The big lesson we learned in 2020 is that, when forced to stay home, the good people of Peel region turn to their landscapers to create their ideal environment.
As a result, last year was a steady year for many landscaping businesses, so it’s no surprise that, for 2021, many of enterprising souls plan to start their own landscaping business.
Landscapers are the heart-blood of Toemar; they always have been, and with over 40 years working with landscapers and hardscapers under our belt, we’d like to think we’ve learned a thing or two about the anatomy of a successful landscaping business.
Before we begin, it’s worth saying that this industry is on the grow. There is lots of room for new companies! We can speak to this anecdotally of course; last year was off the charts in terms of demand (even if the situation meant we couldn’t always be open), but the years before Covid also saw incremental growth and an influx or new landscaping companies, the vast majority of them successful.
The numbers also prove the point. Landscaping in Canada is an $8bn (USD) industry. It employs upwards of 70k people across the country, and it’s egalitarian and diverse: No one company owns more than 5% of overall market share (as small business owners ourselves, we love this stat.)
Landscaping growth tends to follow housing industry growth and is therefore concentrated in certain places – Mississauga and the GTA being one of them.
Just because the external conditions may be right to start a landscaping business, what we’ve found is that it’s the internal conditions – your skill set, aptitude and attitude, that are the real driver of success.
There’s a wonderful quote from Bruce Pon Tip (founder of Toronto-based G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures)) who said back in 2010, “If the economy isn’t good, you need to make your own economy.”
Ladies and gentlemen: This is 100% true, and while Bruce delivers the line quite nicely, we’ve been living it at Toemar since the day we opened our doors.
Beyond good equipment and a reliable pickup truck or two, here’s what you really need to run a successful landscaping business.
1. Willingness to Learn
No matter how much you think you know, there’s always more to learn.
In our industry, all our tradespeople work side by side and need to understand each other’s function. If you’re redesigning your client’s backyard, you must understand the physics of hardscaping, the science of horticulture and aboriculture, and the art of making those realities support your client’s vision.
This doesn’t mean you have to become an expert in all these things, but it’s important to create relationships with complementary tradespeople, and at least have a basic understanding of why you may need to call on them and what they can do for you/your client.
This often requires business owners to put their ego aside and be open to what other experts have to say, even if it may impact their project. When you’re working in the field, this is easier said than done, which is why an open-minded attitude comes in handy.
2. Support Your Team
A landscaping company will rise or fall according to the quality of its team.
If you’re lucky enough to find talented support staff, you must know how to effectively and respectfully communicate your expectations, while supporting their growth and development.
Personnel issues are going to come up. How will you handle them?
And there will be times when you will be blindsided because your team’s perspective is so far off from what you thought it was, or what you thought you’d communicated, that you will, at times, wonder if you’re living in a parallel universe.
As a business owner, it’s up to you to bridge that gap in understanding. It’s also up to you to take responsibility for how you communicate.
Something we’ve learned at Toemar is that, if someone is not receiving the message the way we’d intended it, the issue is with how it’s being communicated. So the issue is with us, not with the employee or the client or whomever.
It’s easy to blame the other person when something you’ve communicated is misinterpreted, but it’s a mistake that could cost you the trust of your team and respect of your employees. And always remember: In this industry, your team will make or break you.
3. Understand the Value of Client Relationships (Marketing)
The above header is synonymous with ‘know how to market your business’.
We didn’t want to write that because people may talk themselves out of starting their business because they think they don’t know how to market, but the foundation of marketing is simple: Build solid relationships with your clients, so that they know you, like you and trust you.
If you can do that without over-complicating it, you’re half-way there.
Speaking of complicated, having attractive social media is important to a degree. You will need a way to showcase the work your team has completed and the good results people have when they choose your company for their landscaping, but our advice is not worry about social media for now, and to focus your preliminary marketing efforts on two things:
- Invest in a decent website that contains lots of pretty pictures of work you’ve done and an easy-to-use contact form that includes a ‘referred by’ field
- Get to know your clients. Do a good job for them. Ask them for referrals. Do a good job for those referral clients. Ask them for referrals.
