Episode 162
June 19, 2020

Fixing a Practice That Doesn't Align with Values

Did you know that lawns are the 3rd largest agricultural product? Lawn care doesn't need to be filled with pesticides and this week, Brian is joined by Coulter Lewis, Founder & CEO at Sunday Lawn Care, to talk about how Sunday is changing the Lawn Care industry.

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this episode sponsored by

How was Sunday born? 

  • Lawns are the 3rd largest crop by land area: 40 million acres of land. 
  • “You can’t purport to have a deep care for carbon sequestration and soil and the way we treat land, runoff, and environmental issues and not think about [lawn care].” - Coulter Lewis
  • A typical managed lawn gets 5x the amount of pesticides per acre than an industrial farm.
  • In starting Sunday, Coulter saw these statistics as a hole in our ethos. We spend time being conscious about what we’re putting into our bodies but not the yard that our bodies spend a lot of time in. This is where Sunday comes in to align our lawn care with our values.

DTC Experience of Sunday Lawn Care

  • Sunday is 100% direct to consumer through their website.
  • Sunday starts with your address. They pull soil data, climate history, and current weather in order to create a custom plan that takes all the guesswork out of the equation for you.
  • Sunday’s first kit comes with a soil test to get the exact chemical makeup of your property which gives an accurate evaluation of what nutrients your soil is sufficient/not sufficient in and uses that to give you tips and guidance on how to maintain your property sustainably.

Your Yard is Your Own National Park

  • Sunday is on the same trajectory that they were on before COVID and during the pandemic, they’ve seen even more growth due to their business model being based around having a healthy space at home. 
  • “There is an incredible spectrum of emotional connection people have with their lawns… This is a vast part of our experience and landscape. In some respects, it’s your own national park.” - Coulter Lewis
  • Customer service is top priority at Sunday - in encouraging communities to learn more and engage more with their properties, as they spend massive amounts of time at home.


Check out Sunday’s website.

Have any questions or comments about the show? Let us know on Futurecommerce.com, or reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We love hearing from our listeners!

Brian: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about cutting edge and next generation commerce and also commerce in crisis, as we are in crisis right now. I am Brian. I am here without Phillip today, but I have a very exciting guest with me, Coulter Lewis, the founder and CEO of Sunday. Welcome, Coulter.

Coulter: [00:00:21] Thank you, Brian. Good to be here.

Brian: [00:00:24] Well, thanks for joining me. And I was so excited to meet you back at eTail East before all of this craziness started. You have such a cool business, and I am super excited to talk about it. Tell me a little bit about yourself... Well tell my listeners about yourself and Sunday. How did you get started?

Coulter: [00:00:46] Sure. Yeah. You know, it's funny because Sunday is focused around lawn care, and that's not something that has been the trajectory of my life and not something that I saw it coming, but I'm in it now and it's just the most exciting and enriching thing. But I got here through kind of a fortuitous path, which is typical, I suppose. But previous company I co-founded with my wife is a company called Quinn Snacks, which is a brand you'll find on the shelf at most grocery stores across the US, and it's a brand that's focused incredibly heavily on ingredients and supply chains. We share where all of our ingredients come from, and we work closely with our farmers and growers. And my whole family goes to our organic corn growers farm every year and spends a day there. And it's just kind of part of our life and part of my work life and home life, really. And so I'd had that kind of experience and exposure sign that was really pretty magical and beautiful and symbiotic, with these people working with their land in a really beautiful way. And then I have three boys, and we bought a home, three little boys.

Brian: [00:01:44] I can relate. I have four boys. So it's quite a life.

Coulter: [00:01:51] Wow. Four is a thousand percent more. Just to be clear. {laughter} Yeah. It's, it's non-linear math. So, I found myself in a home improvement store looking at that aisle and I wanted to care for my lawn. I had this kind of idea of what it would look like, you know, caring for my property. And it felt really fundamental and important to me, and I was standing there, and  I was smelling it and looking around and I just had the contrast to say, this looks really wrong. This feels like something out of a time capsule. It doesn't like who we are and where we are today.

Brian: [00:02:25] Yeah.

