How to Start a Lawn Care or Landscaping Business

Landscapers come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds, but they all share one thing in common: a genuine love of the outdoors and growing things. It's what drives them to spend most of every day on the job covered in dirt. It induces them to learn the Latin names of plants, shrubs and trees-on purpose. And it makes them gleefully haul around 45-gallon containers (and the redwoods sprouting from them) like it's child's play rather than actual work. Sound like fun? Then you've come to the right place.

There are numerous ways you can forge a business in either residential or commercial landscaping-or both. Some of the fields require more than just a love of gardening to succeed-they also require experience and formal education. The major career paths for landscapers include:

Gardener/groundskeeper: This type of green industry professional is usually in charge of keeping up appearances-he or she may care for plants and other greenery, and may perform that work in a garden, greenhouse or work shed. What sets gardeners and groundskeepers apart from other landscape professionals is that they normally don't do any design work; rather, they tend existing landscapes, although they may render other services like applying pesticides and herbicides, mowing lawns, doing spring and fall cleanups, composting, etc. They need a good working knowledge of horticulture and plant varieties.

Interiorscaper (aka interior landscaper): You can build an entire business caring for plants in office buildings, shopping malls and other public places. Interior landscapers are usually contractors who provide general maintenance and care, as well as give advice about the types of plants and planters that will complement a building's interior design the best. Interiorscapers often give advice about plant selection, supervise and/or set up or tear down holiday decorations, and offer other services that are loosely related to interior design. While you don't need a design background to be successful, it helps if you have an eye for color, shape, texture and form and can translate that into green focal points that will complement beautifully arranged interiors.

Landscaper: In the most general sense, this is the type of person who installs and maintains plants, flowers, trees, sod, and other natural materials like rocks and mulch. Lawn care often is part of the landscape maintenance professional's menu of services, plus he or she may also offer basic design services (a good eye and an equally good design software package make it possible). Finally, landscapers may offer add-on services, such as sprinkler installation or hardscape construction, to stay busy. We'll discuss the numerous ways you can pump up your business a little later. Most states require landscapers to be licensed. Check with your state's department of licensing, labor or contracting board to find out the requirements.

Landscape architect/designer: Planning verdant spaces is the job of the landscape architect (aka landscape designer). Landscape architects often work side by side with building architects, surveyors and engineers to design and plan projects like new subdivisions, public parks, college campuses, shopping centers, golf courses and industrial parks, and then produce detailed drawings to pull the projects together. They may specialize in a certain type of project, such as waterfront development, site construction, or environmental remediation (e.g., preserving wetlands). Landscape architects also play an important role in historic landscape preservation and restoration.

Obviously, this is the most technically oriented of the landscape businesses mentioned here, and a bachelor's or master's degree in landscape architecture is usually required to enter the field. And as you may expect, licensed landscape architects charge the highest fees, which is why in May 2004 the middle 50 percent of landscape architects earned between $40,930 and $70,400, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-2007 edition. The highest 10 percent earned more than $90,850.

Of course, there are many other plant-related businesses that might be of interest to landscapers, including silviculturist (someone who specializes in the care of trees, especially relating to forests), horticulturist (a person who investigates better ways to grow, harvest and store fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants), and turf specialist (someone who cares for turf and sod). You can find an extensive list of horticulture and landscape design-related businesses on the Vocational Information Guide website at www.khake.com/page21.html.

General Business Operations
While you have many choices when customizing your new landscaping business, there are certain tasks that you'll need to do no matter which services you choose to offer. They include the following.

Estimating Jobs
Whether you're providing a simple service like pruning bushes or you're installing an elaborate three-level deck, people will want to know upfront how much a job will cost. As a result, it's imperative to develop good estimating skills right from the start. The trouble is, estimating is a science, and it's easy to make a misstep that could cost you plenty in terms of time and resources.

There are a number of software packages (like CLIP and LandPro) developed specifically for landscapers that you can use to help you make good estimates. We've also listed the names of a few books in the Appendix that you might find helpful. In the meantime, here is a general overview of how to go about making an educated guess.

Your mission here is to determine what your costs will be and then add in a profit. Your costs will include everything from materials (plants, mulch, topsoil, etc., which you have marked up from your wholesale or retail price) to labor (both your own employees and subcontractors), equipment (yours and any you rent), and your general business overhead (anything you plan to claim as the cost of doing business, such as home office expenses, gasoline, etc.).

