Gene Caballero is the Co founder of GreenPal Inc. GreenPal has been described as Uber for lawn care. Saw a need for this type of service due to my background in landscaping. We started by going door-to-door to see if homeowners would use a product like this and once we had that positive reinforcement, we decided to move forward with a company to start building it.
Book: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Tools: Gmail, Xero for accounting, and Intercom as a CRM
Show Notes:Greenpal is ‘Uber’ for lawncare connecting lawncare providers and landscaping professionals with consumers. Greenpal handles demand creation, scheduling, route optimization and payment processing. In return, Greenpal takes 5% commission.
Gene and his co-founder Zach Hendrix started Greenpal in 2012. Gene has been taking care of lawncare since high school and when he saw Uber & Lyft take off, he saw a similar model for lawncare as well.
Gene and Zach spent $125,000 for someone else to initially build a platform but after that company went broke, Gene decided to bring the development in-house and have a technical co-founder to take on this task. After 2 years or so, starting in 2014, Greenpal started accepting customers and have been profitable since 2016.
Gene and Zach cashed out their 401K money to start the initial investment and took the risk. The initial risk started paying off in 2016 but initially it was like rolling the dice.
Greenpal used Facebook creatively to start local FB groups to recruit homeowners and also used creative ways such as pet owners to grow affinity towards Greenpal. Greenpal is currently in 40 states in the US. Greenpak assesses the target markets based on local weather, landscaping habits etc. to decide if they should go after a market.
Gene gives the following advice. There is never enough money and enough time. Best thing is to get started now. Be passionate about your ideas. And talk to strangers about your ideas and not your family or friends to get an unbiased opinion.
Episode Transcript (Click to expand)
Ramesh: Hello everyone. Welcome to the agile entrepreneur podcast. This is your host Ramesh Dontha. This podcast is about starting and building your own business with purpose, passion, perseverance, and possibilities. Today we have a very exciting guest working in a very interesting business. His name is Gene Caballero. Gene is the co-founder of Green Pal Inc. And then the founders of Green Pal described the business Green Pal as the Uber for lawn care. I think now you get the picture hey Gene welcome.
Gene: Hey Ramesh, how are you? Glad to be on your podcast. Thank you so much.
Ramesh: So yeah, Green Pal just by the name, the way you guys described it, I think I clearly understand, but in your own words, we would like to know what Green Pal business all is about.
Gene: Yeah, so Green Pal has been described as Uber for lawn care and it's the easiest way for homeowners to find, schedule and pay their lawn guy. Also, we've kind of been coined as the first true operating system for landscaping professionals. So not only do we handle their demand creation, we also handle their scheduling, their route optimization and their payment processing.
Ramesh: So, if I understand your business correctly, that both the lawn care providers along with the customers, both of them will register on your platform. Is that right?
Gene: That is correct.
Ramesh: Okay. So, you're connecting them both and then in the process collecting some kind of accommodation or something like that?
Gene: Correct. Yes, we take 5% of everything that goes through the transaction. So, this industry is very antique when it comes to payment processing, when it comes to scheduling and when it comes to route optimization. So Green Pal technology basically brings all that in house to make both the vendors life easier and makes, you know, it makes it more convenient for the homeowner to find their lawn guy.
Ramesh: Excellent. So, Gene, when did you guys start Green Pal? And if you could just tell us the story of Green Pal, how it got started.
Gene: Yeah. So, we started in the spring of 2012 and I’ve kind of been in landscaping myself pretty much my whole entire life, you know, in middle school and high school, kind of mulling lawns for extra money. And then in college doing it for the summer as well, just to kind of, you know make extra cash. And when I graduated, I went, I went and got a corporate job. Surprisingly enough it was in tech sales, so kind of privy to you know the new technologies that were coming out, my territory was the West coast, so I had heard about Uber and Lyft and the on-demand platform. And knew that at some point that if homeowners were going to summon a stranger to come and pick them up, they would also do the same with lawn care. And so that's when we decided to move forward with Green Pal in 2012.
Ramesh: Okay. Was there a problem in the sense like for my care I, you know, ask my neighbor or somebody else instead of, Hey, who's your lawn care? And then I went with that. But did you guys see a problem in the marketplace? How did you know that your idea was viable?
