BiggerPockets Business Podcast

BiggerPockets Business Podcast 25: What You Can Learn from a Company that Manages 12,000 Contractors with Ken Davis of TaskEasy

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Today we get a peek inside a company that handles lawn care for 800,000 properties across the U.S.

And although few of us will ever build such a behemoth, trust us—you will learn a ton from this episode with TaskEasy CEO Ken Davis.

In it, you’ll hear how Ken started the company to solve his own biggest headache, why TaskEasy zeroed in on mowing lawns, and the biggest operations challenges the company faces as it services thousands of clients.

Also, Ken speaks to the importance of doing right by your very first customers before scaling, why ideas are a dime a dozen (execution—not so much), and how the right mentors can save you a fortune.

Ken also reveals his No. 1 tip on how to automate processes in your own business. So if you are looking to get more organized and think strategically about how your business is set up, download this episode and subscribe to the BiggerPockets Business Podcast so you won’t miss the next one!

Click here to listen on iTunes.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Read the Transcript Here

Jay: And let’s welcome Ken Davis to the show. How you doing today Ken?

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Ken: I’m doing great. It’s a beautiful day in Salt Lake City.

Jay: Awesome. We really appreciate you being here. I’m really excited about this conversation. You have a really awesome business. I’m an operations guy, I’m a process guy. So I am really looking forward to this conversation.

Carole: You two are going to dominate this thing, so listeners, just sit back and enjoy the ride because I’m going to have a whole lot of nothing when these two get going. Okay.

Ken: And my investors all think we’re a tech company, not an operating company. So be careful.

Jay: So that’s actually one of my questions. Are you a tech company, are you a contracting company? Are you an operation? But we’ll get to that. We’ll get to that.

Jay: This is actually the very first thing when I first heard about TaskEasy. So the front page of your website talks about lawn care, signing up for lawn service lawn care service. I know that your company has mowed literally hundreds of thousands of lawns across 12,000 cities, all 50 states. But when I first heard about TaskEasy, the first thing I noticed was the name, TaskEasy, has nothing to do with lawns, has nothing to do with lawn care, it has nothing to do with contracting. So I believe that the original incarnate idea for TaskEasy wasn’t necessarily to be a contracting company or to be a lawn care company. So can you take us back a little bit and tell us, what was that original vision for TaskEasy? And where did that come from?

Ken: Yeah. When the real estate market went through its struggles almost 10 years ago now, I lost my mind and decided to become a hobbyist landlord. And I ended up acquiring a bunch of rental properties. At one point I owned 84 units of rental property. And I found that the single hardest thing to do when it came to being a landlord, was maintenance services. There were so many tools that had been produced for the automation of tenant discovery, for collecting rents. There’s even a tool that helps to automate with eviction, should you find yourself in that difficult predicament, and as a landlord. Or a resident for that matter.

Ken: But every time I needed to cut the grass at one of my properties, I found myself in a situation where it was usually easier and took less time for me to load a lawn mower up into the back of my truck and drive to the property and mow it myself, than it was to hire somebody. And so it was frustrating. And I thought, there must be a better way to deal with this.

Ken: And so to your original question of, did I think it would be more than lawn cuts? Yeah I did. But lawn cuts were actually my primary pain point. I thought we would probably be doing everything around a rental property associated with what’s referred to in the industry as a unit turn. So every time a rental property becomes vacant, there’s a whole bunch of clean up work that you have to do with that property, including painting and carpet cleaning and minor repairs, et cetera. And I thought that TaskEasy would do all of those things, but as we got into the project and really started to figure things out, we realized that even managing one contractor network, that is landscapers, is an enormous amount of work. And it takes a lot of time to matriculate a mature network of contractors. And so we finally narrowed in on yard care.

Ken: We have expanded beyond just lawn cuts, but we’ve narrowed it on yard care. And we think we’ll linger there for quite some time. At some point we may do more, but this is our focus now and it’s been really good for us.

Jay: Okay so that’s awesome. But that kind of leads me back to what we were originally discussing. Which was, is TaskEasy a technology company? Is it a contracting company? Is it a process and operations company? I guess it’s in a way it’s all three of those things. But for our listeners who may not have ever been to your website, may not be familiar with what TaskEasy does. Ken, can you give us just in your own words, just an idea of what TaskEasy is, what the process is, what it looks like from your customer’s standpoint?

Ken: Yeah, so and the first thing you have to recognize is that cutting the lawn, mowing the lawn, people think about that operationally as being the act of being behind the lawnmower and pushing the lawnmower. But many of our customers have thousands or even tens of thousands of properties. And for them, at this point we’re managing a portfolio of nearly 800,000 homes across the country. For these big customers the real work to be done in cutting grass, in addition to the actual work, it has to do with the recruitment of a contractor, the processing of a purchase order, the processing of an invoice, the evaluation of quality or quality control. And also the discovery of the work that actually needs to be done. And the metering of that work, or the controls in place of that work to make sure that first of all, that only the work that needs to be done is being done and is being charged for and paid for. But also that you’re managing costs, managing expectations, and making sure that you don’t have any failures in this whole system.