Coulter: [00:02:25] And that's what kicked it off. I had that actual moment. And it's funny because now I feel like it's easy to see, but at the time it really wasn't, because it's just the way it's always been. It's easy to keep going with that. So as I dug into the space, a couple things like just completely blew my mind. I had like mini Erin Brockovich, kind of like just research for days. And for one thing, it's a scale. So lawns are a third largest crop by land area. Forty million acres. So you really can't, you know, purport to have a deep care for carbon sequestration and soil and the way we treat land and runoff and all these important environmental issues and not think about this piece of it. It's a huge piece of it. And then the other side is how we're doing it today. And what we do is we cover our entire property in pesticides and herbicides, just in case you might have a problem. And that's in contrast to saying there is a problem right here, so I'll treat this one small area. It's orders of magnitude, too much of these synthetic pesticides and herbicides. And so what that means is, is a typical managed lawn gets something like five times more pesticides per acre than an industrial farm. And then when you start following the research and having that kind of rabbit hole moment of looking at all this, you find out that, OK, well, these things are in your lawn. Where else are they? OK. Studies have shown that they're in every single home that they test. And then when they test people, they find it in every single person. Like 80% of their urine. We're super living close and with these things. And I don't think people want that. I think that they've been kind of led into a path and a practice that doesn't align with their values. And I want to fix it. So that's what got me so excited about this space.

Brian: [00:03:59] Absolutely. I think it's so funny, we care so much about the food that we buy. There's been a huge trend in eating organic and buying organic. And that's great. And it's wonderful. But have people really thought about their lawns? And it's interesting. Some people do their own lawn care. I do my own lawn care. Fairly poorly if I may say so. But some people hire lawn care companies as well. And we could be a little bit less connected to what's actually happening around our yard that we spend time in. I wonder if that's just not... It's not really sunk in, like we're eating things that are good for us. But we're not necessarily playing and spending time in and like being around things that are also treated the same way. What an interesting like a hole in our system that you found that's inconsistent with the ethos that we've all been trying to go towards.

Coulter: [00:05:09] I think that's the right way to say it. It's a hole. Yeah. It's a strange outlier. And there's a reason that we uncovered it. We talked to lots of people and learned everything we could about the customer in this space. And how people did it. And we learned that no one knows anything about lawn care. And there's even like, when people would tell me that, they would say I'm a little different. I don't know a lot about this. And in that statement, there's a little bit of shame and an expectation they're supposed to.

Brian: [00:05:33] Yeah.

Coulter: [00:05:33] And it's so funny that people think when you grow up, you just grow to know these things. You don't. And so we're left in a position where people will feel completely unable to do this themselves, even though it is enriching. And it feels great. And it's rewarding. And everything else. They don't know how. And so they go and buy the most powerful things they can find. And we're trying to fix this. We're trying to take that burden off people's shoulder and help them be an expert. So that's a lever that we found is the most important one to pull is confidence, really.

Brian: [00:05:59] Confidence. It sounds like education as well. Tell me a little about, you know, the sort of educational component that's part of this.

Coulter: [00:06:06] Sure, yeah. I can give you a quick run through of kind of how it works and what the core product and experience looks like. So you go to getsunday.com and on the web site the first thing we ask for is a home address, which is pretty unusual as a first point of interaction. But we use that to pull all kinds of data on your property. So we calculate lawn size based on imagery and other data. We pull soil data from  various government databases. We pull climate history from models that we built using Noah Database, and we pull current weather, too. And so with all that and a couple of questions we ask you, we're able to create a custom plan that gets the timing exactly right, the amount of nutrients exactly right. And really takes all that kind of guesswork off your shoulders and puts it into a system that's basically acting like a professional turf groundskeeper. So that's what experience looks like. And through that, as you're going through, even just on the onboarding process, we talk about your soil, what the makeup is, and then your first kit actually comes with the soil test. And we thought, well, maybe half the customers would do that. Turns out almost everyone does it. And which is so exciting for us. And they take a sample of soil from their lawn, put it in a bag in a mailbox, and it's all pre labeled, and it goes to our lab, then we get real time data on the chemical properties of their soil. And so another education moment is like, OK, here's what's in your soil. Here's where it's sufficient. Here's where it's not. And we give them a grade in different categories. So, yeah, throughout the entire experience then beyond that, we also then just start just to kind of a drip of different tips and guidance on how to maintain a property at a more sustainable way that also creates a great looking one, because that's important too.

Brian: [00:07:42] For sure. Yeah, that's sort of the point of your product in many ways.

