Start-up Company

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    Glenn Sovie

    Hey all,

    I am in the process of starting a small landscape design company, I am just wondering if any of you have any tips on the best ways to go about things.

    When should we become and LLC/Inc.?
    Writing up contracts, as opposed to verbal agreements.
    Becoming Insured.

    I plan on doing the design, build, and maintain type of thing. Right now I am just a guy with a pickup truck, so I plan on keeping things to verbal agreements and cash until I develop a little report.

    I have my LA Degree from UMass Amherst. I would love to find my way into a firm someday, but this is going to pay the bills for now.

    All comments/suggestions are appreciated.

    James Sipes

    Become “official” … when I formed my company I decided on an LLC.
    Get professional liability insurance immediately. There is a reason all firms have it. In addition, if you are a sub to another firm they will most likely require it. Any design/build firm should be insured.
    And always use a written contract, even if it is a one pager. It clears up potential misunderstandings.

    Rob Halpern

    Contracts…definitely contracts.

    Altho this site is stories from web designers and graphic designers, you’ll see the horror tales of clients who re-invent the understanding after the work is done.

    Dane K. Spencer

    Hey James,

    Good to see you here. I’ve lost a residential client because I sent them the short version of the ASLA contract. It scared them. What can you recommend in this case?


    Hey Glenn,

    I think you’re talking about starting a residential design-build, in which case, realistically, your first few clients at least will be on the smaller scale. Taking that into consideration, I wouldn’t overcomplicate the situation.

    Before I went back to school at CSU I worked in design-build, eventually starting my own ‘pickup truck and shovel’ business. My first contract was a revised contract I borrowed from a former boss who did the same kind of work. I wrote my own change order forms, invoices, and estimate sheets basically from scratch following former employer guidelines.

    My first job was a $7,000 flagstone patio follwed by a $14,000 landscape remodel with irrigation, and soon after jobs over $25,000 with masonry, irrigation, grading, and extensive planting. The first time someone handed me a check for $5,000 I was shaking and I remember not being able to sleep at night through the first few days of construction–when you tear their yard up and realize you need to put it all back together an clean up after yourself, or when you’re drilling a hole through someones foundation for an irrigation pipe.

    You might think about working your first few jobs on time and materials instead of hard bid to be sure you get paid and dont hang yourself too far out.

    I would recommend the book ‘Guerrilla Marketing Handbook’ to help give you some ideas form marketing and advertising your services on a limited budget. I started with a referral or two from friends, to door hangers, to ads in the classifieds, to yard signs and eventually a website and some online ads.

    I basically ran the business on the side through school and set it aside by the time I graduated and am now on more of an ‘design office’ career track.

    Hope some of that helps..good luck.

    James Sipes

    Good advice, Glenn. For most, the hard part is getting the project, not doing the work. Barbara Faga always says “you get work from your friends.” I think that is very true. Word of mouth is essential, especially with residential work. One of the best things you can do is be involved with neighborhood groups, “beautification” groups, and the like. The more people see you and hear your name, the more likely they are to hire you.

    I like “Guerrila Marketing Handbook” a lot.

    Glenn Sovie

    No, I do need to change those to designer. You are correct. That is why I named my business “landscape design” and not “landscape Architects” or something of the sort.

    We don’t need to open that can of worms. I have read most of that thread a while back, and I know there is technically not much of a difference in ability; yet LA is what I strive for eventually. I agree that landscape designer’s who have not gotten their license shouldn’t call themselves architects.

    Need to update both of those. It is fair to say “Glenn Sovie, ASLA” correct? and soon when I become LEED AP I will add that.

    thankyou all for the comments thus far.

    Wes Arola, RLA

    write up contracts or agreements even if its a $600 job. Many people have learned that lesson for us and its not worth it. Best of luck at getting your name out there. Another thing to do is develop a plant list and a set of CAD standards and blocks that you will plan to use and a nice title block.


