Hiring freelance designers is a way to limit your overhead and free up your time to sell.
When landscaper Brad Maryott started a design/build business in Nebraska 15 years ago while finishing up college, he was too afraid to charge for his designs.
“I was afraid I’d scare the homeowners away and then I wouldn’t get the more lucrative installation work,” Maryott says. It’s a question that vexes design/build contractors across the country: How much – if anything – do you charge for just the drawings?
Today Maryott and partner Matt Hiner are promoting a new business that aims to elevate the design standards of the average landscaping contractor while freeing up time that could be better spent finding new customers.
Their business, Remote Design Solutions, opened last fall as a company that produces custom landscaping plans for contractors, who then sell the plans (often rebranded with their own logos) to customers. But here’s the twist – Hiner and Maryott, based in Colorado Springs, don’t usually visit the landscape site. Instead, they work from photos and information gathered by the contractor.
“Contractors often say – ‘I can’t charge for a design. I don’t have the skill or the right design program,’” Maryott says. “We tell them ‘Yes you can and yes you should.’ We hate seeing shoddy sketches on a napkin.”
Like we’re there
Here are some tips from RDS on how contractors can make a remote designer feel like they are on the property.
Call us. Even though we’re an online company, we put a lot of time and effort into getting to know our contractors. A 5-minute phone call is worth 100 emails back and forth.
Be able to translate what your homeowner is looking for. Know the right questions to ask so you can translate that into a design your homeowner will love.
Take thorough and detailed site pictures. Make sure there’s a site reference point in every picture. Again, take lots and lots of pictures of the property.
Take an accurate base map. Our designs and take-offs are only as accurate as the information we receive.
Inform us of site lines the homeowner wants to maintain. We rarely make a physical site visit.
Try to get a budget out of your homeowner. We can design a $200,000 install or a $50,000 install in the same amount of space. Budget is important.
Charging for designs is a great way to weed out homeowners who are just window-shopping for ideas. Both men were landscapers promoting their own businesses when they met at a Colorado home and garden show five years ago.
Around the same age (Hiner is 29 and Maryott 33), they became good friends after discovering a mutual passion for outdoor activities and craft beer.
In 2012, Hiner hired Maryott as a freelance designer during an especially busy period. By the end of the year, he was surprised to find his business had doubled. The gross revenue for 2012-2013 was $450,000 and his gross revenue for 2013-2014 was $800,000 with all the 2013-2014 designs completed remotely.
“Not being bogged down with the design work had given me time to get out in front of potential clients. That’s every contractor’s top priority,” Hiner says. That realization led to an idea: Why not turn this arrangement into a business? He and Maryott worked on the concept for about 18 months with the help of a local marketing firm and Maryott’s brother-in-law, a computer programmer who put in some 300 hours on their website.
At first, they used email and Dropbox to share files. But they decided to bring the information sharing in house.
With an account on remotedesignco.com, a contractor can keep site photos, a plot map, restrictive covenants, customer preferences and other notes from a detailed questionnaire in one place. Hiner and Maryott ask clients to send in wholesale plant lists from their local suppliers.
The company uses Dynascape software to produce designs that are returned to contractors as a PDF or digital file; printed copies are available for an extra fee. A typical design takes about 10 hours and is priced at four base levels starting at $445 for a front yard to $995 for an entire lot.
So far they’ve completed 20 remote design jobs ranging from a narrow curb-to-sidewalk strip of lawn to a complicated Parade of Homes yard with retaining walls, water features, LED lighting drought-tolerant native plants and even some artificial turf.
The company has done designs for contractors in eight states and will appear at three trade shows this fall as a way to continue to grow the customer base.
Alissa Shanley, owner of B. Gardening Landscape Design in Denver, has used Remote Design Solutions when her company is too busy physically working on job sites to do a design. She said the experience was initially a challenge for her since she is the one who usually completes a design and interprets what her clients want into a design.
“In the case of using a freelance designer, I had to step into my clients' shoes and explain to someone else what I wanted and let them interpret,” she says.
“I tend to be controlling over my work so that was the hard part. I had to learn to let go a little, which was a great lesson to learn. It made me have more appreciation for my clients and what they feel like talking to me.”
She says establishing clear expectations right away with the freelancer is very important to building a good relationship.
“If your ideas do not match up with your freelancers ideas, find someone else ASAP,” she says. “You need very clear communication, meaning you need to be able to hear what your designer is saying to you and you need to be able to express what you want to your designer.”
The right fit
Two design software companies break down what different- sized companies need when it comes to design software.
Small-sized company: When bidding on a smaller job, it’s possible that a sales tool like photo imaging might be just what’s needed. Take a picture and a quick design and estimate can be achieved. In addition, a tablet app for design and bidding could be the perfect solution.
Medium-sized company: Along with photo imaging, it will be paramount to have an accurate, scaled drawing both for the crew, but also to create an accurate bid and a complete customer proposal. A medium sized business could be well served with a complete landscape design software package providing it was easy to learn and use.
Large-sized companies: You will likely have one or more full-time landscape designers. These designers probably bring with them some computerized design or at least basic CAD skills. These companies will be looking for a complete software solution where they can not only design the landscape and hardscapes, but also irrigation and lighting designs. Ideally, these will all be in the same software product.
Small-sized company: At a very minimum, you should have a software application that helps them automate their drawing process, word processor, spreadsheet application and an accounting package.
Medium-sized company: You will utilize CAD based landscape design software to produce accurate construction drawings, with the ability to render in color for presentation drawings. They will also want to utilize industry specific business management software for customer resource and sales management, opportunity tracking, material take-offs for cost-based estimating, job tracking and crew management.
Large-sized company: You will need to be able to present their drawings in 3D. A landscape industry specific business management solution that has strong reporting capabilities will give key performance indicators at a moment’s notice. It’s more important for large landscape companies to have software that is highly integrated for easier communication between departments.
A learning curve.
Maryott shut down his previous design and install business, but Hiner Landscapes will continue as a separate company that serves as a training ground for their new hires.
“All of our employees will help install some of their own designs,” Maryott says. “That way they can figure out what actually works.” Maryott recalls the first pergola he worked on.
“It was very pretty on paper, but when I started building it, I found I had severely over-designed it,” he says. “Now we design our pergolas and other structures to be both pretty and practical.”
Maryott and Hiner report a good initial response from most people in the industry, especially the tech-savvy 40-and-under crowd. “When contractors come up and talk with us, they see we’ve been exactly where they are,” Maryott says.
The next step for their business is to explore marketing partnerships with nurseries and hardscape suppliers. As Hiner sees it, “Our designs will help them sell more jobs.”
They’ve also been asked to return to some of the shows where they’ve staffed an exhibit booth to teach a class for contractors on why landscape design is important, how it sets the whole tone for a house or building and how to brand yourself as a professional. “Using the wrong plants becomes a big problem in 20 years,” Hiner says. “It makes sense to get advice from an expert.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.