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The Right Way to Hire High Schoolers | Interview with EDU Lawn Service

Published on September 13, 2016

These days, it seems like nobody wants to work for an honest day’s wages. Hiring new crew members is a pain; you're lucky if half of them even show up for the interview.

Most lawn care owners are asking, "Where have all the good workers gone…?"

But there is a different question - a better question - lawn care owners should be asking: "Where will the next good workers come from?"

Todd Coleman, owner of EDU Lawn Service, may have found the answer to this question, and he’s building an entire business based on it.

EDU Lawn Service is a non-profit lawn care business with a unique mission: to teach students valuable business skills, while empowering them financially to get through college with as little debt as possible.

Over the course of our interview, I realized EDU Lawn Service's model could be a powerful lesson for other owners struggling with the biggest problem in lawn care: hiring.

Read the interview, and you'll get a few good ideas for your own lawn or landscaping business:

Hey, Todd. Good to talk with you. First off, I want to know what EDU Lawn Service is about. Why did you choose to start a non-profit in an industry usually driven by entrepreneurs?

Todd: My son was in competitive sports pretty much through all of high school - he’s a competitive swimmer. He swam year around and didn’t have a chance to get what most kids would consider a normal job, like at a grocery store or a movie theater.

But my son was looking for a way to make money, and so I said, “Why don’t you start a lawn service?”

I purchased a small 40-inch walk-behind Toro lawn mower, something that would last him a long time. I started setting him up, teaching him the ways of getting clients, what to do if a client’s upset, what do you do if you have too many clients.

Employee on standing mower

Were you learning as you grew the company?

I had a business, a family business that I’d been involved with for quite a long time, so the business side of things I was familiar with, but I never had to go through the start-up phase. That part of it was eye-opening.

It got to the point where [the work] was getting to be too much for him. We started talking about hiring somebody.

We thought, “We can teach this to more than just my son.”

Where did you turn to look for your first employees?

My son said, “My buddy at school wants to make some money.”

“Okay, wait a minute, you want to stay buddies with him, right?”

That’s when it started to get serious for me, because I didn’t want to see him make mistakes, especially if I’ve made them. I mean, sometimes you have to let them make mistakes.

Right. Nobody can get through life being protected all the time. What did you tell him?

I said, “Son, you don’t want to do that.”

You probably helped him dodge a bullet there. So, you didn't hire your son's friend, but you did decide to hire high school students. What are your requirements for these employees?

There’s one program in the state of Missouri called the Missouri A+ Program. Kids who graduate high school while fulfilling all of the requirements of the program get their first 2 years of college paid for by the state of Missouri.

As soon as they have a driver’s license, we can hire them. But they either have to be involved in the A+ program, or Northland CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies) or both, or they're on the G.I. Bill, and we train them that first year.

They start out at $10-11 an hour, and they agree to put 10% of their wages into a college tuition foundation that we’ve set up.

EDU Lawn Service was recently chosen to participate in the 1 Million Cups program called 1 in a Million.

Then, you hire more than just high school students. It's high school and college kids and returning GIs. Why did you choose to go after these groups? 

I got angry.  When I researched how the post-secondary education process works now, I started getting really angry. I decided I wouldn't let anybody take advantage of my son. 

Since the early 80s, the cost of healthcare has gone up at two times the rate of inflation.

To put that in perspective, the cost of college education, in that same time frame, has gone up four times the rate of inflation. The five years preceding 2012, colleges raised their fees 27%.

By the time they get to the point where they can finally start making payments on their college loan, it's doubled.  I can't go out and get a loan without some sort of collateral or some form of credit, but somehow a 17-year old kid can line up $80,000 in loans.

It sounds like you founded this company to help out the employees, which I think is an unusual business model. Do you have specific goals in mind for them?

We spend the entire working relationship with our employees networking them. They are project  and service based from day one. We do this so business relationships are established before they hit the job market.


Those relationships benefit us in two ways. It's great exposure for our services and it creates business connections for our employees to utilize after they graduate. This creates a business pathway back to the communities as well as a debt-free, college-educated, business professional that already has highly sought after experience and a work ethic to back it up.

We want to take these kids through a real business.

Once exhaust their A+ money from the state of Missouri, then we’ll cut them a check to match what they’ve put into their tuition fund, so they can go on and get their four-year degrees.

The goal is [to graduate college] debt-free.

That's a powerful mission statement. Does this idea of debt-free college motivate most of your employees? Are they excited to start working?

At first, they’re really excited, and then about 3 months into the mowing season, they’re like, "Ugh..."

I try to set up projects for them to get them out of that routine of get in, get on a mower, mow, that kind of thing.

What kind of projects do you have them working on?

We did a social media marketing campaign. I wanted the kids to market themselves and after they got their responses they could tie it in to EDU Lawn.

