When the Tubbs Fire tore through the forests east of Santa Rosa in October 2017, Allison Messner thought for sure their house was destroyed. To her surprise, when she and her husband finally got access to the property, the home was standing but the four surrounding acres had been reduced to little but scorched earth. Messner (Journalism, ’03) began to research landscape architects to restore it to the beautiful area it once was, only to be dismayed to learn how complex, expensive, and time-consuming the process would be. She decided to take measures into her own hands.
Messner and her husband, Adam, founded Yardzen, an online landscaping design platform that has since been written up in The New York Times, Sunset magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Wall Street Journal. They’ve completed tens of thousands of designs for homeowners across the country, using 80 fully remote employees, 300 designers, and 500 landscape contractor partners. This month, Messner was named to Inc. Magazine’s Female Founders 100 list for 2022 as one of the “most dynamic women in business.” In the face of so much success, she still feels like Yardzen is at the starting line—she sees so much untapped potential for homeowners, contractors, and small businesses as it dreams up beautiful spaces and connects people to make them happen.
As Yardzen’s CEO, Messner acknowledges running a landscape design company is far from her vision for herself after graduating from Chico State. She first put her journalism skills to work as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Kodiak, Alaska, then returned to California to work in public relations and eventually cofounded an internet security company. She spent seven years building it and used the writing and narrative skills she cultivated during her days on The Orion to develop its brand. That said, she knows where she is today is exactly where she was destined to be.
“Your path is never a straight line,” she said. “And you are as good as anybody else to embark on what you want to pursue.”
What was your interest in landscaping pre-fire?
I approached Yardzen from the lens of somebody who was a homeowner but who didn’t know a lot about landscape architecture or landscape design and was really overwhelmed by the complexity of the project. I have had a cell phone all of my adult life and know what’s possible with just a cell phone. You can show someone property through photos and videos—why can’t you use it to design landscaping? I found someone as far away as geographically possible, southern Florida, to proof out the concept for our own home. I said, “Please, just give it a shot,” and sent photos and videos and details on plants that I liked. The result showed immediate success.
What gave you the confidence to pivot to a totally new business?
It didn’t feel like a departure to me. It felt like something that should exist. There are 30 million residential lots in the United States and most of them have yards. I’m a firm believer in living outside—part of that probably comes from my time at Chico State, being in Bidwell Park, and hiking at the Feather River. When you are outside, you are breathing fresh air, you put your phone down, you connect with other humans and you live in the moment. Being outside and in green space leads to wellness, and for a lot of people, our yards are the closest green space we can access. If you can make your outdoor space a place that is recharging to you and helps with your overall wellness, great. Additionally, knowing all of the things that have to be done post-disaster, if we can make one thing easier and even delightful for the homeowner, and be a bright spot in their rebuilding, it’s worth it.
What role does the current drought and waterwise planting play in your business model?
Much of the US is experiencing drought conditions, many for the first time. It’s been part of my whole life growing up in California, but for a lot of people, it’s a new experience. The first place to start is lawns. They are just about curb appeal and completely lacking in biodiversity. There are a lot of other options that accomplish those goals, are biodiverse, and don’t use as much water. Low-water, native, and climate-adapted plants are the way to go. You can restore wildness by planting native and climate-adapted plants, and our goal is to incorporate two or three native or climate-adapted plants in every design. If we all do a little, together we can do a lot.
Yardzen was doing remote work before COVID-19 turned traditional office life upside down. Do you see yourself as a model for how it can be successful?
This connectivity is one of the most amazing things that the internet has afforded us. Of course, you have to be careful and balance it with wellness, because there is too much connectivity. But it also creates opportunity. We have employees who have not stopped traveling since the start of the pandemic. As soon as the world shut down, I encouraged that. I have long been a believer that work is not a place you go, it’s a thing you do.
How did your experience at Chico State and the journalism program help you on your journey?
I loved every second of my experience at Chico State. I think there is sort of an entrepreneurial thread that is woven through Chico State as an institution, and Chico State produces a lot of people who have an entrepreneurial streak. My experience there gave me confidence to try things. There was permission to try and experiment, to find your passion—with the implicit understanding that not all things are going to be your passions or your success but it’s OK. It’s all part of a journey and that’s how you figure out what your path is. That leads to an entrepreneurial mindset where you are OK doing and daring and putting yourself out there.