Lessons Learned: Lars Hundley of Clean Air Gardening

“Lessons Learned” is a biweekly series where we ask ecommerce merchants to share their experiences and advice. For this installment, we interviewed Lars Hundley, president of Clean Air Gardening, an online store based in Dallas, Texas that sells environmentally friendly lawn and garden supplies. Hundley founded Clean Air Gardening in 1998. It currently has 11 employees, 1,500 products and garnered approximately $3 million in revenue in 2008. Here we give you Hundley’s experiences and suggestions.

Shopping cart software

Lars Huntley“We use Yahoo! Merchant Solutions Pro as our cart and site hosting for Clean Air Gardening. We’ve been using it since 1999, and we’re still very happy with it. I’m always looking around at other options, but I haven’t found anything that I like enough to justify switching away.”

“I like the Yahoo! Store platform for a lot of reasons. It is a hosted solution, which means that I don’t have to worry about keeping a server up and running myself. We don’t have any IT employees. I do it all myself. I keep things as simple as possible, so I am not running around doing IT work all day. Yahoo! Store is also very search engine friendly, which is absolutely important when you have an ecommerce site.”

“I also like their secure system for dealing with credit card numbers where they delete numbers after 30 days, so you aren’t holding on to a lot of data that becomes a target. And best of all, it’s super easy to edit your store with only a web browser. We can train a new employee to do it in just a few minutes.”

“There are lots of Yahoo! Store designers and programmers who can make your store look as custom as you need it to. They can also add in a lot of extra features, like customer reviews. We’re using right now, and we are happy with their service.”


“Also Yahoo! Store [a hosted shopping cart].”


“I was the only employee for the first six years that we were in business. I hired my first employee about three years ago, and the second employee a little bit less than a year after that. We needed even more employees when we bought a building locally, so we jumped up to 11 pretty quickly. We are still pretty seriously understaffed, but it’s better to be understaffed than overstaffed in the current economy.”

“One of our challenges is that as a gardening-related business, we have a huge burst of sales in March through June. We are staffed about right in the non-seasonal months, but everyone has to struggle to get out all the orders during the spring busy season. We hope to hire more people to handle the phones before spring, which is our current point of where it hurts most in regards to staffing.”


“We do some public relations in-house. I have a degree in journalism, and I used to be a magazine editor before I started this business. I did all my own PR for the first few years, and Clean Air Gardening has been featured in all kinds of top national magazines over the years. These days, one of the writers does most of the in-house PR work for me, with my supervision, and she does a terrific job.”

“We also use a small, two-person outside PR agency that specializes in the gardening industry. This agency only promotes one of our major products. We import a compost bin that we sell at retail and also distribute to other dealers throughout the United States at wholesale, and that is the product they promote. We’ve been doing that since the last half of 2008, and we have been getting outstanding results.”

“We also use a media buying service. It’s a small company that specializes in buying advertising for mail order gardening companies. That company has paid for itself many times over by helping me only advertise in publications that make sense for our business and in negotiating better advertising rates. Since they work for so many other gardening companies, they are true experts, and I don’t know what we’d do without them.”

Pay-per-click advertising

“We primarily only advertise with [Google] AdWords, and haven’t used Yahoo! or MSN pay-per -click advertising in the last few years. We don’t have a dedicated employee to deal with PPC, so it’s too much of a hassle to set up multiple accounts.”

“We have been testing out a guy lately who optimizes and manages AdWords accounts. He is a former Google employee who started his own business. We’ve been happy with how he has helped reduce our per-click costs, which more than pays for his services. We are slowly expanding the number of campaigns that he runs for us.”

Search engine optimization

“Search engine optimization is important to us. We have three full time writers out of our 11 employees. Before we hired writers, I did all of the writing myself. It’s that important.”

“We don’t really mess with super technical approaches to SEO. We just generate lots of unique, well-written content about our products. We spend a lot of time writing unique product descriptions. Our writers can walk out into the warehouse and touch and feel our products, so that gives them a leg up on people who are just rewriting a manufacturer’s description of a product or using manufacturer copy verbatim. We also encourage employees to use our products, so they have personal experience with them.”

“Our writers are all trained about the basics of how search engines work, so they write both people friendly and search engine friendly copy. We feel that in the end, search engines want good, solid content to appear well because that’s what people want to find when they are searching for something. So if we keep writing solid content that is good and useful, then we think it should do well over time.”

“It sounds kind of simplistic, but we’re pretty happy with our results on the major engines for the keyword phrases that are important to us.”

