I am a 44-year-old male, an ex-Army captain and have spent the past five years trying to build up my business. My question concerns my job title. I carry out maintenance works as well as small landscaping projects and I enjoy garden design. I feel perfectly able to offer a professional service at all three disciplines but find it difficult to explain my different skills to existing and potential customers. They appear confused as to why I do mowing if I can design and build.
I understand your dilemma perfectly, having walked the same path many years ago. From your perspective, as a self-employed individual you know that you have to take whatever gainful employment you can, steadily moving away from those tasks that you enjoy least to those from which you gain most pleasure (and treasure). Moving away from regular work to construction projects and garden design is a natural progression, although many others enjoy building successful businesses engaged solely in maintenance.
As it is probably not wise to suddenly drop all regular maintenance, consider reducing the number of clients, keeping only those that pay well and have interesting gardens and work perhaps three days a week on those, hopefully all year round. Operate that part of your business as a separate "department", perhaps under a trading title - Captain's Lawns and Hedges? - without opening any new bank accounts etc. Treat all income and expenditure as normal without differentiation.
If you want to attract landscaping projects as individual fixed-price contracts, or whatever system you prefer, you need to advertise your skills as a landscaper without mentioning maintenance.
Again, you may feel you want to operate under a trading title, as landscaping work is often thought of as being carried out by a team. Dealing with landscaping enquiries and the attention to contractual detail will be much more complex than maintenance work and you need to be aware of construction projects' legal implications.
You should notify your insurance company if you decide to attract more landscaping works because they will need to be aware of their risks and will place restrictions on your activities regarding working at height, fire hazards, dangerous substances etc. Always keep your insurers fully involved and record everything in writing. You cannot simply bolt on landscaping works to your existing maintenance business without planning and forethought.
Turning now to your design aspirations - so many potential clients are thoroughly confused and confusing. On one hand, the general public think of garden designers as being much more professional and expensive than general gardeners, while at the same time expecting designers to arrive and give lots of ideas and inspiration for their gardens, without wanting to spend any money. I have lost count of how many times I have heard people say "I am getting ideas for my garden. Could you come and give me your ideas please?" then become quite irate when they are given the scale of rates. "But I only want your ideas. If I like them, I will happily pay for them." Or: "What if I don't like your proposals?"
It is therefore very important that you adopt a different mindset for your design business, perhaps operating under your own name. This will avoid any confusion when dealing with existing or future clients. Your design business is stand-alone, with a different set of rates and charges. You are selling your time - as opposed to pricing for a maintenance or construction project, where your hopeful reward will be securing the contract - and expertise from the minute you set foot on site.
Your terms and conditions will need to reflect that situation. Some designers charge mileage, others do not. Some charge from the time they set out and some from the time they begin the consultation. You will need to decide and clearly set out your terms before you start to advertise for work.
It may pay you to be flexible, even in the long term. If you are offered the opportunity to become involved in a particularly interesting and prestigious scheme, you may choose to waive your normal initial visit fee on that occasion. One thing I learned a long time ago was garden designers can and do receive enquiries completely out of the blue, inviting them to design projects far beyond anything they thought possible.
You never know where and when the call will come, and if you are prepared - with your business plan in place - and with a professional public face to present to potential client, you will be successful.
If you feel confident and competent enough to move away from maintenance works to try to attract more landscaping projects, consider operating under two apparently separate banners, while keeping your basic office work/bank/tax affairs together to reduce paperwork. Do not forget to notify your insurers because they will need to assess your business base and their risks.
Garden design is best promoted as an individual business not related to your other interests. While many designers are perfectly happy to undertake design and build, or to design and plant (including sourcing and supplying plant material) project packages, it is advisable to try to separate the design and build elements as far as possible to avoid any conflict of interest in the event of a dispute regarding the various contractual aspects of the project.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management - www.tsogm.org.