My parents put up Christmas lights every November. It was a necessity, you see, because my parents said there was no way Santa Claus could land at our house if his runway wasn’t properly illuminated. So every year, they lined the roof, the chimney, the windows, and the ridge of the roof with strings of blue, yellow, red, and green lights. As I was prohibited from coming anywhere near the roof of the house, I was instead assigned to “quality control” to make sure the landing strip met FAA Santa Claus Landing Regulations.
As I grew older, quality control moved on to my brothers, and I became the chief installer. Christmas lights still thrill me as they did when I was young, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was more than a bit excited when I was assigned this story. There is something, --dare I say something magical-- about the simple act of putting up Christmas lights. Rarely is there such a business niche that provides the chance for contractors to make children gasp at their beautiful light projects and actually get to enjoy a substantial profit doing it. Talk about a “feel good” job; putting up holiday lights can be fun, profitable, and a business savvy service to add to your landscaping list of services.
Brad Finkle, founder and president of Creative Decorating in Omaha, Nebraska, is a man who capitalized on one of his favorite things to do and made it into his dream career.
“It started when I was a teen, putting up decorations for my parents’ house,” says Finkle. “Every year, I made it bigger and bigger. One year, a neighbor asked me to help her with her lights, and said she would even pay me for it. I thought she was crazy, but all her friends called and wanted to pay me to put up their lights, too. Before I knew it, my business was born.”
“When it comes down to it, it is simply a great hobby. The best part for me is sitting in my car in front of one of my projects, just to watch people drive by the house. I love the look on the kids’ faces. That alone pays for it,” says Finkle.
The $300,000 his company grossed last year sure isn’t a bad perk either. For a landscape contractor, this service is more than suitable for a stabilizer during the slow winter months, especially in those parts of the country where the severity of the weather can bring a landscape business to a halt. Even the Sunbelt States and theWest Coast, with its much milder climate, is ripe for business.
As Americans become more affluent, holiday lighting is something that people would like to have, likened to washing the car. Sure they want it, but they don’t want to do it themselves.
Many homeowners have a safety concern as well, and don’t want to risk a fall from the roof of their house. “The last thing people want to do in the middle of winter is climb up ladders,” says Finkle. The service you’re able to provide obviously negates that safety concern for people who might have no business tap dancing on the roof, messing with lights.
“This is a service that people simply want,” says Finkle. “They don’t need it, they simply want it, and there is something about that that makes this business so much more satisfying. It’s hard to explain. There is so much work out there, if you can’t find work in this area, you’re simply not looking.”
There’s plenty of work to go around as the service of hanging holiday lights become even more popular, and with a comparatively small financial investment. “In the last five years, this business is really starting to pick up,” says Mark Strickland, president of Holiday Presence, Inc., in Orem, Utah. “The start-up cost is fairly minimal. A couple of ladders, and some strings of lights can get a contractor going.”
Installing holiday lights also solves another problem that many are plagued with when the weather turns inclement and you have to lay off some people. The seasonal slow-down can often mean the loss of good workers who are forced to seek other employment, during this period, to make ends meet. Sometimes these workers get situated in their new job and don’t return when the work picks up again in the spring. As a result, the contractor loses a reliable employee, along with the money that goes to train a new worker to take his place.
Contractors in the green industry have become very creative in filling in the slack time of the landscape season with landscape lighting and snow removal services. Holiday lighting fits rather nicely into this niche. It will provide jobs you need to keep these key workers onboard, while adding to your bottom line.
As is the rule with virtually all additional services you wish to add to your professional repertoire, installing holiday lights provides yet another opportunity to sell to your current client base. These clients already know you, and trust you. It’s proven to be far cheaper to market to those who subscribe to your landscape services, and will generally also be a much easier sell.
On the other hand, holiday lighting provides the potential of selling this service to new clients who will give you the opportunity to sell your main occupation of landscape design/build and lawn maintenance. Make a good impact with the professionalism you maintain when lighting their house, and they’ll believe that effort transfers over to your landscape line of services.
As with most everything else, the more you know, the better off you will be. Learn all you can from those in the holiday lighting business, and request learning material from light manufacturers and distributors. Indeed, knowledge is worth its weight in gold, or in this case, your profitability. A manufacturer might be able to make the best product, and a distributor might be able to set the best price, but if a contractor does not know how to use installation time wisely, and does not bid appropriately, profits can go down the tubes.
