Napa Sonoma SBDCSanta Rosa and Napa, California

"I always leave the SBDC excited, energized, and motivated! Completing the homework never fails to improve my business. My SBDC Advisor is honest with me, yet kind and approachable, while providing a wealth of information I can use." 

Mary Frost

Company Profile
There are nurseries that will sell you plants, landscapers who will design and install your garden space and yard maintenance services that will come once a week to mow and blow, but whom do you contact to learn how to do it yourself—to design the yard you want or to keep your yard looking its best throughout the seasons? Professionals only want to do the work for you, and garden books may be too generic for your plants and microclimate. This unmet educational niche in the world of horticulture professionals is the one that The Gardening Tutor fills.

The owner, Mary Frost, is a graduate of the Santa Rosa Junior College Environmental Horticultural Program. Seeing her keen interest and skills in teaching, instructors encouraged her to continue her education with the goal of becoming a faculty member. But Mary wanted to bring her passion for plants directly to homeowners. She wanted to empower people by teaching them landscape design principles, plant selection and plant maintenance—right in their own yards.

Mary started The Gardening Tutor in 2007and found it was a challenge to explain her unique service to people.  Some were disappointed to learn she didn’t do lawns. Others wanted her to just draw up a landscape plan and then do the installation. She needed to refine her marketing to target the right people for her services. She also needed to learn how to clearly explain what she did and the benefits of her service.

Actions Taken
Having owned a thriving massage business, Mary had developed the skills she needed to run a business, and she knew she needed a written business plan. In order to motivate herself to write her plan, she first made an appointment to meet with the SBDC, challenging herself to complete the plan in time for the meeting. With business plan in hand, Mary met with the SBDC and began a relationship with the SBDC that would teach Mary the tools for how to build her business.

In order to help her market her business without an advertising budget and refine The Gardening Tutor website, the SBDC then referred Mary to an SBDC Business Advisor. Immediately they began to help focus on her target customers. The SBDC gave Mary exercises to define her market segments and  create personas to characterize these groups. The exercises brought clarity to Mary’s thinking about the types of people she needed to reach, such as people who have recently moved to Sonoma County and aren’t familiar with our climate and proper plant choices, first time home buyers who do not know where to start, and people who have had a yard professionally installed but are at a loss when six months later they have no clue how to maintain it.

After working to refine the marketing message, they then moved on to reviewing Mary’s web site. The SBDC did an SBDC Technology Assistance Program Web Site Audit, which highlighted a few ways to improve an already well-functioning site. The process gave Mary the knowledge she needed to work more closely with her web developer, making them a more effective team. The SBDC worked with Mary on the principles of search engine visibility, the need for calls to action on every page, the power of internal linking, how to select and use keywords and the need for fresh content on a web site. Mary does her own writing for the web site, and this information has made it much easier for her to write the content that will bring  visitors to the site.  In addition, the site now boasts an online store where Mary sells the quality products she offers after thoughtful selection.

Despite the SBDC's initial doubts about starting this unique business, they was never discouraging, and Mary knew her passion and skill would make it successful. Even though the business had a slow start, earnings have continued to climb with 2009 showing a 260% increase over 2008. She has clients using her services on a weekly, semi-monthly and monthly basis. In 2009, She purchased a bright orange 1966 Chevy flatbed dump truck to use for hauling garden materials— which has a side benefit as a great visual advertisement.

Mary reports that her marketing efforts are working—people now “get it” when she explains her business. She is an active member of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, produces a monthly e-newsletter of gardening tips tailored for Sonoma County residents, has been featured in the Santa Rosa magazine and has been used for expert garden advice by writers for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. With a strong sense of community, Mary is able to use her business to give back. She has sponsored a basketball team for the Boys and Girls Club and offers an annual $500 scholarship for an SRJC horticulture student.

Over the past 3 years, with the assistance of the SBDC, Mary has continued to refine her business model. She knows The Gardening Tutor idea is working and that it fills a market need— there might even be an opportunity for expansion in her future!

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Funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA or HSU Sponsored Programs Foundation.