Entrepreneur Craig Jenkins-Sutton talks about his garden & floral design company Topiarius, learn how he turned his hobby into a million-dollar business.

Craig Jenkins-Sutton is the founder of Topiarius, an urban garden & floral design company in Chicago IL. Craig’s company have been mentioned by many popular publications including  Entrepreneur Magazine recently titled Entrepreneur Who Turned  Hobbies in million-dollar Businesses. We were lucky enough to speak with Craig about Topiarius and he explains how he started his business, his plans for the future and of course his advice for first time entrepreneurs. 

Q: Please tell us a little bit about what your company does and how it all started?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Topiarius offers the best in urban garden and floral décor services. Our distinctive designs and professional installations breathe new life into indoor and outdoor spaces. The company provides outdoor landscape design and care from the construction and installation of furniture to regular maintenance, urban gardening, special occasion and event floral design, exterior and interior seasonal decorating and snow and ice care.

I started Topiarius out of the back of a Ford Focus station wagon 10 years ago. After working on both landscaping and construction for other companies, it became very clear that I was a horrible employee; so starting my own business seemed like the only option.

Q: What are some of the projects you are working on right now?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Winter is always slow for landscapers in Chicago, but this year we have been lucky enough to handle a few roof deck installation projects. One of the bigger ones we are working on is a custom aluminum pergola with retractable shade canopies. The pergola will have custom plasma cut metal screens to help define the space, create privacy and help provide shade. Roof decks have become the largest portion of our design/build business and, I believe, will continue to be the driver for growth in that segment.

Q: Do you or have you ever own any other businesses, if so what happen to them?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  No! One is enough for me.

Q: What is one thing that you do on a daily basis that helps you grow as an entrepreneur?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  In our business it is all about staying on top of the latest . . . product, plant, design, flower, container trends. I spend a lot of time looking for new ideas. People must think I am crazy, but I take pictures of things that most people never notice – a lot of trashcans, metal grates, hinges, etc. I try to find new ideas in old products used in creative ways. With that said – I am bare bones practical. I am not a trained designer. I am an implementer. Simplicity of installation is key to keeping the crews productive and profitable.

Q: How do you separate yourself from your competitors, what makes you better or different?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Chicago is probably the second biggest market for landscaping in the US. We have some of the biggest and best landscape firms in the country that are our competitors. Some people would see this as a threat, but I see it as an opportunity. Our consumer has a high expectation for quality and this is an advantage and point of differentiation for Topiarius. We focus on the individual and try very hard to give every customer our complete attention and a unique design. Our challenge is maintaining this personal attention as we continue to grow.

Topiarius

Q: What was the biggest problem you encountered with your company, and how did you overcome it?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  I had this dream of being a two-truck operation where every customer knew me personally and I personally oversaw every detail of every project. Basically, I was the biggest problem. We got to the point where we either had to grow or I would be working in the field until I was 80. We hired a consultant to help us figure out how to grow. While he didn’t really provide the step-by-step answers that I would have liked, he did give us the confidence to make some of the big leaps. We moved into a real office, invested in people and equipment and worked hard at getting our name out to potential customers. Looking back, it was the dumbest and smartest thing I have ever done.

Q: What would you say was the tipping point for your company?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Making the decision to grow. There were a lot of sleepless nights surrounding that decision. There is a big shift in being the owner/operator to being an owner/employer.

Q: Please share a few business tips and advice for first time entrepreneurs.

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  CASH IS KING! The best advice I ever got was from my father, who also was an entrepreneur, was to get money when you don’t need it. Start a relationship with a good business banker that understands that businesses run on cycles and then ask for money when you have cash in your account. It is way easier to get that line of credit when there is cash on hand than it is when the bank account is empty.

The other great tip I got early on was to price my product like I had overhead. Landscaping has a very low barrier to entry – I started with a shovel and a station wagon! In order to get business early on, a lot of people under price their product or service. They do this because they can when they don’t have overhead, but what happens when overhead grows? You have to raise prices and you lose those early, and usually very loyal, customers. Do your research and figure out the value of what you offer in your market and then price accordingly. With that said – don’t over price either!

Q: Starting out what was the worst mistake you made as an entrepreneur, and what did you learn from it?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Bad hires. The biggest resource that you have as an entrepreneur is your team. When we get busy, we have too often made a quick hire because we had to have someone right away. This has never worked out! Take time in your people search. Have multiple interviews, ask tough questions, make sure the fit is right with your company culture, call references and don’t be afraid to say “no” to a qualified person. If you do make a bad hire end the relationship as soon as possible, a bad employee costs more than no employee.

Q: How do you go about marketing your business, what has been the most successful form of marketing for you?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  We have run some print ads in local magazines and papers, but without a huge marketing budget to build a campaign, these ads just do not generate calls. The most effective print advertising that we have done is postcards and door hangers. I was very hesitant to use door hangers and insisted that they be very high quality with excellent graphic design work, so that we differentiated ourselves from the annoying paper copier flyers that I hate so much. We distribute 10,000 at a time and get 4 to 6 call backs, which is better than any other print marketing we have done. 9 out of 10 people who call because of the door hangers say “I never call places that use these, but yours look so great . . .”

Q: Besides the obvious social media apps out there, what are the top 2 must have apps for entrepreneurs?

The top two apps that we use the most are:

  1. T-Sheets – Because our crews will often work at multiple job sites each day, having an app that allows them to clock in and out at each site without paper has allowed us to be much more accurate with our job costing.
  2. Houzz – The ability to have customers create sharable Ideabooks is a great tool for us. Way better than magazine clippings in a three ring binder!

Q: What is your definition of success?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  Loving what you do and making enough money to retire. Although, why retire if you love what you do?

Q: How can our community get in touch with you?

Craig Jenkins-Sutton:  The best way to stay connected with Topiarius is through our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/topiariuschicago. It gets updated regularly with new projects, products and other ideas that we come across. Our website is more comprehensive of our services and easier to navigate, but does not get updated as often – www.topiarius.com.