Expense control

“We are still small enough that I personally sign all the checks, and that is one method that we use to keep expenses under control. As a growing business, it’s easy to let overhead and minor expenses grow and get out of control. You don’t notice it as much because your revenue is growing. Since I started the business out of my own house, funded with a credit card, I generally take a ‘bootstrapping’ approach to running a business and prefer to keep overhead as low as possible.”

“I also had one really bad year early on where I was buying all my own print advertising. My sales went up, but then I closed the books at the end of the year and my profits were way, way down. I was wasting it all on ineffective advertising. That was when I switched to a media buying service because it was obvious that I was really bad at it.”

Accounting software

“We are using QuickBooks for accounting. My wife is a CPA and MBA, and she handles all of our accounting and our finance needs. Other employees help with bookkeeping and billing and invoices. We are probably going to outgrow QuickBooks in the next couple of years, and I have no idea what we’ll do after that.”

Order management software

“We use Stone Edge and it is working well for us. It is compatible with Yahoo! Store and dozens of other shopping carts. We use it to keep track of our inventory, to help place orders from suppliers, to take phone orders and to process and ship online orders.”

“We considered Order Motion when we were looking at other options, but the per order fees for Order Motion would have made it prohibitively expensive for us. We also considered Mail Order Manager, but it was too complicated to set up when we tried the trial version, so we didn’t even attempt it.”

“Stone Edge offered a service where they remotely connect to your PC and set up all the software for you initially for a fee, and that was the best money we have ever spent on anything. Stone Edge has a learning curve, but now that we are using it, we don’t see anything else that would be worth the huge inconvenience of switching to.”

Shipping and order fulfillment

“For the first six years I was in business, I was the only employee. I used an outsourced warehouse service for anything that wouldn’t fit in my house or garage. Eventually, it grew too expensive to outsource warehousing anymore. As our order volume kept increasing exponentially over the years, so did our monthly warehouse storage and handing fees. Once it reached a tipping point, it actually made more financial sense for us to purchase a 14,000 square foot warehouse and office building. Now we ship from our own location.”

“We still drop ship a few products, but we like to focus on products that can’t be dropped shipped, which helps reduce competition from the types of stores that only drop ship and are happy with extremely low margins.”

Credit card payments

“We use as our credit card gateway. We have been happy with their service and rates, for the most part. They work well with our order management software, Stone Edge, and that is why we use them.”

Social media

“We have been experimenting with Twitter and Facebook but haven’t really found it to generate a lot of traffic or sales. People go on Facebook to hang out with their friends and not to buy things, it seems to me.”

“We shoot a lot of our own product videos and some lawn and gardening informational videos, and we put them on YouTube. Those videos get thousands of aggregate views, and they do help generate sales. We embed these videos directly into our product pages so that people can watch a video when they are trying to decide if they want to buy something. You can see our YouTube channel at”


“We have a Clean Air Gardening blog, and it has been a good way to generate traffic. We keep several weeks’ worth of content prescheduled in the blog, so we don’t have to constantly worry about, ‘What are we going to write about today?’”

“We do a lot of informational blog posts about eco-friendly gardening in general, but we do some product related posts too. It gives you multiple chances for your product to show up in a search engine if you have an original blog post about the product and a product page. The blog post can generate search traffic right to the product page, where you can make the sale. We’ll do posts like ‘Products We Are Using’ and ‘Newly Added Product.’”

Customer service

“Since we’re understaffed, we aren’t always as good at answering the phones as we’d like to be. We try to make up for that by shipping quickly, so there isn’t as much of a need for customer service. It’s like that book, The Best Service is No Service.”

“We have a 60-day money back guarantee, which is longer than most companies. If a customer doesn’t like something, we are generally pretty easy to work with when it comes to returns, exchanges, etc.”

“I look to companies like Zappos and L.L. Bean as models. I’d love to be half as good as either of those guys.”

General business attitude

“Our business is all about environmentally friendly products, so we try to run our business with that in mind. We have a whole section of our website devoted to all of the “green” things we do at Clean Air Gardening, and we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.

“We also have a really cool program during checkout where people can choose to donate $1, $5 or $10 to Trees for the Future, a nonprofit that plants trees in developing countries. We match those donations, dollar for dollar, which effectively doubles the customer’s impact with their donation. In 2008, we raised just over $13,000 for Trees for the Future. That money will plant around 130,000 trees. How’s that for making a difference?”

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Brendan Gibbons
Brendan Gibbons
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