A small business finds an underserved market niche and grows quickly to fill it. Big and small competitors do the same, and the market is soon saturated with look-a-like products and services. Growth stalls. How do you get it back?

As an underserved market, chemical lawn care had a good long run. And Senske Services (previously Senske Lawn and Tree Care) enjoyed a very early start. During World War II, Bill Senske was managing a bomb factory when he came across Army research into a defoliant called 2,4-D. He adapted the formula and used it to launch the company in 1947. His son Chris, now owner, joined the business in the 1970s. 

"At the time, my dad still had the same three or four hundred customers he'd had for the prior 20 years," Chris Senske told us during our visit to the company's expansive headquarters, framed by the deep bold green of a perfectly manicured lawn. Senske is a chemistry major and the son of a chemical engineer; so you'd expect he would try to boost growth with new products or technologies. But Senske had other ideas. 

"I noticed a similar company in the Midwest that was adding thousands of customers per year," he told us. "That was Chemlawn. I started to find out as much as I could about them. And what I learned is that it wasn't the technology that got them the business. It was all about sales and marketing."

What followed that realization was a period of rapid growth. "At the time people still didn't understand that we could kill weeds out of lawns," Senske recalled. "They were still in the digging mode. It was just like harvesting customers. We couldn't take them fast enough once we got the idea of how to advertise."

Senske Services, with annual sales of about $23 million, now offers residential weed-control in Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Utah. But as competitors have sprouted like dandelions on untreated lawns, the days of easily "harvesting customers" are long past. On one end of the spectrum, the company contends with three- or four-truck outfits with under a million in sales: Senske says those businesses compete chiefly on close customer relationships. It also faces national competitors like Tru-Green and Scotts. "It's getting a little bit like a commodity, so we struggle with differentiation," Senske said. 

We asked how he approaches this problem. His answer today is much the same as it was in the '70s. What's changed is the level of sophistication. 

Senske proceeded to give us a PhD-level lecture on the applications of direct marketing tools to his business. Over the years he's shifted from direct mail to newspaper inserts to television to door-knocking crews and, recently, back to direct mail--all in response to changes in the costs of acquiring customers. He's optimized his customer surveys down to four questions and can tell you--based on years of data--how much time he has to fix service problems before customers cancel. He's experimenting with psychographic metrics designed to target households that are especially likely to become customers. And he's current on the latest in seach engine optimization to generate leads on-line. "We've become a marketing company that just happens to do lawn care," Senske concluded. 

Senske's hard-won, self-taught marketing expertise isn't just helping the company hold ground in the lawn-care market; it's also propelling the business into new markets. "Years ago, we started doing pest control: termites, ants, spiders, rats and mice," said Senske. "The people actually providing the service are a bit nerdier, really getting into the biology of it. But the sales and marketing... It's really the same." More recently, he launched a new service: putting up and taking down holiday lights for homes and businesses. The expertise leveraged there? No surprise: "We've really learned how to adapt our marketing methods to hit that market," said Senske.

The lesson: Smart business owners pursue growth by focusing not on a market but on a capability. Know what you're good at, then look for markets that reward that skill.