Starting a Garden Design Business

Propaganda Garden DesignDecember 14, 2010

Hey professional garden peoples. Any tips for someone starting a garden design business? Common mistakes made? Licenses and other surprise paperwork issues that popped up? Ways you found new clients in the beginning? Words of support (or realistic warnings that will have me running screaming out of the thread)?

I have the financial backing and someone to help with the business side of things. I'm excited but a bit stressed and nervous too. I'm in the Los Angeles area so I have a pretty broad palette of plant material to choose from but my focus will be Mediterranean, native, succulent and other water wise gardens.

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There have been a number of threads discussing many of these issues before. Here is one that is strewn with golden nuggets of good information:

Freeland Landscape Design, from Nov 2006.

Here is a quote from Andrew (Laag), several posts down:

"Everyone wants to be a landscape designer. That makes us a dime a dozen. People who don't want to spend a lot are worried about an extra $50 added to the whole job if they use a slightly higher grade of mulch. Those folks don't want to spend a lot of money on a piece of paper. You can't produce the plan without investing a lot of hours in it.

"Let's say $50,000 a year is making a living. That is just about $1,000 a week. Can you get design jobs that you can do in a week that will sell for $1,000? Can you get 50 design jobs in a year? Maybe you only need $25k a year. Can you get 10 design jobs that will pay $2,500 each? Twenty five at $1,000, or 50 @ $500? Who gets 50 inquiries a year for design work (design/builds do). Any way you look at it, it is not easy to sell enough plans to make a living."

I myself work in a small Landscape Architecture firm. One thing to add to what Andrew said (above) is that a garden design business is a business. Doing good garden designs itself is just a portion of the work; managing and running the business well requires a fair amount of knowledge, experience and savvy, not to mention a lot of effort.

More useful links, from this very forum:
Charging for Garden Service, from March 2007.

Garden Design Business, from June 2007.

- Audric

    Bookmark   December 15, 2010 at 9:50PM
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Audric's advice and references are excellent - I'd certainly recommend studying them thoroughly.

And here's a few personal thoughts: Don't undertake this process unless you love it.....there is not a lot of money to be gained :-) IOW, you are not going to get rich and retire from landscape design!! It helps initially to establish a client base if you associate yourself with some sort of referral source. Local nurseries or garden centers can provide this if they have some sort of a gardening resource list they provide to customers. I'd also recommend becoming a member of APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers). California has a very active chapter and it's a great way to network even as an associate before you qualify as a certfied member. It can also be source of referrals as even associate members are included on their listing of designers.

And do organize your business in as much of a professional manner as possible - develop a letterhead/logo for all paperwork and business cards, develop a brochure or website and a portfolio of completed work, pay attention to any local licensing/insurance or bonding requirements and keep proper records. The more polished and professional you appear, the more potential clients are drawn to you.

FWIW, I'd skip any formal advertising other than the brochure or website. It's expensive and unfortunately generates very little business. For an independent designer, word of mouth is the primary way you will generate business. Cultivate a collection of reputable tradesman and contractors to work with and often they will generate business for you.

The one big drawback is that there are hundreds of us out here and in LA, that number may be even higher :-) Don't shy away from any type of design activity that can get your name out, including volunteer opportunities (small community parks, schools, etc. - places that perhaps cannot afford to actually hire a professional).

Good luck!!

    Bookmark   December 16, 2010 at 11:34AM
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Common Mistakes:
1. Expectation that you will get people contacting you because you have an ad, a website, and have put te word out. .... they'll give you a try.
2. Expectation that people will hire you on your potential.
3. No one else is offering "quality work".
4.that there is plenty of work ut there.
5. That there is an entry level client base that a new designer can service.
6. The size of the project directly affects the cost of producing the design.

This is the one statement that everything hinges on:
A landscape designer is hired for exactly one reason - "to remove doubt from the outcome of the project" (yes, that's my quote).

The bad news is that cost is a factor in the "entry level" design work because the budget is the biggest limitation for the client. The bigger the percentage of the budget a design will take, the less likely you are to be able to sell it. BUT, there is minimal cost that occurs with any design no matter the budget.You have to meet the client, measure, draw a base plan, and then take time to develop the design, draw the final design, and present it no matter how big or small. A small budget of say $2,000 for a landscape simply gets too hammered to make the investment. That means that it will be almost only higher budgets that can afford ANY designer, but that put you in competition with experienced people who know the other sides of the business besides drawing a good plan and they carry impressive portfolios of built work. In short, they are more likely to "remove more doubt" than a new person.

I'm not saying you can't do it, but if you are starting out with little experience, you will probably have to build the gardens that you design in order to survive because it is extremely unlikely that you will be paid enough for a plan to cover the time it takes to make it, never mind making a living. That will increase your experience and start your portfolio, but it will be very slow given the competition and the lack of wrk that is out there.

You should not quit a job to do this as it will not demand a lot of your time until/unless you build up a business.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2010 at 8:25AM
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