“We offer a contractor training kit that comes with a DVD rom explaining the ABC’s of holiday lighting and design. We also have marketing material, invoice sheets and door hangers that the contractor can modify for their own business,” says Eric Bornemeier, co-owner of the Village Lighting Company, manufacturer of commercial grade lighting products, Centerville, Utah. “Get as much training as possible. You can learn this on your own, but you will avoid a lot of hurdles that you are bound to encounter if you side-step instruction.”
Many distributors offer some form of training. Some offer reading material, and some day and weekend courses. Often, distributors will publish pamphlets and advertise when this training is being offered.
“We provide seminars that expedite the learning curve. A good seminar will cover marketing, installation, sales, electrical calculations, design layout, bidding and estimating, etc,.” says Strickland. Experts in the industry also recommend contacting other companies to ask for advice.
The business should be approached in the same way as any other aspect of your landscape business, with practicality and attention to detail. Careful accounting and planned projects will increase profitability. “This isn’t the kind of business that you can just play with,” warns Blake Smith, president of Christmas Dcor, Lubbock Texas. “I know many people who have done this, and didn’t take the time to learn the technical and marketing aspects and they didn’t make any money because of it.
Pricing these jobs includes the product, the kind of lights that the client wants, and the installation, which is often based on the square footage of the house. It is important to factor in the added time of stringing lights, for example, on a two story house, it is obviously more labor intensive. Also, if the client merely wants to rent the lights on a yearly basis, and needs them taken down, storage should be figured in.
“You have to get it to where the job becomes very systematic and orderly,” Smith said. “If you can do that, you’ll be able to handle more volume very efficiently and there will be tremendous net profit to be had.”
“Installing holiday lighting can be dangerous. Its still electricity you’re working with, so precautions must be taken. One company out here installed all the lights, ended up overloading the circuit, and started a fire that burned the house down. The news reported it, and said that the homeowners had a ‘professional’ install the lights. The reputation of everyone who does this line of work was slammed because of that,” said Finkle.
Unfortunately, there have been contractors who jumped into this field without the proper training and have not only tarnished their reputation, but the reputation for the industry.
The first season, as with most any business undertaking, will most likely be a bit stressful. These are normal growing pains, but the following season should go much smoother as contractors become familiar with parts of the installation that comes from experience.
“It takes time to learn the production standard,” says Smith. “You can’t learn this business in a day. Just like it took some time to know how long it should take to mow a lawn to make a profit, it will take some time to know how long it should take to light a tree, depending on its size and difficulty.”
Since this is a seasonal business, ordering supplies early is very important. As the season peaks for you, the distributor is running low on lights. The business often peaks in December, when the neighbors see the service and suddenly want it as well. There is often a mad rush, and contractors who have been doing this for a while, recommend that you have plenty of lights in reserve.
You might have a last minute rush from potential customers; however, getting the lights may be a different story. You might find that distributors don’t have the lights; they don’t want to carry over stock of Christmas lights after the season. The only thing you can tell your potential customer is that you’re sorry, you’re out of inventory, and you’ll make sure you get to him early next year.
“Availability is crucial,” says Smith. “Some of our guys are getting their lights 120 days in advance. Start stocking up in September, or you aren’t going to have any product to sell.
“I know many contractors who found themselves selling services and discovering later on that they didn’t have enough lights for the job,” Smith cautioned. “If you treat this like a stepchild, you will get stepchild results.”
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Taking more business than you can readily handle and accepting jobs that may prove to be either more dangerous or more labor intensive than you can afford, will only end up setting profits back in the end. Quality, as is always the case, is more valuable than quantity. Focus on what you know and what you’re comfortable with. Profits will swiftly vanish if a shoddy job requires repeat visits to a project to fix problems.
Be sure to pick your lights appropriately. All lights are not created equal, and there is a significant difference between professional quality and residential standard. A good installation job can be negated if cheap products prove to be problematic by malfunctioning. “Residential lights often don’t last past one season,” says Bornemeier. “There is a considerable difference between a product that is rated for 1,500 hours and a commercial grade lighting product that is rated at 3,000 hours. There are also vandal- resistant lights available and different types of bulbs to produce different lighting effects.”
There is money to be made and children to amaze with this line of work. It is a great niche for any landscape contractor wishing to expand his clientele base and make extra money doing it. Your creative productions will provide the best kind of advertising for your business, and you’ll be remembered when the season returns next year.