Guiding My Career Path

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    I have been working for the past 3 years as a landscape designer in the Denver area. I have been working in the industry for about 10 years, and graduated with my BLA in 2008. I really enjoy the diverse lifestyle of design build. I love meeting new people, even the crazy ones, and splitting up field time and desk time is great for me. I ultimately would love to open my own company, but feel that I lack the capitol to do so now.

    I am currently working for a small design build company. I took this latest position because it was presented to me as if I was going to have control over my clients and be given the freedom to design and manage my projects, within their framework, as I see fit. I have been very successful with other companies in the area, and that is why I was offered the job, to help grow their business. So far that has not been the case. The owner is a nice guy, but mentality closed off. They have been doing the same thing for 30 years and just can’t see the benefit of being flexible, or trying something new.

    Is it worth staying with this company even though I don’t see a future here? I would love some feedback from folks who have opened their own design build offices. I know of other designers who open small design offices without the build aspect and market themselves as “Landscape Designer, Consultants and Project Managers”.

    I should also mention that my boyfriend, who I met in school, does the same thing, and finds himself frustrated with the way his company runs their office too.

    Thanks for your advice!

    Rick Spalenka

    In the early 80s I was working for a very talented landscape architect who had supper client skills but terrible leadership skills.  He took on design/build and did great projects.  His abrasive personality caused many employees to leave.  I first took on the maintenance of his past projects as my own company and withing ten years was doing my own design/build, graound maintenance, green houses, garden center and nursery.  Very little capitol but I was at the right place at the right time.  Now may not be the right time and you know Denver better than I.  You may not be happy but you are one of the few who have a job.  Learn than do.


    Rick- Learn then do is definitely important, and I certainly don’t want to rush into anything. Working for 4 companies now in the Denver area I have seen a lot of good examples and a lot of poor ones. I also know that I am fortunate to be working. Both my boyfriend and I have had our share of unemployment over the years, he went 10.5 months. (I know there are those of you reading this thinking I wish it was only 10 months for me. Believe me I feel for you, hang in there!) I was laid off for the 3rd time at the end of February and was lucky to find this position after only one month. I will say, at least in Denver, there are a LOT more opportunities compared to when I was looking in the Fall of 2009.

    I think a slowly but surely, ‘little engine that could’ attitude is going to help us get started. Has anyone out there started by moonlighting with residential design, that led into a design/build company?

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    It is not your design skills that will make you or break you. It is your ability to position yourself to be found at the right time by the people who can use you and value what you do. Right now, your clients are most likely finding you through the design/build company rather than finding the design/build company through you. You can not survive on your own until you can reverse that to some extent. 


    Put together a marketing portfoilio that is all about you. Market your design for the company you work for independently to see if you in fact can generate leads on your own and sell work for the design/build that does not come from people calling them first. That will let you know if you can actually get work when you go independent. It will probably take a while to build a following, but your value will increase to that company which should translate to more pay in the mean time.


    It would not be prudent to go on your own without an established stream of people contacting you for design work.


    Hey Britt–

    I know I’m probably the last person you want to take advice from right now, but I think I’ve had some experiences you may be interested in.

    I actually used to talk with andrew (above) years ago, before I went to csu about design-build. At the time I was facing a similar dilemma as you are now — working for a design-build, moonlighting with my own projects. I started out by taking saturdays to literally go door to door, talking to homeowners in new neighborhoods and hanging door flyers.

    I also put a simple ad in the newspaper with my company name and services and bought a new cell phone dedicated to that business only. I advertised online in places like servicemagic and other sites and after no more than a month I was getting calls left and right. My first job on my own was a $15,000 install which I thought was HUGE!

    As far as equipment and overhead — I already knew how to install irrigation systems from scratch, including water taps, wiring, layout, etc, and I had amassed a garage full of tools (wheelbarrows, rakes, shovels, wrenches, etc, etc not to mention a collection of spare irrigation fittings). I also already owned a small truck. While installing my first job I created a few yard signs and began getting calls from those.

    For Labor I subcontracted with a guy that my former boss used. When he was too busy he gave me numbers to other crews and small landscape companies that would sub a few of their guys for a week to do an install. This is good for everybody because you dont have to worry about too much overhead starting out and other companies can stay afloat by subbing out extra labor. You need to be diligent about how you do this as there are a number of laws surrounding how you use labor, who carries the insurance, and the definition of a sub.

    In essence, I guess you could say I acted as project manager, gc. I had a very strong relationship with ALL of the local vendors in the denver-boulder area that all knew me and my boss by name and were glad to help. I always paid on time for supplies and communicated well, which made them eager to help me out in terms of cost and delivery. I still know alot of the vendors and how they work if you need any tips there.

