When you have a name like Josh Trees and your job is hanging holiday lights, you have to be prepared for the inevitable question: Is that actually your name?
Trees — yes, that’s his real name — started his business, We Hang Christmas Lights, in 1997, decorating homes, businesses and assorted branched greenery in Temecula, California.
But Trees definitely gets the last (jolly) laugh.
“When we first started doing this, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s a cute little business,’” says the 43-year-old. “We were like, ‘Yeah, cute,’ — you don’t realize people are paying us $3,500 to put lights up on their houses.
“By my third year, I was hitting a net profit of right around $138,000.”
Now Trees crisscrosses the country with strands of lights and a tiny house to teach others how they can build their own businesses hanging twinkling bulbs.
On the First Day of Christmas Lighting
Ah, the fond memories of hauling out last year’s box of lights to add some holiday cheer to the humble abode. Haphazardly arrange the lights around the front stoop, throw a wreath on the door and voilá!
But if you’re starting a business hanging lights, that simplified recollection can lead to costly errors, according to Trees. And he should know, because he had the same idea.
“We were making mistakes on everything — we were just a bunch of guys thinking, ‘Hey, this is going to be easy,’” Trees says. “We were hanging other people’s lights — that’s a huge no-no.… The second stage was hanging the crummy lights from retailers.
“I’m surprised I made it through the first couple years.”
By the third year, Trees had moved onto purchasing lights from wholesale vendors, which offered discounts for bulk purchases. He was also buying commercial-grade strands so that when one bulb went out, they didn’t all go out.
But Trees says his biggest mistake had nothing to do with lights — it was underbidding jobs.
“I got into it in the first year… and I didn’t make any money — probably lost money,” Trees says. “I was charging $150 for jobs that should have been $850.
“I bid a job for $3,500 that should have literally been $35,000.It was horrible.”
Enlightening Business Strategies
Trees’ students echo his refrain, noting that learning from other professionals early on can help transform a business idea into a profitable enterprise — and with a lot fewer mistakes along the way.
One of Trees’ early students was Jeff Krall, owner of American Holiday Lights in Woodridge, Illinois. In 2008, Krall attended an individual training session, which Trees conducted before he started traveling the country to teach classes.
“Josh helped me get it started,” says Krall, 53. “Everything from how to hang the lights on the rooflines… making our own extension cords, how to wrap the trees.
“It would take someone… two or three years to learn how to do it correctly, whereas Josh, in two or three days, he tells them how to do everything.”
In his first season of business, Krall estimates he had 30 clients. Now he manages 25 to 35 employees who light 35 to 40 houses a day during the season, at an average price of $1,400 to $1,500 per house.
However, those visions of sugarplums and dollar signs dancing in your head might not be in your immediate future — or at least not the first season.
Last year, Lucas Pulvermacher decided to add a light-hanging business to his busy lawn care enterprise near Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
“My first year was tricky because I had to have an inventory of the lights. That’s a fairly large cost — and also the ladder, equipment, safety stuff like that,” says Pulvermacher, who recently turned 16. “I’d say we came out about even.”
Pulvermacher says his Lucas Lights lit three houses and two businesses after launching in mid-November last year — “It was hard because we started so late.”
After taking Trees’ class this year to learn marketing and sales strategies, Pulvermacher invested in professionally designed materials, including a logo.
His goal is to tackle 10 houses this year and then double that number by 2019 — when he has his driver’s license.
Beyond Christmas Lights
One of the cool things about those twinkling lights is that they still work after Jan. 1. That means there’s more business after the wintry holiday season.
“A lot of the guys we work with, they do wedding lights, event lights, party lights and backyard lighting, that sort of thing, and a lot also do landscape lighting,” says Trees, who estimates that light installations for weddings bring in $1,800 on average but can go as high as $7,000.
Krall, who also owns a roofing business, hangs lights all year round for backyard weddings, Diwali festival of lights celebrations and Halloween parties — “but the majority of what we do is Christmas,” he notes.
So let’s say you’re not ready to start your own business but being outside hanging lights sounds like a better gig than working a seasonal retail job.
Krall notes that the toughest part of his business is finding good, reliable help.
“We got creative this year, so we align ourselves with other companies out there that are seasonal, like landscapers or pool companies,” Krall says. “When they’re laying off, we’re actively developing relationships.”
Trees recommends that installers offer tiered bonus pay, adding an extra $1 per hour each week to incentivize continued attendance as the season winds down — particularly in January when companies have to take down the lights.
“Helpers can typically make anywhere from between… $13 at the low end to about $20 at the high end — and that’s before bonuses,” Trees says. “When you find somebody that’s good, it’s key that you keep those people, because it’s temporary, and they know it’s temporary.”
For people interested in finding holiday lighting jobs in their area, Trees suggests checking places like Craigslist, Indeed and the We Hang Christmas Lights site, which includes a directory of light installers that’s searchable by zip code — just mention your interest in a job when you fill out the online form.
Trees has found that these holiday gigs are best suited for people who work warm-weather jobs in roofing, tree trimming and window washing. All of which have at least one trait in common — no fear of heights.
And yes, the money is nice, but Krall and Pulvermacher agree that the best part of hanging bulbs is the way their customers’ faces light up when they see the finished product.
“Everybody’s in a really good mood around Christmas time,” says Krall.
Pulvermacher adds: “It’s just kind of a cozy feeling when you see a house all lit up.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She covers interesting careers and job benefits. Her holiday wish list includes a subscription to a gourmet cheese of the month club, in case anyone starts shopping early.