Gene: Yes. So, a couple of ways we knew, you know, kind of knowing the industry. Like, yeah, you can ask your neighbor, your coworker who you want, you know who they recommend. But if that guy going to answer the phone when you call him or when you text message him nine times out of 10 when you call a landscaping professional in the middle of the summer, you're going to get a voicemail. So, you don't know when he's available. You don't know when he's going to call you back. You don't know what he's going to be able to just service your property. So, we knew right then and there that, you know, granted recommendations are great and fantastic, but you know, how quickly can he get back over to your property if he's not at your neighbor's house already. So, to kind of prove this theory, we actually went door to door for the first summer that we started Green Pal. We would knock on people's doors and ask them, you know, about their lawn care. What they liked about it, what they didn't like about it, you know, if this was a service that they would like to use regarding, you know, being able to put their lawn out for auction and have, you know landscaping, vetted landscaping professionals bid on the property and then basically, you know keep that relationship on a secured platform. And after we did that for a few months, you know, the resounding answer was yes, we would love to use a product like this if it wasn't for not only, you know, just to find a new guy, you know, to make sure my guys coming and also to not have to basically leave a check under the mat. So, we knew after kind of knocking on thousands of doors and getting this critical feedback that, you know, there was an opportunity to digitalize this industry. So, it looks like your platform is also extendable to other businesses. Like because I am speaking from my own personal experience. By the way, I went to the same experience that you said. I called multiple people and answer and all that stuff. So, but something like a swimming pool operators and things like that. Do you see your business extending to other areas?
Gene: Yes. So, you know, when we first started this, you know, we want it to be the default go to place where homeowners can find any home services outside of the house. You know, that's a very grand gesture to say when you haven't even, you know, scratch the surface of your potential base in one vertical. So, you know, we're slowly adapting and being able to add those additional services. But as of right now we give the vendor the ability to quote any additional services that that homeowner wants done. So once the vendor gets to the property and sees that, hey, these, these shrubs need to be trimmed back. I need the gutters need to be cleaned. The staff needs to be painted. So, we actually put that on the vendor to be able to quote that service or services to that homeowner instantly through Green Pal.
Ramesh: Excellent. Actually, I love you know, what you guys are doing in a non-intrusive way to connect the homeowners and the service providers. So, Gene my question is, yours is not like a consulting engagement or business coaches, some of those businesses, you guys need to actually create a product and then go after the customers or the providers. So, I mean, how did this work out? Like a, when did you start making money? Right off the bat or there was a time that you had to take to build a product? And if you could talk a little bit about that period.
Gene: Yes. So, we made the mistake of thinking that we could hire a firm to build our website and it'd be up and running and be perfect. So, we spend about $125,000 initially paying a shot to build what we thought homeowners wanted and vendors wanted. After we spent this money, that shop actually went out of business. And so, we knew right then and there that we had to have a technical cofounder you know, on our team. So that is when Zach actually quit his corporate job to go to software school to learn how to code and to rebuild this app from the ground up. So that was our first biggest mistake that we had was, you know, not knowing that you know, none of us had ever done this before, that you needed somebody technical to oversee and make sure that everything is being built properly and everything is working accordingly. So, it was a blessing in disguise at the time it was like, you know, there's no shame in backing out or you know, we can just take a little more time to build it because I got to learn how to do it. And then, you know, year two years, we know we've got a product that will be sustainable and be replicatable. So, we didn't actually start getting going until about 2014, 2015 and we've been profitable since 2016.
Ramesh: I see. So, Zach, you mentioned Zach Hendricks, who was the co-founder of Green Pal.
Gene: That is correct.
Ramesh: Okay. So, a couple of questions. Number one, how did you guys find each other? Because many times companies or partnerships struggle not finding the right partner. So, what's the relationship between Gene and Zach?
Gene: Geographically grew up close to each other. So, we were neighbors growing up in the same neighborhoods. We played sports in middle school and high school. So, you know, just being friends and you know, having the same interests and having the same goals. And we actually worked at the same tech firm as well for a little while before Zach quit. So, you know, being friends since we were, you know, 13 or 14 years old, you know, we knew that starting a business wouldn't be an issue. There wouldn't be any, you know yeah, trust issues and stuff like that. So that's a, it was very fortunate Zach grew up where I grew up.
Ramesh: Okay, excellent. Actually, that is very important ingredient actually of any business to tell you the truth.
Gene: Yeah, it is. I couldn't imagine doing this with a stranger not knowing any of their idiosyncrasies or any of their habits or any other pet peeves or anything like that. So, it was a perfect business marriage for sure.
