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Tree Work Now

A Classic American Tale of Bootstrapping Entrepreneurship

Launching with no capital in a desperate attempt to battle my wife's Lyme Disease, here's our story of building a leading Orlando tree service company with lots of determination and...mistakes.

Evan Keller
Our story is told by our
Founder & CEO,
Evan Keller.

Coming Unglued

      Stealing a rare hour away from the chaos of my life as a new entrepreneur, I slipped my kayak into the peaceful Wekiva River. But on the inside, there was a distinct lack of peace. Normally level headed, I was roiling with emotions that, as a man, I didn't know I had. My voice cut through the thick silence of that spring-fed waterway - "Help! I'm going to explode here." If not for the word "explode," any paddlers in earshot would've connected that desperate shout to an attack from one of the many 10-foot gators lurking under the tannin-darkened waters. At that point, facing a single, simple- minded mouthful of teeth would've almost been preferred over the complex array of challenges that took chunks out of me all day, every day. My life was being pulled apart by the jaws of barely making payroll, customers who refused to pay for no reason, employees whose existence seemed hell-bent on my destruction, daily breakdowns of expensive heavy equipment, the constant whipping to and fro of the cell phone ring, the grind of 18-hour workdays and job sites on which there were sundry ways to die. And this was after I had crew chiefs in place and no longer spent long days in the hot sun lugging logs, dragging brush piles and climbing trees. (One day my vision had blacked out from heat exhaustion.) What had I gotten myself into?

      Yet concurrent with all this chaos was a deep sense of satisfaction in this new venture I had birthed, the dozen jobs I had created and sustained in one of Florida's poorer counties and the new sense of connectedness to (and corresponding influence in) my community. Having been an art major, I was surprised that business was such a fertile venue for creativity and that it could be such a force for good in the community. I also marveled at how business had changed me: I aged 10 years in the first three, developed pretty thick skin and discovered some latent talents. My overoptimism had been tempered by a minute-by-minute duel with Murphy's Law. I'd learned about people - surprised by their immense kindness and thinly-veiled evil. I'd learned that bootstrapping forces you to be profitable from day one and provides a greater sense of accomplishment. Even though vertically challenged, I need not be intimidated by anyone.

The Heart-to-Heart that Changed My Life

      I never imagined I'd be in this boat. As a mid-level manager 19 years into a career with a national nonprofit, I thought I'd be in that great organization through to retirement - until my wife sat me down for a serious talk in November of 2005. Her six-year struggle with Lyme disease and chronic fatigue had her housebound and in despair of ever living a normal life again. The non-profit salary wasn't enough to allow her to try the expensive alternative treatments not covered by insurance.

      The medical community was confused as to diagnosing and treating Lyme. Her doctor had actually denied her an initial round of antibiotics after her tick bite that would have prevented the onset of Lyme altogether. This illness has dashed our hopes of bearing or adopting children.

      Karen was desperate; I had to man-up and do something. Her parents had both died young of cancer and she had no other family. I was her only safety net. So I thought and prayed and started a business four days later. I thought I could make a little money on the side, not realizing that business sucks money out of you and consumes your whole life. I had no capital, no time, no business education, no expertise or experience in the industry I chose, except for a week's worth of volunteer tree work I'd done for Mississippi victims of Hurricane Katrina.

      I did have a determination to help my beloved wife of 13 years. She had been a nurse before her illness and had uncanny skill and passion in the kitchen. So I just went out and sold my smile, knocking on doors after my nonprofit job each day and all day Saturdays. I had no equipment, no insurance, no employees, no business plan - just a failure-is-not-an-option determination to make it work. My first job was removing two pine trees for an acquaintance I'd played hoops with at the Y. Given my inexperience, I agreed to do the job for half the going rate. His risk paid off as his fence remained unscathed. Little did he know that I had looked up tree-felling techniques on the Internet the night before. Both of the borrowed chainsaws broke down on the job, and the borrowed 1974 Ford truck got stuck in the mud when filled with pine logs.

A Good Idea or...?

      It was a bad time to enter the tree service market: four hurricanes had swept through Central Florida the year before - both thinning out the trees and jump starting a whole slew of competitors. But what did I know? No one else was out knocking on doors, and my experience in nonprofit fund development had built up my boldness for pursuing leads and making the ask. The scrappiness I got from running the streets of inner city LA as a 10-year-old may have helped, along with an unshakable confidence instilled by a single mom who utterly believed in me.

