Going Solo – Getting a Foot in the Door

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE Going Solo – Getting a Foot in the Door

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    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!

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    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.

    Kevin Reff

    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!


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

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    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.


    It’s hard. I have my own LLC that I’ve had for about six years now. I do some work on the side but it’s very little. I set it up to take on a project (very long term 10+ yrs) and the guy I was partnering with low-balled me (basically I would have been working for less than $20 per hour and about 60 hrs a week, no thanks). I have reviewed RFPs and many submittals call for the prime to be very experienced. I am but the firm is not so I am a disadvantaged business. I am also a minority owner. I am certified as a small, minority business owner and even then it doesn’t bring you the work. You still have to work for it marketing your own work, etc.

    It cost me $500 to set up my LLC with my lawyer. He will set up the business articles of organization with the SCC and then set up the operating agreement, etc. It’ll cost you to register with your state board a business license (prob around $100), you will, of course, have to have licensure. Both of these are typically renewed every couple of years. It’ll cost you probably $50 annually with SCC. If you want this to be a home based business then you’ll have to set that up with your local municipality (small fee). The insurance I was quoted was around $250 per month. You may pay for other items such as a website. I designed my own, Polymath Land Design, http://www.polymathld.com. It’ll cost you to build it if you can’t do it yourself (upwards of $1000 probably), to host it (maybe $100 per year), to register the domain name (mine is through GoDaddy for like $30 every couple of years).

    The huge cost is going to be software. Autocad is not cheap. Neither is some others such as LandFX. You’ll just have to build the subscription price into your job bid to cover the cost as perpetual licenses are no longer available.

    I may get two or three small jobs a year. I have a few clients that include lawn maintenance crews, construction crews, or engineers that need a LA to sign some plans. In the end you won’t make much money off of “side work.” It’s a nice perk to a full-time job but you are going to have to go after the big jobs (sounds like I’m trying to convince myself). By time you claim the taxes on it all you’re doing is “eating away” at any benefit that you might have from your own personal taxes. One last thing, if you try and claim the business on your taxes and you claim losses after three years the IRS will no longer accept it as a business. They will tell you that it’s a HOBBY. So, unless you’re making money and can claim deductions such as operating expenses then I wouldn’t even claim the business at all until you’re rolling.

    Good Luck, I’m still working on it.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    You have to go after work that you are not only capable of doing, but that you are likely to get. The first thing that you need to accomplish is filling your schedule with work or it will go nowhere.

    The ONLY reason people hire us or other people who do similar work is to remove doubt from the outcome of the project. Part of that is the design itself is good, but reality is that there are a ton of good “designers” out there and there are a lot of other “doubts” than just the design. There is cost – cost of design, cost of construction, cost of maintenance, cost of materials, …. There is scheduling – how long to develop the design, how long for permitting, how long to get the materials, how long to construct, what other things need to be done by others to allow for parts of your project to get done? Efficiency is another – how well you work with others both in design and logistically on the site. Those are some. There could be more on any project. These are all things valued differently by anyone hiring someone who does what we do. That is a good thing because there is more chances of having a good fit somewhere.

    It is a dead end if you go after work that others appear to be better suited to remove more doubt than you appear to be able to do. No one is going to hire you (generic you) or me to “give us a chance”. One of the best ways to fill your schedule is to go after work where you are competing against people that your resume and portfolio of built work puts you at or near the top of the list. Another is to look where there may be opportunities to present a more efficient option where you see developers being bogged down by having to use firms that insist on more deliverables or services than necessary – a lot of projects don’t need design details for everything.

    You can’t fill a need that you don’t know about, so you need to be able to observe how things are actually working in your market as much as possible. You need to know not only what is being built, but who is initiating the work and the order of whom is brought on board and when. Where in that pipeline can you connect? The higher up the pipeline that you connect, the less opportunity there is for someone else to get in. Does the developer look for the LA (or other site or landscape designer) or is it the architect, or the engineer, or the builder? Can you cut the line and get the engineer to recommend you before it goes out to bid to three or four GC’s?

