A garden-tool distributor rakes it in by carefully deciding what he needs to do himself -- and what he doesn't
Lars Hundley received his entrepreneurial epiphany while mowing the lawn. It wasn't his lawn; it was his landlord's. But Hundley was responsible for mowing it, and gosh darn it if he was going to spend $1,000 or more on some gas-belching mower to cut grass he didn't even own. Hundley bought the cheapest push reel mower he could find, an $89 Home Depot special. Then he started mowing. He couldn't believe how easy it was.
It's not as though Hundley, 31, had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be in retail selling lawn mowers, I would have laughed you off the planet," he says. At the time he was doing tech support at a videoconferencing company in Boulder, Colo., 30 hours a week. Upon encountering the push reel mower, Hundley grew interested in starting his own E-commerce company. He decided that the Internet marketplace was the best venue for him to make money selling the item. What are the chances that in any given location you could find enough people interested in environmentally friendly lawn and garden products? he asked himself. The videoconferencing company's tuition-reimbursement program enabled him to attend an executive M.B.A. program at Colorado State University. Hundley immersed himself in Internet technology during the day and in business-school fundamentals at night.
Three years later Hundley's site, CleanAirGardening.com, is the number one online U.S. dealer of Brill push reel mowers, a top-of-the-line German brand. Hundley also sells electric mowers, trimmers, and blowers, as well as compost bins and garden tools. Last year Clean Air Gardening made $300,000; Hundley turned a profit of $100,000. His only office: a corner of his living room, in a one-bedroom Dallas condo. The office consists of no more than a wooden desk, a standard chair, and a one-drawer filing cabinet from Office Depot. For no-frills soloists like Hundley, success hinges on knowing what to automate, what to outsource, and what to do yourself.
Hundley has automated much of his company's back-end process. Yahoo Store provides him with an E-commerce engine for $100 a month. "Yahoo Store is awesome," he says. "There's no way that a Web-design company could build a site that does what Yahoo Store does, at least not for less than $100,000."
Hundley stores his contacts on Yahoo's E-mail address book. He's even automated his accounting system by setting up a Wells Fargo Internet banking account, with his suppliers designated as payees. "I don't have to mess with licking envelopes," he says.
Some things are too complicated or important to be automated. When customers phone with questions, for example, Hundley handles the calls himself. But by last summer initial-order calls were taking up too much of the CEO's time, so he outsourced product orders to Personalized Communications Inc., a Dallas-based call center. He paid the center about $500 to teach its operators about his products and to program his products and prices into its system; now the center charges him about $350 a month for handling basic orders and tracking marketing information. Hundley still handles customer service himself.
That's the thing about outsourcing: it saves time, but it costs money. Hundley performs certain key functions himself because for now, he says, it's the best way to keep expenses low and profits high. But it's always a delicate balance between minimizing expenses and maximizing his impact as CEO and sole employee.
One of Hundley's most important functions is deciding what to sell, a task he would be loath to farm out. But even so, Hundley needs to be judicious about the time and expense involved in selecting new products to offer. When he chooses a new product -- a cordless hedge trimmer, perhaps, or a human-powered snow thrower -- he orders as few as he can. He tests new products himself at his parents' farm a few hours south of the city. Once he thinks he's found a winner, he snaps a picture of it with his digital camera and often tests consumer response by listing a few items on eBay. "I won't just sink $50,000 into 'I think this might work,' " he says, because he might end up with a warehouse full of duds.
That "warehouse" is actually a 10-by-17-foot, $200-a-month ministorage unit half a mile from his condo. Each day, Hundley tallies his E-mail orders -- 30 to 40 a day in the spring, 5 to 10 a day the rest of the year -- and prints shipping labels on his inkjet. He drives his 10-year-old Volvo sedan to the storage unit and loads the mowers into the trunk and back seat. "You can fit a surprisingly large amount of stuff in a Volvo," he says. He drives to UPS and ships the mowers himself.
Hundley works six days a week but insists he hasn't fallen into a soloist-workaholic rut. He takes his dog to the park twice a day and rides his bike around White Rock Lake for hours. He taught a friend how to work the Volvo supply chain and then treated himself to a trip to Mexico. For his next vacation, he's considering an outdoor-survival school in Utah. "They teach you the skills you need to survive with nothing," he says. As if he couldn't figure it out himself.
Jill Hecht Maxwell is a reporter at Inc. Technology.
Hundley's SOHO Essentials
- Office: iMac computer, $1,600. Lexmark inkjet printer, $150. iOmega Zip CD burner, $189. Canon Digital Elph camera, $500. 10-inch cardboard Elvis. Sleeping border collie mutt.
- Telecom: Two-line Siemens cordless phone, $199. Cordless headset, $100. Voice mail from Telco, $9 a month. Panasonic fax machine, $130, with dedicated phone line, $24 a month. Nokia wireless phone, $149, with service for $80 a month.
- Internet: DSL connection, $40 a month.
- Outsourcing: Basic incoming-order phone calls handled by Personalized Communications of Dallas, $350 a month.
- Desktop: Yahoo Store, $100 a month. Yahoo Address Book, free. Wells Fargo online bill payment, $5 a month.
Q+A with Elaine St. James
Keeping it Simple
People often decide to work from home to simplify their lives. But they frequently find that it just makes things more complicated, especially when they're sharing their home-office space with family members. Inc. Technology contributor Alessandra Bianchi recently talked to Elaine St. James, author of Simplify Your Work Life, for tips on how to have your home-office cake and eat it, too.
Inc.: Do you have a system for keeping family life and work life separate?
St. James: It's important to remember that a home-based business is not a substitute for child care -- or elder care. My kids are grown now, but I recommend that parents who work at home educate their kids on the concept of "work time" versus "playtime." Even young kids can learn the concept if you stick to your guns. It's important to educate your spouse, friends, and other family members who think that because you're at home, you're not really working. Most adults won't learn that concept as quickly as your kids will, but they, too, will eventually catch on.
Inc.: How does technology fit into the picture?
St. James: There's no question that technology makes it possible for us to vastly improve our productivity and simplify our work lives. But be selective in giving out your cell-phone number, and don't be timid about setting boundaries, like, "Please don't call me between 5 and 7. That's my dinnertime," or "Please don't call me on the weekends. That's my time with my family." It's hard to relax and have time for yourself and your family when you know you can be interrupted at any moment by a ringing phone.
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.