By Mark Johannes, PLS
Recently I joined the growing cadre of professional land surveyors who have gone out on their own as sole practitioner. Since my first surveying job in 1984 I have worked at engineering or surveying firms, both large and small, so there was definitely risk involved in trading in the security of a steady paycheck and a regular schedule for the opportunity to build something of my own.
The reasons people have for starting their own businesses are legion.
For some fellows I know, it was out of necessity, due to being laid off
from their place of work. For others, it was simply a desire to be on
their own and to have more control over their schedule, workload
and type of work they wanted to do.
I felt that I too wanted to be on my own, to do the type of work I wanted to, to be home more, to take time off when I wanted and to be more involved with the PLSC and my Chapter.
One important objective I had with starting a business was to not go into debt to do it. That isn't to say one shouldn't borrow money to start their business. It just was something I did not want to do.
Before I started out I only had a truck. For the first few projects I borrowed equipment from a friend. Then I was presented with an opportunity to acquire equipment of my own when a gold mine wanted to get rid of all their old equipment gathering dust on a shelf. I was able to pick up some equipment in good condition for a great price. Another friend gave me a couple of tripods and a prism pole. These things enabled me to get started in the business and I have been purchasing new equipment as I have the means. I really couldn't have gotten this far without the help of some of my surveyor friends.
The advent of robotic and GPS equipment allows one person to perform most land surveying tasks individually. As for myself, I perform most of my work with a total station, enlisting the aid of my son, who is in college and lives at home. When the necessity arises, I borrow or rent a robotic instrument or a GPS system to complete a particular project.
Some of the challenges I have found are ones experienced by any business owner, be it large or small: bringing in work, performing the work, getting paid for the work, affording insurance, affording supplies and other items and not letting the business consume all of my time and energy. I have my wife to thank for making sure I am not working from dawn to dusk and making sure that I keep my life somewhat balanced.
To date, most of the work I have received came to me predominately through the relationships I have developed over the years. Certain individuals had heard that I had gone out on my own and contacted me. Other work has come from surveyors who had referred the work to me. Another opportunity for work has come through teaming up with other firms. Several times I have worked with another sole practitioner on projects that neither of us could do alone. I have also had opportunities to contract with larger firms that were experiencing a sudden, temporary increase in their workload but didn't want to add to their staff. Other times I have contracted with companies that had work in one of the other states in which I am licensed and who needed me to review and stamp their work.
Of course, having a robust website in this day and age is not only a good idea, it is critical. As time goes on, I am finding that more of the requests I receive come via my website. In addition to the obligatory Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and at the suggestion of another friend who started his business about 5 years before I did, I am trying to establish a more visible presence on the web by getting my name onto as many of the business search sites that are out there such as Yelp, Superpages, Manta, etc. Other avenues I have pursued are signing up with the Better Business Bureau and Angie's List. It is too soon to tell if any of these approaches are successful, but if I don't try it, I won't know.
One of the challenges involved with obtaining work involves competing against larger firms that have more extensive resources dedicated to obtaining contracts. One example is responding to an RFP that other, larger firms are preparing proposals for. These larger firms usually have people dedicated to just preparing proposals. On the other hand, I have to find time between field work, drafting, billing, obtaining supplies, phone calls, emails, running to the bank and being a husband and father to try to prepare at least a decent proposal.
Another challenge that arises from competing with the larger firms is how to present myself as being capable to perform the work when the other firms have much more in the way of resources and personnel. First, I have to accept the fact that there will always be projects I simply cannot or should not bid on. I do not want to commit to do something I know I cannot do in the time frame required. Second, for those projects I do feel capable of handling, I have to craft my proposal in such a way as to convince the prospective client that all of my time, energy and resources will be dedicated to completing the project on time, on budget and as accurately and thoroughly as possible. That is where teaming up with others can be beneficial.
One of my goals I set when I established my business was to gain a reputation for being responsive to clients. For the most part, I have been fairly responsive but there have been times when it seems that everyone wanted their work done right now (sound familiar?). When those times do happen I reach out to my friend who is also a sole proprietor and ask him to do some drafting or help me in the field. We both benefit in that I continue to meet my deadlines and I help his cash flow. And the arrangement is reciprocal. I help him when he needs it.
Speaking of cash flow, while having money coming in regularly is very important to any size business I certainly can say that it is probably the biggest cause of stress for me. Having a comfortable accounts receivable may look good in Quickbooks, but it generally fails to impress the mortgage or utility company and cannot put gas in my truck. I simply cannot imagine what it feels like to have to make payroll every two weeks, in addition to keeping the lights on at the office. Having a line of credit at the bank helps even out the cash flow, but it is only a temporary fix and only goes so far.
Having regular clients who pay promptly has helped to keep some money flowing into the bank on a fairly steady basis, but such clients are generally the exception, as most business owners can attest. So managing Accounts Receivable is another task I perform.
Having ventured thus far into the world of self-employment I can say that I am glad I made the decision. Sure, I have given up the security of a steady paycheck and relatively secure future but I still have no regrets. I like the fact that it is I and I alone who is responsible for delivering a service that is done to my satisfaction.
Just as the small business owner is the backbone of our economy, the independent surveyor is vital to the land surveying profession. I think it would be great if the PLSC could provide some tools to help them succeed.
Some possible ways the PLSC could help are as follows:
I feel that the sole proprietor could be a valuable resource for large firms needing to address a sudden increase in workload without adding staff. Perhaps the PLSC could sponsor some sort of clearinghouse of information about sole proprietors available on a short term basis.
Another way the PLSC could assist the sole proprietor is by sponsoring more business-oriented workshops and classes, providing them with some basic business training.
I very much value my membership in the PLSC. It has been very beneficial to me professionally and personally. I would encourage all licensed surveyors to become members and reap the benefits.