Feature, V10I3

Father and Sons Create Backyard Escapes

Ryan Hurley (center) and sons Brayden (left) and Ethan make the family business work at Backyard Escapes.

Ryan Hurley likes to talk about photographs he has of his sons.

“I have pictures of them when they were 10 years old riding around the shed lot or riding in the truck with me,” he says. 

“Both of them would work their summers when they were off school helping me or helping after school.”

The shed lot Ryan talks about has moved in Pocomoke City, Maryland, and another lot was added in Georgetown, Delaware, but father and sons are still together operating Backyard Escapes.

Today, Brayden, Ryan’s oldest runs the business’s Delaware lot. He attended the University of Maryland out of high school and then decided he wanted to work in Backyard Escapes full-time.

Ethan, Ryan’s youngest, recently finished his studies at Liberty University and is getting to know the operation of a family business.

“Brayden manages the Delaware location, does home deliveries, and then handles the website traffic, doing quotes online, following up with those customers,” Ryan shares. 

“Ethan is more helping me with deliveries. He does his own deliveries and more of the operational stuff around each lot, moving stuff around, doing inventory, cutting the grass, you know all the fun stuff. The youngest has to pay his dues.”

Ethan explains, “Mostly right now I’m just helping them whenever they need an extra hand for delivering the sheds or swing sets or anything like that … and a little bit of cutting the grass.

“If they just ever need me, I’m always here, but it’s more on Brayden’s side. He’s got more control than me, so I just let him do everything.” 

“That’s the only time you’ll ever hear him say that,” quips Brayden.

Ryan still works with customers every day. He delivers buildings five days a week and works around the lot, moving stock and other tasks that need to be done. 

“I do just about everything, too, so I’m still fully involved in it,” he says. “It takes all of us to pull all this off.” 

A father-son relationship can be challenging at times, so what is it like for Ryan, Brayden, and Ethan to work together at Backyard Escapes?

“If you ask them, they would probably say growing pain,” Ryan laughs, “but we’ve learned to give each other our own space, so to speak.”

“It’s good and bad at the same time,” says Brayden. 

“That’s the nail on the head right there,” agrees Ethan. 

“You’re working with family,” Brayden continues. “You always have somebody who’s going to be there for your back. But then also there’s a lot of arguments that happen in the household that don’t need to be happening in the household.”

“There were plenty of times when we aggravated each other to death,” agrees Ryan, “but you’re not going to get anywhere doing that. 

“So, we’ve learned over the years, here’s your role. Here’s my role. You do your job. I’ll do my job, and then we’ll talk at the end of the day and see if we did what we needed to do or do we need to do this differently.”

Ryan’s wife is also in the mix of this family business, mainly handling the office work.

“Together as a family, we’ve been in business long enough where we’ve learned if we want to keep going, we have to not pull each other’s hair out and make it work,” he says. 

“Hopefully, someday I’m going to leave it to both of my sons.” 

Hurley started Backyard Escapes 17 years ago in Maryland.

“A friend of mine had a car dealership, and we started talking and we were like, let’s just throw some buildings out there,” he shares. “I’d do some buildings part-time and we’d see what goes. So, we started with that. 

“He kept with the cars, and I kept with the sheds. We all started with very humble beginnings. I didn’t put a whole lot of buildings out there or swing sets, but little by little and as I built relationships, we just kept adding, adding, adding, and it is what it is today.”

One key relationship for Hurley has been with another family operation: Kauffman Woodworks in Christiana, Pennsylvania.

“We’ve had the same Amish family that’s been with us the whole time,” Ryan shares. “Jake Kauffman is the father, and he’s retired now and has given it to his two sons, Joseph and Jake Jr. They’re on their third generation.”

Backyard Escapes’ other structure builder is another Amish family, the Smuckers, who operate Hampton Hall Structures in Narvon, Pennsylvania. The business’s Delaware lot started as a Smucker family lot.

“There have been sheds on the Georgetown, Delaware, location for about 30 years,” says Ryan. “One of my Amish builders, John Smucker who owns Hampton Hall, it was his location. 

“About three or four years ago, right before COVID, he just wanted to wholesale and stop retail. He had been building for us for years and said, ‘Ryan, here, you have this lot, you do your thing, and I’ll just build sheds for you.’” 

Besides the Kauffmans and the Smuckers building sheds, Hurley says he has two other companies that provide their swing sets and then another company that builds their dog kennels and chicken coops. 

“Altogether, we work with quite a few Amish people,” he says. “The way Lancaster, Pennsylvania, works, which is like the mecca of sheds, you don’t see the sheds we see. What I think makes us successful is that we sell the Pennsylvania Dutch-style building, which is very unique to this area. 

“On the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge over on that side of Virginia, those buildings are not built like the Lancaster County building. We do make some of our own designs or we’ve changed the basics into a little bit more fancy stuff, but people on the West Coast or people in the Midwest or West have started to see what these Amish guys are making over here and how much different it looks compared to what they see.” 

Customers in the Midwest and out West are seeing Backyard Escape’s Pennsylvania Dutch offerings online through its websites and social media channels.

