7 Powerful Principles to Build a Rock-Solid Landscape Business

Business Strategy · Written by Roger

6 Comments

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Did you know that the largest segment of landscape businesses have 1-5 employees?

Why is that?

Many of us are independent types that like things a certain way. We also like having fewer things that can go wrong. :-)

Plus, our work, our trade is important to us.

And we like the relationships that go with it.  The loyal customers and like-minded tradespeople we work with make it awesome.

The idea of growing our businesses by getting bigger — well that can be a scary thought.  And maybe one you’d rather not consider.

Here’s a huge point in the discussion of big company vs. small company:

In the “2015 State of the Industry Report” from Lawn & Landscape Magazine, they revealed the biggest limit on business is a shortage of labor.  Owners cite a lack of quality employees as having the biggest impact on their businesses in the next 3 years — more than insurance costs, low-ball competitors and fuel prices.

What’s important to realize too is that this shortage of good help affects us in many ways — business stability, quality, customer complaints … just to name a few.

So is there a way to have a successful, small landscape business — and keep it small?  Of course.  But it takes a different way of thinking from how most landscape companies operate today.

A different approach

When I started my landscape company in 1979 it was to have independence and control.  I loved the trade and wanted to practice it a certain way.  No shortcuts.  No compromising.

The decision to stay small was also a way to minimize variables — things that could go wrong.  To this day I operate my business based on that maxim.

And small businesses are inherently more agile.  This lets you adapt as circumstances change and your business grows.

But there are important practices that go along to make this small business model so effective for the long-term.

If you combine a certain set of core principles — what I call the “owner/operator” principles — with sound business practices, you’ll build the foundation that will grow with you.

Let’s go through these 7 Owner/Operator Principles.  I should warn you.  There is no magic bullet or overnight success formula here.

It takes time and hard work to establish any successful business.  But following these principles will start to distinguish you from the majority of landscape companies today.  And that’s what we’re going for.

  1. Your reputation is your success.  People get to know, like and trust you because you’re capable & caring.
  2. Always produce and represent quality in your work and through your recommendations.
  3. Every experience customers have with you must be great (at the very least darn good).
  4. Be realistic about work that is not within your skillset or capability.  Establish relationships with other tradespeople to provide these services.
  5. Always look to build new relationships — with customers and your network.  But remember to nurture existing relationships.  They’re your greatest asset.
  6. Always be open-minded.  Always be learning.
  7. Share what you know to build credibility & trust.  Teach to sell.

As I work with different companies on my projects it’s interesting to see which of these principles they’re practicing.  What I see and how these companies are doing just reinforces how important each principle is.

They are so fundamental to our owner/operator model, you’ll see some aspect of them in everything we talk about on LandscapeAdvisor.

What you can expect

When you follow the 7 Owner/Operator Principles, and use sound business practices along with some “smart” marketing, you can look forward to:

  • Respect & recognition as a skilled tradesperson
  • Referrals & recommendations
  • Ever-growing customer base for repeat work
  • Infrequent price comparisons from prospects
  • Add-ons and other revenue streams
  • “Time & Materials” work

If you look at these outcomes closely, you’ll see each one is because of an excellent reputation and trust — the core of any successful business.

Think of the 7 Owner/Operator Principles as your foundation.  On it you can build a business that actually grows with you.  Opportunities will naturally present themselves.

And over time your physical involvement can and should be less.  You become more solution-provider, overseer and project manager.  A Landscape Producer.

Putting the principles to work — no matter what stage your business is in

Here is one of my favorite quotes:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.” — Chinese Proverb

You can apply this message to any part of your life. It’s never too late … for anything.  Well, almost anything. :-)

Here’s the thing.  It doesn’t matter if you’re running a landscape maintenance business, hardscape company or design/build.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in business for years or just starting out.

Your business will benefit immediately — even if you just start practicing one or two of the principles.  But this is what you’ll find.  One principle leads to another, which leads to another.

It’s a mindset.  A company culture.  A smart way to run your business so that it grows with you without building a big company.

Some of the businesses I work with I’d categorize as “Maintenance & Landscape Contracting”.  That is, they do mostly maintenance with some contracting work (e.g. plantings, some construction, etc.).

One of those owner/operators called me the other day and surprised me.  A maintenance client of his wanted to create levels out of their sloped backyard.  This contractor asked me if I’d design the levels and layout.  And he would build the walls.

Since we’ve been working together he has started practicing some of the Owner/Operator Principles.  In this case — where typically he’d be working with me on my jobs — now he’s asking me to draw for him.

His client is used to great service on the maintenance side.  And he knows he can’t afford to disappoint them with this landscape work.  Principle #3.

He also knows he has the experience and capability to do the work — it’s just the design he’s not sure of.  Principle #4.

The next logical step

Have you ever heard the saying, “Business is simple — it’s just not easy”?  You hear it a lot from business coaches and consultants.  I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken.

You look at the 7 core principles and think how could any business that does these things not do well?  I know.

