and email, or just address or just address name phone or address and phone. And you get more people to the next step with just address, but the increase in overall conversion was not even comparable to address name and phone ’cause you can throw the phone numbers into a custom audience, you can drip people. So, we’ve done a good amount of landing page tests, as well.

DR: Cool, yeah, here in a little bit we’re gonna walk through one of your funnels and hear a bit more about that. I’d love to see exactly what you guys have been testing there. Okay number two, oh wait here’s your money, 20 bucks.

RF: Sweet.

DR: for charity. Okay, test number two on Which Test Won? The goal again is to increase form submissions. So, basically at the bottom of this screen is the top of the website, the bottom there’s a form to go sign up for UX Academy.

On the left-hand side, there’s no button to scroll down, they just have to read the copy, scroll down to the bottom and fill out the form. On the right-hand side, what they did was they added a call to action and that button, Get Syllabus and Apply. A big orange button, if you click that what it does is that actually scrolls you all the way down to the bottom of the page instead of you scrolling down on your own. So, their goal was to increase form submissions, and which one do you think did that?

RF: I would guess the call to action, but I could also see somebody who scrolls the whole way through, gets more educated and sold before they submit it. But having a call to action in the hero is almost a best practice. So, I’m gonna go with the call to action above the fold.

Designlab CTA

DR: The call to action above the fold, and you sir are right. There was an 81% increase in submissions by adding the CTA above the fold, so congrats, another 20 bucks.

RF: These are some insane numbers.

DR: I know, these are big increases, really, really big. But you look at that one, having a big orange button, your eye is totally drawn there, Get Syllabus and Apply. The left one I wouldn’t even know that there’s anything at the bottom of that, I might bounce out before that.

RF: And with AB testing eventually you run out of these to run and then–

DR: Yeah, these are some of the low-hanging fruit, the really big wins that you can get. Alright, number three is one that we have been running ourselves. Actually, this test just got to significance here earlier this week, so this one’s fresh.

And here, this is for Proof to get people to sign up for a free trial. Our goal was to increase form submissions. On the left, we asked for all the information up front to get a demo. So, they say, yes I want to see a demo, what is your first name, work email, company name, website URL, how many visitors per month you get, because that’s a big segment for us, a big indicator, what your company sells and then if you’re a marketing agency or not?

And they can fill out all that and click watch the instant demo. Or step two, we thought, okay, what if we got all the information, but we broke it out into two different steps? And so the one we wanted to test for the two-step form, they just asked for name and email, then they click through, on the second step we ask for all the rest of the information. So we kind of split that up, to watch the instant demo. Which one do you think got more form submissions?

RF: I’m gonna go with the two-step form.

2 Step form

DR: Two-step form, why? Why do you think that would perform better?

RF: Whatever that psychological principle is, when you’ve invested a little bit of work, you don’t want to walk away from it, so I think you got that going in your favor there.

DR: Yeah, the principle of consistency, or getting little micro-yeses, where they’re starting to take action. Alright, well the answer is the two-step form. Three for three, congratulations.

Here is $40 and again we’ll put that into charity for you. So the results here, the two-step form increased leads by 68%, 68% more people filled out the form. And then what we weren’t expecting was the increased trials by 185%. Part of that was because when we were asking for the email upfront, we’re just getting more emails and that is we’re dripping them to a trial.

So, we get to do a lot more follow up, put them into custom audiences for Facebook ads and all sorts of follow up there. But I do think it was that micro-commitment up front that they would sign up and by the time they get to the next stage of the form, they’re like, well I already gave them my email, I already gave them my name, I might as well just bang out a couple of these other questions. Cool, well I want to talk about that here in a sec, but congrats on the 80 bucks, the Red Cross will be thrilled. We’ll put that in your name here. And let’s dive back into talking about scale and talking about growth. So, you guys do a lot of experimentation, I can tell just from reading your blog posts, talking to you, how do you guys think about that? How do you guys approach experimentation as you scale assess?

RF: I think the important thing is to, when you’re in a growth phase is to really focus on things that are going to be high impact relative to the effort. It’s really fun to come up with hypotheses on landing pages and stuff, but eventually you run out of the big wins and it becomes super incremental and a lot of times that energy can be put towards something that you know is gonna have a higher impact, that you don’t have to test it. So, we tend to try to not necessarily chase opportunity even if it’s there, unless it’s a giant opportunity.

DR: Cool, I love that. Alright man, well now we’ve got the next recurring segment of the show called Inside The Funnel. And we had looked at your funnels and asked you how do you actually get people to sign up for LawnStarter?