    Don’t overvalue design ability. I believe too many of us think that we get work by being more creative than the next person. Reality is that there are a ton of good designers out there and some of them don’t have RLA next to their names. If you rely only on being a good designer, you are missing where the jobs are won or lost. If you can prepare your work so that it makes the engineer’s life easier (s)he will recommend you every time over someone with similar skills. Minimize you deliverables to get through design development and permitting quicker than the LA who wants to make big projects out of not so big projects – timing is everything for developers.

    We have to play the game as the game is being played, but we can adapt our own capabilities AND LIMITATIONS to be competitive. NEVER try to compete with your weakest abilities. Know them. Be honest with yourself and use YOUR best capabilities to land work. You may find that your competition relies only on his/her strong points and is never challenged by a different angle. Developers don’t care what text books tell them they need – only professors and people brainwashed by them do.

    Greg Bland

    I remember wondering the same questions you’re asking. That’s why I have teamed up with another LA and we have created an online course that is all about going out and starting your solo practice. It is called Plans for the Future. I have a video about it here https://www.plansforthefuture.net/p/founding-members Check it out. Hope we can help
    Greg Bland
    Plans for the Future


    April 8, 2019
    Hello Zelkov………….

    I understand where you’re coming from. IMO, it really is very important to get maybe 8 to 10 years (or more) of professional practice in an LA firm (not one that’s too small); one that has several experienced and talented LAs.

    In my case, I had been designing for a Dallas, Texas LA firm (25 LAs) and in Feb. 1991, almost everyone was laid off due to a very sluggish economy…just not enough projects out there. At age 41, I decided to go it alone. I got a ton of experience from the time I graduated from Texas A&M in 1977 thru 1990…so, that made going out on my own that much easier. Still, it took me 2 yrs. of marketing and taking on every little design project I could get. Finally, landed a major Multi-Family Developer client…one of the TOP in the Nation. In the Dallas LA firm I was with, approx. 70% of their projects were multi=family, so, I had developed a pretty strong Portfolio (especially with multi-family projects).

    In the Dallas LA firm, the pay was just not what it should have been…the Owners refused to pay any LA over $30k plus double-time for over-time…but, I DID gain a TON of great knowledge and experience from some very experienced and talented LAs.

    As I moved forward with my LA firm, I decided NOT to expand beyond myself. I worked very long hours for over 14 years…then, began slowing down (around age 55…and finally retiring recently at the age of 69. BUT, the great thing about working for myself was the INCOME was MUCH better than working for an LA firm. As, multi-family project Fees ran from $20k to $50k…and I designed from 6 to 9 per year for almost 15 years. I had 6 other multi-family accounts…designing various number of projects for each. For my main client, Fairfield Residential, LLC., I designed a total of 105 multi-family projects in 8 different States.

    I have designed several Single Family projects as well over the years. I believe the upscale Single Family market will ALWAYS be around…even when the economy is down.

    I agree, BEFORE you leave an LA firm to go out on your own…..you really need more experience AND a strong Portfolio (you’ll need that Portfolio to do marketing). Finding 1 or 2 clients on the side who will give you “repeat” business would really be helpful in going it alone. But, remember, no matter how much start up money you have, talent or experience…..it STILL takes about 2 years to get a “start up” company up and running…so, be aware of that.

    Also, once you get out on your own…..consider eventually “expanding” your firm by adding additional LAs. I have several LA friends who have LA firms with 8 to 25 LAs on Staff…and they are doing exceptionally well, financially. Be sure to keep your “overhead” LOW. I worked out of my Home Design Studio, so, paying the IRS was really my only over-head…I never learned autoCAD, I’ve only drawn preliminary and final plans “by hand”…approx. 600 projects. Also, be SURE to “invest” every month, if you can, you’ll be glad you did. Being on your own, means you have to pay the IRS Quarterly payments…I used a 1 man CPA firm to help me.

    I don’t really have a website per se, I have a FLICKR website where I have posted many of my Portfolio samples. If you GOOGLE my name “J. Robert Wainner”, you’ll see my FLICKR website pop up.


    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner

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