But these principles take work and focus.  “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it”.  We’ve all heard that one too. :-)

But when your business starts to see the growth, the referrals, the trust, … you’re psyched.  You want to see where this all can take you.

In my next article I’ll give you a “roadmap” of how your business can grow and evolve using these 7 Owner/Operator Principles.  It will help you realize what landscape business category you’re in, the things you should be focused on, and where you might go next.

In the meantime think about the 7 principles.  Heck, write them down if it helps.  I think about #3 a lot.  Because when I do it seems the others just naturally come to mind.

Which of the 7 are part of your business practices?  Maybe you have other principles you operate by.  Are you stuck on any — or how your business could implement them?  Drop it in the comments and we’ll try to help.

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    6 Responses to “7 Powerful Principles to Build a Rock-Solid Landscape Business”

    1. Paul Grant Says:

      What a great read Roger. As a small business owner of a landscaping company in Henderson, NV I can resonate with so much of what you’ve said above.

      Running a small business isn’t easy in today’s economy but like you, I find that building solid relationships is the greatest asset that an business owner could have.

      Thanks for the tips and I wish you success in the future.

    2. Roger Says:

      Paul,
      Thanks for your comment.

      I could not imagine running my business today without the relationships I’ve developed — both with clients and my trade network. And it’s interesting how these relationships work together to make the business operate so effectively.

      I look at it as a triangle — with 3 key points. You have the overseer or “producer”. This is the person that puts things together. Then you have the contractors and other professionals that make it happen. And the third point on the triangle is the client.

      Over the years I’ve learned that each of these 3 points on the triangle have to be of the same mindset. The overseer, contractors and client need to have the same level of standards and expectations. If anyone in the mix is not of that makeup there’s a good chance there will be problems.

      And it doesn’t matter what type of landscape business you have. The basic principle of matching the parts to make a better whole just increases the odds of a long-term, successful business. And one you can actually enjoy!

    3. Megan Potts Says:

      Hello Roger,

      This website couldn’t have come at a better time. I am currently a student in Landscape Design at a local community college. This is my second career and I’m very excited to start my own business. I live in a neighborhood where many people pay BIG money for landscaping, but they do not know how to take care of it. At first I thought I would just focus on design, but the fact that many people do not know how to take care of their current plants just drives me crazy. AND, as you have stated, the larger companies just come in and slaughter the plants. So I’m developing my business plan. My question to you is, are there any books or publications you recommend outside of your website. I’m especially interested in pruning methods since that is what I mostly research when helping out friends with their own landscape.

      Thank you!

    4. Roger Says:

      Megan,
      Congrats on your second career choice! And it sounds like you’re looking at your market very smartly.

      I’ve regretted not keeping a maintenance aspect or some other recurring service component to my business. We actually started with a maintenance business, but gradually changed to design/build.

      Finding competent maintenance companies for my clients has been an ongoing challenge. It seems that very few people in that area of the business either have the knowledge or the desire to offer what I call “site-specific” care. To say they’re missing an opportunity is an understatement.

      To help homeowners and guide them on what care their landscape needs I produce a site-specific care guide and journal. Unfortunately, the result is more frustration because clients now know what really needs to be done and can’t find the company (or person) to do it.

      Megan, I think if you develop your business plan around this type of site-specific care you’ll have a unique “recurring” service that meets the needs and wants of this higher-end customer. Positioning yourself as someone with knowledge and that cares to do things right will just cause people to come to you for other things (landscape related). And that’s the reputation you want to have.

      Pruning is a great area to focus on. Rarely is it done correctly. And the benefits to the plants and to the customer make it easy to promote and market. Also, it fits nicely into a site-specific care program. It’s a recurring service that you can actually schedule throughout the year — even into the “off-season”.

      These are two books I use for pruning: Pruning: A Practical Guide by Peter McHoy and American Horticultural Society Pruning & Training. In addition I’m always referring to other “sources” for specific plant information because sometimes pruning information is hidden there too.

      Of course, like any trade skill, the deep learning comes from experience. You’ll prune something one season and then see how it responds the following year. Pruning is one of those things you never stop learning — and you just keep getting better and better at.

      I hope this helps.

    5. Bob Says:

      Hey Roger, great article. I am having issues with finding great help in my tree service business. Some guys will work their you know what off and a few months later they get a better offer and go somewhere else. Then I do get the guys that just think it’s too much work, you can tell when they only work for a day or two and ask for their paycheck for some family emergency and you never see them again. I think everyone runs into this problem. Good job, keep up the good work Roger.

    6. Roger Says:

      Bob,
      Employees. Today I don’t think there is a bigger topic or challenge in the contracting business.

      This is just one reason I’m a proponent of a lean and smart business model. It’s clear today there are two types of contracting business models that are succeeding — the smaller, professional, customer-centric types — and the large, multilevel management types. If you’re in between those two you’re likely struggling to make a profit, working ridiculously hard, and probably not positioning yourself (or your business) for the future.

      I think choosing between the smaller, leaner model and the bigger operation is dependent upon a lot of factors — not the least of which are: what type of person you are and what you would like to offer your customers.

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