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In the residential sector of the landscape industry, it’s tough to make a good living purely delivering design services.

It’s common, if not the norm, for the design department of design-build firms to break even at best, much to the disappointment of their designers trying to negotiate an annual pay rise (grumble grumble!).

In addition to on-selling plants and materials purchased at wholesale rates, or dabbling in project management to supplement their income, progressive minded design business owners are moving even further ahead of the game by embracing an increasingly “cloud based” workforce of specialised service providers.

Realising there are significant savings to be made in both time and money, even solo operators are able to “work smarter not harder”, delivering the workload of their larger competitors by outsourcing business processes, and that includes design tasks.

In context

To those unfamiliar with the concept in it’s current form, “outsourcing” (not to be confused with “off-shoring”) in the design space isn’t just farming out work to home-based freelancers that live and work in your area.

If you’re willing to give it a second look, “off-shoring” a form of outsourcing that takes advantage of global labour markets, has outgrown its reputation as merely a source of cheap labour with a hit & miss track record. Offshoring isn’t a “render farm” and it isn’t just for multi-nationals, at least not anymore.

Outsourcing in the design world has been influenced by two global phenomenons: the emerging ‘freelance economy’ and the global reach of the internet. The ease with which we can now communicate and share information means you can just as easily find and combine individual talent from anywhere in the world and work with them virtually as if they were sitting at the desk next to you.

Outsourcing isn’t limited to freelancers. In some countries, such as the Philippines, it’s big business. Large Australian and US design firms are reaping the rewards of having remote teams or “back-offices” that take care of tedious design work so their frontline staff can focus on client relationships and business development.

In the middle are small businesses like mine with a team of specialised staff that serve other small businesses in a specific industry niche, which in my case is residential landscape design.

And yes, there are significant savings to be made, especially for businesses in developed countries like Australia that have disproportionately high costs of living and therefore labour costs compared to the rest of the developed world. In countries like Australia is not at all unfeasible to successfully outsource to offshore designers for less than fifty percent of the cost of staff of equal skill levels.

Of course, as with anything, there are disadvantages to outsourcing too. Although it’s important to make it clear that I do run an offshore outsourcing operation that serves residential landscape businesses, I want to be equally clear that this isn’t an advertorial; I’ve always rolled with the punches.

In this article I’m going to focus first on the clear advantages I’ve observed emerging for residential landscape design and design-build business owners, based on my working relationship with almost 100 businesses in Australia, the US, UK and Middle East.

I’ll then balance this with some of the key concessions that have to be acknowledged when you journey down this path.

#5 Bringing specialised skills in-house without the need for training

You can’t do everything yourself, nor should you. Hiring someone, or multiple people with solid experience who can hit the ground running is an expensive proposition; that’s if you can find them. If they haven’t already started their own practice to “cut out the middle-man” they’re probably not far off making the change.

On the other, more affordable side of the coin, is the recent design graduate or junior drafting assistant. As anyone who has hired a junior knows all too well, training takes time. Recent graduates of landscape architecture  and the majority of students emerging from garden design courses or computer aided design colleges are not entering the workforce “job ready”. There is still a long way for them to go and it’s up to you, their employer to show them the ropes.

The distinct advantage of outsourcing to a dedicated service provider is the opportunity to connect your business not just to one individual, but to a shared pool of talent, collectively trained and managed by experienced professionals. You don’t need to take on new skills yourself or train others in the skills you have to increase your design capacity.

The bi-product of partnering with a team that also works with other companies is the additional collective experience they bring with them, which is only going to benefit your business in the long run.

#4 Avoiding unnecessary overheads

Outsourcing reduces the need to maintain an office or a studio for staff to work from; fixed and variable overhead expenses like rent, utility bills, up-to-date computers, ongoing software licenses all add to the financial pile you need to deal with every month.

