overwhelmed landscaperThe sentiment “Work on your business, not in it” was introduced in the book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber.  The idea is that many landscape business owners work “in” their business as technicians and are not delegating and managing.

On the surface I’d say that’s true, but as owner/operators we need to take this advice with a grain of salt. Going too far in removing yourself from the day-to-day operations can be disastrous.

What makes your business so valued and in demand is the reputation you’ve worked hard to create.  That reputation comes from the great experiences people have doing business with you and your company.

Yes, you and your company provide tangible benefits like knowledge and skill, and those help set you apart. (Most definitely in this trade.)  But you also provide intangible benefits that you instill in the company.  Things like your personality, attention-to-detail, integrity and genuinely caring that your customers get the value they should.

It’s all these things combined that have people talking about you, your work and your company.

Work “At” Your Landscape Business

So does this mean you wear all the hats and believe you’re the only one that can do things right?

Not at all.

When I split with my business partner I had to adopt his responsibilities and continue to operate 2 full crews. I had no maintenance accounts and did strictly design/build work.  Let me tell you – I had my hands full. I struggled with this overwhelm for some time before I realized something had to change.

Eventually we downsized into one main crew, and those employees were great.  Everyone was familiar with our “systems” and the “company culture”.

I also grew my alliances & network and collaborated more.  On the admin side I had someone helping with the book-keeping.

This was the beginning for me of working at my business instead of just in it.

You need time to think and manage.  It’s what makes things really happen. This is what struck me when I took my first incremental step back from being so immersed in the production.

I started using my time (and brain) more effectively – giving just enough input where and when it was needed and then allowing others to follow through.

Little by little this gave me even more time to just think, plan and strategize.  The business and my life started to become more balanced.

What I discovered was that working at your business:

  • gives you time to focus on customer relationships and what they truly need and want.  This is what  grows sales, referrals and repeat business.
  • gives you time to develop your network and alliances with other like-minded businesses, enabling you to do some pretty amazing work with a relatively small operation.
  • gives you the time to market and build your reputation.  Word-of-mouth is great, but with smart marketing more of your “perfect customers” will find you even sooner.

Don’t run away from the “hands-on” entirely.

I’ve witnessed people in our industry go too far with this notion of “work on your business, not in it,” and never with good results.  Their strategy was to create positions that on paper would cover all functions and responsibilities of the business with little or no involvement on their part.

It is our involvement that makes our owner/operator model a business that we can rely on; one that provides not only an income, but builds a solid, long-term asset.  Your brand is you.  People identify your company with you and what you stand for.

Think of Martha Stewart.  You immediately associate her with a keen sense of design, good solid advice, and quality products.  Yes Martha delegates big time, but she remains engaged with her company.  She knows that Martha Stewart herself is part of the “secret sauce”.

pickup toolboxToday my responsibilities are design and project management.  And although I don’t have to I still keep a well-equipped tool box on my pick-up.  And here’s why.

Sometimes I’ll provide a contractor with a tool they don’t have with them.  And small tweaks or adjustments on projects are easy fixes for me with these tools.

The actual time I spend with these tools and tasks is minor, but I feel I get so much in return.  Having those particular tools helps to assure the contractors that I understand the work at hand.  Sort of a symbolic thing I guess. I believe they really respect me for my “hands-on” experience.  And we mutually enjoy working together too.

Even my clients know me by my occasional use of the tools and readiness to lend a hand. For me it helps represent a commitment to always want the best results for the customer.  This gains their trust and respect, and that is invaluable.

The key to “working at your business” is to understand clearly what it is you and your company offer that gives that remarkable experience – the things that people love and talk about.  Without a doubt many of those benefits exist because of your contribution.  Distill down those things that you do to maintain that standard and reputation, and that’s where you continue to be involved.

Reality Check: Realize that whatever you do in terms of “managing” your landscape business and moving away from the technical/production side, that you still draw a salary.

So keep that in mind, always qualifying what you do as contributing to the business’s production and profitability.  And, of course, cover your salary as you would any cost of doing business.

An Overall Mindset and Culture That Makes It Work

Having the right tools, systems and relationships in place enable you to manage effectively and profitably.

These are some of the principles to use in working on or at your business.

  1. Stay within your capability.  If you don’t have the particular knowledge or resources, don’t put yourself in a position of failure.  Build your network to collaborate with others.  Also, remember, referring other professionals at times can be the smartest thing to do.
  2. Minimize or eliminate the “variables” that can affect results.  This is a huge topic, especially when it comes to delegating responsibilities. We’ll be exploring this more on a whole bunch of levels, but it’s a mindset that helps you be consistently profitable with a smaller business.
  3. And lastly, do and represent great work.  I know this is common sense, but often it’s not common practice.

