A surprising number of people think that just because they can clean up their yard, put down some mulch, and maybe even create a garden, it makes sense to go out and try to make money working in other people’s yards. Okay, I get it. That’s a great way to make some money in high school or college. It’s how my husband, Chris, and I both got our first taste of the business, so I have full respect for that.
If, however, you plan to do this for real - as in your career - you better be ready to build “mad skills”. Let’s start with plants.
It’s difficult – if not impossible – to be a successful landscape professional and not know at least the basics about plants. How can you properly design, install, prune or maintain things you can’t even name?
Now you may be saying, “yeah, but plenty of people are doing it...the plants still grow.”
Yup, that’s the one feature about living things that you can’t escape - they grow. They endeavor to survive - even when neglected or treated badly. The question is - are they THRIVING? Or are they limping along fighting malnourishment, disease, insect pressure, and butchering from improper pruning practices?
Just as doctors cannot begin to properly care for patients if they don’t have an understanding of anatomy (structures) and physiology (functions) of the body, landscape professionals need to know plants and what they require. Plants are living things too -- they don’t deserve to be stuffed into the ground or malnourished or dehydrated or butchered. Knowing and understanding plants goes a long way in understanding how to nurture them.
Now, I've been doing this for a lifetime, and I still don’t know all the plants, so I’m not saying you have to know everything right out of the chute as you start your business. It’s actually not possible, so let yourself off of that hook! But do be committed to learning more each year. In time, you will know a ton about plants; not to mention soil, bugs, and diseases. Mastery takes time and commitment.
Perhaps designing and building hardscapes is part of your career plan and you aren’t so interested in plants. That’s perfectly fine! Once again, it’s not enough to know the bare minimum, like how to lay pavers properly or build a good wall. It’s more about knowing how to ensure that a hardscape feature works in harmony with the whole space and then knowing how to assemble those components to last a long time in the landscape. This is doubly true if you live in a geographic area like New England where deep frost and high variability in temperature can wreak havoc on hardscape features.
Simply put, starting a landscape business is not hard to do. People do it all the time with pretty basic knowledge. But I don’t think that means you shouldn’t endeavor to learn more. Running a successful and profitable landscape business takes some real skill building.
Now, you may be saying, “I hate plants. I want to do hardscape, so I don’t need to know plants.” Well, okay. Maybe plants aren’t your thing. But that doesn’t mean you can just do hardscape, without any skill building. Hardscapes don’t live in a vacuum. They’re outdoor features that really should live in harmony with the plants in the environment, but more importantly in harmony with the earth and all the dynamics wrapped up in that reality.
There are best practices to learn about designing and constructing hardscapes. The point I’m trying to make is that to succeed, it's essential to learn about the things you DO love, as well as the things you DON'T.
Masonry, just like gardening, is an art and a practice that involves the sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. Embracing those disciplines takes respect, education, and practice. And, I might add, some hard lessons and a few failures along the way. If you don’t want to build the skills -- which means reading, apprenticing, taking classes, maybe getting certified -- perhaps it’s not a good idea to start a landscape company.
Sure, there are some people who get into a landscape business because they want to work outdoors, be their own boss, and not have to deal with a lot of people, including employees.
Again, that’s an okay way to pick up some extra cash on the weekends and in the summer as a seasonal worker. Maybe it even makes sense as the first phase your own business. But that’s a hard road when thinking of a long-term career. As much as I hate to point this out, you will age! This is physically demanding work, often unforgiving on the body (I have the aches and pains to prove it). How long do you think you can do it all?
Landscape design, construction, and management are all services, and there are only so many hours in the day. "Me, myself, and I" are going to run out of billable hours pretty quickly, so the only way you're going to be able to build and grow your business is to add some workers, either subcontractors or traditional employees.
Well, no they don’t. It bears repeating -- the landscape profession is a service business. If you’re going to succeed, it’s vital to provide excellent service. Dealing with clients comes with the territory, so pick up some people skills and put a smile on your face because your paycheck comes from happy clients. So do your referrals!!!
That doesn’t mean you have to like everything about them and their sometimes unreasonable demands and expectations, but it's essential to gain skills in communication if you want to succeed.
Build a good reputation, and you'll attract good clients. If you just can't stand the thought of "grinning and bearing it," with unreasonable people, well I’d say - I’m with you. This means you have to embrace another business idea - that is building marketing skills so that you attract the kind of people you like and want to work for. It’s a huge mistake to think you have to grin and bear it! That’s no way to build a business or a life.
Here’s another skill you’re going to have to pick up if you want to succeed. Sales is the foundation and cornerstone of any business and vital for starting, maintaining and growing a company. Without sales, you don't have clients, and without clients, you don't have a business. Pretty simple.
Fortunately, there are lots of great books, webinars, and classes available on the art of selling. Find something that appeals to you and how you like to learn and then lean into it. Once you understand sales and the art of influencing people, who knows? You may find you're good at it and like it. No? Then be prepared to hire someone to do sales for you.
I’m sure there are a number of you out there thinking, “Wait a minute, this is a landscape business—what do I need an office for?” The fact of the matter is, every business needs an “office” – that is, the infrastructure necessary to efficiently and effectively operate the company, regardless of its physical location.
Sure, with wireless broadband connectivity, smart mobile devices, tons of business apps and the like, there’s a great deal you can do from the cab of a truck. What I’m saying is, there is a lot of organizational work that needs to be done and just because you’re outside every day shoveling soil, moving stone, and putting the finishing touches on beautiful landscape projects doesn't mean you can ignore the boring business stuff, such as billing, payroll, taxes, purchasing, and so on.
I learned the hard way about the critical importance of finding, hiring, and trusting really good back-office help who can handle all the internal company functions necessary to successfully run a business. Having the right office help is a godsend. Having the WRONG person in place can be a nightmare. If you're serious about running a successful landscape business, take the time to find and hire the right person or persons to provide you with business support when you're out doing the work you really love doing.
How did you do? Did those 5 reality-check cause your stomach to sink? Maybe I’ve just saved you from making a big mistake. Or did you instead think "Oh, that's not too bad. I don't have a problem with any of this." Then, congratulations – it sounds like you are thinking like an owner!
If you’re seriously thinking about starting your own landscape business, good for you. If you’d like to know more about it, check out my blog post, “How Much Does It Cost to Start a Landscape Business?”
Just remember: if you want to succeed in building a landscape company then you have to shift your mindset and focus your attention on what you want your business to be – today, tomorrow, and in the future -- and set it up that way.
Remember, you’re already clear on what it means to build a good landscape. NOW, you need to work on what it takes to build a good business.