It can be too easy to write off landscaping and hardscaping as just a “service.” Something where a crew comes in, digs some holes, plants some bushes and lays some stones, and then leaves. But the outdoor space isn’t what it used to be. People are spending more and more time at home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such are investing more and more into their outdoor living spaces. And when you’re tasked with something as grand as that, you spend a lot of time on the design of the space. And make no mistake about it, the design of an outdoor space is art.
On this episode of Hardscape Growth, I talk with Dan Wasson. Dan is the owner and a landscape designer at Wasson Nursery. He and I spent this episode talking all about:
- Why landscape and hardscape design is art and should be treated as such
- Using Instagram as a way to highlight and showcase your work
- Why he prefers using 2-man teams for his projects, even the larger ones,
- How his business finally started charging customers for the design process and so much more.
Listen on your favorite app
Alex Cadieux 00:00
Hello, everybody and welcome to another episode of the Hardscape Growth show. Today we are joined by Dan Lawson, you may know him from Instagram as @The.Dan.Wasson or his company handle @WassonNursery once again on Instagram. Dan is here, we’re gonna talk about design. We’re gonna talk about hardscape business. And we’re gonna talk about a bunch of other stuff. How are you Dan?
Dan Wasson 00:26
I’m doing good. Thanks for having me.
Alex Cadieux 00:32
Thanks for joining us, I’m super excited to have you on. You do some awesome stuff with design. And I know that you take a really great pleasure in the design process. It’s something that’s personal and meaningful to you. So I’m excited to talk about that. And I’m also a fan of some of the things that you’re doing with your business. So I’m hoping that we can explore some of those things together for our listeners today.
Dan Wasson 00:54
Yeah, I’m happy to share, it’s a big community. And hopefully, the more sharing, the more we learn off each other, the better.
Alex Cadieux 01:06
That’s it, we can all learn, we can all grow and that’s what the show is all about. So Dan, you want to tell us a little bit about your background for those who don’t know you or maybe don’t know you well?
Dan Wasson 01:18
So my company was a nursery, my dad started that company and this could be a really long story but I went to college, I came back and dove into the business. I grew up kind of on the landscape crew. You know, my dad put me on landscape crew and I was slinging mulch and planting plants and laying pavers. That’s how I got my start. Then went to college, came back, then went into a sales position. And I always felt that it was much easier to sell and design when you have been on the crew for eight to 10 years and learned that way. I always joke with my wife, you know, I got street smarts and not necessarily book smarts, but I’m street smart you know, and that’s kind of an inside joke with me and my wife on things, but that’s enough! So started the sales position and we’ve grown it from there and we’ve had a lot of successes. We’ve gotten to where we are now, where we’re doing some really cool designs where we’re able to employ quite a bit of people and we’re having fun. We like what we do.
Alex Cadieux 03:11
Do you mind telling us a little bit about what the size of the company was when you were working on a crew to when you joined in a sales position to what it is today? I know, there’s the nursery. I know the construction side. Can you break it down a little bit for us?
Dan Wasson 03:29
Yeah so when we first started, when my dad first started the company, it was just, you know, him and a pickup truck and some buddies. And that’s how it started. And he was able to grow it and when I was able to get involved, it was one location probably 20 to 30 employees. It was a garden center and landscape design. And from there when I was able to really get involved we bought a second location and we’re able to kind of mirror the first location with a garden center landscape design and doubled the employees and you know, things grew and then we saw an opportunity in Fishers, Indiana, because, our first location is Union City, Indiana, went to Muncie, Indiana and now we got Fishers, Indiana, and that’s got a landscape design and garden center as well. Long story short, we went from my dad and a couple buddies starting to around 150 employees full and that’s May the peak season of garden center landscape design, full office staff. And we’ve been we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve got some great staff.
Alex Cadieux 04:59
I love it. That’s awesome. So with your experience, both in terms of years and the diversity of your experience, I’m sure you’ve encountered a lot of long standing beliefs in the industry. And I asked this question of almost everyone who’s been on the show so far. And I’m curious to know, what is something, either about landscape design, or hardscape design or the business itself that we’re all in, what is something that everyone seems to believe is true, that you passionately disagree with?
