Having worked at Dulwich Garden Centre part time for two years, it seemed natural to turn the knowledge I had gained into something more financially productive. The pay as a sales assistant is £60 a day, whilst working self-employed as a landscape gardener in London you can expect at least £120 a day. I had been advising customers on how to lay turf, choose plants & compost amongst a multitude of things, if I was telling them how to do it, surely I should be able to do it myself!
There were numerous challenges and questions to be answered when I decided to start the business. The main challenge, as with any business, is how to attract your business and ensure that your customers are satisfied with your work to the point that they would recommend you. A reliable and efficient workforce is also a necessity, and relevant given this case study relates to running a business whilst at university and the benefits of student labour.
The garden centre provided the ideal solution for attracting business; I was fortunate to be able to negotiate a deal with the owner whereby I would purchase all my supplies through him at a vastly reduced price, in return I was allowed to use his brand and logo, and with it the garden centre's reputation. In addition, he would forward all landscaping enquiries made to the garden centre to me. Arguably, this deal is the only reason the business succeeded as well as it did. The leads generated by the garden centre lead me to having to recruit four people within a month to stay on top of all the jobs that were coming in. Within two months the business was generating leads on its own back through word of mouth recommendations.
At the business' zenith in its first summer, it was employing eight gardeners/labourers and two builders - that's in a time frame of about four months. This rapid expansion was only possible because the work force was almost entirely made up of students looking for work over the summer break. If I had not been able to recruit so many friends & friends of friends, the business would not have made anywhere near as much money as it did that year. Young, energetic, quick learning staff with relatively low pay expectations (at £8 per hour they were happy, and I was very happy not to be paying £15+ an hour for a trained gardener) not only meant that we were completing jobs faster than our competitors as well as doing a better job, but meant that I was able to reinvest a substantial amount into a vast array of new tools, uniforms and advertising.
Use of student labour also enabled me to cut back on other costs. The example that springs instantly to the forefront of my mind is transport. I do not own any kind of vehicle, and whilst it was a necessity for some jobs to hire a vehicle, the majority of the time all our tools and equipment were transported on public transport or on the back of bikes (not the motorised kind). This lead to some hilarious scenes, I distinctly remember a few of us getting on a bus with an assortment of tools, including a petrol chainsaw, pickaxe and sledgehammer. We got away with it only because we were students, I highly doubt a group of 30 year-olds would've had the same luck!
My decision to leave London and study in Manchester effectively ended the business as a full time venture, but I still return every summer, with pretty much the same team as the start, and we get started where we left off.
Students are cheap, absorbant (three of my team went on to work at the garden centre - the gardening knowledge they had picked up in just one summer of landscaping was judged to be sufficient - doing the job teaches you 10 times better than being taught from a book), and if you pick the right ones, passionate about proving themselves, ergo they will leave the lawn looking as green as the day it was laid. The minimum wage is acceptable to most students: anything above £8 an hour is a job worth their weight in gold to stay in - take advantage of it!
Look out for the opportunities that are staring you in the face. It took me some time to realise that I should be doing the landscaping not telling people how to do it. When you think you have found that opportunity, go at it with your foot to the floor, try not to invest too much at the start (unless of course you have the cash to burn - I spent £150 on basic tools to start), and utilize every relationship you have to get the best for your business, although at the same time always make sure that the deals you strike are fair, and both parties gain. No-one likes being ripped off!
Follow Tom on Twitter @riesgo1
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