Coulter: [00:07:46] Yes.

Brian: [00:07:48] Do it in the right way. And you've gone completely direct to consumer with your product, right? Do you sell through retailers? Or is it a hundred percent through your web site?

Coulter: [00:07:58] A hundred percent through our own website. Yes.

Brian: [00:08:01] Interesting. Interesting. Well, actually, that leaves me do a conversation I definitely have, which is, we are living in such an insane time right now. We're all stuck in our homes. And I would imagine that this has had an impact on Sunday and your customers. I know for my part, I mean, we're in the middle of spring. One of my family's main outlets for sort of well, just what we can do together, and what we enjoy doing together, because we've done this for years. But we have spent a lot of time on our yard, in our garden. And so I would imagine that there are a whole lot of other people out there that are doing the same. A lot of people that are probably not gardening all that much. And now they're like taking on gardening projects for the first time or checking on new gardening projects they've never attempted before. What have you seen from your customers?

Coulter: [00:09:01] We're certainly seeing something. First off, I love hearing that that's how your family spends time together and you go out and do that. That's wonderful. I mean, underneath Sunday is his fundamental belief that growing stuff feels good.

Brian: [00:09:13] It sure does.

Coulter: [00:09:13] Yeah. It's just deeply enriching. And there's something about it that's in our DNA. When you go out there, and you know what you're doing, and you have results like it just feels really good. And I think people are connecting to that more now than ever. So we are seeing, because of stay at home orders and because of the new paradigm right now, people are more engaged in these things. We've done things to even try to support them more in that with outdoor activities. We do it selling a weekly blast that we call The Backyard Shift and it is things to go do in your backyard to learn about nature and connect. And the first one we sent, it was so funny, we sent it out, and then the next morning my neighbor was holding up a pine cone covered in peanut butter. He's like, "I made one." It was a bird feeder, you know, made some things you have in your house.

Brian: [00:09:56] Yeah.

Coulter: [00:09:57] And so we're trying to give people as much to do out there. And they seem to be really gobbling it up, which is phenomenal. This week we had a scavenger hunt, and it's also focused on things you can do kids, too.

Brian: [00:10:12] That's super cool. I think that that's actually really important right now in this time. I think people are going a little stir crazy, and they're really stressed out just because this is such a difficult period. And like there's a lot of uncertainty about the future. Having things to do and outlets for de-stressing and being outside is actually a necessity right now, I think, for a lot of families. And so given that you're direct to consumer, and you don't sell through any retail outlets, you've got a clearly engaged customer base. How do you feel like this strategy helped you or hurt you going into this period? Do you feel like being fully direct to consumer was actually a position of strength for Sunday or do you feel like there was some downsides to it?

Coulter: [00:11:09] I mean, to be totally frank, it feels funny to talk about position of strength when it's a result of a pandemic. But, yes, definitely our model and what we deliver and the convenience and experience we deliver to our customers makes a lot of sense right now. It always has. And it's kind of like those fundamental things we were just talking about, they're just a little more amplified right now.

Brian: [00:11:32] Right.

Coulter: [00:11:32] I think as a business what we're seeing is, is we're seeing a lot of growth. And we saw a lot of growth last year, too. And to be totally frank, we actually there's no way for us to suss through the data, understand what the actual impact was. We're on the same trajectory we were on. But we know it definite hasn't hurt us. And yeah. So it's hard for us to quantify what's happened here. But I am very thankful for the position we're in.

Brian: [00:12:00] You said something that really struck a chord with me, which is that it feels kind of weird to be talking about being in a position of strength when there's so much trouble going on around. And I've talked with other businesses that have seen massive uplift. I mean, uplifts in their business that they can even keep up with.

Coulter: [00:12:19] Yeah.

Brian: [00:12:19] And there is sort of this like almost component of shame around it, which I think that it's very natural to have that when your business is doing well in a time of trouble. But also I think it speaks to the importance of what you're doing. And I mean that in a very good way. Right now, if we didn't have lawns to take care of and we couldn't be outside, it would be worse.

Coulter: [00:12:50] Yes.

Brian: [00:12:50] It would be worse. And so it's good that people are investing in their lawns. It's good that they're looking at a healthy way to do that. And so I think it's important to understand for businesses that are doing well. And I think there're a lot of merchants that listen to this podcast that actually are up, online at least. I think that it's important to remember that this is actually good that you're up. It's good that people want to spend money with you. It's good that there are parts of the economy that are doing well. These are not bad things.

