Solo Notes: Surveying the Island Life
A rich history and a passionate culture can often be found in exotic locations. However, owning and operating a business in such an environment can produce a set of challenges. Robert Wilson, PLS, owner of San Juan Surveying in Washington, shares with POB how he has found success.
POB: Why did you decide to launch your own business?
Wilson: After spending more than 10 years in the surveying profession and having a longtime goal of owning and operating a business, a land surveying firm seemed like a perfect fit. As a seventh-generation islander, I have an advantage in San Juan County with generations of local history that I can share with my clients. I enjoy being surrounded by professionals in a stimulating work environment, and since I’m an avid outdoorsman, getting to work outside is an added bonus. Starting a business during a recession was a bit terrifying, but I hoped that timing would allow me to start slow and grow.
POB: How did you develop your business strategy?
Wilson: As the economy started to downturn, I saw many of my mentors turn toward retirement. I realized that my time to branch out was coming, so I started by reading “A Business Management Handbook for Land Surveyors” by Dan Beardslee. I then traveled to Dan’s office and sat down with him to discuss the ideas in his book and the idea of me starting my own business. He was very accommodating and helpful. After that, I made it a practice to visit with any survey office that would take the time to talk with me. Everyone I contacted agreed to meet and help. I also took many of my current and former clients (mostly developers, realtors and lawyers) to lunch and asked them how they looked at our profession. I was shocked [by the difference in their answers], but it helped me to understand what the client ultimately wants: problem solving, solutions, savings, efficiency and a professional relationship.
So off I went to start my own company, focused on quality surveying and delivering what the client expects on time and on budget. After the first year, I invited several other surveyors to join with me. Consolidating three businesses lowered the overhead and created a group of experienced professionals that deliver a superior product at a lower cost to clients. I have also joined local community clubs, donated my time and/or money to local charities and advertised.
|Robert Wilson, PLS, owner of San Juan Surveying|
POB: How has the profession changed since you started?
Wilson: The fundamentals of the surveying profession have changed very little, but the technology has changed a lot. My survey career began in the late 1980s when I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Because equipment was less sophisticated then, it took four Marines to load the GPS into the jeep and two to put the EDM on the tripod! Now we have robotic total stations, Windows-based data collectors, smartphones, LiDAR and RTK GPS technology, etc. Robotic total stations allow for a one-man crew and improve the efficiency of a two-man crew. They are faster, have reflectorless capabilities and allow us to collect more data with the same budget. Cell phones have greatly improved efficiency. If the survey crew finds something unexpected or a client makes a request onsite, the crew can call in and save a trip back to the office. This is especially important living in the San Juan Islands, as a trip back to the office can be very expensive and, depending on the weather, can delay the survey by days.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner?
Wilson: Where do I start! I would say the biggest challenges for me were accounts receivable for the first six months, trying to do everything myself, growing the company and simply just being a “boss.” In the beginning, there were many unanticipated startup costs with very little coming in. When I first started, I tried to do everything myself; it was hard to look at the horizon when I was just trying to get my daily work done.
I firmly believe you need good help and to trust those around you to succeed. As we grew from a company of two to seven, I had to delegate. All I could think was, “Why didn’t I do this earlier?” It works great and allows me to focus on the success of my company and what we need to do to keep on track for the future. I have always seen myself as a team player, but found myself at the helm. While there, my goal is to surround myself with a great team of individuals where I can learn, mentor and serve the public.
POB: Your firm handles survey work on a lot of islands. Does this environment create challenges?
Wilson: Living and working in the islands has many challenges, but it can also be very rewarding. There are approximately 172 islands in San Juan County. At times, we may need to traverse through multiple islands, and moving equipment and personnel from island to island in a traverse takes serious planning and communication. It can be difficult to budget projects that are harder to access, too. For non-ferry serviced properties, our survey parties include a boat or plane captain and, at times, we may need to stay overnight if foul weather prohibits our return home. Sometimes, we need to fly or boat in the middle of the night to conduct forensic surveys of crime scenes. However, safety is number one; we need to understand the tide, weather, shipping and ferry lanes. We have been known from time-to-time to fish for salmon or check our crab pots on our way home. Surveying in the San Juan Islands is more of a lifestyle than a job. It is expensive to live out here, but the jobsites are beautiful.
POB: What makes your business stand out?
Wilson:We keep up with the technology and stay involved both locally and statewide. At times, it seems like a risk or too expensive to invest in new technology, but in the long run, it is well worth it. At my age of 42, I need to stay on top of the technology. Since I am a native of the islands, I have made many connections and spend a lot of my time talking to people about surveying-related issues. I’m sure they appreciate free advice from me and I enjoy helping people where and when I can. Often, when I am watching my children’s school sports, I can mix in some work that many times turns into a job or a referral.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Hoffman: To stay up-to-date with trends and technology I read, participate in surveyor’s organizations, volunteer, mentor and solicit office discussion. I read POB and surf the Internet in the mornings before work. Talking with salespeople keeps me up-to-date because they always seem to be right on the cutting edge. I also attend regional and state conferences where many times new technologies are being displayed or discussed.
One of the best ways for me to keep up with new technology is by volunteering to teach surveying to kids at the local schools or Boy Scouts. I find that I study hard in preparation for these classes so that I can answer their questions accurately and with the latest technological advances. Finally, our office strongly believes in mentoring, and we discuss all our problems and solutions regarding a survey as a group. I am pleasantly surprised how often some new technology is brought up during these discussions.
POB: What software developments over the last few years have most benefited you? What developments do you hope to see in the future?
Wilson: Windows-based data collectors have most benefited us. Field calcs are quicker and much less stressful. I especially enjoy how fast staking routines have become with the development of new data collectors.
I hope to see radio-augmented GPS. We have a difficult time utilizing GPS due to the amount of trees on the islands. It would be a real add hyphen for our company to be able to utilize GPS with ground-based radio signals.
Robert Wilson started surveying in 1989 with the U.S. Marine Corps. After his enlistment, he took a 10-year hiatus to attend college and work in the engineering field. He then worked for Tom Starr, PLS and John Thalacker, PLS before taking over San Juan Surveying, LLC. Bob Wilson can be reached at
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.