First BIG job--any tips?

txjenny(z8 TX)September 22, 2006

When I first started my business 5 years ago, a seasoned landscaper warned me not to get too big too fast, and to be careful when taking on my first "big" job after being used to smaller jobs. Well I'm in the design/planning process of my first big job, and I'm wondering what I need to pay attention to organizationally to pull it off.

How are "big" jobs different from small ones? What are the pitfalls of taking on a big job (by big I mean $50,000 budget and landscaping a very large lot around a very large house with very specific design needs)? This could be the beginning of my business growing from one level to the next, and I want to be as prepared as I can. Any tips?

thanks! Jenny

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There is a big difference if it is a new landscape or a rehab. If it is new, the closer it is to complete, the less you need to worry about variables that you are going to have to address.

If it is a house under construction, you have to try and find out exactly what is going to be completed by others. Such things as decks, steps, walkways, driveways, AC condensers, outdoor showers, drywells, and such may or may not be built yet, or may not be completely thought out yet. You need to know where these are going, or if you can influence them or design them.

You also need to know how much excavating and rough grading is going to be done before you are responsible for grading and drainage.

It makes a huge difference if you are hired through the builder, or directly by the home owner. If the builder hires you, you'll be expected to address his concerns with much greater importance than the aesthetics of the landscape. Scheduling and not making things that he has to adjust to will be important. You are more of a pawn to the builder. The good news is that he will have an interest in you getting your work done and not wrecking it.

If you work for the homeowner, you can focus more on the design. You'll have a little more clout because if you can sell your ideas to the homeowner first the builder has to respond. This puts more responsibility on you as well. It also takes more confidence and you need to be more assertive if you are going to control this landscape.

In either case, you have to understand that the builder is more worried about getting the house done as easily as possible than coordinating with you or accommodating you. The problem is that there is usually a date when the home owners need to get an occupancy permit. That date is always ASAP which means that the builder is going to be scrambling to finish things with lots of different subs as this date arrives. That means lots of trucks parking close to the house and more things being cut and prepared outside as the floors and paint are now finished inside. That makes it hard to work, or threatens work that you might have already done.

The bigger the job, the more you have to avoid thinking about details first and the more you have to cocentrate on the big picture. In other words, it becomes more of a landscape design and less of a garden design. Rhythm and massing are much more important in helping to create unity. Where lots of variety works on smaller houses and smaller spaces, it becomes spotty and disjointed on larger homes or spaces. Trees become much more important features with big lots and big houses.

Hardscapes layout and design, fences, lighting, and irrigation may all be things you are expected to address and coordinate which may or may not be what you are used to.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 8:13AM
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Hi jenny, me speaking from under the two bags. Andrew does his explaining so well, one day someone will listen, he speaks from experience, nicely done Andrew, so it has been useful banging your head against the wall. To add only my small contribution, as I am going down the other way, from expanding to shrinking, just be careful not to let your enthusiasm overtake your business acumen. I would say that the number one caveat when taking on a job of this size is to make sure that your are never spending any of your own money and keep records just in case it goes wrong. In any job you must be prepared to cover your losses, the profit or the loss on a job of this size could make or break you. Be a professional before you are a woman, a real test, and don't go it alone, $50,000 is a lot of money.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2006 at 5:37PM
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txjenny(z8 TX)

It's a new build, so I'm working with the homeowners. I also have a good relationship with the builders from a previous job I did for them, so I think it can work well. laag, i hear what you're saying about controlling the landscape project--it's probably the biggest question i've had--is the builder doing that or am i doing that? Can i influence the design of the patio/driveway entry? Do this come out of my budget or the builder's? It's a young group all around (homeowners are mutimillionaires in their early 30's, builders are also in their early-mid thirties. i'm the grandma in my early 40's), so there is a sense of teamwork in pulling this thing off.

And Paper Bag Man, what you said about thinking first as a professional and not a woman is a good point. It's something I had to learn quickly when I started my business 5 years ago in order to run and play with the "big boys"--thick skin, be analytical, stick to business, and when all else fails, sheer bravado! It's saved my a** more times than I can count!! Truthfully, I don't want my business to be 100% big jobs like this one--while the potential for earnings is great, it's also very stressful.

I really appreciate the thoughtfulness and honesty of your responses--your posts are among the ones I respect and listen to. Thank you!


    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 10:34AM
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I think a lot of the things that could be a problem are less since you all seem pretty comfortable with one another. I'd suggest a loose meeting between you, the homeowners, and the builder to see what has already been decided and where there are opportunities and limitations of what you will be able to address. That might get everything up on the table so that no one expects that someone else is taking care of something that they are not, or that someone might do something that someone else thought they were going to do. It is a good time to see if anyone else wants to pick up parts of the job you may not be comfortable with, or you might pick up parts that someone else is not. Open communication is good as long as no one is the type to manipulate based on that.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2006 at 7:05PM
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landman41(z5 Colo)

Well my first design application for this coming spring is a lcoal Concrete Install Company thatwants me to design a landscape showing their making the landscape with their product....agregate, stamped, retaining walls, flagstone, etc. On their property they have this space that is a former evergreen tree farm. The owner wants to use the space...incorporating many of the existing trees to make up this showcase. And by doing this it should help me have a live portfolio for his clients to see what I can do.

Maybe big, but potentially a boost.

Here is a link that might be useful: Space to be Developed

    Bookmark   October 3, 2006 at 7:14PM
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It really took me back, reading your post.

When my wife and I started our garden design and landscaping business I had been involved in the industry for 15 years but started as a man and wheelbarrow, back bedroom businees. 15 years later we employ 12 staff and have a turnover of £ 500,000.

Back then contracts of the size you mention would have been unimaginable; now we build private gardens up to 20 times this amount.

A few thoughts:

Watch the cash flow. You can go broke on an apparently profitable contract if you pay for goods before you get paid.

Watch the quotation calculations. You think "whats a few thousdand pounds between friends on a contract of this size. I'll tell you: it's the profit and what will keep you and your family alive.

Dont get bored. We would finish this job with a team of 3 or 4 in 5 weeks (if my understanding of exchange rates is correct). On long jobs, we break the garden into a series of smaller tasks and alocate a team to start and finish it in a set time. Do a bit of everything and the job seems endless.

Anyway, have fun and dont forget to make a profit.


    Bookmark   October 5, 2006 at 1:35PM
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txjenny(z8 TX)

What Colin posted made me think of another question: With larger jobs, do you still collect the same amount up front? On my wee jobs, I get 50% down, 25% halfway through the job and the final 25% upon project completion. It's worked well for me with cash flow so far, but asking for $20,000 up front seems shocking (at least to me!).

And, on my normal sized jobs, I use a spreadsheet that calculates materials X 3 for the job estimate, and that usually gives me a good 50% profit. Same on larger jobs?

    Bookmark   October 7, 2006 at 12:14AM
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