Brian: [00:13:26] No you're right. It's very true. Yeah, I totally agree. And one thing we think about a lot is moments. And this has been kind of a theme for me, both in Quinn Snacks and here. And it's actually a nice thing to think about, even when you're having hard times to put yourself through that, too, is the moment you're creating for your customers. And to me, that's like the most important thing. And you're right, the moment we create at Sunday is a really special thing. People are outside, caring for something, they're seeing it grow. They're nurturing. It's rewarding. So it is definitely checking all the kinds of things that we really need right now. So, yeah, that feels really good. I appreciate the reminder there.

Brian: [00:14:01] I think that everyone needs a reminder right now. I was talking with someone recently, it's like we all need a boost right now. And so, you know, I think that it's good to focus on the things that are going well and that are worthwhile. And Sunday definitely feels like one of those things. Tell me... I know you've invested really heavily in content and like sort of repositioning how people think about their yards. And in this period, have you had to sort of... What kind of response have you seen to that content? And have you shifted your content strategy at all during this time?

Coulter: [00:14:42] Well, we're putting everything we can into it. Yeah. And hiring to get better and better at it. So it is core to what we do. You know, lawns are a funny cultural piece. Right? So there's a lot of love/hate. There's some shame. There's a lot of pride. Like there is an incredible spectrum of emotional connection people have with their lawns. But the reality is, again, it's our third largest crop. There's 90 million American homes and almost all of them have a lawn. And so it is this vast part of our experience and our landscape. And in some respects, it's your own national park. It's your it's your own whatever you want to think of it. But it is so, so fundamental. And so on the content side, we're really trying to shift people away from the old school, like, "My lawn is better than my neighbor's. That makes me a man." There's a lot of toxic stuff going on that really just never has been challenged. And it makes my hair stand up, to be honest with you. To me, this is a piece of agriculture and you're going and caring for your land. And it you just feel good. And you should help your neighbor have a better lawn, too. And you shouldn't have to think twice about your kids rolling around in it. There's a different lens I want to put on it where it's not this perfectly manicured museum piece, but it's a part of your life and it's full of life. That's what you want to create. We want to create that image.

Brian: [00:16:05] That makes sense. Yeah. And I would imagine that in this period, that message is actually even more powerful. The other thing I was thinking about... You've seen strong growth and you've seen a lot of people reaching out because they want to spend more time in their lawns. How has this impacted your customer service teams? Have you seen a bigger, like more volume in terms of people reaching out and asking questions and looking to you as a resource for what you do?

Coulter: [00:16:42] I wish you could see right now because I'm smiling ear to ear. Because I know my customer service team will listen to this, and we're a heavily customer service focused company, and when we have like our morning meetings, everything like that, it's really about what our customers are saying, how customer service is going, what problems we're seeing, how we can solve them. And usually it's half our office and we hear it all day long. Right now it's different, obviously, but it's such a huge focus for us. And volume there is incredibly high right now. And it's actually been an incredible morale boost for the team here. We have customers coming in. We have some instances with people saying, "I really can't tell you that this year because I lost my job," and we're just like, "You got a free plan."

Brian: [00:17:24] That's awesome.

Coulter: [00:17:24] And we're doing these kinds of things regularly because it's such a no brainer, I guess. But yeah, volume is is way up and lots of signs of people getting more engaged outside and wanting more tips. And, you know, everything from, "What is this weed?" to "I'm trying to restart my lawn. How would you suggest I do that?" And "I think I have a lot of shade." And "Can you diagnose this dead spot?" We dig into the details, and it's inspiring for me because it's a team of people who are in their late 20s, probably on average, and they are absolute lawn geeks now and learned it from scratch. They do weekly lessons where they dig into a different part of turf science and they know their stuff and they help maybe a thousand or more people a day. So, yeah, it's been amazing.

