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Starting any business can be a major leap of faith into the unknown. It can really be a fruitful experience that allows you to succeed and accomplish the goals that you have always wanted to. On the flip side, you can also realize that it is also an extremely difficult thing to establish and maintain a successful business.
A significant majority of businesses fail after three years. Contractors are no exception. Many are extremely skilled in their craft, but that does not mean that they will be successful in creating a successful business for years to come. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be able to do such a thing and the sacrifice that it takes is not for everybody.
A few key pieces of advice before we get started is for you to limit your expectations. Understand that it may take you at least a few years to finally start to see the ball rolling in your business where word of mouth starts to take over and bring in leads for you. At this point, if you have the right systems in place, you can begin to confidently grow your business. Before then, grow slow. Invest in the tools and equipment that you NEED to have, not the ones that you want to have. Identify that in your business and rent the items that are too expensive for you. Keep your overhead costs low. Real low. And make sure that you are creating a budget for your business and charging what you should be. More on all of this later in this post.
Things You Need to Do to Start Your Hardscaping Business
Before I started my hardscaping business, I had a lot of experience and first-hand knowledge that I had acquired after years of putting in work at a dealer. My first week on the job I was helping with building out their front display alongside one of the contractors and immediately fell in love with hardscaping. I knew then that I would one day have a hardscaping business.
I gained years of experience and eventually started doing work on the side for customers before I finally had the money and confidence to start my own business. I also had a great mentor that was more than willing to help teach me certain business topics like overhead expenses and budgeting. Without this, my hardscaping business would have inevitably failed. You can learn more about how I started in this industry with no experience and no money and how you can to.
I understand that not everyone has this knowledge at their disposal when starting out. That is why I am taking everything I learned and am putting it into a concise checklist for you to go through and ensure that you are starting your hardscaping business properly and setting it up for success. My goal with How to Hardscape has always been to help as many people as possible become successful.
Not in any specific order, here are the things you should be researching about before you start your business:
Licensing and Registration
Advertising and Branding
First and foremost, learn about this industry. The Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) and the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) have incredible resources that you can access for free. Everything from installation notes to cross-sections. Print them all off and have physical copies of these. Read until you cannot read anymore and then keep reading some more. Familiarize yourself with their websites so you can navigate them easily and get to the resources that you need at any given time. You wont regret the time you invest on their websites.
In addition to this, both of these organizations have paid in-person courses and webinars that you can invest in to learn more about installation. You can become a certified installer and use that to your advantage in getting work when you start your business or use it as crucial experience to jump start your business.
We also have an installation guide in our post on hardscape construction that you can use with some short videos attached, as well as a vast resource of posts on installation methods that are not covered in either of the above websites. We also try to cover new services that you can offer your customers to help improve your business’ bottom line as you continue to grow your business.
Auman Landscape has two value packed courses that are worth investing in to see these installation methods as they would be installed in the field. Not only will you have these videos forever and be able to revisit them time and time again when you need to brush up on certain aspects of your installs, but you can also use these videos as you grow. Use them as an onboarding video to train new hires and get them invested into their own education of the hardscape industry.
Check out the How to Install Pavers and How to Install Retaining Walls courses.
Field experience is the most important thing before you jump into starting your hardscaping business. Whether this means going and working for somebody else for a while, working for a dealer in your area, or installing some projects for friends and family, it is an absolute necessity BEFORE starting your business and serving clients. You want to make sure that you are able to put the theory that you learned in your education into practice.
Not every job site is perfect and you need to know how to overcome challenges in design and installation. Having the eye for being able to predict these challenges on a job site before work begins is crucial to your success as a contractor and this only comes with experience. By working with an installer, you can see it first hand on job after job. Working for a dealer allows you to be among contractors and to hear the problems that they face day in and day out. Doing installs for family and friends helps you to get that hands-on experience in a meaningful way.
Once you are confident in your experience or have the right amount of experience required in your area to be able to start you own business, you should seek out work that you are confident in completing and will set the foundation for what your business can accomplish. More on doing market research later.
This next step involves becoming a legitimate contractor in your area. This is going to be different from place to place, so we are not going to spend too much time talking about it here. It is important for your to get the right licensing and experience or education required to be able to become a hardscaper in your specific area. Once you have that all figured out, you then need to register your business and everything else that entails for your area like registering for a tax and payroll account. Make sure that you do the research before you are at this step to know exactly what you need to do and get to be a legitimate contractor.
Shop around for your business insurance by contacting a broker to be able to get the best rates out there. Start here with Insurance for Construction Professionals. Make sure that you are comparing rates, getting the coverage that you need when it comes to protecting yourself and your business, and shop around every few years for better rates. You want to make sure you have sufficient business liability insurance, commercial auto insurance, and insurance for your workers among many other details you need to cover when it comes to operating your business.
This is an often skipped step when we go out and start our businesses, but so crucial in terms of setting forth a plan that you are trying to execute. Being able to identify the top competitors in your market and what they are doing that you can use to your advantage and maybe do differently in your market to help you stand out is crucial to your success as a business owner. Use the slower part of your season to meet with every landscape supplier in your area and talk with them about what they see in the market, what they see with other contractors, and where they think is a need in the market that you can offer.
Some markets may not have somebody that does 3D renderings of projects which is a perfect skill for you to slip into and provide. Some markets may be in desperate need for a hardscape maintenance company to provide cleaning, sealing, lift and re-lay options. This is a perfect and low-cost way to enter the market and provide some much-needed services while you build your company.
While you are meeting with the suppliers, drop them off some business cards and any portfolio work that you have completed to let them know that you are in business and you want to become a referred contractor. This is a great way to get your foot in the door and show off what you can do for them. If they see some potential in you, they will refer you and in turn you will be purchasing your product through them.
