David Keegan is an Irishman living in the UK with a successful Garden Design and Landscaping business. He attributes a lot of his current success to natural organic growth over time, but it is clear when chatting to him that he has had a focused growth strategy that he has worked very hard at delivering from the beginning. It makes for a very interesting case study that we can all learn something from. The continued use of social media is key, along with a very interesting approach to entering all relevant Awards to ensure his work is recognised and future customers know that he provides an award winning quality service.
When did you start the business?
I had been in fashion photography for years but it had ran its course and I knew it was time to move on. It was in the late 1990’s and I was living in London, studying furniture restoration but not really enjoying it. One summer I decided to do a rooftop garden on the top floor where I lived. A combination of loving the project coupled with friends hiring me to do their gardens as a result put the idea into my mind that this could become more than just a hobby, a viable business even, enabling me to work at something that I loved. And thus the idea was born.
It really grew legs so to speak, when I got a call from the BBC asking me to audition for an 8 part gardening program called ‘Garden School’ that I had applied for, I got one of 8 places from over 40,000 applicants and the series went into production. Now living in Manchester, once this series had aired, my business really started to take off and I could consider making future plans to develop and grow it further.
Where did the idea come from?
Looking back now I realise I had always had a keen interest in gardening, my father had given me a vegetable plot in the garden on which I could grown whatever I liked plus summers were spent on my mother’s family farm in Ireland, where the wild outdoors always fascinated me. That’s definitely where the interest originated from and it grew from there, culminating in the idea blossoming after that first rooftop garden in London.
Did you believe the idea would work?
I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was determined to make a very good go of it. I guess the main motivator for me was the certainty that I could not foresee a life of working, either for a wage, or for someone else.
Did you know who your target customer was?
My vision of what, and who, my target customer would be was greatly influenced by my time spent making the BBC TV program. This process exposed me to some of the greatest names in gardening and garden design, as well as giving me the opportunity to visit some of the greatest gardens in Europe. I remember when I was having a bad day during the 6 months of filming the producer saying, all of this information and experience will shape and affect you by a natural process of osmosis, at the time I thought it and idiotic thing to say, but he was right. The consequence of all this? I wanted big and challenging projects and I wanted to strive to be the best.
Did you have a digital or social media strategy then or did that come later?
As part of the start your own business course I undertook through a Government run Manchester Business School, I was given access to a web designer who created my initial website. I realised that this would be how we all did business in the future quite early on, so I set about gaining the information and knowledge as to how and why it all worked. As a consequence I learned about background data, keywords, and links from a very early point and set about making sure my website had all the correct background info to ensure I would be found. The social media and blogging I adopted from the beginning really, spending time online communicating with future customers was essential in my mind and has definitely paid dividends over time.
How important is social media vs. word of mouth referral?
I would say in the early days social media is the best tool for generating a presence in any market as it allows unprecedented access to a very large and growing audience. When I started out I had to rely on the Yellow Pages to reach my customer base which was expensive and restrictive. The internet and social media changed all that forever. As a consequence I now have projects all over England as well as projects in France.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Be confident, when you are you, you will exude confidence.
What is the worst?
Try not to get ahead of yourself.
How have you changed or adapted your business to suit the market?
In the early days of my business I relied on printed items such as flyers, the Yellow Pages and glossy lifestyle magazine ads. I also paid for inclusion on market specific listing sites as this effected my Google ranking and also ensured I was found in search. Equally there are many free listing sites and I have spent countless hours over the years filling out entries and keeping them updated.
Now I tend to focus my efforts primarily on my blog and website. I use my blog and Google+ page as the main platforms to promote my business with regular updates and pictures of current projects. Recently I have started to post picture port-folios of visits to the National Trust gardens in turn this has led to a regular twitter interaction between myself and the National Trust, all of which adds kudos to ones web presence. In fact any spare time I have, which I don’t have much of at the moment, is spent writing the blog and interacting with a worldwide community via my Google+ page.
I have also been fortunate enough over the years to have won many awards for my work both in the UK and internationally, as well as collaborating on landscape books in China. All of this has an effect on how potential clients perceive me and I would recommend anybody in business to enter as many relevant awards as possible.
What are you most proud of?
Wow that’s a tough one, really I guess its when I make return visits to gardens I have designed and see them grow and develop to fulfill the vision I had when designing. Sometimes during one of these visits I take a quiet moment and think to myself this garden started as an idea in my head, that gives me great sense of satisfaction and pride.
The biggest challenge for me was to keep going following the financial crash of 2008. As gardens tend to be a luxury spend, my business almost folded but I somehow managed to keep going and now business is stronger and bigger than ever. As a consequence, I am rekindling personal ambitions to seek out global projects for the future. I would like to work in China at some point.
What advice would you give to other small business starting out or looking to grow?
Never let fear of failure stand in your way. Be adventurous, be brave, and be prepared to not have a social life for quite some time. Apart from that, due to the internet and all that goes with it, I cannot think of a better time historically to create a business. Given the free and easy access to either local or global markets, and potential customer bases it offers, the social interaction it allows, it really is the new shop front and marketplace so get to know it and use it. Take every bit of help going from local authorities and councils, go to every training session and network, always network, it keeps you sane and boosts your business.
For advice on how you can grow your small business, contact Yellow Mountain on 01-6978285.