Ken: And so when you look at all that, there’s quite a bit more to TaskEasy than just mowing the lawn. And in fact, what we claim we do is everything but mowing the lawn. We don’t own a lawnmower. We don’t own a truck. We don’t ever deploy a truck. We don’t a workforce that does manual labor in yards. Instead, we manage a network of about 12,000 contractors that does this work.

Ken: And so what we believe we are is a tech platform to facilitate the management of all of that stuff that is not actually cutting the grass. And time will tell. We do a lot of things manually, we almost always do the manually first on purpose so that we can kind of work out the kinks. We can figure out what our workflows look like, what we need to do that’s routine, what we need to do that’s repetitive. But every time we find something that’s routine or repetitive, we push on it really hard until we automate from a tech perspective.

Ken: To give you a feel for that, this company… our B to B business has averaged 75% growth for each of the last three years. And we have not significantly grown our workforce. In fact, we’ve basically kept it level. And so to be a company that’s more than two, almost three times bigger than it was a few years ago, while maintaining a workforce, our workforce. Meaning our accountants and our support representatives and our operational folks, keeping that flat is a testament to our technical innovation over the years.

Jay: That’s awesome. And so I want to talk about… and we’re going to get to kind of what the internal structure looks like, what your team looks like. But I kind of want to point out that from my perspective, from the outside perspective, it feels like you kind of have two different major pieces of the business and challenges.

Jay: The first is kind of the front end. And again, for any of our viewers or listeners who haven’t been to your front page, basically the flow for customer sign up is, you type in your address. I mean it’s like Google, I mean it’s really, it’s you try to make it as simple as possible. The customer types in their address, a Google map or a satellite view of the property shows up, you confirm that this is your yard area. You hit a button or two, and then prices spit out. This is how much we’re going to charge you to cut your lawn. You don’t have contractors showing up to give you a bid, there’s no haggling, there’s no answering lots of questions or doing anything complicated from the end user’s standpoint. So there’s a lot of process and technology and heuristics I assume, that go into that side of it.

Jay: And then on the other side, you have, presumably, your relationship with all the contractors. You said yourself, you guys don’t own a lawnmower, so basically you need to hook up all of your end users, all of your customers, with a service provider in one of 50 states, 12,000 cities, some ridiculous number of small areas. And so you have to have, and you have to manage these relationships. You have to manage the payment of those people, you have to manage the scheduling of those people. And you mentioned already that a lot of what you’re doing is around improving processes. Not for your team but for your contractor’s team. So there’s a whole lot there. And I know I’m going on in a soliloquy here. But I really want our listeners to understand that this business is, it’s complicated from two different sides.

Jay: So I’d like to talk about each of those. Can we start with the end user experience and the technology on the website and the heuristics you use to get a customer a quote and actually sign them up?

Ken: Yeah. So nobody would believe that technology is quite so technical. I actually have a cyber security and mathematical games theory background, professionally. So it’s pretty strange that I’m mowing lawns at all. And what we have observed over many years is there’s a lot of math and a lot of technology that can go into the pricing, first and foremost, of yard care.

Ken: One of the things you realize very quickly, is that pricing represents a major portion of the cost for the contractor. So imagine you’re a contractor and you have to go bid on four jobs to get one, these contractors joke all the time that they charge for travel and they mow lawns for free. And when you piece that together, if you have to travel four times to get one lawn cut, you’re basically having to charge enough in that lawn cut to cover the cost of travel, which is your most expensive cost.

Ken: And so what we’ve invested a lot of our time and energy into, is eliminating that travel, those four trips. None of our contractors have to go out to a property to bid on work. Instead, we use satellite imagery and supply demand information to properly price work, so that it’s an affective… so it eliminates all that cost. And that allows us to not only charge our customers a little less than they would maybe charge on the open market. But our contractors make more, and we make money in the middle. And although that sounds counterintuitive, once again, if you’re charging for travel and you’re mowing lawns for free and you do five times as much travel as you do lawn mowing, it becomes more intuitive.

Ken: So from a technical perspective, we’ve done a lot of interesting things. We use satellite imagery. By the way, you say it’s like Google, well it actually is Google. We’re using Google’s addressing, Google Maps, Google Satellite Imagery, and a bunch of other Goggle API’s to help us to facilitate this. It wouldn’t actually be possible to build the company we’ve built without some of the work Google has done with mapping.Also without smartphones. There have been companies that were born to manage subcontractors for 100 years. So that part of our business isn’t new. But what is new is the fact that we’re doing it all with tech. And smartphones are big part of that too.

Ken: One element of that, that I’d highlight. When you really look back on the world of smartphone technology being utilized this way, one of the real inventors… or two of the real inventors in this realm were FedEx and UPS. That little device that all of their drivers were running around with was basically one of the world’s first smartphones. And if they were to reinvent their companies today, they wouldn’t build that device, they would just build an app for a smartphone. So we highly leverage smartphone technologies, we highly leverage these both open and licensable API’s that are made a variety of really good companies.

