If true beauty lies within, why do so many landscapers focus solely on the outside?
Andrea Wilson Mueller and Michael Mueller, Total Landscape Care’s 2014 Landscapers of the Year, shaped their Frankfort, Kentucky, business around incorporating elements from in and out, hence their company name: Inside Out Design.
While now at the top of their game in the industry, Andrea and Michael’s journey has not been an easy one.
From stocking shelves to sweeping floors, Andrea got an early start in the industry working at her father’s garden center, Wilson Nurseries – the largest nursery in Kentucky at the time. “He had pure grit and determination,” she says about her father.
His passion for the green industry rubbed off on Andrea, and she knew she wanted to make it her career, as well. So, she started off at Georgia Tech in architecture and then went on to earn an interior design degree at the University of Kentucky.
Working at her father’s nursery not only gave her a love for landscaping, but it’s also where she met her now-husband Michael, who started working at the center after attending the University of Maryland where he studied horticulture. Michael had been in the landscape industry since high school, realizing his ardor for the outdoors at an early age.
The couple married in 2003, but that newlywed happiness was cut short when Andrea’s father was killed in a tragic car accident just six months later. “It was a shock to all of us when he died,” Andrea says. “I hadn’t considered doing anything else but working with him.”
At a crossroads, Andrea decided to leave her father’s garden center, realizing “I still have to do what I want to do – and that was designing.”
So in 2007, Andrea started working out of a small corner in the couple’s bedroom. Shortly after, Michael also joined the business, Inside Out Design, which added the build component to the business.
“We have two different perspectives and are a good balance,” Andrea says. “I can’t imagine running a business like this by yourself. You need someone to question you and bounce ideas off of. It’s great to have two, usually opposite, perspectives.”
Trying something new
Besides creating designs, the couple made landscaping projects their main focus, but Michael suggested they expand to include hardscaping services, as well. “Michael’s more of a risk taker,” Andrea says. “I didn’t want to do hardscaping at first.”
Now, they focus on landscape, hardscape, design/build, specialty and themed gardens, lighting and drip irrigation services in an about 50-mile radius from their Frankfort office.
When they meet with a client for the first time, they don’t just do a typical yard walk-through. Andrea likes to look in the client’s house to get a feel for his or her style and design tastes to make the outdoor project a truly natural extension of the home.
“We’re bringing the inside out,” Andrea says. “For every job, we look at the inside of someone’s home and make the outdoors reflect that. Too many landscapers only look at the outdoors. We want the outside to match the inside.”
To help clients understand her vision for a space, Andrea shares presentations with clients that lay out the different aspects of the project. “People really like it when you can show them what the project is going to look like,” she says.
She includes photos of the materials and plants they’d like to install – including photos of the plants from every season to show what they look like year round. These proposals also list the company’s references and professional organizations.
When possible, they like to include native plants and other sustainable elements – like rain gardens – in their projects, just as they have at their office.
After outgrowing the corner in their bedroom, the couple constructed an office building in 2011, just a two-minute walk from their house. It has a green roof, hardscaping features like permeable pavers, native plants, geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels and a modern design. The building is constructed with sustainable and reclaimed materials, such as chalkboard walls from a schoolroom, old beams as shelving and a barn lumber.
While Andrea and Michael want to get their company’s name out to potential clients, Franklin County residents probably won’t learn about the business from picking up a paper or checking the mail. Instead, they will see the couple and their employees installing a hummingbird garden at a school or planting blueberry bushes for a wheelchair-bound child – all from donated time and materials.
“We’d rather our money go toward something good in the community, instead of marketing in a newspaper or with mailers,” Andrea says. Marketing isn’t the motive behind the acts, she says, but it seems to come naturally. “Instead of having an expensive mailer tossed in the garbage, at least these projects are something the entire community can enjoy and benefit from for years to come.”
Inside Out Design’s service projects include volunteering with Go Frankfort, an outreach program in their city; ReForest Frankfort; creating outdoor classrooms for students to learn about nature; serving during the annual PLANET Day of Service and creating a backyard retreat for a disabled girl and her family.
The couple is involved in their area on a personal level, as well. “We are community-driven people,” Andrea says.
Another creative way they market the business is by leaving spade shovel signs adorning their logo for a month in clients’ yards after the project is complete – another one of Michael’s ideas. Their work trucks are also wrapped with the logo and contact information and pained bright lime green. “You can’t miss them,” he says.
Although they run a successful business now, tracking the material and time costs caused them some issues in the past.
“One mistake we made several years ago was that we estimated on a percentage base,” Andrea says. “Now, we use cost-estimating software to know exactly what we earn on a job. Overall, the fact that we know we are recovering costs is huge.”
They use the DynaScape Manage program and can tell if they are making or losing money. The software also shows the maximum amount of hours the crews can spend on a project for it to still be profitable.
“That gives the workers motivation,” Michael says. “They know how many hours are allotted to complete a job.” It helps them identify any issues within, learn from mistakes if the time goes over and keeps the crews accountable.
Seasonal no more
Also serving as incentives are the benefits Inside Out Design gives to its about 10 employees.
Instead of letting any of the employees go during the winter months because of a smaller workload, the couple looks for ways to support the group, like finding new hardscaping projects, working on the display garden at the office or capital improvements. They make the commitment to their employees for year-round employment because their families have to be cared for every day, not seasonally.
“If you have a good employee, you don’t want to let them go,” Andrea says. “We want an experienced core team.”
Andrea and Michael value their team members and know how difficult it can be to find workers with the right set of talents.
“It’s a pretty skilled thing that we’re doing,” Michael says. “It’s hard to teach.”
Andrea agrees: “Even plantings can’t be taught in a week.”
They also provide employees with health care, 401K, time off and a good working atmosphere. “We really care about everyone who works here,” Michael says, which is evident in the family-like work environment.
The couple takes their employees on rafting trips, to the occasional breakfast, Christmas tree cuttings, baseball games and hosts annual Christmas dinner parties.
Safety is another important aspect for taking care of their employees, so they hired a consultant who occasionally pops up on the jobsites for safety inspections. “We took a proactive approach and haven’t had any accidents,” Michael says.
Currently with two to three solid crews, Andrea says they don’t want to expand the business too much more because “we’re able to both be hands-on now, and our customers like that.”
And being focused on their clients is one of the main reasons for their success, Michael says. But, the customer service doesn’t stop once a project is complete. Clients can find maintenance and watering information on Inside Out Design’s website (insideout-design.org) and are also handed a detailed maintenance packet at the end of the project. The company also keeps their clients informed with additional tips in the company’s quarterly newsletter, Facebook posts and tweets.
To make sure a client is pleased with their work, Michael will walk the site with them to make sure everything is above their expectations.
“The biggest feedback we get from customers is that we listen, especially in the design phase,” Andrea says.
Hear Andrea and Michael’s tips for success here.
To see more of Inside Out Design’s project photos, visit totallandscapecare.com/inside-out-design.