By: Lexie Newhouse
Photos by: Deniece Griffin
Jacob Swords, a senior Managerial Science student at Georgia State, sat down with the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute to share his experiences and tips from running his own company, Southern Swords, while attending school and interning at the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Centers of Innovation.
“Many people are too scared to a start a business and accept that risk. They always think that they don’t have the right resources, or they don’t have the right network. In reality, you don’t have to be the next Zuckerberg. You can start with where you’re at with what you have.” – Jacob Swords
Share about your business.
Southern Swords Services is a small lawncare and landscaping company based out of Henry County located south of Atlanta. Our approach to business is different from our competitors in the sense that we adapt our approach for every yard. We have customers that want the simplest work done at the cheapest price, but we also have customers that want extravagant projects at an upcharge. We’ve trained our guys to be able to bounce in between projects and do top notch, high quality work no matter the task at hand.
Explain your experience filing as an LLC.
Southern Swords has been in operation for about a year and half now. Back in April, we filed with Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office as a limited liability company (LLC). We filed online, it was about two pages of paperwork with ten questions, if that. It took me all of 10 to 15 minutes to complete it. Upon completing the application, a service charge is applied.
What is your business model?
The ENI program has encouraged me to take a step back and try to figure out what issues people were experiencing within their lawncare needs. Everybody thinks they have the solution, and obviously lawncare isn’t rocket science, but we knew we needed to find our competitive edge. Our solution was to have as many close-knit suppliers, so whenever I do landscaping, we can get mulch, pine straw, and stone at the cheapest cost. That value transfers through our company to our customers. Our main priority is maintaining our suppliers network to source our materials at the highest quality and at the cheapest price to pass that value onto our customers. We don’t have a very extensive business, so we place a large emphasis on perfecting our value chain for the highest level of efficiency.
What inspired your business idea?
I worked for our local parks and recreation department, and we cut all the baseball fields, football fields, things like that in our county facilities. I realized that I wanted to be in entrepreneurship, but I didn’t really know a whole lot. All I really knew were your basic business skills that I’ve learned through school and the fact that I was pretty decent with lawncare. I realized that now would be the best time to start a business to hit some of those speedbumps early on in my career. This might not be the business that takes me throughout the rest of my life, but at least for the moment, I can learn some of those big business issues that people stumble across later in life now. I stepped back and accessed our customers’ needs. People want different services at different times. That was the niche area I entered, started with what I had and what I knew, to address that problem.
What separates you from your competition?
Our primary differentiating factor is our lawn rolling process. It is pretty standard on your professional sports fields. They use mowers with rollers attached, which don’t necessarily run commercially. So, we run zero-turn mowers and actually have to cut the yard twice, which if you ask any other company, they’re not going to cut your grass twice. We come back through the second time and roll it to create strips in the grass, which is very popular among our clients.
What have you sacrificed to be an entrepreneur?
The sacrifice as an entrepreneur is time. Obviously, there’s the money aspect if you have to invest, but you don’t necessarily have to put that much money in to create a startup. The big thing is time. It’s not just the time it takes to get out and do the work because that takes me all day. Where it really kicks in is getting home that night, setting up your accounts online and making sure everything is straight back at the office. Then add balancing my studies, the finals, the midterms on top of that.
What mistakes have you made while on your entrepreneurial journey?
I like to view business as a river. The waters roll in and there’s going to be rocks and other obstacles along the way. You do all the research, you know those obstacles are there, but at the end of the day, you are just going to have to get in the river and go. You just have to roll off the rocks and keep every day moving like there aren’t any issues. Some of our biggest mistakes have been learning pricing strategies, but we acknowledge that you do have to take a loss every now and then to figure that kind of stuff out. I would not necessarily view that as a huge mistake either.
How have your entrepreneurship classes at Georgia State helped you launch your business?
With my major being Managerial Science, I have focused more on managing established companies. That background has helped a lot with some of the formal aspects of running a business. You hit on your business model in those classes in regard to quality control and upholding the company’s mission.