Although I personally don’t have or believe in having an office, I wouldn’t go so far as to say you don’t need one because I acknowledge there are clear advantages to having one. But why not consider equally the advantages of outsourcing to design support staff who supply and maintain their own work space, furniture, computers, software licensing, power bills, tea and coffee and alleviate yourself from the trouble?

The experience of most of our customers is that by and large, their clients are not concerned with where the work came from or whether a meeting was conducted in a designer studio or a hotel lounge. They’re more concerned that they feel they can trust you, that design ideas are clearly communicated, can be used to determine a cost, gain approval from relevant authorities and are delivered in reasonable time.

#3 Streamlining your service offering to drive more revenue

As we all know, a streamlined workflow of efficient and repeatable processes is the key to a more profitable business with a less stressed owner.

Outsourcing encourages you to become more organised and provides your clients with a consistently professional experience of working with you.

Most outsource providers will have a general “workflow” they adhere to that will serve as a starting point; how information is shared, where files are stored and backed up, reasonable delivery timeframes and procedures for things like revisions.

Once these are all agreed and you settle into the rhythm, you’ll find your clients benefit from the predictability, reliability and your confidence to explain exactly what they can expect from you and when to expect it from the outset.

Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to who outsources design tasks describes the moment when they realise just how quickly work can be done, and how much work can be done, creating new opportunities for their business that simply weren’t possible before.

#2 Aligning labour costs with workflow (aka Flexibility!)

We operate in a seasonal industry. Regardless of whether you’re in the northern or southern hemisphere, there are times of year where things do tend to go quiet, affecting your precious cash flow.

While slow periods can be great opportunities to attend to other aspects of your business, payroll shows no mercy when it comes to cash flow. The average staff member spends around 10-12 weeks of the year performing non revenue-generating work, yet still needs to be paid.

Businesses with a mid to long term view understand that over the course of each year, outsourcing dodges a significant financial bullet; two to three months worth of payroll value that isn’t necessarily contributing to their bottom line.

Outsourcing to an “on-demand” service provide keeps your labour costs in sync with your workflow; you’re only paying for it when you need it and avoiding additional obligations like superannuation and annual leave entitlements while you’re at it.

Design business owners who integrate outsourcing costs directly into their fee proposal structure on a per-project basis recover the cost in the engagement fee (upfront fee paid by the client to confirm the engagement) and help themselves to the remaining cream without worrying about the holiday season.

Another popular model for outsourcing is the “Bank of Hours” system, where each month you purchase a set number of hours that can be used for any drafting tasks you need completed; an efficient way to monitor just how long tasks take and price accordingly.

In an offshoring scenario the financial saving to achieve a comparable level of design support work (in quality and quantity) could literally be 50% or greater. For the typical design business employing a “mid-level” designer, this is easily a saving of $50,000 per person, per year. That’s a lot of cabbage.

#1 Time

Every business owner wishes there were more hours in the day, more time to get that design finalised, more time to get through those quotes, more time to monitor and coordinate projects, more time to spend with their family.

Outsourcing design tasks saves time. Time easily tops the list among our customers for the most frequently reported benefit of our service and I imagine the same would apply to virtually anyone who gets into the outsourcing groove.

Business owners and/or their highly paid designer(s) avoid investing time in tasks that are repetitive, time consuming and technical. Instead they gain more time to focus on high-value tasks like concept development, project management, client relationship building and business development (all the stuff that makes businesses GROW) by outsourcing those repetitive or specialised fulfilment tasks to an external service provider.

The typical residential landscape concept takes around 30 hours to develop to the point where clients are happy with the solution and the solution can be priced for their approval. Consider that within that 30 hours, up to 20 hours is consumed simply drafting, modeling and putting the solution into a presentable format. Once the conceptual ideas, the “solution” has been determined by the lead designer, the actual grunt work of building a 3D model and drafting up plans to communicate that solution can easily and affordably be passed on to an external service provider.