“They’re starting to buy that (quality), and we sell that online,” Ryan says. “That’s our online business. It’s amazing to me how many people will pay for delivery.

“We go all the way to the state of Washington. Last year, we took a dog kennel that was about $140,000 from Pennsylvania all the way to Washington State. It was two units that had to be put together on site. It took two tractor-trailers and three or four guys. 

“Yesterday, we had a truck leave from here to go to Columbus, Ohio. Last week we were in South Carolina, and a week before that, we were in Texas with two chicken coops. 

“People see this stuff. They see the difference and the Amish quality here, and then what they’re buying out there.”

Backyard Escapes has two websites: BuyAmishSheds.com for its portable structures and SwingSetNation.com for children’s playsets. The business also has two Facebook pages, two Instagram pages, and a TikTok page. 

“If you’re not on (social media) today, you’re not going to be in business very long,” Ryan shares. “You’ve got to be pushing the envelope.” 

And that’s where Brayden shines in the business.

“I didn’t understand all the people who do these websites, how they’re charging, like, a crazy amount of money to do the same stuff that I can do at home,” he says. “So, I just started watching YouTube videos on how to do it. I worked my way up from there.

“I do all the advertisements. I do all of the creation of the pages on the website updating it, logging everything, kind of stuff with that nature, answering the emails doing the long-distance stuff.

“I’d say, on average, I spend one to two hours a day on it.”

Brayden shares that for every delivery, a picture is taken and posted on Facebook.

“Then you always have a hundred people who want to comment and ask how much that stuff is,” he says. “TikTok is the same thing. It’s kind of whenever something pops up, you kind of have to jump right to it.” 

Ryan says that for TikTok, Brayden makes 35- to 40-second videos basically showing delivery of a structure or the inside of the structure and other images. 

“These get thousands of views or more,” he says. “How we’re selling a lot of dog kennels and chicken coops out West is TikTok. People see it. 

“When we first started selling sheds, we threw some sheds out there just like everybody else does. You do it part-time. Then it just moved into full-time. But now so many people are sitting at home on their phone at night or on their computer and they’re looking through Facebook or Instagram and they need something to catch their eye. 

“So, we are constantly putting what we do every day on Facebook and Instagram. That has been a tremendous success for us. People share it. People like it and call you. They don’t always buy what you’re posting, but it lets them know.” 

Ryan says both of the company’s websites are basically like Amazon: full e-commerce.

“You can go on there and design a shed, pick out your colors, put your doors and windows where you want to put them, put your credit card in and pay for it right now or sign up for our rent-to-own or sign up for our financing,” he says. “We also have a page in there that shows what we have in stock. 

“That’s a difference, too. It’s not really a show-and-tell website that you have to call me. A customer can go on there at 2 in the morning and buy a shed.”

The online purchase process goes like this: a customer goes to one of the websites, makes a decision, and purchases a structure. This sends an email to the office and then Ryan or another sales rep will call the customer. 

“We go over the order and make sure it’s what they’re actually buying and then send it off to have it built or schedule it for delivery,” he shares. 

“Most of the time, if we’re building it, our lead time is normally four to six weeks. If it’s something we have in inventory, normally three or four days.” 

Recently, Ryan had a customer come into the office and inquire about the customer reviews Backyard Escapes had with the Better Business Bureau. 

“I said most of our stuff now is on Facebook or Instagram,” he points out. “I’ve got 10 years’ worth of business. Go look on Facebook. Look at those reviews, and they can look at pictures and see where we’ve been and where we’re going. 

“Social media is a big part of our business.” 

While Backyard Escape’s online business is strong, that doesn’t mean its lots are secondary concerns.

“Our bread and butter is still people coming here and buying stuff, but our online sales have really increased every year,” Ryan points out.

“This location (Pocomoke City), we sell a lot of stock. We try to keep 100 things here in inventory. The Georgetown location is totally different. 

“We have about maybe 50 sheds there, but people come in and they want a custom-order structure. There are a lot more subdivisions up there where it’s got to match their house, it’s got to be built a certain way.”

He says that both lots combined average about 700 sales a year between sheds, swing sets, dog kennels, and chicken coops. 

Ryan shares the Pocomoke City lot gets its customers through a combination of seeing the business online and being right next to Lowe’s, getting drive-by traffic. 

“The traffic here is busier,” he says. “I think this is because of the location being right next to Lowe’s, and this is the only way into Lowe’s so people have to come in and by me—and they’re only doing 25 miles an hour. 

“My lot in Georgetown is on a major highway that runs back and forth to the beach, so you got people doing 65-70 miles an hour. They’re thinking about getting to their beach house and getting in their bathing suit and getting out to the beach, so they fly by you.”

Ryan shares that the Pocomoke City lot averages 10-25 customers stopping by a day, purchasing three to four items. 

“You may go a day not selling nothing, but you may go a day where you sell five or six,” he says.

“The area that we’re in is very unique. It’s called Del Marva: Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. This is a peninsula, so we’re surrounded on three sides by water. People will drive and go to Cape Charles across the bridge. We go to Cape Charles probably twice a week delivering sheds, which is a good hour and a half, hour forty-five minutes south of us. 

