Do you have a green thumb? Learn the ins and outs of making a good living with your own landscape maintenance business.
Own your landscape maintenance business, own your job, own your life.
Statistics show that nine out of every ten new businesses fail. Most of these businesses fail within the first year. The rest don’t make it past their third anniversary.
Given such dismal odds why would you want to start a landscaping or interiorscaping business?
First of all because the odds are better than you think.
Landscaping and interiorscaping are service businesses. A service business is the most easy business to start and be successful. The “statistics” usually do not include small service businesses. So, one would hope, your odds are better than you think.
There are other reasons that make starting a service business easier than others. You can start out with low capital investment. You can run your business with low overhead. If you manage your business properly, slow periods will not cause financial hardship.
The reason for most business failures is that they cannot survive slow periods or cash crunches. Other types of businesses have large overheads that require a constant influx of money. Such expenses as employees, rent, loan payments, etc. You can design your business to survive these problems.
These guidelines for starting your own service business are for those who have little or no money to start with. If you have plenty of money (start-up capital) than you can follow these guidelines much easier than the rest of us. So before we get started, remember we are assuming that you have no start-up capital, but are willing to work hard and take a few risks.
Acquire The Skills and Knowledge
First you need to know what you are doing in your new field. A little business knowledge would not hurt either. But you probably do not have time to go back to school. Also, I would imagine you are interested in getting started right away. So, visit your local book store.
If you know nothing about gardening and landscaping pick up a couple of books that cover the basics. A good book for everyone is Sunset’s Western Garden Book. Not only does it cover all the basics and more, it also has a complete encyclopedia of plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers. Each description tells you what the plant is, how to plant it, care for it, requirements, etc.
If you lack a business background buy some good books on business basics. There are many books on running a small -business. Remember, most gardeners, landscapers, or interiorscapers that fail do so, not because they did not know their trade, but because they did not understand how to manage their business. In fact, it is almost more important to understand good business techniques than it is to know about plants.
After you have purchased your small library set aside at least one hour a day (morning, evening, lunch-hour, anytime) to study- them. Give yourself as much time as you can to read and study. Be sure to divide your time equally between your business and trade books. Now, I presume you are currently working at another job to support yourself and possibly a family. Rule Number One: DO NOT QUIT YOUR JOB! Start your business part-time. You need your income to survive on while you build your new business. Your new business will take time to develop to the point where it will support you.
If you have debts (credit cards, auto loans, etc.) try to get them paid off or paid down as much as possible before you start your -new business. There will be rough times ahead and you want the decks cleared for heavy weather. In other words, when cash gets tight you do not want to lose your car or be hauled into court.
Acquire The Basics You Need To Get Started
- Gardener: A truck or trailer to carry your equipment and debris (although some enterprising people have even started without this). A lawn mower, rake, broom, and other small hand tools. Buy your equipment used if necessary, but shop carefully.
- Landscaper: Basically you need hand tools and a truck or trailer. To start with most other tools you can rent.
- Interiorscaper: A car or truck is necessary, watering cans, and assorted small hand tools.
From the basic requirements to start it would seem that interiorscaping requires the smallest capital outlay. This is correct, but starting an interiorscape business is more difficult in other ways. It requires a better understanding of the trade. Indoor plants are much more difficult to maintain. Also, acquiring accounts is not as easy as in outdoor work. Most, if not all, interiorscape accounts will be commercial, as opposed to the residential work of gardeners.
For gardeners and landscapers a truck or trailer is a must, but as I mentioned earlier it is possible to start without one for some work. If you are doing maintenance you may be able to get accounts that will allow you to use their equipment and not require you to haul away debris. You will be expected to work very inexpensively, though. If you can get a truck do so.
For both gardeners and landscapers another source of income is from clean-ups. This is simply a one-time job of cleaning up an overgrown landscape. These jobs are hard work, but can be quite profitable.
Make It Legal
In every business you have to contend with the government. Service businesses are no different. Before you get started investigate what is required in your area. Most likely you will need a business license from your city. The state may require a contractor’s license or certification for landscape contractors. Most likely your state will require a pest control license if you intend to apply pesticides. Check out all the city, state, and federal rules before you start.
If you can afford it, you should get insurance before you start. If you can not afford it when you first start your business (remember, some activities, in some states, require insurance) then plan on getting it as soon as possible. It is for your own protection. One lawsuit could ruin all your hard work.