We want to just pull up the actual screenshots of some of the funnel that you sent over and have you talk us through. What have you tried here? Why do you think this works? Just tell us, inside your mind, how did you design this funnel and what’s really going on here?

And so here for the first one, we’ve got a Facebook ad that says, the 21st century way to do yard work. And obviously it’s got almost 600 likes, a bunch of comments, a bunch of shares, it looks like a pretty effective Facebook ad. And then it seems like you’re driving those directly to the homepage.

Lawnstarter funnel

But I just thought maybe some of the Facebook ads, some of the ways you’re driving traffic, and then why the home page? The aggressive marketer would say you need landing pages, you need all that, here you are doing the simple way of doing the home page.

RF: Typically, it will technically be a different page, just for analytics purposes and experiment purposes, but it will be a clone of the home page that’s not indexed on Google or anything so that way it doesn’t hurt your SEO or anything. We’ve tested a couple of things. We’ve tested a totally new design, which like this design is about a year old.

Talk about a big test and a big investment, like you pay a design firm that was a bunch of designers from Airbnb and they’re not cheap, so you spend $20 or $30 grand on a website and then pray that it wins, fortunately, it did.

DR: This one was the winner?

RF: Yeah, ’cause our old design was kind of amateur. So, we would be happy with a tie, but we were pretty thrilled that it won.

One thing, you know adding press logos, sometimes it will do nothing, but I think that’s always a good thing to test if you’re a brand that nobody knows of. Some people would argue that it’s a little overplayed, but it’s an easy way to say, hey we’re not just some random website, we’re a real company.

DR: And every test that we’ve run with social proof and logos on our pages, it always outperforms without logos. And so, having Inc., CNBC TechCrunch and everything we’ve ever done, that’s been really effective.

RF: Yeah.

DR: And then tell me about the Facebook ads. So, does this work for you?

What are you guys seeing on Facebook? Or is yours more of a, they’ve got to be in the market, they’ve got to be going and doing search for that.

RF: Yeah, so we do a ton of search and re-marketing, but there are a few Facebook audiences that work really well like younger audiences are so much more likely to convert online. That was something we noticed–

DR: Convert on Facebook?

RF: Or just convert period.

DR: Gotcha.

RF: ‘Cause Google analytics gives you some demographic data. But a lot of re-targeting as well. It’s a quick buying process, like 24 to 48 hours, but it is still something where you’re comparing, you’re shopping around, so the re-targeting definitely helps and also just gives an organic lift, ’cause we can turn half our ads off or half our markets off and we can kind of measure, okay, according to Facebook we got this many conversions, but there’s also this lift in branded search and–

DR: So, is this mostly just a re-targeting Facebook ad?

RF: I’d say about half and half.

DR: Okay, so they come to your site through referral, word of mouth, search, AdWords, then to pick them up in the funnel, you’ll go off to various channels to do re-targeting.

RF: Yeah.

DR: Very cool, this is probably a pretty cheap ad to run and probably pretty effective just ’cause it’s such a warm audience.

RF: For sure, yeah.

DR: Okay, cool, so they come back to the page, they enter their street address, they get a quick and easy price which I think is a great idea, and then they come through to the next section where it’s sign up for the pricing, actually enter in the credit card and checking out. Tell us about this.

Lawnstarter checkout

RF: Yeah so, one thing we had to think about when making this was we had to handle the core use case. So, when people are signing up for lawn care, there’s actually quite a few cases. Very few people are like, I just need mowing, a lot of times it’s, I need to also get my bushes trimmed this first time, or I also want fertilization or whatever. I don’t know what the break down of it is, but there isn’t a standard, it’s not like you’re buying an item off the shelf. Everybody has a custom idea of what they want. So, what we tried to do, is design this for the fairway case, which is, I just want lawn mowing and maybe some of the other recurring services. And it’s all on one page, like I said, and so speaking about the fairway case, you actually have to click, I’m interested in additional services, in order to get the information about those because it’s actually quite a bit of information to take in. And then if you’re not looking for lawn mowing, we take you to a different experience, and a lot of times we’ll actually even have a customer support rep reach out and help out customer if they have complex requests. We showed the house because just to give the user, and then we put powered by Zillow, one ’cause Zillow requires us to but to show, yes, we did do some work–

DR: That’s a picture of their house when they type in the address from above, the Google image satellite.

RF: And that’s just ’cause a lot of people are like, how do you know my price or whatever?

DR: And what’s been most surprising to you? ‘Cause you have built out funnels to get people started.

What’s been the shocker, like the really unique insight that you’ve had?

RF: Mobile converts exceptionally higher. I would not, I don’t know why, I–

DR: That’s not the case for most businesses.

