Two weeks ago, Zack Kline quit his full-time job at a Rockville payroll company to take the plunge into business for himself, an eco-friendly landscaping company he hopes to one day grow into a national franchising model.
For now, Kline, 24, rides from house to house, taking soil samples of prospective clients, answering emails and trying to put his A.I.R. Lawn Care company on the map. It's an ambitious if risky idea, inspired by hot, humid summers toting around gas-powered lawn equipment and $5,000 in start-up money from a college business competition.
"There's a lot of excitement for it and yeah, it's a little nerve-wracking because you don't have that consistent cash flow," Kline said. "You have to figure out how you can be as resourceful as possible."
Kline is one of many young Bethesda entrepreneurs trying to make it on their own in a time when the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year olds is nearly double the national average, more and more young adults age 20-34 are living in their parents' homes and some college graduates can't find jobs.
A pair of Walt Whitman High School grads recently started a website that refers drivers to car repair shops. Two North Bethesda residents started a late night shuttle service between bars in Bethesda and D.C. last year and recently expanded it to Washington Nationals games for summer weekends.
"Unfortunately, a majority of people in our generation get labeled as lazy, not really driven and a lot of other negative connotations," Kline said. "It gets older people, I think, kind of excited to see someone that maybe reminds them of themselves when they were younger, but also just to see that there is potential and hope for the up-and-coming generation."
Kline's eco-friendly pitch is rooted in the solar panel on his truck and the one soon to be installed on a newly-purchased equipment trailer. He uses electric blowers, mowers and trimmers with batteries that charge via the panel in order to avoid noise and gas pollution from conventional equipment.
He said he came up with the idea while working for a landscaping company on a large lot in Darnestown during a 95-degree Code Red air quality day. His job was to trim and edge the perimeter of the whole property using a gas-powered weedeater.
"My girlfriend at the time said, 'Why is your face so red?' Well, it was 95 degrees outside and I had this hot motor right next to my head, not a great combination," Kline said. "And that led me to thinking, also seeing the amount of gas we used in all the trucks and the bigger mowers, that's when I started thinking that there had to be a better way."
Kline started researching equipment and won honorable mention for the idea during a business competition in his junior year at Salisbury University. In his senior year, he won the $5,000 first prize, which he put toward his truck and some other equipment. With a family loan and his own money from his previous job, Kline hopes to expand his part-time client list of 20 to 100 or 120 by the end of this summer.
On Monday, Kline got an early start. At 8 a.m., he visited a home in Bethesda near Seven Locks Road to do an estimate. He did another at a home off Old Georgetown Road at 10 a.m. He then went to Bethesda Green, where he is a member of the nonprofit's green business incubator, to check emails and make a contact with someone who provides eco-friendly pest control services. At 2 p.m., he was off to pick up new car magnets with his A.I.R.'s logo before an interview with a reporter at 3 p.m., another estimate at 5 p.m. and an evening full of more emails and planning.
He lives with his parents, who he says are supportive of his effort, and pays nominal rent.
"That's challenge within itself because you know when you're young you want to have that freedom," Kline said. I'm still under their house, so therefore under their rules."
He is hoping to hire at least one employee this summer, but keeping costs low is the key for now.
On Monday, he stood in front of an attractive, recently renovated home in the East Bethesda neighborhood. He got the client through the business incubator at Bethesda Green.
"Basically, she's like the Jones of the street, where, you know, everyone else is trying to keep up with what she does," Kline said. "She was excited about it. She didn't realize some of the harmful facts with typical landscaping, so I'm hoping others around here will be interested."
Soil samples in small ziploc bags were spread on the passenger's seat of his truck, which also serves as his office. He'll test the soil for pH levels, organic composition and nitrogen levels, part of his new organic soil service. He's still learning the details.
"Now, I can be known and branded as that eco-friendly lawn care guy, not just the young entrepreneur that people who were close to me knew me as," Kline said. "But now people see me around, the truck magnets are much bigger, the trailer is going to have a huge logo on it. It will make the business seem legitimate and I think really grow."