Dan Wasson 05:35
The industry, and I think outside looking in, discount us as far as like: Oh, you’re just a landscaper, it doesn’t cost that much to do that, or your time is not worth that much per hour. And you know, where I see it the most recently is in design. We have not always charged for designs, and the last four years, we’ve slowly evolved in having enough confidence to charge for those designs. And now that I see the design of the estimating process, even with my other designers behind the scenes, they put in a ton of time and that’s a big thing that when a customer asks you like: Hey, you know, it’s not a big deal, you can just erase this, or you can have the computer do this. It’s just not as easy as everyone thinks and we need to all realize we are landscape professionals, we’re hardscape professionals, and as an industry, you know we need to keep coming back to that. And when you’re in front of a client, you’ve got to sell it like, hey, you’re the professional, you’re not gonna go home and redesign this whole thing and erase it and do it all for free. And we used to do that and you know, people still do. And there’s value in that design, in that time and estimating, there is so much value that now looking back on how we used to do it, we spent hours on designs, and when we used to not charge for them, I’m like, man, how did we not think of that sooner?
Alex Cadieux 07:45
What was the tipping point? And I’m asking this, because almost everyone so far, has been talking about the importance of charging for designs, and how that’s been a game changer for them. I’m curious, like, what was the tipping point? What was the wake up call for you then like, this is enough, we need to start charging for this stuff?
Dan Wasson 08:04
I believe that, the biggest wake up call was, as we have grown, everything becomes more intricate. Back in the 80s, you know, patios were simple. It was just a patio, there weren’t a lot of options. It was just so simple. But as the more intricate our designs became, of course, then the more time in estimating and the more time in researching product and then if you get to the final showing of this design that you spent days and days and days on and then the customer says: Yeah, I don’t know. That was the wake up call as our designs got more intricate and not getting approvals on those, that was the change right there. Look at the amount of labor when you’ve got two or three guys estimating and designing. Look, the amount of labor is getting expensed. But you’re not able to bill it out. And, and it’s a big number.
Alex Cadieux 09:15
What’s the alternative to recovering that cost? Like you charge it to the next customer that sign with you? And you may not be as competitive? It’s difficult to make it back up.
Dan Wasson 09:28
Yeah. And now we’re able to say all right, you know, we have some tears and we’re able to say: Alright, this is going to cost you 1000 bucks or whatever, 500 bucks or $2,000, whatever the scope is, of what we feel like the design is, and at least we put that out there right away. And it does, I’m sure a lot of your other interviewees say this, it does help qualify.
Alex Cadieux 09:58
Absolutely it’s part of that pre-qualification. But the importance of pre-qualification, and this is something that’s come up a lot as well, is predicated on the fact that you have too many leads coming in, you’re in so much demand that you need to now be selective. Was that kind of, because we talked about a tipping point, you didn’t pinpoint a specific moment but was there, like a point where it was just like, there’s just too much demand, we’re spending too much on these designs, we’re not getting paid for it, I can’t keep up because now I have unhappy customers who aren’t getting the designs on time? All those things come together.
Dan Wasson 10:45
Yeah, I didn’t elaborate much on the tipping point, that’s part of the tipping point when we weren’t charging. All those things hit us at once, you’re not charging, you’ve got everyone, you know, it’s May, it’s primetime. Everyone’s calling you at once, and they want their design right now. And, you end up making a bunch of people mad and you haven’t done the work yet. That’s the worst thing. That’s a side note we can talk about on another podcast is try not to piss people off before you’ve even done the work. The design team helps set expectations and going back to our first question, that’s a huge piece that our industry needs to realize that those designs are worth something and they’re art. To us they’re artwork. We spend a lot of time, we create some beautiful designs, and they’re artwork, and they need to be treated as such.
Alex Cadieux 13:18
I know that design is an important part of your business. And you mentioned the art form, that’s how you view it. It’s not just a function of doing the work. I know, even on your personal account, you have some beautiful photography that you do. And I think your mom was either a painter or an art teacher or something like that. So you come with that background. Is that what made such an important part of the identity of your company? Was that intentional or did it just kind of happen?