Ramesh: Yeah. Excellent. So, the other question I had was so the first $125,000 you spent on it was not going anywhere and then you guys had to rebuild, but during this time, because technology is evolving so rapidly, was there a concern that somebody else will come up with a similar idea and do it while you were regrouping?
Gene: Yeah, I mean, you always have that fear of, oh my gosh, somebody's going to steal my idea. I don't want to tell anybody. You know, I want to keep this as a secret, but you know, a lot of people, you should be so lucky to have somebody steal your idea and actually go forward with the idea. Ideas are cheap. And so, you know, we didn't, we didn't, we didn't anticipate somebody to you know to come and revolutionize the industry in that small amount of time. But there's always in the back of your mind with what happens if, you know, like an Amazon or a Google or a, you know, a home Depot or Lowe's or something came in and tried to do the same type business model, but, you know, we just kind of kept her head down, focused on what we needed to do and that's kind of what we've been doing and it's turned out pretty well so far.
Ramesh: Okay. So great. So, Gene, the other question is while you're forming and storming the company the initial phases, like definitely there was a financing piece, $125,000. And then on top of it, anything else that you needed? How did you guys come up with that money? You put your own personal finances. How did you guys go about it?
Gene: Yes. So, you know, Zach and I are we were in our thirties when we started. So, we each had, you know corporate life for, you know, 10 years and, you know, we had 401ks, savings and stuff like that. So, you know, we had a little bit of money put back for an opportunity that may present itself. And so that's kind of what we did. I think he ended up cashing out his 401k and I did as well. So, you know, your kind of just, you know, roll the dice and you know, believed in yourself and the idea and put the skin in the game and got everything going.
Ramesh: Excellent. So, the other interesting aspect of Green Pal is how you guys grew the business in terms of getting more homeowners and all that stuff. It looks like you guys use Facebook quite innovatively and extensively. If you guys could talk about how you use Facebook as a platform to grow your business.
Gene: Yes. So, what we've done to grow it faster on the vendor side is use Facebook as a vendor growth channel. So, before Facebook, we were literally growing about one market a month. Meaning that if we wanted to launch, let's just say San Jose market, we would have to manually call, texted vendors to you know, basically sell them on why they should join Green Pal because we're, you know, we're starting this service in the area. That would take about one month per about a market per month. And so, with Facebook we were actually able to accelerate that. And actually, we're launching a market a week now. So, Facebook has helped us grow exponentially on the vendor's side as far as being able to launch a new market, then to do our PR in our marketing and the area for the homeowners.
Ramesh: Excellent. So that is pretty creative. There's another interesting story that I found out about Green Pal. How you worked with the homeowners you know, pets and there is an interesting story. Anything that you could talk about you know, their love for pets and then how it played into your business.
Gene: Yes. So, when we first started out, I literally knew the names and basically of all the customers. I had a spreadsheet and after a service provider would go mow that property, we would, you know, follow up personally on how everything went. On the onboarding process we actually had a form that a homeowner could check if they had a dog or not. That did two things, that will let the vendor know that, there's a pet they have to be careful not to let them out if there's a gate. And also, for us to basically get the word of mouth going after the first lawn had been completed to send their pet a bone and ask some critical feedback about their experience. So, we sent out, I'd say probably a 1000, 2000 dog bones to homeowners that notified us that they had a pet. And we sent them, you know, our social media and stuff like that to, you know, spread the word if they had a good experience or if they didn't to let us know what we could improve or anything like that. So that necessarily didn't go viral. But it did help with our, you know, with our word of mouth and also our name brand when it came to, you know, customer loyalty and also vendor loyalty because, you know, the more homeowners you have signing up, the happier the vendors are going to be. So that little critical piece of information you know, that we were able to capitalize on, kind of helped us gain a little momentum with our and know a little more with our customer base.
Ramesh: I think it also helped with the loyalty of the owners to your business and application, I would think.
Gene: Yeah, exactly. And you know, the customers like to be heard. And so, you know, when you put, when you put a small detail like that and send the dog a bone and they'll reward you for it certainly.
Ramesh: Correct. I mean so your next question is, are you all in every state in the United States or you're growing organically? How does it work?
Gene: We are at 40 States now. And so basically all of our growth comes from PR and SEO. We've kind of got really good at that over the years. We have about six or seven link-building campaigns and constantly pitching PR and new markets. Letting them know about, you know, new services and you know, obviously the new markets that we're launching it as well.
