Every couple of weeks your lead designer wonders whether they could leave you and start their own business.
On some occasions, it’s just a fleeting thought, nothing more than a puff of entrepreneurial smoke.
Other times it’s far more dramatic, possibly bordering on sinister; they might pull out pen and paper and draft hypothetical project scenarios, calculating their potential income, weekly working hours and how many clients they will need to already have in place before carefully crafting how they will carry out the deed of giving you the good news.
As mainstream culture is re-shaped by the possibilities emerging from technology, the internet and greater social connection, people across every sector are increasingly shifting their value set from a long-term, stable, climb-the-ladder career path, to one that favours individual identity, flexibility, mobility and meaning.
People know more about the world and so they want more of it. They know they can find work through their personal networks and social media. Increasingly they’re realising there’s an alternative to going to the same office over and over while helping someone else to build their dream for early retirement. In many cases it may not be work:life balance they want, but indeed work:other work balance that’s appealing.
Over the past couple of months I’ve spoken to a number of landscaper designers, six of whom broke free of their employer in the past few years and two of whom are still employed but seriously thinking about flying solo.
Out of genuine curiosity, I asked them what attracts them to self employment. God knows I’ve been in that position myself, and now that I’m here, four years later I find myself wondering (every couple of weeks) whether I could go back to being an employee.
So although the sample pool we’re dealing with is limited – eight people, nine if you include myself – each person represents what would be considered a highly desirable employee; 8-15 years of solid experience in the field as a landscape designer or landscape architect, expert command of all relevant design software, excellent knowledge of materials, plants and their horticultural application, ability to hit the ground running, build rapport with clients and lead them through the design and construction process from site consult to to handover and beyond.
“If the success and stability of your business depends on retaining key design staff, then it’s time to think outside the box in order to appeal to the next generation of designers coming through.”
This level of experience (actually most of them are in the 12yrs+category) also necessarily puts them into a particular “life stage” bracket too. In western society we could say they’re in the – recently married, taken out a mortgage, young children, probs have a dog stage.
Their responses to my line of questioning echoed each other, virtually in unison on 3-4 points and then diverged on others depending on their personal circumstances. To me as a landscape architect that has already moved into self employment and now entrepreneurship after 15 years in the saddle, none of it came as a surprise, it was mostly reassurance that I was not alone.
To you as the business owner that employs one or more landscape designers (or the designer eagerly reading along from the sidelines) I highly recommend you pay close attention; it has never been easier to start your own business so if the success and stability of the business you’ve started depends on retaining key design staff, then it’s time to think outside the box in order to appeal to the next generation of designers coming through.
I noted roughly eight different underlying reasons why experienced design staff regularly consider starting their own business. As you can imagine, they all include the familiar story of wanting to “cut out the middle man”.
In his book The E-Myth (“E” stands for “Entrepreneurial) Michael Gerber calls the moment someone has the idea that they can start a business using the technical skills they’re currently paid for, the “entrepreneurial seizure”.
As a business owner, you know very well that being a brilliant landscape designer and great at your job, is a completely different proposition to running a business that is paid to deliver landscape design work.
Anyway, here are the top three reasons cited by experienced landscape designers as to why they either have, or are considering, leaving their employer in favour of going it alone.
# 3 – I want more control
The desire to have more control over when they work, where they work from and what they work on started to exceed their desire to have a steady income and daily routine.
Everybody’s seen some dumb image on social media of the “beachside office” a laptop and cocktail overlooking the beach. I can assure you from personal experience there is no place less productive to work from than in the sun at the beach but the image represents something, an idea of a tangible new possibility.
Each person I spoke to has other things happening in their life that are important to them that are at least equal to, if not more important than, their job and their career. Children, plans to have children, exciting side projects, location and lifestyle.
While their loyalty to their employer was strong, and although the vibe at work was pretty good, achieving greater control, and greater flexibility over where and when they work is something even more highly prized.
Even the opportunity to have more control over how they use their time in their job, to do their job the way they want was mentioned.
Unable to afford additional staff, the lead designer is stretched thin and can’t get out to site, spend as long with clients or negotiate with suppliers to the extent they would like to, in order to do their work as they feel it needs to be done.
Questions to consider – As you know, many successful companies operate teams that are entirely “remote” or a hybrid version where employees spend part of their time working from the office and part from home. There’s a reason those businesses are doing that.
How flexible can you be with when and where your staff work? Do they need to be in the office full-time or could they just as easily attend their appointments directly from home and then work at night one or two days per week? How is their salary structured? Could is be re-structured to an hourly rate so you’re only paying them for the hours worked while they’re away from the office.
# 2 – I want more money
The old “glass ceiling” becomes very apparent, very early on in the career of every residential garden designer.
This carries over into their potential career path too; typically, the only job left above Senior Landscape Designer, is the throne itself.
