Pointers for Beginning a Residential Design Business

image: Jan Johnsen
image: Jan Johnsen

As co-chair of the Residential PPN, we are tasked with finding talented landscape architects to contribute to this blog.  As a new-ish business owner (my firm is still in its toddler years; established in 2009), I could only hope that my friend Jan Johnsen would be willing to share her thoughts on starting up a new residential design business.  Jan and I met in 2005 when we both began teaching at Columbia University’s Landscape Design program.  Her design studios are a perennial favorite of students, particularly as the program often engages individuals with dreams of beginning their own firms.  Jan owns and operates her own firm, writes a beautiful blog called Serenity in the Garden, and has a book being published in 2014 by St. Lynn’s press focused on creating gardens for inspiration and reflection.  Jan’s thoughts below on beginning a firm are relevant not just to newbies, but also serve as a wonderful reminder of what is most important to operating a mature firm as well.
– Jennifer Horn, RLA, ASLA

Residential landscape design is one of the most fulfilling – and demanding – professions I know of.  Fraught with all sorts of pitfalls, transforming someone’s property is a very personal and uplifting endeavor. I find it to be all consuming but in a wonderful sort of way. Does this sound like a two edged sword? It is as if I am saying ‘come, but stay away’ at the same time.  Well, that is true. As in everything, there are 2 sides to the story and residential landscape design is definitely a ‘both sides, now’ undertaking.

I have been in the residential landscape design / build profession for 27 years. Before starting my firm, I worked at landscape architecture and planning offices in many locales. I began my career as an intern working in a landscape architecture office, Environmental Design Associates (EDA), in Osaka, Japan in 1970. From there, I attended landscape architecture classes at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where one of my instructors was a principal of Eckbo Associates. My first influences, therefore, were the traditional Japanese gardens of Kyoto, Garrett Eckbo, and the tropical gardens of Hawaii.

From there, I went to work for a French gardener at Mohonk Mountain House in New York. He had come to the U.S. after working in the gardens of Versailles and I learned professional horticulture from him, a consummate perfectionist. If there is anything I gained from my varied background it is the understanding that although there are many ways that cultures approach working with the earth we all come to it with an intense appreciation for the green world.

After teaching college and receiving my graduate degree in planning, I worked at a landscape architecture office in New Orleans before starting my residential landscape design/ build firm in New York, where I am from. As you can imagine, I had a lot of experience, none of which, was in residential design!

image: Jan Johnsen
image: Jan Johnsen

I was not prepared for the intensity that people bring to their properties, nor for the vague ways they communicate their expectations and desires. I realized very early on that I had to be part educator, part psychologist and part ‘expert in many fields’ in order to create beautiful landscapes. It is not an understatement to say that residential landscape designers wear a multitude of hats.

My advice to young landscape designers who are attracted to the residential field consists of 7 pointers:

  1. Know Your Business. Do not go out on your own until you have amassed a wealth of knowledge in the profession. It is not enough to be able to create beautifully rendered plans. You must know the details! Grading and drainage are critical to any project. You must master this before you approach any site.
  2. Develop Professional Relationships. You must know the people in the trades and vendors in your geographical area. This includes contractors, excavators, tree companies, building inspectors, landscape materials vendors, etc. I cannot stress enough how these associates can help you in each project you undertake and can also steer business in your direction.
  3. Have a Comfortable Financial Cushion when Beginning. I started my company with a little savings and I borrowed a little more. This was not enough! I was just able to buy a used computer, rent a room from a tree company and buy used office furniture and equipment. I had nothing to fall back on – it was either sink or swim. The first year was very hard. Do not do what I did. Make sure you have enough money to live on for the first year.
  4. Do Not Steal a Client from a Previous Employer. This is a common mistake people make when beginning a residential landscape design firm. They walk away from an employer with a client that likes them and wants to work with them. This provides the security and the financial resources when starting a firm. But it also engenders bad will and is not based in integrity. This little word is the basis of a sound business – integrity. Do not start off on the wrong foot. Seek your own clients and you will be better off for it.
  5. Have an Organizational Understanding of Running a Business. I am the first person to admit, I had no idea how to run a business. I was a whiz at horticulture, design ideas, and creative problem-solving, but business is not one of my fortes. My salvation came when my husband decided to join forces with me and run the business end of the company.  He instituted efficient systems that have ensured that we are a profitable business (most of the time). You must develop this ability or, like me, find someone who can run the firm so you can design.
  6. Become a People Person. I like working with people of many backgrounds. I enjoy exchanging ideas. I am interested in my clients and their ideas. This facility has helped me develop a keen sense of what people desire for their outdoor surroundings. This eliminates the cookie cutter approach, where the same design is done over and over, regardless of the client and the site. I tailor the landscape to the owner and the house. Put people and their desires first and you will develop a well-rounded design approach that benefits all in the end.
  7. Lastly, Become Well Versed in Public Relations, Social Media, and Socializing. This was the last thing on my mind when I started my firm and it should have been the first! Publicity and referrals are your lifeblood. They can guarantee success. I did not know that and thought that a job well done was enough. I was a worker bee but did not think enough about the ‘honey’ of public relations. Make sure you get out and about, even if you are tired after a long day working. It can make all the difference!

by Jan Johnsen, Johnsen Landscapes & Pools

4 thoughts on “Pointers for Beginning a Residential Design Business

  1. Jan, thank you for your insights, especially for highlighting the matter of good business ethics. How wonderful it would be, to do business if all would adopt this motto: ” This little word is the basis of a sound business – integrity.” Enjoyed reading your blog, filled with valuable points for any small business owners, not just those starting out….it’s never to late to make positive changes.

  2. Dean Holmes May 7, 2015 / 5:06 pm

    Thanks for your pointers Jan. I found them insightful and practical. I began my career in LA working for a large firm in Philadelphia. Almost all the work was institutional, urban and corporate. After a few years I left the field and taught in the arts. Five years ago I helped create our family business in Costa Rica-a nursery-design/build firm. I now design primarily residential landscapes. All your points reflect our experience here. I would add that determining the market for your product is extremely important and for us has been difficult to assess. We began with the idea that “if we produce a superior product, ‘they will come’.” This simply did not work. You are completely correct in pointing out the need for networking.

  3. Hauling and Grading Atlanta Ga September 25, 2018 / 4:57 pm

    I do consider all of the concepts you have introduced in your post. They’re really convincing and can certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for starters. May just you please extend them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

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