Paving his own way

By Amber Friedrichsen

In addition to completing assignments and taking exams, Luke Dietrich’s college career has consisted of laying bricks and drawing landscaping plans. The senior in horticulture is the owner of Pilot Landscaping Solutions LLC, and he has scaled his business while simultaneously pursuing his degree.

Pilot Landscaping Solutions offers renovations to and new constructions of edging, retaining walls, patios and drainage systems. Dietrich also specializes in plantings and does light grading work at building sites. All of his work is residential, and his customer base encompasses the Clive, Norwalk and Waukee, Iowa, areas.

Dietrich discovered his entrepreneurial spirit in middle school when he mowed the lawn for his neighbors in West Des Moines. Before long, he invested in his own equipment and was cutting grass at nearly every address in the area. This was essentially the namesake for his current business.

“Back then, I didn’t have a truck, but my parents had a Honda Pilot that I towed my mower around with,” Dietrich said. “The word ‘pilot’ has some qualities of professionalism, and my business literally started behind my parents’ Honda Pilot, so that’s why I called myself Pilot Landscaping Solutions.”

Later, when he was in high school, Dietrich shifted his focus from lawn care to landscape design when he decided to major in horticulture at Iowa State University. He taught himself how to do various projects by watching videos and using online resources. He also took classes to learn installation techniques and studied best business practices. Nonetheless, Dietrich ultimately learned the tricks of his trade through trial and error.

“When you get on a job site and something isn’t looking quite right, you might have to try it a different way,” Dietrich said. “Sometimes a project will fail, and you have to go back and do it again. It’s OK to mess up, otherwise you won’t know what not to do.”

After coming to campus, Dietrich’s coursework became applicable to his operation as well. His horticulture curriculum and business classes, such as ECON 234: Small Business Management, contributed to the growth of Pilot Landscaping Solutions.

He also figured out how to manage his business in concert with Iowa State’s academic calendar. For example, he meets with clients during the semester to create landscaping plans, then executes project installations in the summer. Aside from himself, he has three seasonal employees.

Another way Dietrich balances student life and maintaining a business is by being a part of Start Something College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This initiative within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences helps entrepreneurs put their startup ideas into action and expand their current enterprises to profitable levels. Through Start Something CALS, Dietrich is mainly involved with the Student Incubator Program where he meets with his peers to ask questions, express concerns and give advice about his business.

“In the group, you can voice the exact issue you’re trying to solve and get other people’s opinion of it,” Dietrich said. “They can tell you to look at it from a different angle or try a different approach, and having that insight has been awesome.”

This is what Kevin Kimle, director of Start Something CALS, aspires for the structure of the Student Incubator Program. He facilitates meetings to address different aspects of entrepreneurship, such as making investments, building a team or managing money. Overall, the program is designed to help students grow their startup ideas into established businesses.

“Having an initial idea is great, but that is only the first step in a 10,000-step journey,” Kimle said. “Over time, students can improve that idea to the point where their businesses are solving serious problems and making the world a better place.”

Whether Dietrich pursues landscaping full-time after graduating this fall or shifts his focus to other opportunities in the industry, the experiences and knowledge he’s gained at Iowa State have given him a strong foundation to be successful in his field.