Senior level designers in firms with two or more designers employed inhouse see their income progression slow virtually to a halt or at best, just keeping up with inflation, right at the moment when their life stage depends on it most. The pressure to earn more builds at home and is carried into the workplace, only to be met with disappointment.
It’s no secret that in the vast majority of design & Construct firms, the construction department often subsidises the salaries of the senior designer(s).
This is a particularly sore point over which the business owner and their senior designer come into conflict with each other.
The market doesn’t allow for higher design fees to cover the salary of the designer after overheads so the business owner is forced to cover the difference with construction revenue.
At the same time, the designer feels totally undervalued by having this thrown in their face from time to time (their words not mine) because they feel that without their contribution, the construction department wouldn’t have high value projects continually delivered on a silver platter.
The truth of the situation is that both sides are right, but both should be considered an integral part of the one business model, rather than separate departments. Although the construction business takes on a lot more risk the design team is needed to build trust, qualify and guide new projects into the business.
Questions to consider – On-demand outside support for your designer would allow them to increase their productivity while avoiding the expense and risk of hiring additional in-house staff on a permanent salary. This is the specific turn-key solution organisations like Pitch Box provide to the industry; we typically double the productivity of each designer we support for less than 30% of the cost of hiring them an assistant. We don’t require any training, software or investment in new computer equipment.
How willing are you to adopt an “open book” policy when it comes to sharing running expenses with your designers? Can you discuss your designer’s specific salary goals and then illustrate what level of invoicing it would take each month to help them get there?
As a thought experiment, and in response to the previous reason (control & flexibility) consider that money, ie someone’s salary is not the only currency that offers people a sense of fulfilment and feeling valued in their role. Time and mobility are additional currencies that can be traded for money. Would your designer be willing to exchange money for additional leave, work from home days or other lifestyle incentives?
# 1 – I want to build MY own future, not yours
The desire to create one’s own destiny is at the top of the list for all the designers I spoke to, who have left their employers.
Of course, this isn’t something that applies most employees, and in fact among the designers I spoke to, it seemed to be something that grew and strengthened over time, rather than a feeling they’ve always had, or a sudden and overwhelming urge.
The way this first manifests (and later festers) seems to begin from a lack of acknowledgement, recognition or feeling “taken for granted”.
Hearing the boss refer to the business as “I” and not “we”, for example, or not being publicly credited for their involvement in successful projects or not being invited to participate in company decisions that affect the designer’s role tend to set the wheels in motion.
Worse still – being invited to participate and then not being heard or completely ignored in the decision making process and the outcome. Anyone who has been pushed unwillingly from residential projects to commercial or civic projects despite being adamant they’re not keen on it, will resonate with this.
A passing meme on Facebook “If you don’t build your own dream, someone will happily hire you to build theirs” starts grabbing their attention, when before it never seemed relevant.
I think there are some people (myself included) who just never felt totally at ease being an employee, while for others it’s a slow process over time where the working environment, the actions of the decision makers and the designer’s patience for it gradually wears thin.
Being an employee limits your potential to make decisions, put something into action, delegate tasks to someone else and directly benefit from the results. Being an employee limits your ability to set your own challenges, own your solutions, build legacy and reap the rewards.
What’s interesting about this, is that while your potential to do all these things is greater when you run your own business, they’re also exactly what every designer experiences in the design process itself. In fact building a business follows (in my opinion) virtually the same process as developing a design but on a level that has infinitely greater challenges and more variables to it.
This should give the business owner clues as to how to address the problem; if the designer feels they’re on a path to building their own future by having greater potential to make decisions, set their own challenges, put things into action and derive a greater share of the rewards, that desire to be their own boss might fade away in all but the most entrepreneurial of spirits.
Questions to consider – How do things like recognition and acknowledgement play out in your business in relation to project designs, operating procedures, invoicing and sales? To what extent does your senior designer resonate with the values and mission of your business? To what extent do you share your personal plans for the business with your staff? How can you offer senior staff a sense of ownership over some aspect of the business where they are free to make decisions and experiment with new ideas for how things could be done?
The other five
Those were the top three reasons I distilled from the conversations I’ve had over recent months. There are others I’ve noted (some are similar/related) so I may as well share those too:
- Isolated from the financial side of the business
- Lack of ongoing professional development
- Designs not being constructed as intended or lack of construction innovation.
- Inflexibility in design style or aesthetic of the brand.
- Personality clash
Why am I writing this?
When I started writing this article I was actually thinking, “geez, what a downer, way to go making people paranoid!”
As the article unfolded, I began to feel that my intuition was right – this makes for healthy discussion between any leader and their tribe. It creates the opportunity not only to be on the front foot in terms of delaying or preventing the early departure of key staff, but also to be encouraging your team members to open up about their own plans for the future so you can find a way to be part of that. It’s a changing world out there and if you don’t look ahead and prepare yourself to change with it, the road ahead will be much more difficult to navigate.
RUNNING A DESIGN BUSINESS?
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