ASU students take 'hassle out of the holidays'

Finance and engineering students grow Valley Christmas Tree Removal through classes and COVID-19


finance student Connor Hogan and engineering management student Dillon Newgaard

Engineering management student Dillon Newgaard (left) and finance student Connor Hogan.

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Some stores were beginning to put out Halloween decorations before Labor Day. People were beginning to plan for Christmas in August and decorate in September. Lots of holiday lights went up while the Thanksgiving turkey thawed.

With 2020 proving a difficult year for many, it’s no wonder people embraced the festive season earlier than usual. According to research, Christmas decorating can lift your mood.

Except, what happens when it’s time to take down the Christmas tree? It’s always been a depressing job, signaling the end of the season. It’s messy, too, dragging out a dried-up tree with sticky sap that sheds prickly needles everywhere. That’s where Valley Christmas Tree Removal comes in: They haul your spruce away and vacuum and sweep up its needles for you.

Arizona State University finance student Connor Hogan and engineering management student Dillon Newgaard began the business as a small service, disposing of 17 trees for friends and neighbors during winter break in 2017. In the new year, the co-founders and their team of four Christmas tree removal specialists expect to recycle 300 trees.

“We could tell the service had traction,” Hogan said. “People told us it was super helpful and that they hated having to do it themselves. We’re here to take the hassle out of the holidays. We know how valuable time is, and we’ve seen our parents struggle with taking the trees out when we were younger. It’s a drag, and people keep their Christmas trees up longer than they should. It’s been a part of your family, all the joy for the entire month.”

For $20 to $30 (varies by ZIP code), customers can request curbside or in-home tree removal. The company also provides business removals. This year, the crew will be following COVID-19 CDC guidelines, wearing masks and gloves at all times during the in-home service for a contactless job.  

Finance major Hogan has put his forecasting lessons to work, calculating that they’ve retained 95% of their customers, increased customer acquisitions year over year by greater than 250%, kept the profit margin greater than 70% year over year, and tripled revenues.

Valley Christmas Tree Removal logo

Thanks to a $2,500 award from ASU Venture Devils Demo Day in May, Hogan and Newgaard have formed an LLC for the business, launched a self-service scheduling system on its website, had a professional logo created, bought brooms and vacuums for the crew, and paid for liability insurance, custom face coverings, company shirts and brochures.

Hogan credits Venture Devils mentor Susan Brooks for her guidance and support with his pitch and connecting him with a local agent who underwrote the company liability insurance.

“Susan started an online cookie sale business, and cookie sales are huge around Christmas. She knows what it takes to scale a business for a busy season,” he said about their perfect mentor-mentee match.

“There are 400,000 live Christmas trees sold in the Valley every year,” Hogan said, adding that the fall 2020 Demo Day is Dec. 4. “If we can capture a quarter of the market, we’d have a million-dollar business.

"We’d like to make money, but it’s not our biggest goal.”

Last year, Valley Christmas Tree Removal donated six fully decorated Christmas trees to families in need with help from a local tree farm. Hogan said he hopes to donate more trees this year, partnering with vendor Randy Fitch and his lot at 32nd Street and Chandler Boulevard. 

Some of their funds from Venture Devils, in addition to $1,200 awarded through a Changemaker Central competition, will support Christmas tree donations this month. Purchasing a commemorative ornament also helps provide Christmas tree donations. A family can be nominated to receive a tree as well. Submissions close on Dec. 10. You may nominate yourself or a family in need. Plus, the full-service Christmas tree removal is completely free to donation recipients.

“Leveraging our profits to help families in need is the ultimate pride for us,” Hogan said. “That's the thing I'm most excited about. I’ve always been the money-maker and the entrepreneur and studying finance, but I didn't realize how much joy I’d get out of seeing the look on a kid’s face as we bring in a fresh tree and all the decorations for it.”

Valley Christmas Tree Removal also partnered with a tree lot company that’s sharing the company’s new brochures at its 20 locations across Arizona.

“We get a ton of customer data,” said Hogan, who added that his courses for a certificate in applied business data analytics are already paying off. “It’s helped me monetize the data about the business, which is why we pursued the partnership. Our data have shown that about a third of our customers come from the initial contact at tree lots.”

Hogan won’t know whether the tree lot partnership makes a big difference for the business, but he says they’ll continue to do online marketing through Facebook and Google.

“It’s worthwhile for us to put our marketing dollars to work this way,” he explained. “As a small business, especially what we do, we’re constricted by time and money. We have to be extremely efficient with what we're spending and optimize our labor costs. Driving around town adds up. I think we’ve been able to put together a good statement of income. It’s helped us understand exactly how we need to operate better.”

Part of figuring out where to spend their money includes determining necessary skills for their growing team so they “don’t overpromise and underdeliver,” said Hogan, who’s training his high-school-age brother, Aiden, and his brother's friend, Carter Sauer, as Christmas tree removal specialists.

“This is our biggest test,” he said. “In a lot of ways, this year will define whether our business is something we want to keep doing every year. Are we efficiently providing a service that makes a profit? The business that carries on is profitable.”

Valley Christmas Tree Removal has their first pickup on Dec. 27, and Jan. 16, 2021, is the last day they’ll haul away trees for mulching this holiday season. Those who make a reservation before Christmas get $5 off the in-home package using promo code TREEVIP. When customers book their tree removal, they have the option to share where they purchased their tree for the site’s new buyer’s guide, which ranks the freshest Valley trees.

“I'm very nerdy when it comes to the data,” said Hogan, who interned at Boeing aerospace company this summer doing financial data analytics. “We’ve hauled away hundreds of trees, many dried up and dead before Christmas. The scores will help customers buy fresher, longer-lasting trees this year.”

Hogan has faith Valley Christmas Tree Removal will continue to grow each holiday season. Still, he’s on the job market for a full-time financial consulting position as a soon-to-be graduate. Because of the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus, the fall ceremony and convocation will be virtual.

“I’ll walk in the spring if it’s a thing,” but fortunately, a visit to New York City this month to see his girlfriend is cushioning the delay.

“I don't think we can take down the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree,” Hogan said. “It’s a little bit beyond our means right now.”

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