Dan Wasson 13:54
You know, I think it was not intentional. My mom’s an artist. She does a lot of landscape painting. I mean, that’s her. She doesn’t do portraits. She does Indiana landscapes. So I think it’s shaped me as far as looking at everything when we design. To me, landscape design is not, you know, looking at it, like from a from an architect’s point of view, even though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just, we approach it from an art perspective. And if you ever see me on Instagram talk with Britt, one of my other designers, he used to be an art teacher. So there’s a big influence of art in our designs. I was trying to figure out how to explain this to you if we ever got to this point and with design, when you’re designing someone’s living space, it’s weird, I can look at something, and when Britt’s designing or José one of our other designers, when they’re designing something, I can look at it, and I can say: Alright guys, that works, that looks good, but something doesn’t feel right. And, you know, it’s hard to explain design, but there’s a feeling. And that’s the way we all kind of approach it is, the feeling of it, just something feeling right, feeling not right. That’s where we come across with design. That’s what we tell our clients, we’re coming at this from an art perspective. That’s our first approach. And then, once we get the art of the design, we start working on some usability and making sure that that it flows and it works. It’s so hard to describe and teach design. It’s almost like you either have it or you don’t type of thing. And I’ve been lucky I grew up in it.
Alex Cadieux 16:25
What would you say to somebody who feels like they don’t have it? What should they do?
Dan Wasson 16:32
I think that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and that’s where when you’re hiring, and when you’re looking to expand your company, you need to hire people who are really good at the things that you’re not. Building a complete the team. Hire people that are smarter than you. And, you know, I know a lot of companies that the owners don’t design, they’ve hired this awesome designer and sales rep, that does it for you. So if you don’t design, I think the first step is you’re obviously not a designer, so you’re probably good at something else in the business. You gotta find the vision. That’s where I would start if you’re not into design, you got to find someone who is.
Alex Cadieux 17:27
That doesn’t need to be a full time employee necessarily. If you’re not ready for that, there are countless super talented landscape designers that can work with you on contract that you can bring on specific consultations, and then see where that takes you as well.
Dan Wasson 17:46
Oh, all across Instagram and all across all this stay-at-home environment that has increased this of people working from home, on contract. You can find really creative people on I can’t remember some of the apps but that are able to hire them and work through through the web even. I think there’s there’s tons of avenues.
Alex Cadieux 18:18
That’s something you guys do too but that’s okay, too, because you have that team, and you have that strength within your organization. And that’s what you’re leveraging to give yourself a competitive advantage and carve out a very clear identity for your business. Shifting a little bit away from design and just talking about the business as a whole. Is there something that you feel, and I know that you talk with a lot of other contractors, and that’s one of the reasons why you’re on the show because you’re kind of an open book with this stuff, is there something that you feel that everyone is trying to do that maybe you figured a way out?
Dan Wasson 19:00
There’s tons of stuff. I would say like the biggest thing that everyone’s trying and we’re doing really well is you know, I’m a big fan of the of the of the two man team. And this goes away from a design, this is more maybe more of a production talk, but I know all my big projects, like all the ones I’m putting on Instagram, it could be $180,000, they start with two men.
Alex Cadieux 19:42
What’s the process? How do you throw two guys at these pretty substantial projects? They’re not like massive estates, but they’re not little 10 by 10 patios either. These are pretty decent projects with some pretty good detail and a lot of features: pools, outdoor kitchens, water features, fire features, sitting areas, like they’re complete landscapes. And two people are executing them?
Dan Wasson 20:07
Yeah. I’ll do my best to describe this, but you know, day one on the job, Oscar and Juan, they’re going to go to this job and their first step is they’re going to paint it out, they’re going to lay it out, they’re going to follow the drawing, the designer’s out there with them on day one, we’re getting situated with the space. They’re starting to mark out their, you know, everything that needs marked out, and we start with excavation, but that’s where I feel like a lot of companies aren’t looking at the numbers with their labor hours. You can do these big projects with two guys if you’re geared right and I feel like another part of what makes us successful is all my product is here. When I say here, they’re at my shop. All those guys only focus is to work on this job. They’re not going to Home Depot getting parts, they’re not going somewhere else to pick skids up. I’ve got every like right now there are skids and skids and skids of Techo-Bloc out here.