Ken: And then digging into the specific tech a little bit. We’ve noticed over the years that the size of the lawn affects the price, but that’s not the only thing that affects the price. We can measure a lawn to almost the exact square foot, anywhere in the country. But you also notice that the shape of the lawn affects the price. It’s a lot easier to mow a big rectangular space than it is to mow a very complicated space because you don’t just push a lawnmower, you also drag a trimmer around and clean up the edges.

Ken: There’s also some cost impact based on things like openings of gates. If you have a very large opening to enter a backyard, you can get a larger form factor lawnmower back there and mow the lawn very quickly. If you’ve got a narrow opening, or if you have to… we’ve got lawns that we mow where the only way to get to the backyard is through the house, if that’s not-

Carole: Wow.

Ken: … the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. When you have situations like that, it’s profoundly increases the cost. We’ve also noticed of course, that the geography affects cost. So it’s far more expensive to mow a lawn in Boston, than it is to mow a lawn in Idaho. And this has been pretty consistent across our platform. We watch that sort of… it’s partially based on supply demand. But it’s also once again, based on driving. The average commute to get to a lawn in Idaho may seem longer, but it turns out you sit in traffic a lot longer if you’re in Boston. And that matters, that lost time, that loss of productivity matters to our contractor network.

Ken: So we’re looking for all these opportunities to properly price things. And not just lawn mowing, but we’re up to a… we now automatically price, I think we’re up to something like 80 different services where we’ve got pricing algorithms going into those services. To avoid the bidding problem.

Jay: Okay, okay. So you just raised about 30,000 more questions from me. But before this conversation started, I assumed that you would get a customer, they would come in, they’d put in an order, you’d give them a bid then say, “Yup we’re happy to do that.” You say, “Great we’ll have somebody out there Tuesday.” You get in touch with the contractor who is in their location and you basically say, “Okay here’s the customer. Here’s their address, go take care of it.” But it sounds like you’re doing a whole more than that. It sounds like you are kind of managing the contractor, managing the contractor’s schedule, helping the contractor optimize their schedule and optimize their business.

Jay: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to these contractors? Are they working for you full time? Are you dictating where they go, when they go? Or is this side work for them? How did they fit into your network? How do you fit into their business?

Ken: Yeah I mean first of all, we often times get compared to Uber and Lyft and sort of the gig economy. But the reality in our business is that most of our contractors are businesses themselves. So they’re affectively subs to us. And so we might represent a lot of work for them, but we’re rarely more than 10 to 20% of their total work volume. They have other work that they do, and we’re one source of this work.

Ken: So we had to develop a bunch of techniques for dealing with that. For example, we might be able to understand what’s an optimal schedule for the work we’re handing our contractors. But if we don’t know anything about the work that they’re doing elsewhere, it’s really hard for us to insert things properly. And so we actually have a free tool that our contractors can use, which allows them to provide us with information about other work that they’re doing. And then we help to organize that with the work we’re handing them. And that’s been pretty popular and pretty beneficial to the contractors.

Ken: And at first blush, some of the contractors were like, “Well wait a second. Are you going to steal that work from us?” And we never do, we won’t. In fact, we’ve devised the tool in such a way that we actually can’t. We don’t collect enough information about their other work for us to go sit in the middle of that. We just want to provide them with an efficient way to do our work. And part of that is understanding what other work they’re doing. And so that’s a big part of the platform at this point.

Ken: We… the other thing we’re helping our contractors with. Some of these sort of gig economy platforms have shied away from helping with some of the traditional sort of benefits and other things that employers need. And so we’re helping a lot of our contractors with things like background checks, or general liability insurance and workers compensation insurance. We help to facilitate a lot of that, for and on behalf of them. So that their load can be a little lighter. And that’s actually something that we’re continuing to embrace. I would love to see at one point in time in the future, a mechanism for us to provide a health insurance program for contractors that may be… this is something that’s never been developed but maybe is partialized. Where you could, if somebody’s working a quarter time instead of getting zero benefits, they get a fourth of the benefits. And they can fill in the gaps accordingly. And I think there’s a lot of things like that that need to be invented over the coming years, instead of just… there’s a lot of anger and hostility and confrontation right now trying to figure this out. And I think that’s the wrong attitude, I think people need to embrace it and try and figure out how to be helpful.

Carole: That’s really, really neat. So it’s especially fascinating because we work with so many contractors in our business. And I would just suspect that given all of these tools that you are giving them, given the benefits to their business and how you help them schedule, how you help them manage their time, how you help them get their work done efficiently. That is it almost an easy sell to contractors to come on board with? Or do you have a team that goes after them? Or how do you go about soliciting these contractors in the first place and keeping them on board?

Ken: Yeah. So it is a pretty straight forward proposition, because we usually have work in hand. So we’re not calling the contractor. If you are Home Advisor or Thumb Tack or one of these organizations that’s selling leads, your conversation with a contractor can be a little tricky because you’re basically saying, “Hey we want you to pay us money for something.” And in fact, we run into that sort of conflict a little bit, but only because the contractor thinks that’s what we’re doing when we first call them. And once they understand that no that’s not it at all, we’re literally calling you because we have some lawns that need to be cut in New Jersey and we want you to go on Wednesday and we’ll pay you. And once they sort of work that out, they go, oh-

Carole: That’s cool.

