Chesterfield residents Kent Brake and Chris Fauerbach created Lawn 4 Me, a company like Uber or Airbnb, which allows homeowners to post jobs online, solicit competing bids and then select their favorite bid. (Photo courtesy ThinkStock)
This spring, Kent Brake and Chris Fauerbach saw a boon in Brandermill, their sprawling suburban Chesterfield county neighborhood. Dozens of huge lawns were waiting to be cut. Knowing that many of their neighbors hated to mow, Brake and Fauerbach — who work locally in information technology — were inspired to create a tech-driven lawn-care service.
They determined that an automated robot lawnmower was too expensive, so they decided to establish Lawn 4 Me, a company like Uber or Airbnb, which allows homeowners to post jobs online, solicit competing bids and then select their favorite bid. The bidders, in theory, would be ambitious individuals with a lawnmower, a need for cash and some spare time.
Good idea, right? What the pair didn’t anticipate was that everything from Mother Nature to human nature would hinder their entry into the gig, or sharing, economy — where goods, services and accommodations are hired or rented directly from individuals.
Brake, 41, and Fauerbach, 36, offer a close-up view of the gig economy amid national debate about its merits and pitfalls. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. has been hammering away at the need for gig workers — essentially freelancers without unemployment, retirement or workman’s comp benefits — to have access to a social safety net. And last month, a federal judge ruled that Uber drivers in California were entitled to sue Uber as a group in a case in which the drivers are arguing they should be treated as employees and not independent contractors.
Closer to home, the Richmond City Council has considered levying taxes on users of Airbnb, a company that helps people turn their homes or apartments into tax-free hotels. Residents, on the other hand, view big events like bike races and football training camps as an opportunity to turn Richmond’s architectural charm into a personal cash cow.
Running a gig company with national reach is hard. But starting a gig company in your backyard — literally — may prove to be no easier.
“Kent and I are primarily IT guys, not a firm of marketers, accountants, and human resource directors,” says Fauerbach. “The tech is figured out, but with no overhead, and lacking these other skills, it’s been tough delivering and explaining this service to as many people as we want.”
For a gig company to survive, Fauerbach says, everyone involved — the laborer, the person receiving the services and the surrounding community — has to be assured they are getting a fair deal. All have to work together to make the idea fly, and so far in the young life of Lawn 4 Me, that’s been a challenge.
Homeowners may see immediate value from “saving money and getting their Saturday back,” Fauerbach says, but just getting them to post jobs is a tiny step that takes a big push. He’s had to resort to door-to-door flyers. If homeowners don’t post because they’re uncomfortable with the online platform or because a heat wave has stunted lawn growth or because they’ve never heard of Lawn 4 Me, the company withers.
Equally challenging has been drawing those who want to compete for lawn-care jobs. When Lawn 4 Me launched in April, 55 homeowners signed up, compared to 15 lawn-care providers. Fauerbach says the balance is still skewed towards more homeowners than providers. Lawn 4 Me prides itself on being a “touchless” service, which means all transactions are handled through the digital domain, including handshakes and payments. Laborers aren’t allowed to see competitors’ bids.
Most of those bidding on jobs are young, Fauerbach says, “maybe the 18-year-old neighbor of a homeowner.” Competitive bidding, by definition, puts downward pressure on the price of a lawn job. Right now, Fauerbach says the average bid is around $40 per quarter acre, but some jobs take longer than others due to irregular-shaped yards. Lawn 4 Me takes a 10 percent cut of the accepted bid.
Fauerbach and Brake argue that their model skirts the contractor-versus-employee legal skirmish because it is less like Uber than it is an “auction house, like Ebay.” Nor do they see Lawn 4 Me as a threat to traditional lawn-care providers.
“Established lawn-care businesses make most of their revenue from larger commercial properties,” Fauerbach says. “Helping people mow quarter-acre residential lots isn’t cutting into any else’s revenue stream.”
Some of the job descriptions on the site have strayed from the norm. A few requests for lawn care included instructions to complete other menial tasks. This winter, Lawn 4 Me will tinker with the tech, and is considering snow removal services.
This is the draw of the gig economy for user and provider: flexibility.
“The technology behind Lawn 4 Me is generic enough,” Fauerbach says, “that we can do anything.”