Alex Cadieux 21:22
Everything is staged, it’s ready,
Dan Wasson 21:24
Ready to go. And when they’re ready, for example, like if you’ve got multiple steps, and different things that go first, you’re gonna see your walls and your steps first, you know? Well, Oscar knows. He’s like, Alright, I’m gonna take those steps first. They’re not sorting through them on the job site, and most homeowners job sites, now we all know we see these big estates, but most homeowners job sites can’t handle 80 pallets of stone. So now Oscar, now remember, it’s just two guys, when they’re ready for their steps, they’re taking those individually. Because why would you transport from job site to shop or from shop to job site with an empty truck? You need to be efficient, and it needs to be filled with something every time. The truck is always full. You’re going there. Don’t waste it. So all these are just little efficiencies that make two men successful.
Alex Cadieux 22:30
I love it. Tell me about like on the excavation site because we were going through, we did a layout together with the designer making sure everything’s in the right spot, we get into excavation, so what do you got, like one guy in the excavator? One guy with a laser level making sure grades are good. Is that the deal?
Dan Wasson 22:44
Yep. One guy’s in the excavator one guy’s using a laser. Any more than that and someone’s holding up a shovel. I mean, that’s how it is in the end. And these guys, they’re also given target hours too so looking at it from their point of view, they don’t want they don’t want another guy or another two guys messing with their target hours.
Alex Cadieux 23:16
Target hours means that you’ve established the output per production hour for a given task. Is that what you mean?
Dan Wasson 23:22
Yes, like target hours would be like: Oscar, this job, you’ve got 420 hours. This is the goal. You’ve got to show these guys what winning is. If they don’t have a target hour, then what’s it matter when it gets done? We’ve got jobs for days right now and we need that job done so we start the next one. But back to back these two man crews. I’ve got several two man crews. So all they do is hardscape. That’s all Oscar does. Oscar does all the hardscape.
Alex Cadieux 24:13
So he becomes very specialized, very efficient. There’s not a lot of there’s a lot of guesswork, like oh, today we’re doing this thing and I’ve never done that before. He’s everyday grinding out hardscapes.
Dan Wasson 24:23
Yeah, he’s on the Smith job every day until that hardscape is done. And then what he does is he goes to the next hardscape job and then the landscape crew comes in and finishes, cleans it up, puts the plants in, they put the lighting in and and they finish the job out well while Oscar has went ahead and started the next hardscape job and I’ve got four hardscape crews. And that’s all they do, two man teams. Boom, boom, boom, they go to the next one, go to the next one. Go to the next one. Now when Oscar is ready at some points, if the patio is simpler, if, for example, it’s a 2000 square foot patio of three piece, he’ll say: Hey, can I have a couple extra helpers to just lay the patio and let’s get that portion done? So that’s where the guys are efficient of knowing when to ask for help and knowing when to say hey, I got this, this is good. The system works. And also, you’ve got to look at how to run your business too like, if you’ve got success in a super crew, then that’s your deal. It’s just that we found a way to to do it with two men that works. And it also probably we’ve got quite a bit of shop area, that we’re able to stage everything for the job.
Alex Cadieux 25:55
I could anticipate that being a logistical challenge if you’ve got multiple small crews all going in at the same time you need a whole dispatch.
Dan Wasson 26:03
I’ve got room for all the stone, I have all the lighting, I have all the mulch, the topsoil, everything for that job is here. And it’s staged, and it’s a lot of work to get it there. But when it when it works, it works really well.
Alex Cadieux 26:21
Is there a failure or something that you experienced in your life that you would shoot out almost like as a warning signal for people or maybe you see a lot of people heading in that direction and if you can warn them like, oh, I’ve been there, you don’t want to go that way? Any advice like that?
Dan Wasson 26:41
There’s several. As a business, I’ll be honest, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and the key is that you learn from them and hopefully you don’t make the same mistakes over and over and over again. I would say if I was to pinpoint a few of these, and there’s just not one, there’s many, one not charging enough for material and labor. I see a lot of guys, you’ve got to mark the material up too. You’re gonna have to go back and fix something and it’s not just all about labor, it’s the material is worth something too. Everything here, whether it’s a tube of glue, or ton of 53s or whatever is marked up. You have to run that into your profit. It’s part of it. It’s not just labor, you can’t just charge cost on material and hope to make it all off the labor.