This is a one-two marketing punch. Your website makes it easier for your clients to refer their friends and neighbours to you. Your strong relationships with these clients will make them want to refer people to you using your website.
(And aside: Write into your contract that you will take before and after pictures of your client’s property and use these for marketing purposes. Then, take those pictures and show them to every single lead.)
Some new businesses may opt to rely on a social media account to replace the need to have a website. While this practice can yield results and be affordable, there are a few issues we see with it.
First, it’s never a good idea to build your house on someone else’s property. As your business grows, you may want more flexibility to scale your business, and your chosen network may limit you.
This is why, in the first year or two, we think it makes sense to invest your money in your own website, and to spend your time networking, and then, if you have the resources, add social media to the mix.
4. Get a Handle on Contracts and Money
Never, ever, ever-ever, do work without a contract.
Look, we understand that the idea of hiring a lawyer to write a 45-page document in legalease can feel like a crime against humanity, but rest assured – that kind of contract is probably overkill anyhow.
What is necessary is a statement of work, or a scope document. We recommend you keep this down to a page or two, write your terms in simple English, and make sure you’re specific about what your team is responsible for, and what are additional billable services that are not covered in the initial scope of work. It can sometimes be hard to control scope-creep, but you can control whether or not you get compensated for it.
Also be clear about your payment terms and any guarantees you may offer, and promise the client that you will not embark on additional billable services without informing them and seeking their consent. There should never be a suprise on an invoice (unless it’s a good surprise for your client!)
If you don’t want to include pages and pages of terms in your statement of work, but you feel the need to include them, you can always post them online, provide the url in the statement of work, and have a check box that client has visited that url and read those terms in full.
Finally, make sure your statement of work has a dated sign-off for both you and your client.
Make it easy for clients to pay
Most landscapers need to invest in materials before starting a project, but if you have to wait two weeks after you’ve begun your project to get the first payment, you’re going to run into serious cash flow issues.
Our advice is to a) be clear about terms (see above) and b) set up a merchant account so that all your clients have to do is provide a credit card number at the get-go, and you can do the rest.
It may sometimes be necessary to call a client who is behind on payments, and that can be awkward as anything. Our advice? Use the term ‘money conversation.’
For example, you can say to them, “Hi John. I’d like to have a money conversation with you, can we do that?” This is allows the other person to mentally prepare, and it empowers a frank and effective conversation about money, while separating that conversation out from small talk and other conversations.
Hire a bookkeeper
When you’re a business owner, its up to you to find, mind, and grind the business.
Hiring a bookkeeper is an affordable way to keep your books and invoicing up to date and shipshape while freeing up much of your time.
An affordable virtual assistant who is also a bookkeeper is worth their weight in gold and will do more to free up your time and help you run your business in those first few years than most other functions.
This will not only assist with cashflow, but it will also mean that, should your name be drawn for a CRA audit, your books will be available, accurate and up to date. The less stress the better!
Be Proud of What You’re Doing
Look man, if it were easy, everybody would have a corner office.
What you’re doing is hard work. It takes courage and resilience. You’re going to trip, learn and succeed, in that order. But it IS a trip, and a good one too.
When you decide to open your own business, you are choosing to take control of your own destiny and finances, you are choosing to claim your own space in this world, and you are empowering others to reach their goals and provide for their families.
Sure, it’s not always easy, but it’s rewarding, and it’s always a bit of thrill to tell someone that you run your own business. And there’s one thing that’s even better than that: That feeling at the end of a day, on the last day of a project, when your team has done an amazing job, and you take a moment to look at what you’ve done. A happy client, a happy team, and a brilliant outcome. You did that, my friend. Kudos to you.