My eight lessons of business: it’s all about grass cutting

I think I have always wanted to go into business. I want to hand something quantifiable to my children. All their good behaviours come from their Mum, so therefore I’ve resigned myself to revenue generation to secure their safe financial future.

Unlike esteemed experienced colleagues I have never owned a pharmacy, a chip shop or even a shoe shop. Does this make me less qualified to have a go? You be the judge.

This story is about cutting grass.

Dad took pride in our family home. His pride extended to the lawn. If you are a lawnmower snob like me you will agree that the finest, closet and neatest cut is achieved with a cylinder mower. Rotary mowers are coarse and are rather crude. Unlike the cylinder mower, the blades in the rotary models don’t move past a static blade. Hence the cut is less precise, less controlled especially when the blades age even a little.

This was my first lesson of grass cutting.

I have two older brothers, so throughout childhood there was the inevitable clichéd inferiority complex at play. I was coming at everything third time around, so nothing was quite so exciting when I did it. However, I thought perhaps I could see a gap with grass cutting. Neither brother was particularly interested, so really out of competitive necessity I took a keen interest. My activity whilst the grass was being cut moved swiftly from complete ambivalence to active watching. This culminated in asking for ‘a shot’.

Dad must have thought I didn’t have the required competence to not completely ruin the years of manicuring. To be honest I wasn’t surprised. I was only 13 after all. I didn’t give up though.

This was my first business lesson and probably the most important of all. Never give up.

I licked my wounds from this opening salvo and regrouped. I came up with a proposition but needed to make sure Dad was in the best possible frame of mind to receive this play. For the next few weeks I became Limavady’s chief grass collector. I took a keen interest in all things lawn-related. I’m sure I bought a book about it.

I made my play on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I went the whole nine yards and declared: “Dad I think I’m old enough to cut the grass.”

Pause.

Dad: “No you’re not.”

This was my second business lesson. Getting someone’s buy-in or selling your ideas to key stakeholders is critical. If you can’t sell in business you will go precisely nowhere.

I changed tack. Over tea that night, after doing the dishes unprompted and after fetching Mum a cup of tea, I gently suggested that I think Dad could do with a hand cutting the grass. He works so hard during the week, “I just want to help, I feel for him,” I said. Mum agreed and said she would speak to him for me.

This was my third lesson in business. Achieving a sale or getting buy-in often involves influencing those around about the person you are actually selling to. Stakeholder management is an art.

The following week I tried again. Dad said yes, but there were conditions. He must be in the garden when I was using the mower, I had to prove I could drive the self-propelled cylinder bladed machine, and finally I was not allowed to do the edges. They were tricky he said. So I proved myself, I think, a worthy apprentice.

This carried on for a few weeks, and on reflection I realised that Dad actually enjoyed cutting the grass. By letting me do it he was not only taking a risk on his high-end lawn, but he was also losing his summertime weekly pleasure of grass cutting. It occurred to me that perhaps I needed practise. It would be great after all to disappear on a grass cutting sabbatical and return skilled up, to tackle the edges. Maybe then I would be good enough. I decided to ask Dad if I could perhaps borrow his mower to cut some of our neighbours grass.

These were my 4th and 5th lessons in business. People only ever do things for you if either they benefit in some way, or if they want to avoid penalty or jeopardy. There was no benefit to my Dad or to me in the current arrangement, but practising on the neighbours lawns was a risk he was obviously willing to take.

Poker-faced perhaps he was rubbing his hands thinking what a mess I would make of their edges — they were his competition in this quiet, subversive game of garden warfare. He benefitted by recovering his weekly grass cutting routine for himself and also avoided the jeopardy of letting me loose on his lawn. The 5th lesson was that there will always be barriers, but in business there has to be an answer. Finding that answer can be the difference between profit and loss: success or failure.

He agreed to the loan of the mower and over the course of the next few years I dominated the Shanreagh Park grass cutting service sector. At its peak, my empire had nine gardens on the go. Outwith term time this was easy and enjoyable, but during term time this was very hard work.

This was the 6th lesson of business — it’s hard. If it gets really hard that’s exactly when you need to keep going. When no-one else believes. Keep going.

My pricing structure was simple: £5 for a cut, and £2.50 for a strim. My core product was good because I had a cyclinder mower, not a rotary so trading up wasn’t too hard. I tried to convince Dad to buy a petrol strimmer because faffing with the electric leads was time-consuming. He didn’t go for it this time. To be fair there was no benefit to him in buying a petrol strimmer.

The 7th lesson in business: make sure your core product is sound before you try to up sell. I benefitted here due to my Dad’s excellent taste/judgement in lawn mowers.

There were over 40 houses in Shanreagh park and I had nine of them signed up. I was more or less sure that this was the maximum revenue possible from this activity. In my third summer of Lawns Ltd. I was under financial pressure of a kind, as there was a mountain bike that I really wanted. My sales would not be good enough in the remaining few months of the season so I attempted to diversify.

This was my 8th lesson in business. Make ‘change’ become your friend and embrace it. In this case change took the form of diversifying into other areas of revenue generation like cat sitting, babysitting and hedge cutting. I actually secured a wooden garden fence contract too.

So I bought my bike and that same bike is sitting in my garage in Turriff to this day. Bits have been replaced, but the core bike remains and serves as a memory to those early lessons learned. Pharmacy in Practice, which I now own and run with my esteemed shoe shop, pharmacy, chip shop veteran business partner Ross, is doing well and I am ever grateful for this fact.

I do find it amusing and a little nostalgic that the issues I faced back then as a teenager have returned. I have experienced most of those eight lessons in the last few weeks. A pleasant side effect is that I am happier in my own skin than I have been for years.

The corporate life may be a necessity again in the future and I would never rule it out, but trying to avoid it doesn’t half serve to motivate. To be clear, that is no slight on my previous employer, I just think I never fitted the required mould and completely naively I thought I could change things for pharmacy in some small way. I prefer to make my own mould and be happy in it and serve my profession as well as patients as I go.

I would like to create the grown up equivalent of the mountain bike I earned and bought back then. It is an important goal to work towards giving this to my kids. Hopefully I can find some way to teach my kids these eight lessons in the future like my Dad cleverly did all those years ago without them ever realising.

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