      But were these scant resources enough? Our industry only meets two of Norm Brodsky's three criteria for entering a market with a new business. It's been around for 100-plus years (established market demand) and was antiquated in some way (professionalism, trustworthiness) but unfortunately for me, it doesn't have high gross margins. So I wouldn't be getting rich on this.

Mistake One: The Partner from Hell

      I made a slew of mistakes, such as taking on a partner I hardly knew who ended up making me angry every single day. In our eight months together I sold all but one job, handled all the bills, all the marketing, all the hiring, all the bookkeeping. I often had to literally get him out of bed in the morning, and he often left jobs for me to finish alone. He was a total deadbeat! I must be a horrid judge of character, because the employees I hired weren't much better. I had to fire 26 people in 2006 alone. Of course, it's slim pickin's - not many people seek out long hours in the hot sun in one of the most dangerous of all industries. One notable exception is Geoffrey Gill, a handsome Irishman who is simply a beast. With a striking accent, few words, a big heart and incredible strength, he worked circles around us all. Geoff became our first foreman, allowing me to focus on selling and working on, not in the business. Thankfully, over time our crew has stabilized with many talented, long-term employees.

Mistake Two: Nearsighted Branding

      I put our county name in the business name, not envisioning that we'd ever grow beyond it. I had to rebrand when expanding into Orlando. Good thing I did that before the recession, when many competitors went under because their target market had a narrow geographic scope.

Mistake Three: Not Guarding Against Crack Rock Litigants

      I tried out a new worker, planning to add him to the payroll after seeing if he had the right skills and work ethic. My delay negated his being covered by our Workers' Compensation policy when he fell out of a tree and broke his leg that first week. Of course, he sued my business and the insurance company. This began an 18-month headache for me, filled with depositions, court appearances, those dreaded certified letters and insomnia. At least I enjoyed giving a closing argument in which I chastised the defendant's lawyer for taking on such a frivolous case - since the employee tested positive for cocaine after his fall. (We won the case.)

      This reveals another mistake. Although we had a drug-free policy, we didn't do pre-employment drug testing, something we promptly corrected. With all these mistakes, how did we survive, much less become a regional industry leader within a few years? Well, I did two things right.

Doing Something Right: Chasing Leads Like There's No Tomorrow

      First, I made lead generation my top priority from day one, marketing the hell out of my business. Most of my competitors were bona fide tree experts. Still, it wasn't long before I had employees who knew the complicated tree rigging and roping techniques far better than I. Thankfully, I had the intuition to know that it's far more valuable to learn how to build a business than to be a great technician. You could have the world's best product, but without clients, you're dead in the water. So I focused my creative energy on drawing in a steady stream of customers in a variety of ways:

  • Building a strong brand
  • Installing sharp truck signs with
  • A memorable vanity toll free number (855-WE-PRUNE)
  • Building the best Google-optimized website in the industry
  • Requesting online reviews from our clients
  • Developing referral programs for clients and lawn care companies
  • Advertising everywhere from billboards to community newsletters to football field banners
      We won first place in a Christmas parade with our tree climbers hanging off the sides of our dump trucks. I tried everything (including guerrilla marketing), tracked what actually generated leads, then kept refining the strategy.

Doing Something Else Right: Wowing Clients Daily

      I gave clients a lot more than they expected from our industry. The key phrase in our vision statement is to "redefine the industry standard." It hasn't been hard - just answer your phone and show up on time with your shirt on, and clients are already exceedingly impressed. When they find out we're drug free, carry Workers' Comp, wear uniforms and safety gear, they nearly have cardiac arrest. And we refuse to take a penny until the job is completely finished and the client is completely satisfied, unlike the many companies clients have told us stories about - tree guys running off with a deposit, never to be seen again. A couple of times, we've created raving fans by not charging at all after failing a client.

      One situation in which tree guys tend to disappear is after heavy logs or equipment damages client homes, cars and driveways. To build trust with potential clients, I created our Property Promise, outlining steps to prevent and repair property damage.