Speaking of business cards and meeting with suppliers, this is all part of your plan to get out there and tell your target market in your area that you are in business. Get a logo created for your business immediately. Fiverr is a great way to get started at low cost in getting a logo created for your business.
Get business cards made and other promotional material you see the need to make. Yard signs are great props to put on lawns once you complete a project to show people who is doing the incredible work. You should be getting a website started for your business that is search engine optimized so that you can get to the top of search engine results for people looking for your services in your area with all the other accounts that you can create online for your business like Google My Business.
You should be networking with other companies in your area. If you are a smaller company looking to do smaller projects, talk to those larger companies that do not want those smaller projects and exchange leads with them. Talk to asphalt companies and concrete companies who need interlock front walkways repaired or installed before they complete their driveway projects. Talk with anyone and everyone who will listen to get more leads into your business.
Get a budget started for your business as soon as possible using your market research and your road map for your business growth as a starting point. This is where most contractors fail. They do not know how to properly price their jobs. And with no real guideline in terms of how long it will take you to complete a job in the beginning, this can be extremely difficult. But at the very least you should be considering ALL of the costs associated with your business and incorporating those into your projects. These are called overhead expenses and they include all of the costs that comes out of your pocket to operate your business.
As you complete projects, take notes of how long it took you to complete the project and each of the phases of the project to create production rates. These will help you price jobs in the future. For example, if you installed a patio you should be taking note of how long it took you to excavate, with what equipment, and how many people. The same goes for every phase of the project from base preparation to the final sanding and grading of each project. This will help you refine your estimating process year in and year out until it is an easy and smooth process.
You should be budgeting for the equipment that you want to buy in the future and incorporating that into every project so that when you purchase that equipment it is not coming out of your pocket, but it was actually built into the price of every project. Make sure that you are taking profit first in every payment and setting aside taxes collected into a separate bank account. That tax money does not even belong to you, do not spend it.
We have created several resources surrounding this topic from our post on how to price landscaping jobs to our free course on pricing landscaping jobs.
We also have our Business Budget and Estimate Spreadsheet:
And our Bookkeeping for Contractors Spreadsheet:
All of these resources are incredibly valuable in setting up a successful contracting business, but at the very least you should read the book Profit First for Contractors by Shawn Van Dyke. This book talks about a lot of important topics surrounding knowing your numbers in your business to ensure that you are setting up and building a successful business.
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Of course you need tools to get your business up and running when you are first starting off. This initial investment is relatively small because for the larger pieces of equipment you can rent them until it makes sense financially for you to own that piece of equipment. The debate between renting and owning is one that we will be discussing further on this platform as there are a lot of variables that should affect whether or not you should own or rent besides the price tag on that machine.
If you purchase a piece of equipment, you also need to factor in the maintenance cost of that machine with the materials and labor needed to maintain it, fixing the machine and down time involved in that, transferring the machine from site to site and the cost in that, storing it, insurance, theft, and many other factors. With a rental, you have it delivered or pick it up and drop it off yourself and you do not have to worry about any other costs involved in that machine. It is also tax beneficial to rent.
As you grow though, it will make more financial sense to own equipment. You should be evaluating your numbers in terms of production and identifying areas you should be improving and can afford to improve. Being able to identify these areas and knowing the tools on the market that will improve your efficiency will help you grow your business.
As your business grows, you need to be constantly hiring. That means showing your business off and what it does differently than others. Advertising constantly to have a good pool of labor to choose from when you need them is important. Though there is a labor shortage, there is still labor out there for you to recruit into your business. Advertise at colleges, brand your business to be appealing to new recruits, and get out there and into your local community to get the right people into your business. If this proves difficult, you can always invest in equipment to supplement your crews with the right tools to be able to grow your business. Hiring is something that we will be building upon later on this website and our podcast.
Customer service and sales go hand-in-hand. If you do not have happy customers, your business will struggle. Unhappy customers are louder than happy customers, so make sure that you are making things right with each and every complaint. You are more than just a craftsman at this point. You are a business owner, so you need to be able to serve people. Your work is only a part of your success, the other part is service to your customers.
As your customer base grows, as to will your referrals if you are doing your job right. At some point your business will be thriving off of the word of mouth referrals which are no doubt the most valuable to your business. Constantly work on your sales process and envision how you are going to show up to your customer meetings. What are you going to have with you, what are you going to talk to them about, and how are you going to propose your work to them?
Work on vetting customers over the phone to know whether or not they are a good fit for your business. Do not waste your time going to customer’s houses that inevitably will not be a good customer for your business. Spend your time wisely as your business grows. Learning how to improve your sales process will bring in fruitful customers to your business which will then become positive word of mouth referrers of your. Always ask for a review online or testimonial that you can post onto your website from those customers that you know had a positive experience with you.
If you get all of these down, you are well on your way to building a successful hardscaping business. Or any contracting business for that matter. The last thing I can leave you with is to never stop learning. Never stop asking questions to your peers and those that are in the position that you want to be.
Listen to audiobooks on business topics like those that have been recommended in this post and seek out more. Listen to the How to Hardscape Podcast and familiarize yourself with each episode and what it is trying to help you with. Take action on the things that you learn and implement them into your business.
Take full responsibility for anything and everything that happens in your business and take them as learning opportunities. There will be a lot of those. But at least if you take responsibility for something going wrong, you will be more likely to seek out a solution and implement that in your business moving forward.
Starting a business is an exciting period in your life and it should be. It is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us on our Instagram or Facebook page or send us an email by visiting our contact page. We are here to help!