Alex Cadieux 27:49
My thought on that, if I may, is that there’s a liability associated to you doing the estimate of that material. You have to order that material, you have to pay for that material obviously, you have to handle it, if your quantities are off, you have to address those. So because there is that extra risk factor associated to it, there is a justification to marking it up, because profit is the reward for risk. And if you’re responsible for calculating materials, ordering the materials, handling the materials, then there is risk involved, therefore you deserve a percentage of profit. Do you agree with that?
Dan Wasson 28:31
As the contractor you bear the burden, if that product comes in, and it was a lot of work to unload it, you’ve got it staged, you get it out to the jobsite, that’s a burden on you that you’re not putting all that in the estimate when you’re making the estimate. So you’ve got to recoup some of that somewhere. And that’s in the material. As the contractor the burden is on you to do that. The homeowner isn’t going to care if you order something and it comes in wrong or it’s mislabeled, and you have to spend your own time and get it again.
Alex Cadieux 29:15
That’s right, you don’t get compensated for that.
Dan Wasson 29:16
So it’s important. You need them.
Alex Cadieux 29:22
So if you’re not marking up materials, your advice is: Stop doing that. Start marking them up. How much are you marking it up? I guess it depends per material?
Dan Wasson 29:33
Yeah, I mean, it depends. We have different percentages on everything.
Alex Cadieux 29:39
What’s a range? Just for guys who aren’t doing this or maybe want to know what’s a smart idea.
Dan Wasson 29:45
I would say, like some of our stuff at a minimum is 30%, at a minimum, that’s on the lower scale up to you know, 120%. But it’s not like 120% on pavers, you can’t do that. You got to look at different items that make sense. And they’re gonna fall within different categories.
Alex Cadieux 30:19
So for example would soft goods, or live goods like plants, trees, things like that, things are more vulnerable to the conditions in transport on site staging and even in the 90 days, 365 days after planting, where they’re still vulnerable. Are those the things you would mark up higher than things that can’t die, basically?
Dan Wasson 30:36
100% you hit the nail on the head, if it’s gonna die, it’s getting a huge markup. I mean, that’s the easiest way to put it. A pallet of brick is good, it’s not gonna die if you don’t water it. So I don’t want ever all these guys to hear this and say: Man, I’m going to mark this pallet of brick up 200%. Yeah, not the best idea. There’s a lot of products out there that have an unknown value. And just because drainage tile per foot is like 20 cents per foot doesn’t mean you have to charge 40 cents per foot, there’s unknown value.
Alex Cadieux 31:24
It’s not being unfair to the customer or gouging them. Right? You’re establishing the value for the project, fee to execute the project and you deserve to be compensated for the expertise, experience, the hard work, all of those things.
Dan Wasson 31:40
There’s unknown value. You’re not misleading them in any way. It’s part of doing business.
Alex Cadieux 31:55
Okay, I got another one for you. And I think this is a good one. What is a resource, or channel or tool that is not used enough? Or not used properly in your opinion?
Dan Wasson 32:12
I mean in our space, I was thinking about this question a lot, and I need to do a better job at it too, but mentors and coaches are I think are an essential piece, and I wish I would have done this a long time ago, but there are several clients that have become kind of mentors to me, that have guided me.
Alex Cadieux 32:40
Clients have become mentors to you.
Dan Wasson 32:42
Oh, yeah I mean I’ve done some amazing project with some guys and they’ve just been able to mentor me, I became good friends with them after the job.
Alex Cadieux 32:59
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from those people, what’s something that maybe stands out from, it’s a great example of why a mentor or a coach, at any stage of your career, at any stage of your life is worth it?
Dan Wasson 33:15
One client, and this has really helped us out with selling and designing is he was really big on saying: Hey, if you don’t know how to do something, Dan, you need to kind of lie and you need to say, I’ll figure it out. You know you’re gonna figure it out. And this was real, when I was really young, I would be selling something and I wouldn’t put it into design because I didn’t know how to do it, and his philosophy was the answer is always Yes. That’s what he would always say. If someone asked you if you can do that, the answer is yes, and that was a big push to me to get outside of the comfort zone, you’re gonna figure it out, and we still work for him today. He’s a great resource for me and every once a while, I’ll call him with questions but his big thing was, it was kind of funnny, you got to lie. The answer is always Yes. If you don’t know how to do it, don’t tell them that. You’re gonna figure it out. Do it. The answer is yes.