Ken: Okay we do that all the time that’s actually what we do. So this is great that you’re calling. And we have to get pretty clever about the way that we first engage with contractors so that we don’t scare them away as being a seller. When in fact, we’re actually a buyer. We’re always a buyer. We don’t sell anything without buying lawn mowing from our contractors.

Carole: Okay so tell me more please, about how your overall team, how your organization is set up. So I’m assuming that, well the meat of that question is, I’m assuming there’s a team that is reaching out to this contractor network? Which I suspect is part of many other teams within your organization. So can you tell us kind of how you’re set up?

Ken: Probably our biggest volume of inbound support requests come from our contractors themselves. And so what they’re calling about is, usually they’re calling to say, “Hey I’m on site to perform this work. And there’s four other things that need to be done here. Do you or do you and the customer want these things to be done?” And that right there represents probably the largest volume of fairly difficult to automate support that we still have as an obligation to our whole platform. We are finding ways to automate it and in fact, one of my favorite tools that we’ve been developing is a tool that allows that to be done all technically, without a voice call. Meaning you have buttons that you push on an app that say, I’ve encountered A, B, and C, what do I do? And then there’s an interaction that occurs with a customer that’s sort of an A, B, C type interaction. And it flows all that work as quickly as possible to the contractor.

Ken: But in terms of areas of technical evolution, that’s one we’ll work on that for the next 10 years. Trying to automate as much of that as possible. So that’s one element of our organization or our company.

Ken: Another element is large client support. So we do have some very, very large customers. Customers that own, like I said, tens of thousands of properties. And we found that they both want to have a portal and technical automations. But they also want the ability to pick up the phone and call somebody when they really need to solve a problem. And so we do have a group that is available to them to solve those problems whenever. And in fact, I’m available. I get calls from time to time from our very big customers and I’m happy to pick up the phone because they’re really important to us. And as are all of our customers. But the level of support required to make sure that tens of thousands of properties are properly being cared for is pretty high. So that’s another element.

Ken: Contractor recruitment and onboarding, is a smaller group. It’s actually not a very big group because you don’t have to recruit 12,000 contractors at once. We’ve recruited those 12,000 contractors over the course of six years. And so at this point we mostly have coverage everywhere in the country. But occasionally we have a contractor that quits or a contractor that changes their career and leaves the lawn mowing profession all together. And we have to replace that contractor with kind of a supply. And so that’s what this group is responsible for, is making sure we have good coverage everywhere we have work.

Ken: They also work very hard on sort of matriculating those contractors. So answering questions, helping them to understand how to get paid. All of our payment platforms are automated, so. And we pay very quickly. We once joked that we’re one of the most efficient and most affective things we do is pay people. We wish we were as good at collecting money as we are at paying contractors. But we’re working on that too. But the fact is that we’re very, very efficient at paying our contractors and we’ve made that so automated that there’s a very low cost associated with it. Which is good for us and our contractors.

Jay: That’s awesome. So let me ask about the segment of your business or your team that deals with customer support. Because I have to imagine that with this many customers, this many jobs, this many tasks, even if your contractors are fantastic, even if your technology is fantastic, there are going to be issues. And so how do you deal with and I guess maybe tell us, what’s the volume of support calls that you might get in a day or a week or a month? And how does your team deal with those when kind of you’re just the intermediary between the customer and the contractor and you’re not really on site so you can’t physically be present to mediate?

Ken: Yeah so maybe I’ll start with the most difficult support request that we get. Which is occasionally what happens is a customer calls in and says, “Where’s my contractor?” And for whatever reason, that contractor has gone into a communications vacuum with us. And for us that’s actually the single most difficult support request to take. And it’s the moment where we… all you can say to the customer at that point is, “I don’t know but we’ll find out.” And so it becomes this very asynchronous support solution. You can’t… there’s actually no way, feasibly, to be able to in real time answer the question when it’s gone into that communications vacuum or black hole. And it’s happening less and less because our contractor network is matured. And, but it still happens, I would say it happens a disproportionate number of times in rural areas or in areas where we have very light contractor coverage. It happens not as often now in areas where we have huge volumes, lots of contractors.

Ken: And one solution to the problem can obviously be just to swap that contractor out for somebody else. But even that takes time, it’s not like that’s an instantaneous thing. So that support obligation probably is the thing that’s the hardest to manage from an automated perspective.

Ken: One of the things we’re migrating to there is more asynchronous support tools. So phone is not actually a very good mechanism for solving that problem. And another industry example I’ll give you for that is when you call Delta Airlines to fix a flight problem, I believe that should be asynchronous, not synchronous. And what I mean by that is, you shouldn’t have to wait on hold for the next agent. And then when you have the agent on the phone… And this happens to me every time. I don’t know if this happens to you guys. But every time I call an agent at Delta and ask them to fix a problem with my flight that maybe I caused it. But never the less, it’s a problem. They almost always act like they’ve never seen a problem quite like that before.

Carole: Ever. Never ever. It’s the first in history, every time.

Ken: And yeah it’s going to be really tricky to fix and it’s probably going to take them about 45 minutes. But hold on, hang in there. And I see that. And first of all, I find that just bizarre. But never the less, it’s definitely asynchronous. And so do you know how I get support now from Delta? And it works brilliantly?

