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The Business Side: A 10-point plan for future success.

August 1, 2009
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In my most recent column, I presented some ideas on where the surveying profession is headed.

The profession is changing. In fact, it already has changed in many ways. So how can you ensure that your firm will remain successful in the coming years?

Following are 10 ideas that you can implement today to help “future-proof” your surveying practice.

1
Make sure you want to continue surveying. I have friends who have already retired or slid into a related occupation such as construction or government services because of all the changes in the surveying profession. Some have become licensed surveyors for large corporations. If your heart isn’t in the profession, you will find it hard to be successful.

2
Start with a business plan, and know the size of the company you would be happy to own and manage. Just because your firm is a certain size today doesn’t mean it has to be that size in the future. Get an idea of the types of services that are needed in your area. You may need to consider moving to a location that will support your company.

3
Inventory your capabilities, and only provide the services that you enjoy doing. It is hard to provide all the different services that we are licensed to provide. However, using technology may open up areas that would otherwise be prohibitive due to labor costs (more about this later).

4
Decide to run your business on a sound basis. The first step toward achieving this goal is to make sure you have a clear contract that defines the scope of the project before you start the work. Many of the conflicts that arise between surveyors and clients can be traced to a lack of understanding about what the final product will be.

5
Realize that many of the survey products being purchased today have a high-technology element involved. Find a specialty. Many of my friends are sought by clients needing specialized services. These are never the low-bid jobs.

6
Equip yourself and your crews with the best technology available such as mobile Internet service and third-generation (3G) cell phones or smartphones. Many of these technologies can save trips to the courthouse, government offices or your own office, which, in turn, will save your firm money in gas and time.

7
Prepare carefully before starting any fieldwork. Time is money. You can’t afford to wander around in the field hoping to find corners. Find all the evidence available before you even consider going to the field. Make a packet of information for every field crew being sent to a job, including yourself. Digital data may need to be available on a laptop or an accessible Web site for field use. Make sure you have Internet links to Web sites that host tax maps, original government field notes and plats, and other survey-related data that can be accessed from the field.


8
Identify and implement methodologies that will save your firm time and money. For example, in the office before going to the field, I always look up my survey location on digital quad sheets. These sheets show all the trails and roads that are in the vicinity of the job and make the corners easier to locate. The quads provide latitude and longitude; I strip the coordinates off to the nearest tenth of a second of any property lines in the area of my survey. Then, using information from legal descriptions, old surveys and old plats such as the tax maps, I inverse or calculate the best location of the corners in latitude and longitude. (I use the online GPS Toolbox maintained by the NGS to do this work.) I plug the location of the survey in latitude and longitude into road-map software on a laptop in my vehicle and drive right to the job.

This procedure may take some office time, but it is time well spent. Try it one time, and I think you will be amazed at how well you can pick the location of survey corners off the quads. Don’t forget to run closures on all legal descriptions or old surveys. This information will tell you a lot about the work done by a previous surveyor. Once you are armed with the best corner locations, you are ready to start the fieldwork.

9
Use GPS technology to control costs and make fieldwork more effective. When I arrive at a jobsite, I use a hand-held GPS unit set in the U.S. survey foot reading to the nearest tenth of a second. Using latitude and longitude instead of coordinates makes it easy to estimate how far I am from the desired location. On a recent job, one second of latitude was 101 feet, which means that 1/10 of a second was 10 feet. One second of longitude was 87 feet, which meant that 1/10 of a second was a little over 8 feet. If you do the office work correctly, I think you will be amazed at how well this works. The hand-held GPS device I use gives me a good location in almost all tree cover. The only time I’ve had trouble was during a recent thunderstorm with heavy rain and lightning. (Time is money, so I do have a good rain suit.)

10
Make sure your equipment is compatible with CORS. I use a 72-satellite compatible RTK GPS receiver with a cell phone connection to the nearest reference stations. The CORS technology may not be available in all states at this time, but it is coming. In Alabama, we now have 35 CORS running and will have 45 when the program is finished. These are set up and maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation. Many states already have similar programs; within 10 years, I believe CORS will be available in all states.

This technology allows surveyors to use a single instrument to obtain centimeter-level accuracy in real time. And it is this capability that defines the surveyor of the future--no more kicking around in the general location of a corner. We are the technology people. We should know where places are on the face of the Earth. If you are using an older GPS unit, you would be surprised how well a new unit works in tree cover. Ask your dealer for a demonstration. In some cases, you may need to use the technology with a total station and other tools available to the modern surveyor.

Using advanced technology opens whole new fields of opportunity. Many large landowners--including timber companies and state and federal agencies--have always wanted a good survey of their property. However, the cost to provide these services has traditionally been more than the market would bear. I think this situation is about to change--and not just for large tracts of land. I know of one company that has a whole midsized city on a coordinate system. They can go to the site and find the property corners just by putting their RTK unit on the correct spot.


You may have already implemented, in part or completely, many of the ideas presented in this column. If so, then you are ahead of the curve. Congratulations! For those firms that might be lagging behind, these ideas may help put you on a successful track for the future.

Sidebar: Technology Check

If you want to know if you have the right amount of technology for your company, I have devised a simple check: At night and without the lights on, visit the room where you keep your surveying equipment. When you open the door, you should have at least 10 to 20 red, green or yellow lights staring at you like the eyes of the big cats at the zoo. If you don’t see many lights, you may need more technology!

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