      Speaking of client property, the best piece of advice I got when starting up: "Customers don't know whether or not you trimmed their tree properly, but they always know whether or not you left sticks on their lawn." This led to the tagline I coined and trademarked: "Every Detail. Every Time." Hopefully, that motto comes to mind when my employees face frequent opportunities to cut corners. Since they're being compared to us, our competitors have had to start cutting fewer corners just to stay in business. So all customers get better service whether or not they hire us. That makes me smile, since providing better solutions for people is a central purpose of business. Reshaping Expectations of our Industry.

      Well, eight years in, we're far from perfect - still improving all of these: cash flow for slow winter months, preventive equipment maintenance, safety practices, and overall efficiency. But we have come a long way, steadily growing each year, even through the recession. Although the bank owns most of them, we now have 25 pieces of heavy equipment (chippers, tractors, dump and bucket trucks) to make it easier on our people. In the early days, we carried or rolled thick logs by hand.

      With a strong and growing market share across Central Florida, we now wow over 2,000 clients annually, mobilizing three crews from two locations to serve seven counties. We service some of Orlando's largest hospitals, with commercial work on track to soon exceed our sizeable residential client base. With top Google rankings on our top three keyword searches, most of our estimate requests flow through our website, People want to hire us because of our reputation and because of the dozens of five-star reviews on sites like Google, and Home Advisor. We've endured the underhanded compliment of companies trying to siphon away our market share in a variety of ways, such as mimicking our name, tagline, and URL. We have a strong team, including a general manager, four salespeople, two office workers, a fulltime mechanic and 18 crew members. The employee turnover of the early years has been stemmed, and we have some really great people sharing the stress load of long days, equipment breakdowns, job site hazards and psycho clients. These days, I'm not even carrying the heaviest load in the company. My brother Dani is our general manager, certified arborist and minority owner. He keeps our operations running smoothly, while still outselling the other salesmen most months.

Leveraging Business as a Force for Good

      Because I can trust Dani to make decisions that are as good or better than mine, I'm now able to spend half my time where my strongest passion lies - in building the capacity of the poor, so they can better take care of their own families and communities. Business is the planet's best vehicle for doing so.

      My calling in life is to leverage my newly-honed, hard-won business skills to empower job creators in communities of high unemployment. Through Creating Jobs Inc., a nonprofit I started, many fellow entrepreneurs are now using their own business acumen to mentor entrepreneurs in Haiti and Honduras. After a Florida chamber of commerce approached Creating Jobs Inc., proposing a joint program to create local jobs, we're gearing up to launch two such business mentoring programs here in Central Florida. We currently serve 36 entrepreneurs in Haiti and Honduras, providing intensive individual mentoring on quarterly visits. In the context of long-term friendships, we coach them on every aspect of running a business, helping them to grow revenue, add jobs and serve their communities. Our mentoring is complemented by seminars I've developed on a dozen different topics, drawing on curriculum development and public speaking experience from my previous nonprofit gig.

      The early results have exceeded my expectations. For example, the 18 entrepreneurs we served in 2012 created 84 jobs that year, citing our recommendations as a key factor in that growth. Not bad in places labeled as the "Murder Capital of the World" and "Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere." To raise funds for our work, we launched an annual paddleboard and kayak race called Paddle Out Poverty (, with the first event drawing over 200 people, involving 100 sponsors, and raising $13,000.

      I remember being amazed at what a force for good (or ill) my business could be. Beyond treating employees and clients right, putting money back into the local economy, doing free or discounted work for nonprofits, Tree Work Now was instrumental in starting this unique nonprofit. It provided funding to get Creating Jobs Inc. off the ground, and allowed me to donate my time until a tiny executive director salary would fit in the budget.

The Lyme Disease Battle

      But what about Karen's Lyme disease, the whole reason I started the business? When I could finally draw a salary from the business, she was able to try different treatments, and has now regained much of her health. While she's still working hard on her recovery and has some really difficult days, she's now able to join me at the grocery store and on our tandem bicycle. Best of all, she's loving being creative in the kitchen, especially cooking for large groups of employees, Creating Jobs Inc. volunteers, family members, and friends from Haiti and Honduras. Maybe our next venture will be one together - a restaurant or a set of cookbooks! And we're able to get out to paddle together - with inner tranquility to match the outer peace of Florida's freshwater springs.

GrowBook - 24 Essential Drivers of Small Business SuccessSee Evan's book
on how to grow a
small business.

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