Around November 1, when the jig was already up as to its shamefully biased coverage of the presidential election, CNN ironically posted a story on its website entitled, "The plague of fake news." Once my laughter subsided, I started to think about this idea of "fake news" as it relates to our industry.
Social media is becoming a primary vehicle for news dissemination. That’s both good and bad. The biggest downside is that it can be hard to sort through the noise and identify what you can trust—especially with respect to other types of content such as how-to advice.
A lot of younger folks are taking to YouTube for that. You can find some good stuff, as I did when looking for tutorials on how to replace a rotting window sill. I also found some bad stuff, like the guy who had this great method (a blowtorch) for stripping paint from door trim while said door trim was still attached to the house. Even an idiot like me could recognize the risk in trying that. But the typical 23-year-old landscaper with no business training likely won’t recognize the risk in considering his personal grocery bill as part of company overhead. (Yes, that was advised in a video I’d watched on budgeting and pricing from an “expert contractor”.)
The fact is, there are some “expert contractors” on YouTube who are becoming celebrities. But the reality is that a good social media marketer/manipulator could be granted expert status by one of these “new media” outlets simply because of the following he or she has built up. That following, however, doesn’t speak to credibility—especially if those following don’t know anything about the subject matter being discussed.
I thought about the industry’s best present day contractor success stories. Ben Collinsworth of Native Land Design in Texas came to mind. I visited Ben in 2010, his tenth year in business, when he had around 200 employees. Now he has 250. I called Ben recently to ask him where he went for business advice when his company was just getting going. He said he read magazines like ours, and reached out to respected consultants and fellow contractors he saw in magazines and heard about at conferences and tradeshows. YouTube was just getting going back then. It wasn’t over-populated with “successful” landscape company owner/operators who somehow found the time to shoot, edit and post several videos a week from April-July.
It’s important for today’s leading contractors, perhaps through the state associations they are members of, to look around their markets and identify the up-and-comers who need help—and help point them in the right direction. Otherwise, after a few seasons and a bachelor’s degree in YouTube Business Management under their belts, this new generation of landscapers might be under the assumption that a loaf of bread is part of overhead, and lowballing is a brilliant way to get new customers and build a healthy business. But that isn’t healthy for anybody in this industry.
Ben Collinsworth's advice for aspiring contractors
When Ben Collinsworth started his company in 2001, social media and YouTube didn't exist, and good websites and blogs were scarce. He read industry magazines like Green Industry Pros, reached out to respected business consultants and fellow contractors he'd read about in various magazines, joined associations, and attended conferences and seminars.
Ben does those same things today as he continues to evolve as a company owner and leader. He supplements his research with plenty of online resources that have become prevalent over the past few years. He says today's aspiring contractors should do the same. "In today's digital world," Ben says, "the resources for good, free advice and content are almost endless. You just need to know where to look. You need to know that the people you're hearing from are credible—that they've had success in this business."
Here's where Ben says today's young, up-and-coming contractors can look online.
Google top landscape companies. Do a simple google search for top landscape companies in your city and state. Reach out to them. As competitive as this business is, many landscape company owners are good people who deeply care about this profession. They want to mentor and help when they can.
Blogs. Ben's company, Native Land Design, is one of many that have started keeping a regular blog. They write about a variety of topics, from more technical issues to basic business concepts like customer service. You can pick up some great tips from successful companies. Ben himself continues to read several of his peers' blogs. He points to High Grove Partners in Georgia and Schill Grounds Management in Ohio as a couple of examples. Look around when researching top landscaping companies in your area to see what you find in the way of good blogs. You could also follow these companies on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn since you'll find many of them there.
Proven consultants. There are many, many business consultants serving the landscaping industry. Most have a solid online presence with a website and active social media presence. Ben says two guys that immediately come to mind as solid, credible resources are Tony Bass of Super Lawn Trucks and Mike Rorie of Go iLawn. Both Tony and Mike built and sold very lucrative landscaping businesses. Now they continue to work in the industry and spend a lot of time mentoring other contractors.
There are many other places where knowledge-hungry contractors can go for advice and information. Of course, you should subscribe to credible industry e-newsletters such as our Pro Report, which we send out twice a week. You can follow us and other publications on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Back on the topic of YouTube, there are likely some really good, well-intentioned contractors who have some great advice to share based on great business and life experiences. Just do what you can to vet them before taking what they say too much to heart.