The old chestnut says that April showers bring May flowers, but let's be honest -- in most parts of the country, it rains for months on end. In Baltimore, April is actually the driest month on the calendar, but it pours from May to October. Lanham, Md., native Mark Lutz, 31, started Employ the Rain in 2009 to take full advantage of that precipitation. His company recycles plastic and wooden barrels into rain barrels, which allow customers to capture the runoff and reduce their own water usage.
For Lutz, it's a green initiative that allows him to avoid the trappings of an office -- helping backyard gardeners grow healthier plants and flowers.
What was your background prior to starting Employ the Rain?
I was a communications major at the University of Maryland, kind of going through the motions, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I ended up in sales, first selling hot packs at a mall kiosk, then later in corporate positions. Eventually, I ended up in litigation support, which is document management, filing and organizing for major lawsuits. That industry chewed me up and spit me out.
What do you mean by that?
I was in D.C. and thought I was doing well, but I got the boot. I moved to Baltimore for a similar position, but it was shut down in the crappy economy. Since 2007, I'd been thinking about doing the rain barrel thing part time, but litigation support took up all of my time.
When did you first start working with rain barrels?
My girlfriend has a backyard garden, and I read a magazine article about rain barrels. I bought a whiskey barrel online, but it took me a week to install it because it wasn't customized to the yard. It's not as DIY friendly as the websites say it is. One of my original barrels is now my "marketing barrel" -- it's on the back of my truck with my phone number on it.
When did you move forward on starting a company?
In June 2009, I decided to go gung-ho. I asked mom and dad for money, sold some stocks, liquidated some funds and got started for about $10,000. It wasn't nearly enough operating cash, but I got all the equipment I needed.
How does it work? You buy barrels and retrofit them?
Correct. I searched all over for a place to buy used food-grade barrels, because you don't want something with chemicals in it in the yard. I found a beverage distributor, but you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get them. They only give them to the public on Thursday morning. A few times, the lines were long and they were out by the time it was my turn, so now I find myself camping out on Wednesday nights. Companies can't legally reuse the barrels, but they've gone up from $5 to $10 because a lot more people are using them as rain barrels or compost bins.
Do you worry that you won't be able to procure enough barrels?
That part of the business model is a bit shaky. There are barrel distributors and I could buy wholesale, but it would cost more, and the whole idea of reused items goes out the window. I have backup plans, but I am always looking for new suppliers. Last year I had 40 oak whiskey barrels shipped in from Tennessee, but I'd like to find a way to lower that cost.
What are the benefits of rain barrels?
Unlike city or country water, there are no chemicals like chlorine, so it's all natural and better for your plants. From an environmental side, rain barrels cut down runoff, which goes through storm drains and ends up in streams and estuaries. If it's a flat surface like a driveway or a parking lot, that water isn't soaked up by grass, so it'll pick up oil and other harmful chemicals. And although water bills aren't typically that high, rain barrels can save money for large lawns and gardens.
Who are your primary customers?
People who are environmentally conscious and backyard gardeners who want to see their crops flourish. I do a little bit of commercial, and I've installed underground full stand-alone systems. One guy who lives on a farmhouse in southern Maryland doesn't have any county water going through his property. We're working on system so he'll be able to drink it, shower in it and all that sort of stuff.
Do you foresee growth in the larger systems?
I think so. I'd like the company to become more of a service company, maintaining full irrigation systems. That way, we'd have more high-end and commercial customers. I'm hoping Employ the Rain can grow into it, pun intended.
How much do your products cost?
Plastic barrels are $95, whiskey barrels are $199, and installation ranges from $200 to $2,000 for a full underground system.
You've also set up strategic partnerships with other entrepreneurs. Tell us about those.
I started selling East Coast Organics products on a commission basis, which provides some extra income. Jeff Otto, another green Baltimorean, owns that company. They sell organic garden supplies and soil builders, so it makes sense to promote each other. We've talked about coming up with a rain barrel blend down the road. I have a similar relationship with a woman who does container gardens. It isn't just gardening products, though. I offer my customers discounts for a woman who teaches the "Alexander Technique," and vice versa. It's a way to limit stress on the body and good for people who work with their hands. Originally, we bartered the Alexander Technique for a rain barrel. These arrangements are low-cost approaches to marketing and community networking. The more people you can reach, the better.
Do you consider yourself part of the green community?
I'm an avid fly fisherman, so I come from an outdoors background. I'm not in the camp that thinks global warming means Florida is going to be underwater in 10 years, because I think the Earth will correct itself. But recycling and reusing rain is an ancient practice, it makes sense and it's the right thing to do. Why waste all that water?
After years in the corporate world, are you enjoying Employ the Rain?
Carving out time to do the paperwork after hours is a problem, because I'm having so much fun during the day. Finding creative ways to install the rain barrels and run the drip lines is great. I went to college so I wouldn't have to work with my hands, and here I am outside all day, playing around in the dirt.
Name: Mark Lutz
Company: Employ the Rain
2010 Projected Revenue: $30,000
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 9/30/10.
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