Even Obvious Assumptions Can Be Wrong

It seemed like a no-brainer. We saved them 35% and gave them more time and flexibility than ever before. Here's why they said "no."

The product launched to the public and people across the country immediately started downloading the app! New customers kept coming in through word of mouth and press, and more and more jobs were completed every week.

We thought we were off to a good start. Our first market was performing well and it was time to begin planning to release in a new one except... well, first let me give you a little backstory.

The Product Our Users Loved

The company we were building was called Block. It was an on-demand lawn care startup providing quick and easy access to lawn care with no annual contract and amazing customer support. My co-founder and I had started it just four months prior.

Like most naive first-time founders, we had a good feeling that this was going to work out because we had a few aces up our sleeves.

  1. Simple Services — We kept things simple. Just four services: mowing, weed eating, edging and blowing. It provided us multiple advantages, the greatest of which was not having to license every service provider for services such as fertilization which are highly regulated.
  2. Partial Service — Mowing was required, but if they didn't want weed eating, edging or blowing, they didn't have to select those. This opened up an entirely new market of customers who wouldn't ordinarily pay for lawn care services because more established, traditional lawn care companies, "won't stop the truck for less than $500."
  3. Dynamic Pricing — We allowed our customers to map their yard on their smart phone using a satellite view and their finger. This provided accurate lot square footage that would be run through our pricing algorithm to generate a price per service for the job in such a way that we would hedge our bets if the yard was unusually complicated while not charging as much as the incumbents.
  4. W3 Employees — We hired our service providers as W2 employees. Yep, that's right. The entire industry ran on contractors and W2 employees was considered foolish and risky. But it was a massive advantage.

Not only did it allow us to control the brand, the quality of service and limit client-poaching, it allowed us to provide significant benefit to our service providers.

The "No-Brainer" Value Proposition

No, we didn't provide them with benefits. At least not in the traditional sense of medical, 401(k) contributions and PTO. We provided them with back-office technological advantages that allowed them to effectively eliminate their admin time, reduce risk and improve the efficiency of their time in the field.

  • bookkeeping
  • client acquisition
  • quoting
  • route setting
  • scheduling
  • customer support
  • accounts receivable

All gone. Just mow and earn.

Additionally, if they couldn't take a job due to a vacation, family emergency or broken equipment, we had a team of others who could step in and take care of it. This meant customers only had jobs rescheduled due to weather and our service providers had a more forgiving schedule.

We ran the numbers a thousand times with folks smarter than us and when it was all said and done, we saved our employees around 35% compared to running their own lawn care business. And that's just the financial benefits. Our ultimate goal was to provide them with intangible benefits as well. Time with their family in the evening. Reduced stress. And a supportive workplace that championed them and helped them succeed.

So far so good, right?

The Missing Pages of our Playbook

When we launched in April of 2019 and saw the uptick in customers and the 5-star reviews, we thought we had found the recipe for success! Early customers became regulars and regulars became loyal patrons. But then we began planning for expansion to new markets.

We put together a new market playbook detailing early wins for market penetration, beachheads, and growth strategy. One gap in the playbook that we found difficult to fill was hiring.

When we started out, we had hired our first eight service providers to get things up and running through word of mouth and local networks, but we soon began to see turnover. Some people got better jobs or moved out of town. Others had to be let go. And it became more and more difficult to find folks who could fill the gaps, much less scale our capacity. We couldn't figure it out - we had the pitch nailed, the value prop was enormous, the recruiting funnel was in place and still... crickets.

The Conversation & Revelation

It wasn't until one day when we were interviewing a prospective hire that we finally figured it out. He said, "I like the tech, but I don't know if I want to come work for y'all. If it was an app I could use for my business, I'd pay for that."

The unfortunate reality was that, while we had spent time talking to our customers (the homeowners), we had not spent any time talking to our prospective employees (the service providers). Did they even want to work for a company like ours? Was the benefit we were providing worth shelving their own entrepreneurial dreams?

We had no idea, because we never asked.

In our minds, it seemed like a no-brainer - we saved them 35% every year! That's more money in their pocket and more time with their family. The pitch was clear and the value was huge so they should be flocking to us.

That one conversation sparked the realization that we had built something that looked great on paper but didn't hold up in the pressure chamber of reality. We were fighting against the internal forces of pride, autonomy and respect that comes with owning your own business.

When it comes to value propositions, even the seemingly obvious ones can fall flat because decisions aren't always logical or even rational. Sometimes they are made from the gut instead of the head.

There are a million articles written about talking to your customers in the journey toward product-market fit and we had read them all. We interviewed homeowners, gathered poll data and had spreadsheets and pivot tables to prove it. We simply didn't equate our employees as a set of users in our two-sided marketplace.

Don't Make our Mistake

Don't make the mistake of leaving out a subset of users in your conversations, even if it seems like that subset is a shoe-in. What they say might just surprise you.

Thankfully, that wasn't the end, because immediately after telling us he didn't want to work for us, he served up the answer on a silver plater. "If it was an app I could use for my business, I'd pay for that."

It was time to pivot.