Robin Autopilot Puts Robo-Mowers to Work in U.S.
If you’re entertaining for the big Memorial Day weekend, you’re probably not eager to mow the yard in preparation. Justin Crandall, co-founder of Robin Autopilot, doesn’t want you mow either. He’d prefer you install one of his robotic lawn mowers instead.
“Our mission is to make lawn maintenance more reliable, affordable, and eco-friendly for consumers,” said Crandall.
He said the robo-mowers could be the technological next step for a highly fragmented industry that adds up to $30 billion to $40 billion in the U.S. alone. Currently, the industry is dominated by what Crandall calls “three guys in a truck” that show up once a week and take care of the yard.
Crandall and the team started in that industry, with the “Uber of lawn care,” but after two very rainy seasons they pivoted to robotic mowing when they ran smack into the extremely difficult, low margin world of lawn care.
“We basically ran into every challenge you can find,” said Crandall. “But then we started hearing about these robotic mowers in Europe.”
He was clued into a little-known trend of lawn care automation that few in the U.S. have seen firsthand because of the low barrier of entry for those guys in a truck.
“In Europe, you don’t have this labor force that comes to take care of the yard for $25. So the vast majority of people in Europe mow their own lawns. So when they look at $2,000 robot, they’re buying their Saturdays back,” said Crandall.
But bringing the robots overseas wasn’t enough. They were already available but the manufacturer of his mowers had sold just 10,000 robots, compared with the 1 million sold in Europe. His target demographic was already paying someone to come take care of the yard, so when they saw a $2,000 robot they also saw all the other work beyond the basic mowing. They could get a mower, but then they would have to weed-whack, trim the edging and everything else that comes with keeping a yard nice. In essence, they’d be spending $2,000 and be stuck with more work—not exactly the ideal robotic future.
So Crandall and the team built a lawn-service franchise around the mowing robots. The franchisor buys the robots in bulk, leases them to franchisees for $35 or $50 a month (depending on the size of the robot) and tacks on the services the typical lawn-care buyer wants. The services in the corporate market of Dallas range from $22 per week for a typical yard and just the robot up to $38 per week for “platinum” service package.
“Instead of three guys in a truck every week, it’s one guy in a van every two weeks,” said Crandall.
So far, the company has installed 200 robots in and around Dallas, making them maybe the most experienced automated lawn care providers in the country.
Robin Autopilot has one franchisee growing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The bulk of the work, Crandall says, is just installing the robots; which run on buried, invisible wires like an invisible fence for dogs. After that, they behave a lot like a Roomba vacuum, they buzz around the yard, then return to a charging station.
Crandall said two more franchisees are expected to sign up in the coming weeks and he’s aiming for eight to 10 franchises in 2018 to keep growth sustainable before they get more aggressive in 2019. A fresh $1 million investment from outdoor equipment manufacturer MTD will help them with all the growing pains as they look to new markets.
“We really want to get geographic diversity, that’s one of the things that we talk about a lot,” said Crandall. “As we go across the country, we’re going to learn new things.”
While he couldn’t disclose franchisee revenue, as it’s not in the Item 19, he said they strive to keep costs low. Currently, franchisee investments top out around $80,000 and they only have to lease the robots during the mowing seasons. It takes about three years to pay off the robots, but after that the franchisees just have to maintain them.
“Year one, you’re already cost competitive and probably a little advantage over the traditional mowing guys. But by the time you get to year four, they’re still paying a guy to run the mower but you’re cost went to zero,” said Crandall. “It’s got to work for the franchisee in the first year and we have to make sure they can earn something, but year four and five all the sudden, it’s game breaking.”