Carole: What do you do? Tell me please.

Ken: I direct message them on Twitter. And-

Carole: Brilliant, done.

Ken: What that does is it turns the whole experience into an asynchronous experience, so I direct message them. And then I just walk away and I go about my day. And usually about 30 minutes later, I get a response back to them with some inquiries about what’s up. And I answer them. And then they disappear again for 30 minutes and I go about my day. And then they respond again and they say, “Wala we fixed it, it’s magic. Here’s your solution.” And that asynchronous support experience, I’m pretty surprised that more people haven’t embraced it. Because the technology we have in front of us is so good at doing that. And it’s so much better of an experience. And then you just never have these black holes of communication that exist in these types of support environment.

Ken: So what we’re doing, we’re trying to push as many of these support requests to that type of asynchronous experience. And the hardest part about it is just educating people on that’s what’s happening. And helping them to understand why that’s actually good for them, not bad for them. But there you go.

Carole: Well I think that’s really cool. And I think a really interesting point in all of that is, you’re changing this whole customer experience in general by taking… Interestingly it’s kind of concept flipped on it’s head. Right? So rather than hand holding in kind of a traditional experience around customer experience, you’re automating more and more to make it a better customer experience. So it’s fascinating how the whole concept is really turned upside down. But that is what you’re finding what your customers and your contractors and everything need. Is less hand holding, more of just the automation to do a quicker, better, faster and just a better experience for everybody. So I think that’s really neat.

Ken: Yeah and-

Jay: No that’s-

Ken: It’s been a really fun project to be a part of. And we just keep growing. I mean the company, like I said, we’re now managing nearly 800,000 properties across the country. And we don’t have any intention of slowing down. I’m pretty sure we’re the largest lawn mowing company of our kind, anywhere in the world. Certainly one that doesn’t own a lawnmower. And I really think this company has the potential for continuing to grow at this rate for the foreseeable future.

Ken: There’s something like $67 billion a year performed in the United States of just lawn cuts, just mowing the lawn. Lawns in the United States are considered America’s most grown crop, which is interesting. Some tech wiz did this IR/Satellite imagery scan thing where he looked at all the crops in the United States and then measure the number of square acres of those crops, and he discovered that lawns were America’s most grown crop. And what’s funny is you can’t eat it, right? You can’t eat grass. And I don’t know if you want to put this on the air, but you certainly can’t smoke it, at least not the kind of grass we cut. And so it’s kind of, it’s really bizarre that we grow this much grass, and that Americans love their grass so much.

Jay: Okay so Ken, earlier in the conversation you mentioned something that I thought was really interesting. You mentioned that a lot of times, you don’t build the technology until you’ve kind of tested it out and validated it through some manual processes first. And I know that a lot of our listeners, they run small businesses or they aspire to run small businesses. And they’re going to eventually get into the situation of having to decide, is some part of my business something I should automate? When is it worth automating? How do I decide how to automate it? It sounds like you’ve solved a lot of those problems in your business yourself. So can you talk a little bit about either the thought processes or the actual execution that you do in different parts of your business before you decide to automate those pieces?

Ken: Yeah. [inaudible 00:50:29]aspiring entrepreneurs, have an idea, and they want to know how to turn that idea into a fully functional company. And I think there’s a couple of common mistakes, or hiccups that people make. And probably the biggest one that I’ve observed is people often times give too much credit to the idea. They think that the idea itself is everything. And the idea can be important, but it’s not everything. And in fact, you can’t the number of times that people come up and say, “I think I invented Tivo and DVR before they did.” Okay but did you actually execute it?

Ken: Or Netflix is one of the very best examples. Everybody saw that Blockbuster was going to go out of business because all you had to do was stream video. But the actual doing of it is super hard. And I actually like Netflix as a perfect example for the solutions space I’m going to try to describe. What did Netflix do first? They mailed DVDs. I mean if you think about just in terms of sheer ridiculousness of a business model. You’ve got to believe that somebody at Netflix already knew that the future was going to be streaming video. Because we all saw this.

Ken: I remember using a system called the Avid back in the mid ’90s. Which is a video editing tool that would effectively allow you to pause live TV while you were dealing with it. And we used to this thing, I remember we uploaded a copy of Charade, which is an old Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant movie, to the internet. We were sitting on a pretty big pipe. And then we all just for fun, we streamed the video to our computers. And we watched a streaming video. And this is in the mid ’90s. And you’ve got to believe that somebody at Netflix back in the mid… when they first started. Not mid ’90s. But when they first started, was already thinking ahead. This is going to be streaming. And yet what they chose to do first was to mail DVDs.

Ken: And I love this, this is a really good illustration of a lot of the things that we do all the time. We’ll come up with an idea and we’ll think, hey wouldn’t it be clever if we could automate the quality control work of properties that our customers deal with drones. We could ship out drones and then just look at work after the fact. So we have this in our head, this is our future. And I really believe that is our future. But there is not infrastructure for doing that at scale right now. And we probably would be in big trouble with the FAA if we started shipping 800,000 drones across the country every day. And so there’s a lot of step up to that in the mean time.