And because that external service provider is geared specifically for drafting work, they can deliver results much faster and potentially to a higher professional standard than you would be able to achieve in-house. Meaning you can get multiple times more work done, in the same period of time for a lower cost, without lifting a finger.

Concessions

Despite the advantages outsourcing can bring to small businesses, there are some concessions that should be acknowledged in order to have a well rounded understanding of the concept. I’m going to outline the main ones here that we’ve observed among our customer group.

Outsourcing the wrong tasks

The success of outsourcing hinges on choosing the “right” design tasks to outsource.

If you chart out the design process from the first client meeting through to construction, it’s not too difficult to identify those design tasks which have to be done internally, and those which can realistically be undertaken by an external provider.

Site consultations, sketch design, concept development and client presentations are examples of tasks which are not suitable for outsourcing because they require a good deal of personal interactions and high level problem solving.

But consider the numerous “in between tasks” that could easily be done by others. These might include:

  • Preparing base plans from a site measure, ready to design over
  • 3D Modeling the existing buildings and terrain of a property, ready to start designing
  • Transferring a hand sketch into CAD software
  • Building 3D models, rendering images, creating fly-through presentations
  • Plans – planting plans, lighting plans, dimensions and setout plans, irrigation plans
  • Quantities and estimation plans with material and plant schedules for costing

A shift in office culture

With outsourcing, the idea is to reduce your in-house staff numbers and therefore expenses, while increasing your output. What comes with this territory however is the breakdown of the traditional company structure so you won’t be walking into an office where everyone who works with your company is in the one place. You can still see them on skype, or over the phone, but they might be in different timezones, there could be language differences.

Those little conversations, bouncing ideas around, Friday drinks, a sense of comraderie are going to be much less prevalent once you outsource. We’ve worked with one company who downsized from three designers to just one since working with us, but are aware it’s had an impact on the “vibe” of being at work for the last man standing in that scenario.

For some of you, the idea of downsizing might sound like heaven on a payroll stick, but it’s worth pointing out that your office culture is likely to change.

Period of adjustment

There is always going to be a crossover period at the start where both you and your outsource provider will need to adjust to each other’s way of working and expectations. Depending on the provider this could take anywhere from a week to two months.

Besides the practicalities of workflow and communication methods, there will be some back and forth over plant species, materials available in your local area and certain design styles and construction methods.

Although we work with around 100 landscape businesses, there are both subtle and glaring differences in the design practices of businesses that are operating literally down the road from each other in the same town.

At Pitch Box, our Project Manager forms the bridge between our customers and our delivery team so the adjustment period tends to be fast because he sees all projects from all our customers. Other outfits put you in direct contact with the the person sitting at the computer or their supervisor so it may take a little longer because they don’t have the same exposure, but you get the advantage of a direct line.

Don’t expect everything to be perfect first go, instead understand it’s worth putting in the effort upfront to set clear expectations and reap the benefits later.

Time Management

Outsourcing and particularly offshoring is never going to beat having your own team of in-house designers that are available to you at any time for fast changes.

Depending on the provider it’s likely even the smallest revisions could take anywhere between 2 to 24 hours to be returned to you.

If you’re not good at managing your project timelines, that’s something that’s going to need to change if you start outsourcing. Most providers will give you an estimated delivery time to plan around, but then it’s up to you to plan around it.

Additionally, depending on where you’re based, your service provider may be in a different timezone. It takes a little getting used to but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker (imagine work still being done for your business while you sleep!).

The future of business?

Although I’ve only skimmed the surface, I hope this article has gone some way towards helping you get a better picture of the current state of outsourcing and the experiences of the landscape businesses who embrace it.

As the workforce continues to move away from traditional corporate structures and towards internet based consulting and collaboration with individuals I believe outsourcing will become common practice, especially among small to mid sized business who need in-built flexibility as a a way to survive. Smart businesses owners are already showing us the way and proving that it can and does work.

What do you think?

 

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