    Things were going so well for me in just a year or two that I often wonder where I’d be (at least financially) if I just stuck with it. I stopped taking jobs after my first semester at CSU and you know where I am now..Hope this helps..


    Thank you to both Andrew and Nick, great advice from you both.

    Andrew- A steady flow of design leads, I agree, is a must before branching out. Since I just started at this company in April, a lot of the work I am doing initially is for past clients. I do not at the moment feel that my network is not large enough, but it will certainly continue to grow.

    Nick- I will always value your advice. Yeah, you would probably be a millionaire by now, but hey, what can you do. I think Terrain will also be just as much, if not more successful long term. I understand your history, and have read your posts on land8 from 2 years ago… We have both talked about moving to VT. Have you thought about the impact on Terrain? What are your concerns? I imagine that if I moved a residential design/consultation company it would have it’s reputation and that’s about it. I would in theory have to build my client/contractor list from scratch. 

    We could probably discuss the pro’s and con’s of different approaches for hours. The goal is  to find what works for me, and hopefully Steve (Has BLA and similar experience). The long term plan is to work for ourselves. To what capacity we serve our clients is the root question here, and doesn’t need to be answered for some time. Right now my starting point is moonlighting design and consultation services while marketing myself and building relationships with contractors and other steady referral sources.

    I would like to think that design is valued enough that I would never have to add the built component. I suppose only time and the eventual market I end up in, will tell.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Also market to busy custom home builders. They find that they like an independent design because they can use it to project manage landscape contractors. Try to get them to let you work directly for their clients. Homeowners are better payers, but the builders will get you referals if they are able to benefit by managing the project.


    I find landscape contractors not to be a good market for independent design. We cost too much and they tend to be too paranoid to let you deal directly with the client.


    If you and/or your husband are able bodied and capable of building landscapes, it is a much better lead generator than design only – even if you have to supplement with subs.


    I hope Brittany is not your real name because your employer or coworker can be looking at your post at this moment and decide to let you go. Be careful when you talk about your current employer (or even previous employers) on social media while using your real name.

    mark foster


    I worked as an employee in D/B for many years, started my own company about 15-20 years ago.  I can’t answer your “should I stay or should I go” question, but I can offer advice if you go……

    You could become a consultant and sub out eveything, but you will not have the total control over your work.  You will also find your subs and clients will eventually circumvent you and work directly with each other.

     I believe it is best to do one key component of the work “in house”, and subcontract the rest.  Think of your “in house” specialty as your gateway into the market.   I know D/B firms who concentrate in maintenance, do new planting projects when it comes their way, and sub out all construction.  Others focus on exotic, hard to find plant material.  Some on natives and sustainability etc… There is also the divide between residential and commercial (and myriad sub-categories within each), but that is another conversation.  

    My firm concentrates on construction.  Unless it is a small consequence to a project (and not worth their time), I sub the plantings.  I also sub irrigation, and obviously electric.  If you keep your focus tight, you will find your subs become great streams of new clients, and even clients themselves. 

    I have made, and seen others make, the same few mistakes over the years.  The first is trying to grow too fast, the other is loosing focus on what you do well.  D/B is not like design only.  There is almost always too much to do with what you have, and you can easily get off track trying to do everything and nothing well.

    The $ investment in equipment and facilities can be daunting–my advice is to rent at first, and buy as you can.  

    Jordan Lockman

    I have found that you need to be on the same page as your company or you won’t be able to sell. It is hard to represent something that you don’t believe in.

    I would figure out what your long term goal is and then figure out how to get there!

    Some of the great designers can make a go without a crew(subbing it all out), but you need to give the client a reason to deal with you and your mark up. Many crews and clients think they can design just as good, without you, so it is an uphill battle if you are not in charge of the crews. This is from lectures I never struck out on my own.

    Not to mention, how are you going to find your clients? Mailings, door knocking, pro-Bono work, ?

    George McNair


    Building landscapes is one of the most difficult construction jobs to do since it requires so many different trades or skills. One must have tools for irrigation, lighting, rototilling, excavation, cement work, carpentry, surveying, planting stuff, flat bed deliveries and the list goes on. Each category requires special equipment and is a seperate career path. Some savy people buy a new dump truck and backhoe and this is their fulltime job. They stay busy, and they make enough to buy new house and replacement equipment every so often. 

    If you went this way, you will deliver goods and services to all the builders and your name will be out there. Design your landscapes, deliver soil, bark, and rock to your subs, and let them do the work in the rain and snow. It’s a dirty job…………but someones got to do it.

    Another option is to work for the best landscaper around, then branch off into maintenance which requires less equipment and you work on grass rather than a mucky construction site. yuck……Design, put it out for bid, manage contractors, then get the maintenance contracts which keep you working until the next design job comes in. Plus you keep you jobs looking good for years to come which clients can see.  