Ken: So what we started with was by simply asking contractors to text us photos and videos via text message. And we did that for a long time. And then we build an app and we got them to put the photos into the app and we’ve done that for a long time. And now we’re starting to use heuristics to look at the photos and understand things like duplicate of photos so we don’t have to look at them twice. So that we can recognize that a contractor maybe didn’t show up to that property a second time, he just submitted the same photos, either on purpose on accident. And over time, you can find all these really great automations, but only if you can figure out how to do it manually first. And that’s a really core concept, culturally in my company. Go figure out how to do it manually first. And even do it well and do it right once manually.

Carole: Really, really cool. I love hearing all of this evolution of how it’s of how so many parts of your business have changed over the years. And how the technology has changed with it and how your approaches to your customers, your contractors, et cetera having changed along with that.

Carole: I’m also curious about kind of the evolution of the marketing of your business. Right? So back in the beginning, you needed to get customers in order to do business. And what did you do in the beginning to market? How has that evolved over time?

Ken: Well maybe one piece of advice I’d give people is that ad words is a really great way to test a business. But you can rarely scale a business with ad words. It’s such a great way, if you’re trying to buy your first five customers or your first ten customers. Or you’re trying out a brand new feature or product or capability and you want a pretty random and anonymous audience to try it out, ad words can be really great. But if you bet on ad words being your whole strategy, there are very few companies that can succeed with having this homogenous, sort of uniform method of just acquiring one customer after another.

Ken: And so you have to think a little more broadly. And our marketing now is pretty robust, it’s pretty diverse. I personally like conferences the most for acquiring the big customers we look for. Mostly just because not only do you have an opportunity to meet with dozens of new prospects, but you often find your existing customers present at these conferences. So it’s a way to solidify the relationship with them and strengthen it. And do so all in one place, instead of having to travel to every city in the country. So conferences are big.

Ken: Developing good content is a big deal, in terms of driving people to understand your business and bringing them to your site. I remember an example, back when I was doing cyber security work. I ended up writing a white paper, actually I reluctantly wrote this white paper. It was directed at a government audience. And I very reluctantly wrote this white paper thinking it would be a waste of my time. It didn’t feel like the technical work I wanted to do. And I wrote this white paper and put a lot of thought into it and a lot of energy into it. And it became a… I won’t discuss the specific area, but it became a standard. Almost like a banner or the standard for how to solve a particular cyber related problem. And I never fully comprehended it. Why did that thing become the standard or become something that people commonly referred to? And what you realized was… You probably heard the 10,000 hour rule. But when you become a 10,000 hour expert, or you’ve committed five years of your life to a thing, and then you consolidate all that information and summarize in eight pages or 10 pages, that’s a super useful shortcut for people that don’t have 10,000 hours.

Ken: And so I try to strongly encourage my team to, when they discover an area where we’re the expert, where we’re the 10,000 hour expert, to really try high to write that down and document it and publish it, so that we can be that strong advocate for solving a problem. And that’s a huge draw for bringing in new customers. I like that marketing technique probably better than anything related to just online advertising.

Ken: Over the years we’ve tried a bunch of things. I think eventually radio and television and online digital content is going to be a key thing for us. But we don’t… it’s expensive and it’s hard to justify that cost when our present offering is so distributed. I think we had decided early on to only be in the top 20 cities in the country, we’d probably already be doing pretty heavy radio and television advertising in those top 20 markets. But we didn’t decide to do that. We decided to be everywhere. And so it’s a little harder to figure out a national radio or television campaign could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and we can’t pay for that right now. We’re not quite to that scale.

Ken: So anyway, there’s a lot of little things that I’ve learned. But mostly I just make mistakes and then try to not make them again. I don’t know that I do very many things right the first time, so.

Jay: So I want to get to the last segment of the show, the Four More, but I do have one more question. So you started in this business because you basically managed rental properties and you saw a need that you felt needed to be filled for you specifically. And I know we have a lot budding entrepreneurs in our audience who are also in the real estate space, they’re investors, they’re landlords. And I know a lot of them have thought about starting service businesses on their own. Now I imagine most of them will never start, including us. We’ll never start a business like yours of this scale, of this complexity, of this operational magnitude. But a lot of them may start service businesses, the type of business that you’ve become very successful with.

Jay: Do you have any great tips for anybody out there that’s looking to start a service business? Whether in the real estate space, the contracting space, or any other service space? Basically things that you wish you would’ve have known when you started out, or that you did or wish you would have done.

Ken: Well I mean for me the most important thing is just to take projects and jobs one at a time. And do a really good job. Maybe one thing, I didn’t mention this from a marketing perspective. But I probably can’t emphasize enough, how important reviews are. And sort of taking that one at a time. We almost didn’t pay attention to reviews until we had 40,000 of them and then we had sort of a mixture of good and bad. And we had to sort of figure out, okay what are the mistakes we’re making that are causing the bad? And let’s fix those and flush those out so that we can get more of the good reviews. And then over time have that be a really positive influence on our company.