    If you are in NYC on June 26th is hosting “Happy Afternoon” A hosted discussion titled; “so you want to start an office…someday…” Our guest speakers, recently independent practitioners include Martha Desbiens of VertNY, David Seiter of Future Green Studio and Michael Cluer of Materialab. Event will be held at Future Green Studio’s nursery space in Gowanus, 3rd St and Hoyt – Beer available for donation. Woo Hoo Brooklyn summer afternoons – hope to see you there!

    More info on my page here on land8, facebook group ‘topophilia’, or at

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    You’ll need to at least go to your town hall and fill out a d/b/a (doing business as) in order to legally use a company name.

    You’ll probably be fine operating as a sole proprietorship since it is unlikely that you have a ton of assetts to protect and the grand it costs to register an LLC in MA is probably not in your curent budget.

    Liability insurance is not mandatory in Massachusetts, but both practical and not having it makes you look like a fly-by-nighter – you should be able to get that for about a grand per year.

    If you are going to mark up any product, you are legally required to collect sales tax on them and are required to have a vendor’slicense in Massachusetts (pretty cheap – like a one time hundred dollar fee) and then you have to set up a business bank account and register with the Mass Dept. of Revenue to report and pay your sales tax on-line (very easy and costs nothing).

    Errors & Omissions insurance is unnecessary if you are the installer as well as the designer and would likely be very cost prohibitive to you (at least $5k if you can get it at all).

    If you hire anyone you need to register with both the Mass. DOR and the IRS. Don’t make the mistake of thinking yu can pay your help as “subcontractors” – a lot of people do this and it catches up to them years later in very big and bad ways (I know people who lost their asses years later).

    You should have contracts for everything, even if it is just a piece of notebook paper that lists what you’ll do and what it will cost. You’ll learn to write better contracts as time goes by.

    Didt they have a professional office practice class at UMASS?

    The danger in what you are doing is that when you start your own business you will never get the internship done in order to get registered (if that is your goal). Most also tend to stay close to the level that they went into business at in terms of type of work and clientele. It is much faster to climb to a higher market by working for someone else first and “stepping off” on your own at their level rather than climbing up on your own. You’ll find that out one way or another.

    Tanya Olson

    I use a friendly letter-form contract that acts as contract and proposal – the goal is to let the client know that you are on the same page, this is the work you are going to do and it will cost that much.
    In it I outline what the goals of the project are as we discussed at our initial meeting, my scope of work, the product they will get in the end, the time frame, the expected compensation, services not included and disclaimer if there is not a site survey, then says I can start with the signed authorization to proceed and have a place for them to sign at the bottom of the letter. I also am careful to say that the proposed price is for the scope of work I have described, additional work will be billed at ‘X’ hourly rate but no work above the proposed fee will be done without a written agreement between the client and me.
    Its pretty informal – exactly because of what you said – the legal language is too scary for a residential client – especially in the couple of thousand of dollar range. So far so good. I’ve also used this contract for small projects with a corporate client.

    Tanya Olson

    No, you can’t use ASLA until you are licensed. If you use the term ‘landscape architect’ in any of your work you could have a complaint lodged against you and lose the ability to become licensed. Careful!

    James Sipes

    Are you sure that is correct? I always assumed “ASLA” simply meant you were a member of ASLA. It does not refer to licensure.


    “The danger in what you are doing is that when you start your own business you will never get the internship done in order to get registered (if that is your goal). Most also tend to stay close to the level that they went into business at in terms of type of work and clientele. It is much faster to climb to a higher market by working for someone else first and “stepping off” on your own at their level rather than climbing up on your own. You’ll find that out one way or another.”


    I agree with your thoughts entirely, but for those who are recent grads and looking for any way to get their hands dirty, would you say this is better than nothing? I find myself in the same spot of wanting to improve my employment status, but must instead settle for whatever I can do to support my family and maintain some, if any, of my design skills.

    Rob Halpern

    If you cannot get the job you want or need, then adding to your experience with plants, design and construction can only help later on. Just don’t lose sight of where you want to be headed.

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