William Gibson, Down to Earth

Down To Earth Services, Green Thumb Gardens: Business in bloom

William Gibson spent his early career running a traditional lawn and landscape business.

But in 2013, the entrepreneur decided to risk it all.

Gibson sold his old business and followed his dream. He and his wife opened an environmentally-friendly Kansas City lawn care and landscape business, Down to Earth Services. The business designs, installs and maintains native plants.  

But they quickly learned it was nearly impossible to find a wide variety of locally sourced native plants consistently. It prompted him to open Green Thumb Gardens, a niche nursery offering an extensive variety of native plants, in 2015.

Together, the two businesses have thrived. The nursery started as a way to offer wholesale supply to Down to Earth and others. But it’s evolved into a seasonal retail pop-up near 30th Street and Troost Avenue.

Growing like a weed

The couple hasn’t looked back. What started as a brave new adventure has turned into a thriving business as consumers turn away from fertilizers and look for drought-resistant plants. Cities also have looked to rain gardens to manage storm water.

The Gibsons needed help scaling to make sure they didn’t get swallowed up by growing pains.

It led them to ScaleUP! KC, a free program offered by the University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center with support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The program includes classes, peer mentoring, professional guidance and more. It’s open to small businesses who operate in a small market capable of supporting more than $1 million in annual sales and who want to rapidly grow their business.

ScaleUP! experts almost immediately impacted Gibson’s business.

On their advice, Gibson used data to create long-term financial projections for his business. Then he worked backward to determine how to make those projections come true.

It holds Gibson accountable. Instead of spending time putting out the proverbial small fires, ScaleUP! experts asked him to spend his time on scaling and working on long-term goals.

“They retrain you how to think, which is crazy because you think, ‘I’ve got this figured out. I knew what I was doing,’” he says.

A new perspective

Now, he sees it from a different lens.

For starters, Gibson looked at his financial reports differently thanks to ScaleUP! Instead of looking solely at the income statement to make decisions, he put a bigger emphasis on cash flow to gauge business health.

In the past, he might have taken on any job to make money. It included small residential projects and large commercial projects that were at times outside their expertise level of green projects. ScaleUP! experts asked him to think differently. How much did it cost the business to switch gears when taking on clients outside their typical scope of work?

Gibson has started to better screen clients upfront to make sure it’s a right fit.

“We were just living day-to-day, living in the now: What’s the most immediate thing we need to take care of now?” he says.

The shift has allowed him to target his time and energy into capturing larger clients. The time is ideal given the massive stormwater projects happening throughout the metro.

“It’s allowed me to start focusing on where we’re taking the company. One of the big things for us is getting in on the big infrastructure projects,” he says.

It’s important, he says, because statistically, many green landscaping projects fail. This is where his business stands out. Gibson hires employees with a background in environmental science. He pays them more, but it allows the company to succeed where others fall flat. His employees know how to create the ecosystem necessary to start native plants.

ScaleUP! opened his mind to several ideas, including creating more partnerships with larger engineering firms that could help the business grow.

ScaleUP! experts also opened his mind to the idea of franchising.

“Franchising had never crossed my mind,” he says. “The garden retail part of it is definitely something that can be franchised.”

It’s a model that would succeed in similar climates where the same native plants might grow.

Propagating knowledge

To get there, though, Gibson has learned that he needs to trust the stellar employees he hired. He used to think it was an asset to have the owner show up at every job site. If someone didn’t do their job, Gibson would fill in and pick up the slack. Ultimately, ScaleUP! advisors showed him how that hurt productivity.

On their advice, he created “work bibles” that are akin to checklists to make sure every employee knows what’s expected of them. The staff also meets weekly to talk about each project. It means he doesn’t have to micromanage every job and complete tasks that others have left behind.

Employees have thrived with the added responsibility.

“It’s allowed the people underneath me to spread their wings a little more and be in charge,” he says.

‘An invaluable tool’

ScaleUP! business coaches were among the more valuable components of the program, he says. Gibson was amazed when he went to his coach with a challenge. The coach, whom he will continue to see, offered a plethora of solutions or resources.

Gibson also plans to stay in touch with the other entrepreneurs in his ScaleUP! cohort. He considers them all trusted allies. Before ScaleUP! he didn’t have many entrepreneurs to lean on for advice.

“That’s an invaluable tool,” he says. “You wouldn’t just have that.”

Gibson’s wife and business co-owner, Natalie, says ScaleUP! has given her husband a fresh perspective on some nagging business challenges.

“It definitely re-energized him and gave him an extra oomph,” she says.

William Gibson recommends the program to anyone looking to take their business to the next level.

“This whole thing is free – get out of here. It’s insane!” he exclaimed. “It’s insane that I applied and did this for free.”