RF: Yeah, in fact, I was so convinced that was wrong, I thought we had somehow swapped mobile and desktop in our data set or something. Especially for something like this, a long form.

DR: Why do you think that is?

RF: I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea.

DR: Isn’t that funny how even with the best insights, all your brand power, all your thinking, sometimes the answer is just I don’t know. That’s really weird.

RF: Yeah, I mean, maybe it could be that on your desktop it’s easier to shop around and check out other options.

DR: Open a new tab and Google LawnStarter competitors or whatever.

RF: Yeah, I don’t know.

DR: Interesting, interesting. Very cool, any other big insights you want to share on this funnel and why that works? It’s really cool, I just love the flow of that, love how you start with the address and not the name, email, you know I’d kind of think, okay I’ll start with the name and email, and you’re going straight to just tell us where your house is. And then it’s a much more personalized experience when go through, it’s actually a picture of their house on the checkout form, not just the standard checkout form.

RF: Yeah, one thing that I think that most companies should do is have the, how did you hear about us? Because it’s really interesting to look at, to do a matrix of what people said how they heard about you and then what your analytics is telling you.

DR: Yeah, so what do you typically see? Because I’ve always thought, I don’t think people are clicking the right thing on there. But do they?

RF: For us, more or less, you know there’s definitely some stuff going on, but it’s also a lightweight, but probably more practical way of doing it. Like figuring out multi-touch attribution is a huge nightmare.

The biggest companies don’t do it because it’s so complex. But something as simple as that is, well people are coming in from Facebook or whatever, but they’re saying I heard about you in the press.

DR: It’s the touch that they remember, which is significant to know.

RF: Yeah, and the other cool thing is if you’re doing any sort of non-trackable attribution, like we mess around with radio, haven’t done TV, but we’ve done billboards, you can track this by, you put your option on there several weeks before you actually do a campaign or whatever and you can get a better sense of how that’s working by measuring the delta–

DR: So, you can remove the baseline–

RF: Yeah, there’s gonna be a certain amount of noise.

DR: 10% of people say billboards, even when there are no billboards, so once we run one, if it jumps to 30 you kinda know there’s a 20% gap there.

RF: Yeah, it’s not perfect, but you can kind of get in the range.

Salty Six

DR: Smart, I wouldn’t have ever thought about that. Very cool man, well that is really great. So, we’re rounding third and we’re headed home to the final section of the show which is called the Salty Six. And these are six questions that mostly I just want to know about you, to help us learn about who you are, but then also some more insights on you as a growth leader. So, are you ready?

RF: Yup.

DR: This is gonna be rapid fire, pretty quick questions and we want to hear about you.

First of all, what do you do for fun?

FR: During the summer I like boating. I like playing with my dog. And that’s about it.

DR: Okay, secondly, what’s the best business conference you’ve ever gone to?

RF: I don’t think I’ve ever been to a business conference.

DR: Okay, don’t go to conferences, that’s good.

What podcast do you listen to?

RF: I listen to a ton of podcasts.

DR: What are your top?

RF: Let’s see, I like Planet Money by NPR, like Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss. Let’s see, Intercom’s got some good ones, more startup-y type stuff. Those are a few.

DR: Cool, love it. What book are you reading right now? What’s on your nightstand?

RF: I’m re-reading a book called Who, by I think it’s Geoffrey Smart, GH Smart, whose dad was the author of Topgrading. It’s pretty game-changing in terms of hiring and what not and so that’s why I’m re-reading it.

DR: Cool, love it.

Michael Jordan or LeBron?

RF: Michael Jordan.

DR: Why?

RF: Just ’cause he was around when I cared about basketball.

DR: He was the man, I agree.

RF: Who didn’t have a Michael Jordan jersey growing up?

DR: Yeah, and a Jordan poster on your wall.

RF: Oh yeah.

DR: Yeah, that was sweet.

Okay, final question, what one person would you like to invite to a dinner party, dead or alive? Who would be a fun conversation for you?

RF: George Washington.

DR: Okay, why?

RF: Hearing about starting a, like starting a company is pretty hard, as I’m sure you would agree. I can’t even fathom how hard it would be to start a country.

DR: You think he was doing biphasic sleeping?

RF: He couldn’t have slept very much.

DR: He had to have been. That’s awesome, cool, George Washington, I love it. Well, there you have it folks. Ryan, thanks for coming on Scale Or Die, this has been awesome. If people want to check out what you’ve been working on or what you’re talking about, where can they look you up?

RF: RyanJFarley.com, I write once every six months or so, and then LawnStarter.com, if you need lawn care.

DR: Very cool, I love it. Well, thanks for watching Scale Or Die and we’ll see you at the next episode.

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