“I have friends in the shed business and they’re like, ‘Most of our customers are 30 minutes away. If we go more than 30 minutes, they’re going to run into somebody else or buy from somebody else.’ 

“I think where we’re at, all these small towns, people drive north to go shopping instead of paying $20 to go across the bridge.”  

Ryan shares that the Pocomoke City location used to be on a highway. 

“When this location this area became available, I jumped over here because I wanted to be right next to Lowe’s because that’s the same customer that I have,” he points out. “Lowe’s brings them in, so to speak. Then they ride by and see what we have, so I think it’s a great spot.”

The Hurleys have learned many lessons over the years that have helped them maintain and increase their sales.

“We’ve learned to only be open 10 to 4,” shares Ryan. “We used to stay open longer, and we do if we have customers call us or want to stop by or come out after work or before they go to work, but 10 to 4 seems to be the best hours at work for us here and in this area. That kind of alleviates some of the standing around not doing a whole lot.

“A lot of people just think you throw buildings out here and they sell themselves and get to where they’re going themselves, but you have to talk to the customers and figure all that out, and when it rains that throws a wrench in everything, you have to start all over again. 

“There’s a lot to be in business for yourself these days, just to be able to keep up with everything and keep everything moving and keep your equipment running and operating the way it needs to be.”

Ryan feels fortunate that Backyard Escapes has been able to keep its prices competitive, but it’s been able to raise its prices at a pace that’s keeping up with its expenses. 

“We don’t sell the cheapest product out there and we don’t sell the most expensive product, but I feel like we give a fair price for what we’re selling,” he says.

“The quality that we have is really good, and it’s different from other places that sell the similar thing, and we try to educate the customer when they come in and let them know that this is what you’re buying. 

“This is how we make things, and this is the difference from what you’re seeing down the street. This is why theirs are a few hundred dollars cheaper. This is why ours are a few hundred dollars more.” 

Ryan notes that the shed business has changed since he started years ago. 

“When we first started selling sheds, we used to use three-tab shingles, and we used to use rough-cut lumber and really cheap siding,” he shares. 

“People have noticed that it’s worth paying a little bit more money for lifetime shingles and siding that’s going to last for 30 years and siding that has a 50-year warranty on it. People are willing to pay a little bit more for that because they know it’s going to last longer. 

“It’s going to be sitting in their yard. I tell people all the time you’re going to have to look at it every day.”

For deliveries from the Maryland and Delaware lots, Ryan uses a combination of trucks and drivers.

“We have two trucks that deliver out of here (Pocomoke City) that handle mostly this lot and a few deliveries out of our Delaware location,” he shares. “Then, I have two delivery guys in Delaware who deliver out of that location. 

“We have two truck drivers that drive tractor-trailers that bring us two loads a week here (from Lancaster County) and two loads a week to Georgetown. They’re bringing inventory here, bringing buildings that are ordered here, and then we deliver them here to the customer.”

For cross-country deliveries, Ryan uses two haulers out of Pennsylvania with big Pine Hill trailers. 

“Both of those guys have their own crews that are able to put the building in place and also construct a building if it needs a little bit of construction on site, but most of those buildings going out West are already constructed,” he says.

“The customer will send us a basic site plan on where they want to put it, get their base, and then those guys pull in, hook it up to a Mule, and put it in place.” 

Backyard Escapes’ cross-country deliveries aren’t load-and-go endeavors.

“We try to figure out as much as we can about what we’re getting into because that’s the worst thing to be a thousand miles from home and you show up and you can’t get in or you got a fence in the way or trees in the way or on the side of a hill,” shares Ryan. 

“We normally do a few of them a month and then we normally do a few builds on sites a month like big garages or like we’re building a pool house.” 

While the Hurleys work hard to make Backyard Escapes successful, the family knows that they owe much of their success to the community in which they’re based.

“This is a small town. I was born and raised in this area,” Ryan says. “My father was a preacher, so I know a lot of people who have been raised that way. 

“Both my sons played sports, so we were very involved in Little League and travel baseball and travel soccer and high school sports.”

Backyard Escapes is a member of the local chamber of commerce, and a few years ago, Ryan received an award for being the Maryland Small Business Person of the Year. 

“We help out with the community,” he points out. “We donate to a lot of youth programs. We supply the Santa house every year to the town. We’ve put a gazebo up to decorate the town, the little parks they have or little playgrounds they have. 

“I think that’s what everybody should do. If you’re living in a small town and you have a successful business, you should do your part.” 

The Hurleys, while being community-minded and focused on operations still have the future of Backyard Escapes in mind.

“I’d like to keep going like we’re going, but I clearly think the future is more online than it is a retail location like this,” Ryan shares.

“I’m trying to grow it to even bigger than it already is with the website and stuff of that nature,” says Brayden. “We’re already trying to branch out and trucks going all over the place already. So hopefully it’s only up from here.” 

Ryan sums up, “It’s just the way our world is moving.”

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