Ken: And maybe another way to put it is, that first review you get is as important as the next 10. There’s almost an exponential decay. And then the next 10 are more important than the next 100. And the next 100 are more important than the next 1,000. And if you manage your business that way, it’ll actually grow to thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions. Because you’ve always focused on what’s most important for the stage you’re at. And instead what often times happens, and it happened to us. What often times happens is you sort of aim for the millions, and you forget the ones and tens. And that’s… it’s just, more than any other piece of advice, I’d say that really matters a lot. Aim for the ones and tens. And be the size you are at. And be willing to be there. Really own it and be okay with it and embrace it and actually enjoy it. Because frankly the most fun you’ll ever have is when you’re servicing 10 customers. It gets harder, not easier. And sometimes it gets a little less fun.

Ken: So I think that’s probably how I’d respond to that.

Carole: That’s such a good nugget.

Jay: Yeah I love… I want to repeat that quote, because it was really, it was so good. Too many people aim for the millions, but you need to be aiming for the ones and tens. And just enjoy being the size of where you are. And I love that. And I think all of us would… kind of it brings you back into the moment of your business instead of always thinking further out or trying to be more than what you currently are. And it’s just focusing on your customers today and who they are. Love that. [crosstalk 01:06:02].

Ken: I would say that even at our scale, some of the best moments we have, in terms of real evolution, is when we focus on something. What I mean by that is, I’ve had some instances where I tried out a new experiment, it actually blew up and even became successful. But it became successful without having actually solved core problem. And it’s really difficult to want to turn that off, because it looks like it’s doing this. But some of my favorite successes in this company are times when I have temporarily turned something off. I said, “We’re not ready for that scale yet, let’s turn it off. Let’s fix something and then let’s turn it back on.” And that’s been really, really useful for me.

Ken: There’s another thing too that I’ll maybe point out. And this one’s a little harder because it’s hard to know when to do what I’m about to say. But there’s so much good technology out there, that it’s a real shame for people to be reinventing the wheel. And so one of the hardest things to do is to pick what platforms and tools and software and instrumentation you’re going to need for the millions, when you’re at tens and ones. And most of the time when you’re at tens and ones, you err on the side of not picking those big platforms, which is usually the right answer. But sometimes it’s not. The one instance where I wish we had picked our long term accounting platform earlier on. We had decided to home grow some stuff and use some less expensive solutions at first. And then over the last few years, we’ve had to go through the difficult process of actually kind of mutating to the platform that can help us with the millions.

Ken: And so there are some instances where you have to have a little bit of foresight. And the way to solve that problem is actually with experience. And unfortunately, a new entrepreneur that’s focusing on the ones and tens doesn’t always have experience. And so this leads me to my next piece of advice. Which is, surround yourself with mentors. Just anywhere and everywhere you can find somebody to give you a little bit advice, or ask a simple question. You will often times get answers that have nothing to do with the question you’ve asked. It’s sort of the Donald Rumsfeld, unknown, unknowns phenomenon. Which is that the entrepreneur observing your question will answer the question you should have asked. And that’s super valuable to companies, to entrepreneurs as they’re progressing.

Ken: I’m a CEO mentor to the Kickstart CEO collective. And I love it, it’s so much fun. And by the way, that’s a two way street. So we’re all mentors to each other. It’s not like I’m special. And we get together, groups of us, often. There’s one event every year that’s a couple hundred of us. And all we do is just basically mentor each other and we save each other millions. Truly millions, because we’re basically looking ahead at the problem you’re about to have because we’ve already had it. And giving people counsel and advice that can really save them millions. So that’s another thing that’s important.

Carole: Okay. So many awesome gold nuggets in there Ken. Thank you for all of these actionable tips. All these great pieces of advice that you’ve gleaned from your experience. We just love hearing them.

Carole: Now we want to get to the part of this show though, that we call the Four More. And we’re going to ask four rapid fire style questions. And then at the end of that, you’re going to give us a little bit more information about where we can hear more about you. So are you ready for the first one?

Ken: Sure, go for it.

Carole: All right. Jay you take the first one.

Jay: Okay. Ken, what was your first, or your worst, I’ll let you decide, job? And what lessons did you learn from it?

Ken: Maybe the worse job I ever had was, I can’t say that I loved being on the television. And I was… I very, very briefly lost my mind and worked for a now out of business CBS station in Idaho Falls, called KIDK. And I was their weekend anchor and photographer and I briefly stepped in as a weather man, probably weather boy would be more close to what I was. And I mean that was another one of those bizarre… that was a real job, I was being, it wasn’t a business I was starting. It was a real job. But lots of good experiences and lots of good learnings, but I definitely didn’t want to be in front of a camera all the time, or have that be my career.

Carole: Okay so here’s my second question. You say you’ve always tinkered, you’ve always experimented with businesses. But what was that defining moment when you realized, you just had an entrepreneurial itch?

Ken: Oh my. Well my siblings tell this terrible story of me selling them stock in my lawn mowing company when I was 12. And I think it was really an allowance extraction technique. So parents paid allowance to children, Ken extracted allowances from sibling. But I recently found the records of those stock transaction, and I’m a little worried that my siblings are going to acquire a copy of them. But they’re pretty meticulous, it’s pretty funny to look at 12 year old’s record of selling stock. And it was fractions of shares and number or shares and it’s a full stock ledger at 12. So that’s pretty bizarre.

