The Business Side
August 1, 2006
This column is directed to one- (or two-) person companies performing survey work. Most of us know that one or two people today can do the work of a four- or five-person crew of 20 years ago.
I can tell you from personal experience that working at a large company is not always the path to high profits or personal satisfaction. So why not focus your company on the work you can perform yourself?
Let's examine in more detail some of the advantages and drawbacks to going solo.
Solo Advantages and AdviceLimited liability. It makes sense that liability should be reduced if the registered/licensed surveyor is on every jobsite and controls every aspect of every job. What's more, the professional has the opportunity to choose the proper equipment for the type of job, and verify the quality of the work performed.
Many of the older surveyors I have known during my 40-year career performed their own fieldwork. Most of these people would have eaten you alive in court if you had challenged their corner placement. In a solo situation, the surveyor can view the evidence firsthand and control the placement of all corners and decide whether to accept other corners.
New technology. To successfully practice in this profession as a one-person company, you need to hang all the new technology around your neck that your budget will allow. The future favors the very small firm because technology can take the place of many employees. You, as a one-person firm, have the choice of many different types of equipment. After buying new equipment, don't feel guilty if some instruments sit idle from time to time. They are still cheaper than full-time employees when not needed.
One item you will surely want is a reflectorless total station. Many of the surveyors currently working alone have found creative ways to utilize this technology to work efficiently without other help. The reflectorless total station is the first choice for traversing and setting survey control. Prism pole bipods are a must with this equipment.
The second type of equipment you should consider is GPS. There are three general approaches you can take to acquiring GPS equipment. One is to buy the latest and greatest. The problem with this option is the cost. When you are just starting out in business, putting that much money into state-of-the-art GPS equipment that may not be used every day might not be the best use of your money. A second option is to buy used equipment. This equipment can often be purchased at a reasonable cost and may be the best use of your money for control work.
Another option for purchasing GPS equipment is not very popular with some surveyors, but it can work for getting started in business, especially as a soloist. Entry-level GPS equipment now on the market has centimeter accuracy. The National Society of Professional Surveyors Model Standards of Practice manual (available at www.acsm.net/ nsps/modelstandards.html) states that, under relative positional accuracy of suburban and rural land, centimeter accuracy gives acceptable results. You may also want to check your state standards on this issue. This centimeter equipment is an excellent choice for finding corners. Programming waypoints of corners into the system before going to the jobsite can be a great time-saver.
Another type of equipment for you to consider as a solo surveyor is the robotic total station. This item requires a sizeable investment so there must be a need for this equipment. The best uses for this instrument are construction stakeout and engineering surveys where many points are collected or set in a confined area. If not protected, however, robotic total stations can be easily stolen. Also, this equipment is a lot of weight for one person to carry around a jobsite.
Keeping all the money. Boy, this sounds good, doesn't it? If you go into business for yourself, you need to know you are going to work harder than ever. Every corner that needs to be set, you will drive in the ground. Every foresight and backsight, you will give yourself. On days you don't feel much like working, you will still have to give one hundred percent. Because of this effort, it is important to make sure you are charging (at least) the going rate charged by other companies for similar work. If other companies are charging $125 per hour for a crew, that should be your minimum rate.
To keep your job manageable, I suggest that you contract out some services such as CAD drawings. This can be done through the use of a 1099 tax form, which allows a company to hire another company or person without withholding federal taxes. Unless you are a great CAD operator, contracting this work out may be the most cost-effective use of your money. Even if you are a great CAD operator, contracting it out may still be the best use of your money because it will allow you more field time. I know a one-person firm that employs a CAD operator who works by day for an engineering firm and by night on his contract jobs. But this can be tricky; you must make sure to have a mutual understanding with all the parties involved. Another smart way to contract out work is to to hire a researcher at the courthouse to research your jobs--this can certainly be money well spent.
Remember, all you have to sell is your time. Use it wisely by turning down jobs that are not right for you. Try to keep your backlog to a minimum, and try to develop a small clientele that values your services and that pays promptly.
Downsizing. I know downsizing from a one-person company sounds silly. But I have friends who have done just this; instead of quitting the business completely, they downsize by becoming very selective on the new work they contract. They work about half the time, which gives them time to invest the profits from their surveying business in other interests such as real estate.