To build on that foundation, ENI has been extremely beneficial for me in forcing you to step back, focus on those customer problem interviews and really assess whether you are actually addressing the problem. What you think everyone needs and what the customer actually needs are two different things. ENI has helped a lot with that in differentiating that. They have also helped with networking and connecting with other entrepreneurs and young business owners.
In ENI 3101, we participated in the business model pitch competition, and our professor Dr. Graybeal pushed our team in that direction. He gave us great support and drive. That was one of my first official entrepreneurial competitions I had ever been a part of – And that’s when I realized how real this is. In ENI 3102, my professor Dr. Jackson helped with the specifics of my business. He shared spreadsheets and other resources that had applicable value running a company. From the overall creative, entrepreneurial mindset in ENI 3103 to the tangible business applications in ENI 3102 creates such a well-rounded program.
What three words would you use to describe what it means to be an entrepreneur?
Stress management – You are all over the place all the time. When you start a business, you are the plumber, the electrician, the boss, the worker, the janitor – You serve in every role all the time, making stress management key.
Freedom – Everybody thinks they’re going to start business and not have a boss. But really at the end of the day, your customers are your boss. Just because you don’t have someone over you in your organization, there’s always that responsibility and that liability to your customers. You’re free to do as you please, but within the confines of pleasing your customers because that’s who matters at the end of the day. It’s not you, it’s them.
Innovation – We are not necessarily the creative type, but innovation is so important, especially against competition. We do a lot of things differently from other lawn care companies. The rolling process is something that I learned from Chris Colmenero, a colleague I had worked with at the county. He was the first person I ever saw implement it. no other lawn care companies do it right now with the zero turn by rolling the grass to give them that striped appearance. We are innovative in that aspect.
Where do you see your business moving forward?
Before establishing Southern Swords, I was heavily involved with an agricultural organization called Future Farmers of America (FFA). I didn’t want to be your old fashioned “farmer Joe.” I always thought it would be cool to subsidize all the sports field maintenance in professional leagues like the Major League Baseball or NFL under one company that specializes in that maintenance. When setting out to start Southern Swords, I realized the problem wasn’t necessarily there. The problem was residential and commercial properties. But that has always been an aspiration in the back of my mind. The more tangible and realistic vision at the moment is being the largest and simplest provider of lawn care services to the people of Georgia.
Share about your current work at the Centers of Innovation.
I currently intern at the Georgia Department of Economic Development at the Centers of Innovation to help promote Georgia businesses compete, connect and grow within the state. We are big on working with the small companies already here in Georgia, and helping them grow. That is why we are conveniently located in Tech Square to have access to the robust innovation / Entrepreneur ecosystem.
One way that we are different from other organizations is that instead of looking at top-down economic development, we focus on the bottom-up. We are heavily involved with your ATDC’s, makerspaces, incubators, accelerators, those sort of communities, to foster entrepreneurship.
I initially became involved with this organization after going through the ENI program and attending various ENI events like the “Women in Entrepreneurship” event. I had never heard of the Centers of Innovation, and I was looking for an internship to change direction and gain new experience. They came across my page on Handshake. I found their mission extremely important, realized they were a huge asset and ended up accepting a position with them. I really wanted to facilitate this communication and foster the relationship between the Centers of Innovation and ENI. My boss David Knuckles and I met with Jackie Davis of ENI to begin that conversation. Hopefully, they’ll be a new partner down the road!
What piece of advice can you offer to people considering starting their own business?
I was a student, I was working, and I started a small operation on top of that. Southern Swords has continued to transition into a growing business from a one-man operation (me) to me and two part-time workers. It all started from nothing. Like I said, you do not need all the resources and all the money in the world to start a business. You can do anything you set your mind to – You just have to know to start in a reasonable realm and do your research.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship to me has always been this huge learning experience. It is a matter of easily admitting that you do not know everything. Every day is a new learning experience, and you try your best. That’s all you really can do at the end of the day. Entrepreneurship is how I’ve paid the bills, fed my family, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For all your lawncare needs, be sure to reach out to Jacob Swords of Southern Swords at www.SouthernSwordsServices.com for their services based out of Henry County. Stay tuned for other featured student-entrepreneurs on www.eni.gsu.edu!