Your estimate should outline the exact services you're offering, the materials you'll provide and anything else pertinent to the job. And by the way, your estimate should be provided free of charge, as that's the standard in the landscaping industry.

Setting Prices
Of course, before you can give an estimate, you have to come up with a price you can use as a baseline. Landscaping professionals recommend coming up with an hourly rate, both for yourself and your employees. But you won't be sharing that rate with your customers-it's for your eyes only, so you can figure out how much to charge for a job.

There are many ways to determine your rate. First, you can compare your prices to those of your competition. Enlist the help of friends and family to help you contact companies in your target market area that offer services similar to what you plan to offer. If you're doing business in an area that has a lot of subdivisions with similar-size homes and lots, the process will be relatively easy.

Another good way to determine your rate is to figure out how much it would cost you to, say, install sod (materials plus labor), and then divide that amount by the number of hours it would take you to complete the job. Add a profit margin, and you'll have a number you can use.

Finally, you can figure your rate based on how much money you'd like to make in a given year. For example, if your goal is to make $40,000 during your first year in business, you need to earn approximately $3,334 per month ($40,000 divided by 12). If you want to work 35 hours a week, a four-week month would be 140 hours a month. Divide $3,334 by 140 to arrive at a rate of $23.81 per hour. You can mark that cost up (or at least round it up), then add in your profit margin. Naturally, your cost of doing business, which includes materials, tool costs and office administration costs, would be billed to customers in addition to this hourly rate.

Of course, in the end it doesn't matter how you arrive at your rate as long as you make enough money to meet your monthly obligations. So when you figure out your rate, think about how much you need to pay the business bills and cover your personal expenses (including the mortgage, health insurance and other household bills). When you can pay all the bills and still have some cash left over to funnel back into the business or salt away in a business account, then you've priced your services appropriately.

A Day in the Life
While your reason for entering the landscaping field may be to get your hands dirty as you beautify America one home at a time, you'll have a lot of other duties you also must attend to as the owner of a newly minted small business. Some of the office tasks you'll handle during a typical workday include:

Office administration: Besides answering the phone and e-mail, you'll have mail to open and bills to send out and pay. If you decide to accept credit cards, you'll also have to process those credit cards through your merchant account. (You'll find information about merchant accounts in a later chapter.) It can take a substantial amount of time to do the books, says Livonia, Michigan, landscape business co-owner Karen Deighton. She spends about three hours a week keeping up with the financial side of the business-and she holds a degree in mathematics. If you're numerically challenged, you might want to hire an accountant.

Customer service: Tasks include fielding requests for estimates and scheduling appointments, both for estimates and actual jobs.

Purchasing: You'll need to buy supplies for the business, including office supplies, tools needed for the job, and chemicals like fertilizer.

Personnel management: Once you find you need employees, you'll have to spend time interviewing candidates, overseeing employees' work, making up work schedules, and refereeing when conflict arises.

Weather Woes
You know the old expression, "Into every life a little rain must fall." But when it comes to running a landscaping business, a little rain, a blizzard in April or an El Nino that stirs up a freak tornado can seriously hamper your business operations and put you behind schedule. Naturally, all you can do is wait out inclement weather and catch up on office administration tasks like billing and cold calling. On days when you find yourself gazing out a rain- or snow-spattered window instead of wielding a spade, devise a new schedule so you can catch up on the missed work as soon as possible. Never disappoint a customer-put in longer hours (as long as the light holds out) or work on weekends so you meet the demands of every job and the expectations of every customer in a timely manner. You could also make it a habit to overestimate the amount of time your jobs may take so you always have a little breathing room.

Incidentally, weather can impact your business in one more way. "Sometimes I have to tell customers when it's time to do certain jobs," says Collins of Celtic Lawn & Landscape. "For example, last fall I had a lot of customers who wanted their leaves raked. One kept putting off the job, so I encouraged him to do it sooner rather than later, because if I had waited until he wanted me to come out, there would have been 3 inches of snow on the ground."

Although many landscapers in northern climes choose to confine their business activities to the annual growing season and take a winter break, it is possible to run the business year-round by offering snow removal services. All it takes is a snow blade for your riding mower or truck and you'll be in business. Be sure to mention your snow removal services in all your promotional materials and on your website. It's also a good idea to do an extra mailing to your existing customers or to print fliers to remind people that you're just a phone call away.

How to Start a Lawn Care or Landscaping Business

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