Can you see the underlying theme running through these principles?  Yes it’s being smart and doing things properly, but also it’s every decision you make, every action you delegate is to serve the customer and be in their best interest.  If you run everything through that filter you will build trust and long-term relationships.  These are cornerstones of a successful owner/operator business.

So are you working “at” your business?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-person operation or with employees.  It’s all about your view of things.  Do you stay “in the trenches” all the time physically trying to make things happen?  Or do you take the “10,000 foot view” occasionally to see if there’s a smarter, more profitable way to do things?

Let’s talk about it in the comments.

  • Mr. Landscaper
    6:33 AM, 13 February 2013

    I am in the trenches. Is it a pipe dream to sit back and let a group of people own the physical work and other functions, while I just remain the silent owner? Just sitting back and getting out of the way. Right now I am just the “Indian” and I don’t want to be set in my ways forever. I also think it is silly to give up and sell this business altogether. Yes I put my life into this creation since I was 8 years old. (Still have many clients from my chilhood) And I am at the point where I do not mind someone new coming in and just saying “step back Mike. We’ll take it from here.” I think of Vince McMahon, George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump, but then I look at my clientel and they are either old, cheap or want me to stay small like a hot dog vendor. What do I do with out working myself into the ground? Am I doomed?

    • Roger
      10:16 AM, 13 February 2013

      It’s hard for me to give you strong suggestions because I don’t have a complete picture of you and your business. What type of work do you currently do (maintenance, construction, planting, etc.). What experience do you have? Have you always worked for yourself? Do you have past landscape experience/skills that you’re not using right now (proper pruning, design, construction, water features, plant health-care, etc.)?

      Also, what is the market like where you work? You mentioned having many of the same clients from way back (that think of you as a hot dog vendor). Are these “types” typical of your market area, or are there better clients to be had? What’s the competition like? Are there companies in your area that are successful, have better clients, do different or other type work?

      In the meantime, here are a few thoughts that might help straight away:

      If you’re working strictly by yourself, and make money by doing the physical work, it becomes more challenging to “morph” that model. There certainly are ways to position yourself as a “solo-act,” but IMO that would require you to have a skill that can bill out at a respectable hourly or contractual rate. And, like with anything, there needs to be a market for it. For example, Michael Hirsch is a plant health care contractor, he’s a contributor here on LandscapeAdvisor. He works by himself. Mike has a pickup that’s completely setup with his equipment. He has annual contracts with people for “X” number of IPM visits a year, and he also does one-off visits for specific problems. Mike makes a nice living with this steady business. He has a network of people (like me) in the business that refer him. Not many others do what Mike does, and as well as he does it.

      If you have a couple of people working with you, it becomes easier to evolve into a “balanced” owner/operator model. Regardless of what services you do, you need to have systems and a “culture” in place that let you leave the jobsite and then not have things stop or turn bad. I’ll bet we could have a lengthy discussion on this topic, eh? 🙂 The idea is to have the ability to continue production and profit when you’re not there. Being able to leave your crew for one hour and have them be productive is a great first step.

      Freeing you up one hour…two hours…whatever, sets the stage for you to: talk to the person that was interested in more work (estimates, sales & marketing), drop a note at a house in the neighborhood you work where you noticed something needed attention, do liquid fertilizing & supplements by yourself w/ a setup on your pickup (nice billable rate), take a course or get certification in something that adds to your credibility and the want & need in the market.

      These steps and others are good basic things you establish and then build on. When they’re running right you can leverage them along with your reputation to get where you need your business to go.

      I hope some of this helps.

  • Bevan Coulopoulos
    12:30 PM, 3 July 2013



    • Roger
      1:32 PM, 1 September 2013

      Wow, where to begin?…Right?
      The first thing I look for with any company (or individual) I work with is their skill & knowledge level for the task at hand.

      You mentioned you’d like “hardscapes” to be the heart of your business. Hardscapes have become a very popular aspect of many “landscape companies”. In fact, just yesterday I was speaking with a mason with 30+ years experience who was complaining that landscape contractors were now bidding on and getting a lot of the work he normally did. Of course he was pointing out how a good amount of that work was poorly done. And frankly, I had to agree with him. Therefore, make sure what you offer is the best it can be. Without quality work there is no chance of growing a business on the principles of reputation and referrals. One could argue that a business that produces average work can be fueled by aggressive advertising and marketing. Perhaps, but I can’t support a model like that. To me it’s too much “work”. 🙂

      If you have someone on staff that is experienced on proper standards and procedures you’re already in a strong position. However, the challenge is always to “scale” production. And in your business plan you talk about having 3 crews. So that to me would be the next challenge after you’ve successfully got one crew consistently (and profitably) producing hardscape work.

      It sounds like you have management experience from your existng landscape company and your job at the auto shredding company. That has to be an asset to your future plans.

      In terms of the accounting systems, I would consult with an accountant or business consultant.
      Hope this helps.

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