Going Solo – Getting a Foot in the Door

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This topic contains 4 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Andrew Garulay, RLA 4 weeks ago.

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  • #3552252

    zelkovaserrata
    Participant

    Hello Land8 Forum Folks,

    I work for a small firm in a large east coast city where I have been for 2 years. We do mostly municipal and commercial work (schools, parks, playgrounds). I recently completed the LARE (nothing good to say about CLARB), have approximately 4 years of experience under my belt, and am beginning to feel like I’m settling into my career, whatever that means. I work full time, but I don’t have as much autonomy or creative input into my work as I’d like because I have an overbearing, micro-managing boss (good guy, bad boss).

    I will probably start looking for a new job soon (that will hopefully allow me to have autonomy over- and creative input into- my projects) now that I have my stamp, but in spite of this, I am interested in trying drum up some work “on the side” with the (unlikely) hope that this could even allow me to start working for myself one day.

    I don’t really know how to approach this since I don’t have a network of wealthy friends (residential), developers, or architects who I can approach to pitch my services to. I am also not convinced that advertising or pounding-the-pavement is the best approach. So here are three questions for folks who have been in this position…

    1. How did you know when you were ready to go solo?
    2. What were some strategies you employed to drum up work/get your foot in the door when you were just starting out on your own? (assuming you didn’t steal clients on your way out or win some high-profile competition…)
    3. How did you leverage your network to help you get that first project or two?

    Although all of my professional experience in the public realm, I’m not opposed to trying residential design…I just don’t know one breaks into this market without referrals?

    Thanks in advance for your advice!

    #3552275

    Andrew Garulay, RLA
    Participant

    1. How did you know when you were ready to go solo?
    I’m not overly reckless, so I made sure that I already had some flow of work coming to me. I did something similar to what you sound like you are about to do. I worked on the side for quite a while in order to develop a volume of plans with built work that went along with them. That builds a network of potential referrals along with the portfolio. I did it part time on the side with a greater interest in building the volume of work than how much I was getting paid to do it – the footprint you build is worth more than the money and it is much harder to get a high volume of work if you value what you are doing more than potential clients. … when you are building your foundation.

    2. What were some strategies you employed to drum up work/get your foot in the door when you were just starting out on your own? (assuming you didn’t steal clients on your way out or win some high-profile competition…)
    Strategy number one is to get others to feed you work. That means you have to hitch your wagon to people who are already involved in the types of projects that you want to do.The only way to do that is to make them more profitable using you than someone else.
    I work residential, so there are a lot more opportunities simply because there are more houses than parks, schools, and playgrounds. The flow of work on new projects or redevelopment in residential is also different than municipalities. Higher end residential usually starts with an architect, then an engineer, and a general contractor – sometimes at the beginning, but sometimes much later. If there is a lot of regulation where you work you might be able to get involved in that aspect of the project in the very early stages of a project (wetlands mitigation is a cottage industry where I work). If you can help them get through permitting faster it makes them more profitable. If you do that faster than others, they will recommend you to their clients. If you prepare your plans (CAD drawings) in such a way that you are less of a pain in the ass than a different LA or LD the engineer’s will recommend you over others as well. Also, more general contractors want to project manage the landscape to rake in that extra cash than they used to before 2008. If you leave that to them (at least for now) they would rather refer you than an LA who might take that away from them.

    Another avenue is to help good design/ build landscape contractors who are already getting good projects and leads for more by designing and drafting plans for them. I worked full time for one for about 2 years shortly after getting my stamp. The owner was a great designer, so I did more drafting than designing at first, but quickly learned his way (very successful way) of doing things and he quickly turned more and more over to me. They like the prestige and marketability of having an LA stamp on their plans. When you stamp them, you own them in your portfolio, so this is a very fast way to build a portfolio of high end work with little risk. I was part time in the office and part time in the field. I left and worked in a civil office doing civil site plans after a bad back injury, but stayed part time for a few years while working full time in the CE office. I started to do my own design work on the side (registered a company name and made a web site) and it slowly grew.

    3. How did you leverage your network to help you get that first project or two?
    It was actually quite by accident. Taking a job in a CE office freed me from having a conflict of interest as an LA. The office’s clientele got to know me and learned that I was an LA. I did not do independent landscape plans on projects that the CE was working on – those I did in house (only commercial cookie cutter stuff). I did do residential plans for clients of the CE firm on projects that were not being worked on by the CE firm on my own time. You really get a big overview of how local development works when you sit in a CE office. You also learn why the different developers like or dislike other design professionals. It is very eye opening and the networking is automatic and with all the people who are already busy. I highly recommend working in a small local CE office if you want to go the residential / small commercial route – you’ll see behind the curtain because you will be on that side of it. Much easier to develop your side business and the extra site engineering and permitting knowledge is priceless.

    #3552325

    Kevin Reff
    Participant

    1. How did you know when you were ready to go solo?
    I agree with Andrew. Have some work coming in before you quit your current job. I started moonlighting on the side by accident. The church I was attending wanted to expand. They hired an architect, whom I met. The city required a landscape plan for the expansion and after the project was completed, he asked if I could help on another project and it just continued from there. When I left my former employer with 8 years experience as an LA and several more working under LAs and engineers.

    2. What were some strategies you employed to drum up work/get your foot in the door when you were just starting out on your own? (assuming you didn’t steal clients on your way out or win some high-profile competition…)
    I intentionally did not take any clients from my former employer. My entire career has been working with civil engineers and architects, so I picked up the phone and started cold-calling engineers. Admittedly, the first few months were tough, but by the end of the second year my salary had doubled. Maybe it was just luck (and a LOT of hard work), but the economy was good and business has continued to improve over the past 15 years. That being said, I never stop marketing. Even though I have a number of solid companies sending me work, I continually seek new clients or reach out to old clients.

    3. How did you leverage your network to help you get that first project or two?
    My experience seems similar to Andrew’s and while I do some high end residential, I primarily focus on commercial landscape design. Yes, it’s boring, but it pays very well. My residential work comes from architects not engineers. Start calling your local architects and ask to meet with them. Ask if they have any potential projects. Have your portfolio together and be ready to present it. ALWAYS charge for your services… good advice from a former FASLA employer. Eventually, you will land your first project. After that each project will be a little easier.

    On a side note: I have a friend that only designs high-end residential. She hooked up with some developers at first to build her portfolio. The initial residences were fairly cookie cutter. It’s taken a few years, but now she designs landscapes for some of the richest people in the State. I’ve never tried the developer route, but several LAs have told me it’s very profitable.

    Good luck!

    #3554920

    Smithhart
    Participant

    What all professional insurances and business licenses do you need to do solo work as a licensed professional?

    #3554949

    Andrew Garulay, RLA
    Participant

    Different states have different requirements. My state, Massachusetts, does not have any surprisingly. However, a General Liability policy is something that you’ll need when working for other businesses because their insurance require the subs to be insured – usually $1m with a $2m aggregate. I pay around $800 per year for that. Errors and omissions insurance is something that you may want to protect yourself (may be required in other states. I believe that runs about $3,500 per year. It may be more if you are just starting out – I’m not sure.

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