Brian: [00:18:16] That's really interesting. Have you had to hire additional people and you had to do anything you like having to accelerate any training programs or or anything like that as a result? And if so, how do you train someone on long can be physically with them? {laughter}

Coulter: [00:18:34] Yeah, it's challenging. We've done a few things. We've grown the team a lot this year, and part of that's been hiring people with experience coming into it. And that's helped, too. Part of it is also just being better at prioritizing different ticket types, you know, different types of questions people have. And if they're questions that are that are less complex, we have a group that can handle that more readily. And then more experienced group that can handle more complex problems. And so a lot of we've been able to do is the training program is really about getting people to have the simpler questions, the simple things, and then, you know, maybe a thousand pages of chat on Slack every day. You know, it's incredibly active in terms of how we all work together to solve these problems. But, yeah, and the team's grown a lot. So it's funny, when I started Sunday, if you asked me what kept me up at night, it was definitely like, "Can we build a customer service team that's going to be competent that will deliver an incredible experience? I think that's so key to this. And that's something we've done. I'm super proud of that.

Brian: [00:19:34] That's awesome.

Coulter: [00:19:36] Do you expect that the people who are working on their lawns and are focusing on them more as a result of being at home... Do you expect that they're going to continue to work on their lawns after we are able to all kind of go back to our workplaces and get out again?

Brian: [00:19:57] Absolutely I mean, it feels great. And I think that's what, at the end of the day, it's something that sometimes is perceived as a chore. But when you get out there and you do it and you have some confidence when you're doing it, like it's just a great rewarding feeling. It scratches a deep down itch. And so I think there's no question that these are new habits. But that said, I'll also point out that this is... We don't have to invent this. You know, most the country goes out on the weekend and they care for their lawn. That's the pattern. That's not new. I don't like quoting market numbers, but here they're telling where you've got Home Depot and Lowe's together, do 13 billion dollars a year in these categories. Just through those retailers. So it's a huge part of Americana. It just maybe has not felt as much when you're in a city on a coast. And I know it's part of your life, too, but sometimes it feels like a foreign concept, even though most of countries out there doing it.

Brian: [00:20:51] Interesting. That's really interesting. Well, I'd love to hear from you. So we are in this period right now. There's a lot of uncertainty ahead. What is certain is that lawns will continue. But what kinds of challenges do you expect to face in the next couple of years here? I know that's a pretty big question because we don't really know what's happening.

Coulter: [00:21:15] Yup.

Brian: [00:21:15] But what do you expect to see in the next couple years? And how do you expect to address some of those challenges?

Coulter: [00:21:23] Oh, my gosh. Listing challenges? {laughter} How long is this show? We've got plenty. I mean, I think, we're so excited about the business model we have right now and the service and experience we're delivering and getting them out to more and more people. So I think one of our challenges for sure is going to be around focus and making sure that we stay close to our core and to do that really, really well before we tried too many things. I'm speaking to myself right now. That's a core challenge for me. And on the customer side, I think it's going to be... I think what we tell ourselves is that if we can deliver the results for our customer and an experience that feels good, we're in a great spot. And so everything we do is engineered around delivering on those two things. And so that's something we need to to keep laser focused on. And every time we step out of that and mess it up in some way, which, of course, we do day in, day out. We need to get back to that. I think it's about being really, really good at what we do. And I think delivering on that content. Just to circle back on a question I asked earlier, and with the context of other people who are listening this who are running businesses as well, something we found that's really fascinating is those backyard shipped emails, the activity emails, which we don't have a call to action to buy anything. You know, the call to action is to go to our blog and read about the activity. And we're really just trying to do it as a nice thing. They've been driving tons of sales and that's not the intent at all. And so that just completely floored us that we really are deliberately not trying to do that. And people are not only engaged in the activity, but appreciate that kind of messaging to the point where they're going out and they want to start a plan and get out there and do something. So anyway that's been a great thing.

Brian: [00:23:10] That's such an interesting point. And what a great place to leave it. Focus on content, unselfish content, as much as possible. And that's a winning strategy. I like that, especially in this time when people are at home. We all need some content like the stuff that's coming from Sunday. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Coulter. Where can people find you?

Coulter: [00:23:35] GetSunday.com.

Brian: [00:23:37] All right. Well, that's easy. Well, everyone get out there and garden. Stay at home and garden as much as possible. If you don't have a yard, buy a plant online and start tending to it. It really is a therapeutic thing to do. And I can't emphasize that enough. Thank you so much for listening to Future Commerce. We always love your feedback. We love to hear your thoughts on this conversation and the greater conversation about what's happening in the world today. You can always reach out FutureCommerce.fm. Thank you so much for listening.

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