Ramesh: So, I'm mean, I'm kind of curious now. Because it's a web application what you have. So, what prevents you from going all across the US, why only 40 States?
Gene: Yeah, so a lot of the, a lot, we will get to the, to all 50 States. Some of them just don't have a lawn care you know, maybe about two or three month a year and addressable market is just so big that, you know, they're, you know, sub-markets in Florida or Texas that mow for nine months out of the year as opposed to those three months. So, our ROI on that is, is just, you know, basically, you know, we have bills to pay as well. So, if we can launch a market that is nine months out of the year per se, as the market, that's three months out of the year, we're going to go with a nine month out of the year, nine times out of 10.
Ramesh: Okay. Got it. It's a more a market opportunity. Not anything the regulations or anything like that.
Gene: Exactly Yes.
Ramesh: Okay. So, Uber, I think they all have to go through some regulatory issues and okay for you there's nothing like that. Okay. Got it.
Okay. Excellent. So, I mean, what are the next steps for your business from a scaling that growth or what are you focusing on right now?
Gene: Kind of what we're focusing on now is doubling down into more of our sub markets. So, know what I mean by there's, you know, we're in probably the top 100 markets in the US. But with those markets you typically have, you know, five or 10 other large cities in those States that are, you know, wanting our service and they need our service. So, for the rest of 2019, we're going to double down on markets that have been really, really solid for us and then start launching in the sub markets. And then we're also, you know, doubling down more on the vendor side of it. We're building more tools for them to be able to pull more services. We're building more tools to them to be able to onboard their non-Green Pal customers onto our, onto our platform. And then we're also, this'll be the first year that we're actually offering snow removal in the areas of States that have snow in the winter. So, we're slowly getting some momentum with the vendor buy in. You know, we have, I think 15,000 total landscaping professionals that have signed up with youth Green Pal. So, you know, we're just trying to, you know, build a system for them that they can run their business from their phone and make their lives easier.
Ramesh: Okay. So, you're going deeper into the States where you're already there into sub markets and you're going broader where with the new services, like snow removal and things like that.
Gene: That’s correct.
Ramesh: Okay. So deeper and broader, I like that strategy. So, let's talk a little bit about Gene, the person. Okay. So right. I mean, why entrepreneurship? Why couldn't you, why couldn't you be just happy getting a salary at the end of the month?
Gene: Yeah, I mean, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. My grandfather was an entrepreneur. My dad is an entrepreneur. I've got three cousins that all own their business. My mom owned a business and her you know, when she was, you know, my age. So, I kind of come from that entrepreneurial background and, you know, I remember, you know, growing up, you know, my father being able to kind of go and come as he pleases and kind of being able to do what he wanted to do. And he always, you know, instilled in me that, hey do whatever you need to do to, you know, to be happy to make money to you know, just make yourself a better person. And I remember that you know, asking about what I wanted to do in life and stuff like that. And he's like, you know, you can always be an entrepreneur. You're bound by nothing. You know, it's a little harder path, but you know, if you have a business idea you know, ideas are cheap yet there's always a customer for any sort of type of business that you want start. So, I remember having that conversation with him and you know, being able to see him kind of go with the pleases and you know, I had other friends that dads were in the corporate world and, you know, they were on a strict schedule and stuff like that. So, I kind of always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and do something and just waiting for the right opportunity to do so. So, you know, when an opportunity came about, I was fortunate enough to be able to do that. I stayed with my corporate job for five years and did both. So, I had a lot of you know, a lot of hours racked up, you know, on the weekends and at nights after work. So, it's a lot of harder path than the traditional retired 65. But you know, when you're impacting somebody's life, making it easier and they're thanking you for that product, that's why you get out of bed every morning. And that's why you want to grow this business to be as successful as it can be.
Ramesh: Excellent. Actually, there's a good learning that came out of it, which you said you didn't quit and then start this. You started this as a side hustle. Yeah. Side hustle. So that way you felt comfortable and only then after some time you quit.
Gene: Yeah. I mean, I was in my corporate job with seven to 4:00 PM and from five to 10, five to 11 I was at our Green Pal office working. And then Saturdays and Sundays we're basically all Green Pal. So, if you can do both, do both. You know, you do sacrifice a lot when you do both. You know, you have zero free time. Vacations are, you know, irrelevant because you're not going to be able to take them. But you know it keeps you in the game longer. You don't have to worry about money at times, so highly recommend that.