Alex Cadieux 34:24
I was talking with Alex from Oasis, Alex and Danny were on the show. He said something very similar. I think he said: Commit, and then get creative.
Dan Wasson 34:38
Yeah, I really like that. That’s actually the best way to put it. It’s probably sounds better that way than when I did it.
Alex Cadieux 34:46
Yeah, it definitely sounds like it goes on a poster or something. What did he do for a living that that was his advice?
Dan Wasson 34:49
His company was disaster insurance. So if there was a hurricane, his company would go down and create estimates for all the damage. That’s where, you know, lying to him came from because when he first started, he had no insurance agents. So when he would go down there, he would have to make up names of all the insurance adjusters because he didn’t have any, it was just him. And he went around adjusting all these things and it was just him. But he created this huge company, a huge company from that moment. That was a good moment for me that he passed on. I was still trying to figure my way out and I wasn’t doing these big designs yet. And he’s like: Bud, you got to lie to them. You can do it. The answer is always Yes. And then you go home and you figure it out. And that’s what we’ve done. We didn’t start off doing these $180,000 projects. We started off doing a 10 by 10 patio, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Alex Cadieux 36:23
I love it. I think that’s a great place to end this episode. That’s a fantastic piece of advice. Honestly, you’ve been full of fantastic advice. This has been super interesting. And I hope our listeners got as much out of it as I did. Just that two man crew thing. Like it totally makes sense. Especially considering if you’re doing just the hardscape side. I really like that idea. Because like the excavation really only need two guys. The grading and installation of base. You know, one guy the machine one guy spreading and then if you need two guys compacting okay, two guys compacting. What do you want to do more than that? And then if you can stage materials properly with the right equipment, you don’t really need more than two guys for laying until unless you said like it is a giant surface, in which case bring the other crew and I think that’s really smart.
Dan Wasson 37:25
I had another note too that I wrote down which I think is important. I see a lot of guys, not a lot of guys, it’s a failure I’ve had too, it’s not going 100% in the relation of design and sales. When someone’s in the mood to buy, they’re in the mood to buy and where we have failed at that before is only offering plants and patio. This was our past and not realizing that when they’re looking at that design, they’re getting ready to buy. They’re in the mood to buy more. There’s more to offer. So for example, landscape lighting. Every job whether they ask for it or not, gets landscape lighting. It’s already in the quote.
Alex Cadieux 39:47
Why not? That’s when people spend most of the time outside in your backyard at night. They need lights.
Dan Wasson 39:51
Why not? And that was another piece I just want to talk about is it’s when you’re designing and selling and you’re not thinking when you’re selling you need to sell that 100%.
Alex Cadieux 40:09
That’s super. Whether it be lighting, whether it be fire pits, whether it be water features, whether be a decorative inlay, upgraded plant package, irrigation package, whatever. If you’ve managed to get to that point where they’re believing in you, and they’re like: You know what I think I want to go with this guy, and then you come in and you start presenting all these things, why not show like: I could do all these things for you. Give them the choice. If they don’t want things after, that’s fine. But why limit yourself? Why do you impose the limit instead of giving them the option, letting them decide where the line in the sand is?
Dan Wasson 40:43
Correct. We always we always over-design slightly.
Alex Cadieux 40:51
You don’t want to go with Taj Mahal.
Dan Wasson 40:53
You don’t want to go with Taj Mahal, but we always over design and we always try to give them more than what they asked for because they’re already at the moment where they’ve already paid for the design, and they’re already in, you know, you’ve already won. You got to put everything out there in front of them.
Alex Cadieux 41:20
That’s perfect. Honestly, Dan that was awesome. If people want to get in touch with you or pick your brain a little bit, I know you’re always eager to help people in the industry too, what’s the best way for them to do that, to get in touch with you?
Dan Wasson 41:33
The easy way is you can direct message me through Instagram really easily.
Alex Cadieux 41:37
And thats @The.Dan.Wasson
Alex Cadieux 42:33
Thank you so much for being on this show. Honestly this has been a pleasure and I can’t wait to have you back on for another episode and until then everybody, work hard, pave harder, we’ll see you next time on the Hardscape roadshow.
Dan Wasson 44:12
Thank you. It was an honor.