    As you know, plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and cabinet makers all get to work inside while the poor landscaper is being beaten by the weather and they get paid less…………

    Craig Anthony

    Brittany – I believe that it takes 7 plus years practicing under the right well trained LA/LD for a grad to become knowledgeable enough to turn loose on the world, then another 3 or 4 years to come into your own as a designer. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I’ve only met one in my entire career. So unless you’re some kind of landscape wunderkind, I think 3 years as a designer is a little premature.


    That said, if a once in a lifetime opportunity falls into your lap, by all means jump all over it. Successful businesses are been born everyday by someone being at the right place at the right time and filling a need or solving a problem. For example, say you meet a home builder that has 7or 8 homes at various stages of completion and he wants you to design and install the landscapes at a fair market price. I’d say check to see if the guy pays his bills, write a proposal, sell the job, and get a 1/3rd down on the cost of the first job and then figure out how you’re going to pull it off. In a situation like this you can eat and pay your bills long enough to sell more jobs.


    I strongly suggest you consider taking advantage of the fact that you have a job to prepare yourself to be in business. These are just some of the things you should focus on:


    1. Learn how to sell. There’s more to it than networking and meeting the right people. The ability to be assertive enough to get people to make decisions and right checks, yet charming enough to make enjoy being sold is not something they teach in school. A so-so designer with basic sales skills will out close a superstar designer with no sales skills any day.
    2. Establish relationships with suppliers. Visit local nurseries talk to the owners. If you’ve been responsible for steering business their way let them know. Then when it’s time to start your own outfit you might get some mileage out of the relationship you formed while working for someone else.
    3. Find a source for good landscape laborers. Besides having a business partner who turned out to be an emotional wreck. This is the reason why I got out of design/build. Finding and maintaining good help gave me nightmares.


    By the time you’ve schooled yourself a little more on someone else’s dime, the economy will be better.

    George McNair


    “The owner is a nice guy, but mentality closed off. They have been doing the same thing for 30 years and just can’t see the benefit of being flexible, or trying something new.”  Trying new things means new problems that cost time and money.


    The owner is responsible for law suits for up to 7 years after the design goes in. If one of your ideas causes a suit are you going to be around to help pay $10,000 for the fix?


    This is really good advice, “Brittany – I believe that it takes 7 plus years practicing under the right well trained LA/LD for a grad to become knowledgeable enough to turn loose on the world, then another 3 or 4 years to come into your own as a designer. “


    Craig you seem to be encouraging her to go into the design-build mine field. Like you said, “Of course there are exceptions to this, but I’ve only met one in my entire career.” I suggest design-maintnance or design-nursery or design-irrigation or design-dump truck deliveries or design-backhoe work………………….just my 2 cents worth……….what do I know? ………am I rich and retired?

    Craig Anthony

    Well…I’m actually suggesting that she keep her current job or find a new job where she can learn how to be a productive LA or LD that knows how to sell work, unless she stumbles across some incredible opportunity to go into business prematurely. In that case, I would say take advantage of the moment, but be very careful, learn as much as you can from successful businesses and partner up with a trustworthy person (the hard part) that knows what they’re doing. And then she’ll probably just have a snowballs chance of becoming a profitable business.


    George I have to respectfully disagree with the ice cream to insurance angle to becoming a top notch landscape design firm. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you have to do to pay the bills, but I would be reluctant to tie it all together from a marketing standpoint. Not to sound like a stuffed shirt, but the kind of client I’m targeting is not going to let the back-hoe and 48” Deck SKAG operating, dump truck driving designer anywhere near their property.


    ”Trying new things means new problems that cost time and money.”

    I kind of agree with you on this one though. If I had a business of 30 years that was turning a profit and providing jobs in the community, I would be a little reluctant to listen to someone telling me I ought to do things differently. Until someone shows me a faster way to properly install a tree, I’m gonna keep doing it the way I’ve been doing it.

    George McNair

    “not going to let the back-hoe and 48” Deck SKAG operating, dump truck driving designer anywhere near their property.”  This is a little sterotypical. Sure we all want to target the wealthy home owners who will spend $200k on a landscape but until this happens do you muck around installing labor intensive landscapes?

    Craig, the point is to have a construction related sideline, money maker that keep one out of the weather and mud while one waits for design jobs to come in, When meeting a client one of course won’t drive up in a dump truck. You dress up and take your laptop full of job pictures. 


    The design/build dream many times is not suited for a LA who spent 5 years working inside the comforts of an office only to venture into hard manual labor out in the weather and mud. I would much rather deliver bark and rock in a nice heated dump truck while design jobs trickle in. When trucking, one rubs elbows with big contractors who may know of job leads.  just an opinion………….

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