On the morning of a winter storm warning last week, you would expect Dan Nelson — the owner Olio Outdoors, a company that does snow removal for big commercial clients across the country — to be finishing a caffeine-fueled all-nighter in a plow truck.

Instead, he’s huddled in a Minneapolis coffee shop with a computer engineer who’s building an online platform that they hope will help him — and eventually other companies — manage the core functions of his business with only a few employees. 

“This might be a rollout software that we can sell to other people,” he said.

Though Nelson is now providing outdoors and landscape services for clients in several states, he’s shed most of his staff and is selling his fleet of plows and mowers. Nelson has built a virtual white-collar business in a blue-collar industry.

Twin Cities-based Nelson subcontracts with local vendors to provide services to his clients.

It’s not a model that Nelson could have foreseen when he was suburban teen who had just learned to mow the grass to help earn his allowance. He started selling his newfound skills to his Plymouth neighbors, and as demand grew he hired his buddies to help out.

Nelson expanded his services, bought equipment, hired more friends and even after leaving home for St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., he kept the business going.

Running the business from afar wasn’t easy. By his sophomore year he was contemplating three options: sell the business to the guys who were running it, shut it down or lean more deeply into the business and invest more time and energy, he said.

The answer came when Nelson was selected to participate in St. John’s Entrepreneur Scholars program, which provides students the chance to design and implement their own business venture. Nelson had a ready-made test case. He expanded the business, and invested in more equipment.

By his senior year Nelson had a dozen trucks, 60 employees and a focus on landscape design and installation, grass maintenance and snow removal. He moved the business to an office/warehouse space in Brooklyn Park and decided to focus solely on big commercial clients.

After ramping up his staff and equipment in time for the winter of 2016, the snow didn’t come. He started driving Uber and decided to get his real estate license.

A fare who hired Nelson to drive him to a Timberwolves game mentioned he was a procurement manager for Waste Management. Nelson told him about his business and they traded contact info, which led to a national contract with Aramark, which provides maintenance services to Waste Management and other large clients.

“He changed the trajectory of the business,” said Nelson.

Nelson contemplated what it would take to satisfy a big new client and a national expansion. He would have to hire more employees and spend upward of a half-million dollars on new equipment.

The business model as it was currently structured wasn’t scalable, so Nelson started contracting with local companies that already had employees and equipment in the communities where he had clients.

That decision solved one problem but created another. Nelson had to find reliable subcontractors and manage the relationship, sometimes without ever meeting them. The situation with his clients was similar. Nelson used Google sheets to build an online platform to manage the business. He called it Contract Builder 1.0, but he quickly started developing a second iteration, a management platform that by December enabled him to give up all brick-and-mortar operations.

The strategy has worked so well Nelson is working with Tyler Hanson, a Twin Cities software engineer/developer who is integrating Contract Builder into Olio Engine, a platform that will enable him to increase the size of the business and create a new business opportunity: A web-based operating system that can be used by general contractors regardless of the industry.

His goal is to develop an online platform for all functions related to client and vendor interactions that can be used by anyone in the company.

Nelson beams when saying that his top-line revenue has never been higher even though he owns no equipment and now has just a handful of team members who can work from wherever they have access to a computer.

It will also be a test case for other companies that function as a general contractor.

“If we do this right,” Nelson said. “This should become a plug-and-play [option] for other businesses.”


Editor’s note: Neal St. Anthony returns March 3.