We had one crazy tweet one time. I said, "Why don’t you pick someone you don’t know, but is kind of tweeting some things that interest you. But pick the guy with the most followers."

And one kid got over 250 followers in a week and a half. All he did was aim a tweet at this one guy who a lot of people follow. It exploded.

Do you give them other regular responsibilities besides mowing lawns?

They’re talking to clients, day one. From the time that they start training to the time that they graduate college, they progress themselves to a team lead position where they’re actually driving the trucks and providing the service and talking to the clients all the time. They’re going to be in charge of accounts.

When they did the competitive analysis, I walked down to the office and said, “Hey, it’s cold outside, we’re not mowing.”

I told my interns, “I want you to do a competitive analysis,” and they came up with all the parameters: all the lawn services down to how often do they market, what do they do well, what services do they offer...

So this big, huge spreadsheet comes out, about six days later. There are 20-something lawn services on there, and everything from the list was on this spreadsheet - and from that spreadsheet, we could derive where we were falling short.

We could see what companies out there were the best at Facebook or Twitter, and we could see what they were doing.

They come up with the greatest ideas. The cool thing about this program is none of these kids are in the “business box” yet. They don’t have the blinders on; the craziest things come out of their mouths, and it works.

Typically, when you go to work for somebody, they have a very defined purpose of what they’re doing. They have their own ideas on how they want to get there, and they’re hiring you to do a specific job, and they want to know if you can do that job well, or not.

But I don’t get these kids for a specific job. We just come up with projects to try and bolster what we’re doing. Then, we see what the return is. Did it work, or not? Did we make money doing it? How long did it take us? Is this a viable marketing plan?

If it’s not, we scrap it. If it is a viable marketing plan, we go with it.

Snow plow hooked up to a pickup truck

Speaking of plans, can you talk about how you guys are planning to grow? What does the future of EDU Lawn Service look like?

Right now we service Crain and Platte county in the Kansas City area. We don’t just expand our service area; we’re designed to set up satellite offices. Those satellite offices are designed to service a specific community and school districts.

All the money that goes into those offices is distributed to those kids or their educational needs. So the communities know that money is staying in their community, and is going to their kids.

This year we’re breaking into the commercial side of things, so we’re providing services to a large grocery store chain, and we hope to grow from there.

A lot of services, once they get enough commercial clients, seem to drop all of their residential accounts. Why would anyone drop the residential clients? Those are the most loyal customers you’re ever going to have. If you lose every commercial account you have because a big snowball fell on top of the store or something like that, [residential clients] are the people that are going to carry you through.

So, right now, we’re dealing with how are we going to mix residential and commercial and keep it from going at 1000 miles an hour all the time. Residential clients are the hardest clients you’ll ever have because each one of them has their own little caveats.

At the end of our interview, Todd and I talked a little bit about the future of his employees. Just because they're leaving for college, doesn't mean he's done helping them out. This is partially why his employees are so motivated - they can see this light at the very end of the tunnel - but, oh, what a bright light it is.

When they finish college, Todd has plans to help them network and get in touch with the right people, to help them start "whatever they want to start." Whether that means a new satellite office for EDU Lawn Service, or an entirely different business, they will have the connections to make it happen. To Todd, this is more than just a business. This is a long-term project made to help out the community and get its next generation of entrepreneurs off to the best possible start.

What should other lawn care owners take away from this interview?

  1. Think outside the box: Got problems in your business? Hiring is hard for everyone in the service industry. Think hard, think outside of the box, and you can find a way to ease your pain. Maybe you don't want to hire high schoolers full time, but you can always hire a few local kids to sharpen blades, refuel tanks, and do other shop work. That will help you get more time out of your full-time crews.
  2. Figure out what makes you different: Get your team to work on a competitive analysis for lawn care businesses in your area. Once you know what makes you stand out, you can use that as a marketing tool. Make it obvious how different you are (like when Todd has his high school employees talking directly to the clients). Future clients and future employees will remember you.
  3. Be the Best Employer: If you really want the best employees, then you have to be the best employer. Build up long-term incentives for your employees, and make sure that your newest hires always feel like they are growing. Increase their stakes in the company. Teach your crews more than anyone else, you're going to have a better team than anyone else.

Lastly, for all you parents out there: if you've got kids you want to send to college, why not buy them a mower?

Thank you so much to Todd Coleman and the crews at EDU Lawn Service for their time. It's incredible to get to know a company so dedicated to improving its community. Best of luck to EDU Lawn Service as they continue to grow!

Related: Lessons Learned from an All Female Landscaping Company

Lisa Marino

Lisa Marino is the Sr. Marketing Director for Service Autopilot. She uses her 17+ years in direct marketing, sales, and product development to push entrepreneurs beyond their limits. She's passionate about helping others grow their businesses through time-tested marketing techniques. When not writing, you can find her belting out a mean Stevie Nicks at a local karaoke night.


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