LAN writer Caitlin Lockhart, met with several professional landscape architects who have started their own practices to find out what mistakes people should avoid when following the same path. Starting a firm is a goal for many landscape architects and designers. Some start working for themselves right out of school, while others wait, learning from more experienced professionals before setting off on their own. No one will tell you that it’s easy to start your own business. Mistakes will be made and lessons learned, but it is entirely possible. We interviewed several entrepreneurial landscape architects and designers on the do’s and don’ts of starting your own firm. Here is their best advice of what to avoid when starting a business:
Starting A Landscape Architecture Firm
1. Not Having a Vision
Know what kind of work you want to do long before you get started. This way, you can begin taking steps toward your goal. Questions such as “Do I need a license?” can only be answered if you know what work your firm will focus on. Are you going to start a design/build firm focusing on high-end residential design? Then no, you don’t need a license. Do you want to work with parks, public spaces, or public housing? Then yes, you absolutely do. Knowing what kind of design you want to be doing on your own is essential to knowing what kind of networking, licensing, and insurance you should be thinking about.
2. Underestimating Word of Mouth
All of the professionals we interviewed couldn’t stress enough the importance of face-to-face networking and word-of-mouth referrals, especially in the first few months after opening their doors. “Having an online presence is important, as well,” Carlos Camara, principal of Juxtapose Design/Build in Seattle, said. “But prospective clients generally find you online only after hearing rave reviews from someone they know.” Rather than spending precious seed money on ads, another principal joined community groups focused on sustainable design in her city. She learned what kind of work was already being done and how she could fit into a design niche. “Join organizations that speak to your heart and purpose,” she suggested.
3. Undervaluing Yourself
Many new designers undervalue their time and expertise for the first few months or years, until they find their footing in the industry and their voice as a creator. Don’t let someone talk you into a design fee you’re not comfortable with, and don’t work for free. You went to school to become a professional; your services are a valuable commodity that should be fairly paid for. “It took me five years to realize I am bringing a gift to my clients, it is valuable, and I have spent years developing it. I want to share it with people who appreciate it,” said Molly Maguire, of Molly Maguire Landscape Architecture in Bellingham, Washington.
4. Not Take Advantage of Available Resources
Many cities have small business development organizations that help new businesses get set up with grant funds, advice on taxes, writing a business plan, mentorship, and a business license. Most of these resources are free.
5. Thinking Startup Costs Will Be Too Expensive
Several of the principals we interviewed started out of their houses or garages, printed and scanned work at Kinko’s, and used bare-bones design software in their first few years. Like one principal said earlier, she saved money on advertising by growing her online presence and joining community organizations to grow her client base. Starting a business can be expensive, but you don’t necessarily need a loan to get going.
6. Not Having a Great Accountant, Insurance Agent, and Lawyer
Chances are, if you are a landscape architect or designer, it is unlikely that you also have a degree in accounting (but if you do, go you!). Starting a business has basic principles that, as an employee up until now, you may not have had to deal with. Payroll, taxes, handling lawsuits, and creating business plans are just a few. Consulting experts on topics in which your knowledge is lacking is the best way to make sure all of those bases are covered. Figuring out exactly what kind of insurance you need to keep your business covered is vital. Ask friends or colleagues who they have gone to for accounting and legal services. It’s OK to shop around and find the best fit for you and your business.
It’s All Worth It
Starting a landscape architecture firm and leaving the comparative security of a guaranteed income can be stressful, just like any other venture without a guaranteed future. But all the professionals we interviewed were very happy with their decision to strike out on their own. “I love being my own boss,” one said. He enjoys being able to pick and choose the clients he takes on, the control over his networking, and the scope of his business. There are many reasons to start one’s own firm. If, like Molly Maguire, says, “you find you are constantly butting your head against a wall in your work environment and your passion is being diminished, absolutely begin the process of going out on your own. Take action!” Is there any advice we missed? If you’ve started a business, what makes it successful? Is being licensed important to your business? What would you tell someone just starting in the landscape architecture field? Recommended Reading:
- Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes by Jack Hamm
- Drawing Nature for the Absolute Beginner: A Clear & Easy Guide to Drawing Landscapes & Nature (Art for the Absolute Beginner) by Mark Willenbrink