Ramesh: Excellent. So, it looks like Gene your family members inspired you to be an entrepreneur. Any other books things that you can recommend that you know, that inspired you?
Gene: Yeah, Steve blank, the four steps to epiphany. That was a great book that kind of taught you how to get you know, out of the building. And you know, that kind of is what prompted us to go door to door to see if people would use our product. And then, you know, kind of once we built it, we kind of got out of the building to basically get our first few hundred customers. So that kind of you know, gave you confidence to say, hey, you've got to go out there and ask for it, not people aren't going to come to your brand-new website and asked for your services. And another one is the lean startup by Eric Reese. You know, when you're sitting there with a business idea, you think you need all the bells and whistles to make that thing operate to get customers, but it's actually the opposite. You need the MVP to get started and then you listen to your customers and they tell you what you need to build next. So those are the kind of the two books that, yeah, I think any young entrepreneurs should live by while they're you know, thinking or starting their business.
Ramesh: Excellent. I mean, I like the lean startup as well, and I call the agile entrepreneurship, which is just to get your minimum viable product out the door as soon as you can. And then so keep working on it. Excellent. So, if I could ask you a couple of questions about your operations of your business. So, I mean, you are a technology company, you're not a landscaping company, you're a technology company. So, for your operations, what kind of tools that you guys use mostly? So as an advice to other businesses like they can benefit from.
Gene: Yeah. So, the first thing we implemented when we could afford it, it was an app called Intercom. Basically, Intercom is kind of a customer relationship management tool, but it will kind of allow you to, it puts you in the, you can actually add any sort of like chat or anything in a certain part of the customer journey. So, you know, you can ask questions, pop up questions when a homeowner's there, if they need any help or anything. You can also send timed emails dependent on different scenarios of where the customer is in that journey to get feedback or to ask them, you know, to schedule additional service. So, with Intercom, we're able to basically insert ourselves in every part of the customer journey and be right there with our customers if they have any anxiety, if they have any confusion or if they just have any questions in general on how everything works. So that was the, probably the biggest tool that kind of helped us. Like, hey, we know right here customers are getting confused because of so we need change that. So, Intercom was one that we, that we still use to this day to kind of help us build more of what the homeowners want or expect as opposed to what we think they want or expect.
Ramesh: That's very good. All right. So last question, Gene. As a parting advice to the listeners who could be aspiring entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs trying to, you know, get to the next level, what would you offer?
Gene: I think any entrepreneur that you know, that's looking to make the leap or to start a business, make sure you're passionate about your product. You're going to get a lot of people that are going to, you know, tell you that, you know, it's not the right time. You don't have the right money, you don't have the right resources. So, you just got to be really passionate. It got to be really, really stubborn about your idea. And knowing that it works. I would also recommend getting as much feedback from strangers as you possibly could about a business idea. Hey, I want to start this business idea. What do you think about it? We went to random strangers in malls. We went to random strangers at dog parks and ask them. So, getting that critical feedback before you spend a dollar is so easy and it's free. It just takes, you know, just take effort to ask people about this type of business. So, I think those are the two biggest pieces of advice is, you know, before you do anything, talk to strangers, not your friends, not your family. They're going to tell you it's a great idea. They're going to tell you that, you know, they're excited about you starting a business, how successful you're going to be. But you know, strangers will tell you if they would buy it, if they wouldn't buy what they like, what they don't like. So, heed the advice of strangers, not your friends and family.
Ramesh: Excellent. I think another thing that came through your conversation is that it looks like you want to people to start as soon as they can about a business. If they're thinking anything about a business, you know, there's no perfect time. Now is the perfect time.
Gene: There is no perfect time. You'll never have enough money. You'll never have enough time. But getting started and getting momentum, doing something, even if it's one thing per day to get the business going forward, you'll be so far ahead in six months, then a year and then you'll be closer to knowing whether or not you want to pursue this. So, getting started is I think is the hardest part, but if you do something just one thing per day and keep that consistent, it'll pay off in the long run.
Ramesh: Excellent. Gene, great advice. Thank you very much for coming on today. Good luck to you.
Gene: Well thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
29:09Ramesh: Yeah, my folks. So that's another excellent conversation there. If you want to listen to more episodes like that, get onto www.rameshdontha.com and go to the podcast section, so you'll have a lot more episodes there.