Solo DisadvantagesDowntime. If you stop working, the income stops--there is no stockpiled sick leave for a one-person firm. In the case of a prolonged illness, all of your income stops. This is why you need to purchase Long Term Care Insurance (LTCi), which is now available for members of the National Society of Professional Surveyors. This policy covers extended medical care outside of the hospital that you may need if you become unable to care for yourself because of prolonged illness or disability. Perhaps even more importantly, you should purchase Disability Income Insurance to cover loss of income from accident or illness. Another type of insurance to consider purchasing is errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. Because you are doing all of your own work, you should be able to keep claims to a minimum. But if you have a survey liability claim and you do not have the time available to solve the problem, you need professional help. You have to look out for your family and yourself by planning for unforeseen events.
Time management. Planning each job carefully, including the final paperwork, falls entirely on your shoulders. When I visit one-person companies, I often see evidence of the lack of final filing and organization. Make sure you keep a signed and sealed copy of each job as delivered to the client. There may be follow-up changes required for the work. Make sure the old copy is marked void and the new plat is put in the final job file. As you attract clients, you can become so busy that you feel like a chicken with its head cut off running around unable to finish and bill any jobs. Start each day with a list of things to do, noting what items will finish a job and get it out the door--and make these the first priority. Since you cannot delegate assignments to anyone else, know that it is not unusual to work 60 to 70 hours a week as a soloist. That is why it is important to schedule some time away from the company to recharge your batteries. The work will be waiting when you return.
Outside help. To stay on track--and to make money--you need the help of other professionals. The only reason to work this hard for yourself is to make a better-than-average income. You need professional help to reduce your taxes and make income investments that are tax-free. For instance, don't forget that you have to pay both parts of social security to the government. Normally in a corporate arrangement, your employer pays half of your social security and you pay the other half, but if you operate as a one-person company you have to pay all of it--about 17 percent of your total income before standard income tax. You must also make at least quarterly income tax payments. A quarterly review of your finances with an accountant is important to keep your taxes under control.
Don't lose sight of the reason you are working on your own: you want to build a nest egg for early retirement. Remember, you can't keep up this pace forever! It may be a good idea to hire some part-time help on occasion; a college student or a temporary service person can help with tasks like driving stakes on a construction site. If everyone worked alone, who would train future surveyors? During the busy summer months, hire a student from a surveying program. Students need summer work and a chance to learn, and the best part is they are gone come fall.
Safety. Working alone can present dangers in the field. Develop a system where family members know the location you plan to work each day. This could be as simple as a telephone call each morning. It is very difficult to find you in the field if no one has any idea where you might be on a particular day. Always carry your cell phone or satellite phone fully charged--it is your lifeline to the outside world.
I remember going to a large jobsite alone on a hundred-degree day to set aerial mapping targets, and after working for about two hours, I collapsed on the ground near my truck. After sitting in the shade of the truck for a few minutes, I recovered enough to drive a mile down the road to a store where I was able to buy liquid to drink and recover inside the air-conditioned building. Make sure you have water and supplies available when you are in the field alone.
One person is nowhere near as intimidating as a whole survey crew, so you may find yourself in a situation where your equipment is being stolen or has been stolen. There is really no great way to avoid theft but to carry good insurance and let it go if you encounter a thief. It's not worth getting shot.
For road safety, adopt a "slow down and live" attitude when driving. I recently reduced my highway speed about six miles an hour; other motorists now pass me but I know I am contributing to the safety of roadside workers (and I improved my gas mileage three miles per gallon). When looking at maps and documents, pull off the roadway since there is no one else in the vehicle to watch out for you or read the map. When you are doing work near the road, take the time to place roadway signs and cones, and wear your safety vest. It is easy to tell yourself, "I am just going to run out into the roadway for a minute to check a distance," but you can die in a lot less than a minute.
Networking for SoloistsAs you experiment with the one-person business model, you should learn all that you can. Take the time to attend your state or national surveyors' association meetings. This will give you the opportunity to talk with other professionals who operate as one-person firms. Ask your state society to develop a list of one-person companies that can exchange ideas or work together on future jobs. At conventions, exchange ideas and research new equipment that you could potentially utilize in your solo operation. While the business idea of operating alone is not new, technology will carry it to new heights in the future. So will the successful management of time and organization.
To connect with other solo operators, visit www.rpls.com.