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Snow removal industry beginning to see shift to Uber model of on-demand services

The winter season can be an arduous one for many, especially those who dread shoveling their sidewalk or driveway. However, several companies are now hoping technology can help people avoid some of the inconveniences of winter weather.

In this day and age of ridesharing services such as Uber, within the last several years, multiple businesses in the United States and Canada have launched applications that make the work of clearing a snow-covered sidewalk or driveway as effortless as pressing the button on a smartphone.

One such company is Plowz and Mowz, a startup that launched its app in late 2014 and also strives to reduce other tedious household chores such as leaf removal and lawn mowing.

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, the company cut its teeth working in a market that ranks annually as one of the snowiest cities in the U.S. Co-founders Wills Mahoney and Andrew Englander, former college roommates, began with a fleet of eight trucks and after experiencing success, soon expanded to the Midwest and mid-Atlantic.

Today, the organization is operating in 30 of the biggest markets in the U.S., including Denver, Minneapolis, Boston and Chicago, and covers a 30- to 40-mile radius on average in those markets.

Users can request a plow truck to clear their driveway through the app, and within minutes, the assigned plow will arrive at the person's property. However, completion time can be dependent on weather conditions or the volume of orders, Mahoney said. To receive confirmation that a job is a complete, customers receive a photo of the freshly plowed driveway.

Customers are charged for the service once the work is done. When determining price, Plowz and Mowz takes into consideration the length and width of someone's driveway, as well as location. Before moving into a new area, Plowz and Mowz does market research by examining the going rate for a snowplow in that specific area.

"A city like Boston demands a higher price point than a city like Syracuse," Mahoney said.

While this winter has yet to unleash a major snowstorm across parts of the Northeast, the company's business hasn't been hurt as they've gained traction in Denver, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Plus, they can rely on the lawnmowing side of operations in warm weather locales like Florida.

Mahoney said during several of the major storms that helped Boston total its snowiest winter ever last year, the company received thousands of orders within the first couple of hours. While they were able to handle the volume of requests, they had to bring in trucks from outside the region to meet the demand.

"It was a definite challenge for us, but we consider it a true success," Mahoney said.

Plowz and Mowz works with only established businesses that have their own fleet of trucks and commercial grade equipment. While Englander pointed to some consumer benefits, like saving time or avoiding injury and health risks from shoveling on icy surfaces, he said the service is beneficial for smaller contractors by giving access to new clientele by providing denser routes.

Typically, snow removal companies require customers to sign a contract for the season or on a monthly basis. One of the perks that on-demand services highlight is a pay-as-you-go model.

"We're just giving them an entirely new type of customer," Englander said. "Someone who wants to pay as they go and only for what they need."

Mike Heffernan is the co-owner of Imperial Seal in Minneapolis, a company that does seal-coating and asphalt repair services during the spring and summer and offers snow plowing during the winter.

After being referred from a contact that previously used Plowz and Mowz, Heffernan is now in his second year with the service. While he doesn't solely rely on the app for his business, Heffernan said he has 60 accounts of his own, Plowz and Mowz offers additional jobs when he's not as busy.

Since there's been less snowfall than normal in Minneapolis this winter, Heffernan has not been out on the roads as much, but he has noticed more requests for service from the Plowz and Mowz app.

"It's been a great resource for my business," Heffernan said. "It's a great supplement to what I have already going when it snows out."

Other providers are less keen on the idea of at ordering a snowplow like a taxi.

Boston-based PlowMe originated as an on-demand company in 2012 when CEO Yeh Diab pitched the idea of an app to a contractor who was looking to make some additional money on the side. Yet when little snow fell that winter, Diab later shifted the strategy to a route-based subscription service, which brought steadier revenue. In this case, providers create routes or plans and then residents can pick and choose.

Diab said the drivers he works with dislike on-demand because they don't like showing up at a driveway sight unseen and prefer not to disappoint their regular customers by taking an off-the-cuff job.

On PlowMe's website, the service is described as "like buying a train ticket for your home." Diab said snow services in general are more like buses that have regular routes and less like hailing a cab or requesting a ride with Uber. Still, he thinks Uber-like snow plowing is a niche that can be met for drivers under the right circumstances, like picking up additional jobs if they have time and capacity.

Other companies similar to Plowz and Mowz have begun to appear in parts of Canada. One company called Plow Me Out is targeting several regions of Atlantic Canada to kickoff its snowplow on-demand business this winter.

Sean Griffith, co-founder and CEO of Plow Me Out, who resides in Moncton, New Brunswick, said there are at least five different on-demand applications throughout the country that offer variations on the idea. In an email interview, Griffith said he decided to enter the industry based on the amount of snow that's fallen over the past few winters.

"It largely came from a personal pain of having to shovel our own driveways," he said.

One of the reasons Griffith thinks people will be excited about the on-demand product is to have options and added convenience, because it can be difficult to find a plow operator during a storm.

"We look at this as an undeveloped area of snow removal, and [it] complements the way [the industry] operates now," Griffith said. "We're not really interested in taking away from the contracted service. What we want to do is convert some of the people that would shovel and maybe a few that have a snowblower to using our service when it's convenient for them."


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.