SML Services is a little company with a big mission.
Jerell Brown, the 25-year-old owner, has bounced back from a marijuana conviction to run this tiny — but profitable — landscaping firm.
Of course, Brown isn’t a classic businessman. But his natural inclination for cash management, capital investment and expanding a customer base are now putting legitimate dollars in his pockets.
The name SML stands for Save My Lawn. The company is in its third year of business, with five employees on the payroll, four used trucks and $10,000 worth of landscaping equipment.
Brown serves 80 residential clients with year-round lawn maintenance and snow removal. The growing residential base is balanced by two commercial clients as well as So Others Might Eat (SOME), a District-based community organization that helps the homeless. SOME is Brown’s anchor client, paying SML $5,000 a month for maintaining 15 of its properties.
“Jerell is the real deal,” said Emily Price, a SOME administrator. “He is incredibly smart, and his business instincts are amazing.”
He first put those instincts to work as a middle-school student at Friendship Public Charter Schools in the District. He noticed that Black & Mild mini cigars were the rage among fellow students, and figured out a way to make money on that.
He quickly grasped the concept of a profit margin. Brown would buy a pack of five for $3 and get the second pack free. He sold the 10 cigars for $1 apiece, pocketing a $7 profit.
Brown netted about $50 a week, giving most of it to his mother to buy food.
It wasn’t long before he discovered the pot business.
“Black & Mild was the gateway . . . to marijuana,” he said.
For several years after high school, Brown bounced between jobs, earning money to support a newborn: “The only thing going through my mind at this point was, ‘I need to get money to support my daughter,’ ” he said.
In 2010, he got a job at a restaurant in Northwest D.C. He started off as a janitor and eventually was promoted to server. The restaurant introduced him to a new world — which boosted his side business selling marijuana.
“I don’t want to glorify it,” he said. “You are just worried about making money.”
Even with a great deal of cash flowing in, Brown was keenly focused on his fiduciary responsibilities to his family.
“I learned to make money pots for things to avoid splurging,” he said. “I had different stashes for expenses . . . food, entertainment, clothes, family, et cetera.”
It came crashing down on Halloween night in 2012, when he was arrested with several ounces of marijuana in his car.
The initial charge was possession with intent to distribute while armed. He was held for five days without bail before his initial court appearance.
That was his wake-up call.
“I got a little taste of D.C. jail and how it worked,” he said. “I didn’t like anything about it.”
Five days later, he was sitting in court and facing up to 60 months in prison. “After I heard ‘five years,’ in my mind, I was already a changed person. I said, ‘I already know what I got to do. I got to get something,’ ” he said.
He was put under house arrest for eight months at the end of 2012 while he awaited sentencing. He made the most of it, listening to motivational tapes given to him by his boss at the restaurant. He completed training programs that taught him job skills, résumé building, interviewing, the importance of showing up on time.
He also started a music-review magazine. The judge took this into account, as well as character letters from neighbors and previous employers, at sentencing in March 2013.
His sentence was an immediate month in jail and two years’ probation. (His record has since been expunged.) Brown spent that month thinking about how he could go into legal business.
“The fastest and cheapest way I could think of was to get a lawn mower, a weed whacker and a blower and go to work,” he said.
Brown created a flier on Microsoft Word, made 100 copies at Staples and handed them out door-to-door. Some customers became mentors.
“One of my first customers . . . gave me a project on the spot to see what I could do,” Brown said. “He shared with me his business experiences, giving me tips for success.”
Within a few weeks, he had a handful of clients. He had to figure out what to charge. He had to find employees. He bought equipment.
He attended a building-maintenance class sponsored by SOME during the day, and cut grass at night. SOME was so impressed that it offered him a full-time landscaping job.
“I weighed the option of getting steady pay and benefits with SOME or continuing to take my chances with the 25 clients I had and work for myself,” he said.
He bet on himself.
SOME eventually asked him to bid on providing landscape services on one of its properties. More jobs from SOME followed.
SML lost $6,650 in 2014, but has rebounded. The company’s 2016 revenue is $180,000, triple what it grossed in 2015. Brown will take home $50,000 this year.
He uses QuickBooks, has an administrative assistant and has developed an ad slogan: “empowering the community by providing jobs for the youth.”
The young mogul is thinking big, and outside landscaping, with an eye on a four-unit rental property.
“I want to get some passive income,” he said. “I have worked so hard these past two years; I want to start making money by thinking, using my brain, instead of my muscle and labor, and let someone else do the work.”