In the winter of 2012, after a major snow blast to Syracuse, New York, Wills Mahoney's mother got stuck in her driveway. As she sat, she watched several plows go by, but couldn't get one to her property. And there it was, the inspiration for Plowz & Mowz, an on-demand, residential plowing and mowing company, founded by 33-year-old Mahoney and college friend Andrew Englander.
"We are truly the only on-demand snow plowing app on the market today. You can go with other websites, but their turnaround time is about 48 hours, and they're going to have to give you an estimate," claimed Mahoney, whose company now serves 30 markets, including Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Customers download the app, type in their information, get an exact price on a snowplow and then that request is dispatched to drivers who contract with the company. Generally, those drivers are already out on their routes. They can accept or reject the job, depending on distance and schedules.
"It's very similar to the Uber model," said Mahoney.
Residential snowplowing is a growing business, as harsher storms hit the nation with increased frequency. There are approximately 30,000 residential plowing companies and three times as many who plow commercial properties, like malls and offices.
"The vast majority of the residential market is single contractors. It is highly fragmented," said Martin Tirado, CEO of the Snow and Ice Management Association, who calls the app a "disruptor."
"Some of the bigger companies that do this," he added, "like Brightview, (formerly Rockville, Maryland-based Brickman) they only comprise 3 to 4 percent of market share, and they're the biggest one out there."
Jeff DeLine, a Plowz & Mowz provider for three years, said he has seen demand for snowplows surge dramatically.
"Easily hundreds more requests for each event," said DeLine, owner of J&R Lawns and Landscapes in Syracuse.
DeLine employs about 30 drivers and uses Plowz & Mowz for additional revenue that he said comes without extra hassle.
"It just fills a gap in our current routes," said DeLine. "We don't have to gather customer information, we don't have to gather their billing information, and we don't have to bill them after the service is completed. All we have to do is show up to the job, plow it and send a picture when it's completed."
Last winter, when Syracuse was unusually dry, DeLine dispatched five trucks to Boston, which was seeing record snowfall. He said he made $15,000 on the trip and could not have done it without the app.
"It wouldn't have been feasible to travel there and do that based on the amount of work that we would have had to do to gain customers there at the drop of a hat," he said.
While there is no significant competition to Plowz & Mowz yet, there are still challenges to this model. It works for residential, but would need to be much larger scale to serve commercial properties, which require heavy equipment. The model also does away with old-fashioned customer relationships.
"It's going to be a significant change and more challenging. Before this, people had a route, operators, drivers, they were familiar with the properties in advance. Now they don't know," said Tirado. "The property could have steep inclines and declines, sensitive landscaping, where are you going to put the snow? Before, people did on-site inspections. It's going to be more challenging, but I certainly think people will adapt to it."
Mahoney said he hasn't had many issues with customer satisfaction. He notes that drivers have Google Maps, providing a picture of the property, and that customers can upload photos and instructions with their service requests. Mahoney claims to have grown his app into a "multimillion-dollar company" in just three years. He said he has help from an angel investor and will be raising more funds soon.
No question, the promise of quick help after a storm is very attractive. With a possibly epic winter storm bearing down on Washington, D.C., where Plowz & Mowz does not yet operate, CNBC.com put a call in to a northern Virginia plow company Thursday to find out about weekend service. After sitting on hold for at least 10 minutes, we were told they could not guarantee a plow before Monday.