Jay: You have to be nice to your siblings or you might have the SCC knock at your door one day.

Ken: Yeah no kidding. No kidding.

Jay: So question number three. What is either the best or the worst advice you’ve been given since you’ve started this business? And what did you do with it? If it was the worst advice, what did you do with it?

 

Ken: I would say that over the years I’ve been very lucky in getting lots of good advice. I will tell you, maybe one thing. This may sound a little high brow and I don’t mean it this way. But I was really lucky in having a grandfather that was a business owner. And was willing to take the time to mentor me. And he did this thing, I remember back when E-Trade first came out. My grandfather wasn’t very good on a computer and I was. And he badly, badly, badly wanted to learn how to apply his stock trading knowledge to this new platform in this new world of being able to use the internet to make trades.

Ken: So we did this little thing where he and I put $10,000 into an account together, that to be clear was all his money. And then he proceeded to let me figure out pretty much how to lose it all. But in the process, he learned a lot about this new world of the internet and technology and online trading as a new technique for him to manage his portfolio. And I learned so much about, just about business and about the way people value businesses. The way people think about… in fact maybe the biggest lesson I learned there was that the perception of value is not always aligned with actual value. And figuring out how to thread that needle where you both create real value but also you make sure you honor the perception of value as a valuable thing all by itself. Sort of honoring marketing as a real skill and a real thing.

Carole: That is really, really, really cool. Okay. One last question Ken. One of my favorites. What is something along the way in your personal or your professional life that you have splurged on that was totally worth it?

Ken: I bought one of those swim spas that lets you just swim and place in forever.

Carole: Cool.

Ken: That’s one of the coolest things in the world. And as a piece of exercise equipment, it’s pretty expensive. It’s a lot cheaper than buying a swimming pool so there’s that, but I did splurge on that, and I love it.

Jay: That’s awesome.

Carole: So cool.

Jay: Cool, okay. So let’s get to the more part of the Four More. Tell our listeners a little bit more about where they can find out about you, your company, and where they can connect with you if they want to learn more?

Ken: I’m a surprisingly private person. I do some public speaking, but believe it or not, I’m a bit of an introvert. And so publicly speaking, although I’m not afraid of it, it exhausts me. It’s really draining. I’m going to leave this call and go take a nap I think. And so finding more from me can be a little tricky. If you find me at a public event where I’m speaking, I’ll be there. If you go to our website, I think there’s some links to other podcasts I’ve done. And I am an avid writer and I once thought I would do a lot more publishing of my writing. But even that, in this world of social media, it’s much more fun to be private I think sometimes.

Ken: So there are a few places where you can find more about me but there’s not a lot.

Jay: Awesome. Well anybody that wants to find out more about your company, I highly recommend it. Even if it’s just from a competitive analysis standpoint, learning how to do your business better for our listeners, go to TaskEasy.com. And I just I love the interface, I love the business. I love what you have built. I mean this was, I was really excited to talk to you and you didn’t disappoint. So we wish you the best of luck in everything that TaskEasy does. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 80 services you offer are. And we really appreciate you being here. Thanks so much Ken.

Carole: Thank you Ken.

Ken: Thanks so much for having me. Take care everybody.

Carole: Thank you so much.

Watch the Podcast Here

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In This Episode We Cover:

  • The original vision of TaskEasy
  • Starting a lawn care company without owning a single lawn mower
  • The difficulty of hiring a contractor
  • The power of technology and automation
  • How he manages his contractors
  • Their business processes
  • How they handle issues and conflicts
  • The single most difficult support request
  • Why they do tasks manually first
  • How their marketing evolved over time
  • Why you should focus on the “ones and tens”
  • Why you should surround yourself with mentors
  • And SO much more!

Links from the Show

Tweetable Topics:

  • “There’s so much good technology out there, it’s a shame for people to be reinventing the wheel.” (Tweet This!)
  • “AdWords is a great way to test your business, not a great way to scale your business.” (Tweet This!)
  • “Too many people aim for the millions but you need to be aiming for the ones and tens.” (Tweet This!)
  • “Good mentors will answer the questions you don’t even realize you have.” (Tweet This!)

Books Mentioned in this Show

Connect with Ken

What does it take to start, scale, and sell your own business? Every Tuesday, J and Carol Scott ask this question to entrepreneurs of all stripes and delve into stories that go beyond the launch. From hiring and firing to marketing and raising capital, this podcast takes an honest look at the triumphs and stumbles of entrepreneurship. Whether you’re looking to sustain a startup or bring an idea to life, you’ll come away inspired. Tune in—and learn how to treat your business like a business.

    Katie Rogers from Santa Barbara, California
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Okay, that was a lot of variables to the price of mowing a lawn. So what is a baseline, say an easily accessible 200 square foot rectangle? Also, in view of our aging population who are becoming less and less mobile, there should also be a non-smart phone based alternative.
    Chuck Masters Investor from Bel Air, MD
    Replied about 1 month ago
    The link above to 'Connect with Ken ' is broken.