Arrange your work hours so that you have time to start your part-time business. You can start on week-ends, but an ideal schedule would be to have two or three weekdays off and work nights so that you can put in some hours on the other days.
Advertise Your Business
By now you should have the time, equipment, and the knowledge (or working on that by studying). Now you need the work. To get this you need to advertise. How and where you advertise depends on your budget and your market.
For gardeners and landscapers I would recommend that you start with residential work and add commercial work later. For interiorscapers the work is almost all commercial.
To acquire residential work there are several ways. They are presented below in order of cost and are rated for effectiveness.
- Word-of-mouth. Recommendations. Cheapest and best, but requires that you already have done some work.
- Door-to-door. Cheap, but ineffective and time consuming. If you have no alternatives then pick new areas with new homes and upper income areas.
- Flyers. More costly than door-to-door, but no more effective.
- Newspaper classified ads. Very effective. Try to use a small direct mail weekly that allows you target specific zip code zones. Weekly direct mail publications with names like Pennysaver, Advisor, etc. are your best bet. Your money will be better spent than in the large city daily.
- Yellow pages. Very Expensive. Not a good place to put limited dollars when just getting started, but effective at later stages of your business growth.
Most successful service business that are growing get most of their leads (prospective customers) from word-of-mouth and newspaper ads. A classified in a direct mailed weekly can be as low as $30.00 per zip code zone. I would recommend the type of weekly that consists mainly of classified ads and display ads.
To acquire commercial work is completely different. This requires print advertising in local business magazines or upscale monthly magazines that reach the upper income people in your city. It also requires direct mail campaigns to the businesses you are trying attract as customers and direct (door-to-door) solicitation. An ad in the Yellow Pages is a must for attracting commercial work.
If you advertise in the Yellow Pages use the phone company Yellow Pages and not an imitation. You money will be much better spent.
Pricing Your Services
Once you start advertising you will not immediately get work. First you must bid on the job, that is give the prospective customer a summary of what you intend to do and what it will cost. This is the part that will make or break you.
The lowest price does not always get the job. In fact, we don’t recommend trying to get work by price alone. Charge what you are worth, what you what, and what quality work will pay in your market. Let the competition work for less. The person that gets the job is usually the person who gives the most professional presentation. This means knowing what you are doing. Being able to estimate the time and materials necessary for the job. Presenting yourself and your service in a professional way.
Always be on time for a bid. Never miss a bid (if something does come up, call and change the appointment). I won more jobs because nobody else showed up then you would care to know about. Just being there is half the battle.
Dress neatly. Wear a uniform, if possible. Sears sells uniform shirts and pants in many different colors. It does not have to have your company name on it to look like a uniform (although that is a nice touch). Be conservative in your appearance and hair style. Remember, even in your own business you are not completely your own boss < the customer is. Often the job goes to the person the customer felt most comfortable about.
Look professional. Carry a clipboard to take notes. Have some sort of pre-printed estimate sheet to provide to the customer. Use a brochure (if you can afford it) to describe your services. Have business cards.
If you have done all this, then do not sell yourself short. Charge an appropriate rate. Don’t worry about those who will not pay your price. You only need those who will.
From here on in it is simply a matter of acquiring the work and doing it. Do an excellent job and you will have more work then you can handle. As the work fills up your available work hours start considering your move to leave your present job. Perhaps find a part-time job to fill the gap. Eventually you will have no need for an outside job. Your business will provide for all your needs.
As your business grows you can grow with it. Move carefully and do not overextend yourself. Keep your overhead low. Only spend money when it is an investment that will return profits. Eventually you may hire employees, salespeople, rent an office, etc., but by that time you should be making enough money to afford it.
Once you have started and are moving successfully forward, your next problem will be growth and how you handle it. Rapid growth has killed many businesses. But if you keep a close eye on your books, watch which jobs are profitable and which are not, know exactly why and where you are making money or losing money then you should have no trouble.
- Sunset’s Western Garden Book
- Landscape Operations: Management, Methods, and Materials (3rd Edition)
- How to Start a Home-Based Landscaping Business, 3rd Edition
- Lawn Care & Gardening: A Down-To-Earth Guide to the Businesssss
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Fleming is editor/publisher of ProGardenBiz an online magazine for professional gardeners, landscape contractors, irrigation specialists and others in the Green Industry.