Point of Beginning

Solo Notes: No Regrets

February 24, 2011
Donald Poole, PLS, founder and owner of Outermost Land Survey Inc.


Donald Poole launched his own business nine years ago, at the height of the last economic boom. He’s had to learn how to deal with difficult clients, budget projects appropriately, take risks, and adjust his goals to reflect challenging market conditions. But he still hasn’t lost his passion for surveying, and he’s never looked back.

POB: What have been your biggest challenges as a business owner?

Poole:
I do not enjoy handling, discussing or worrying about money. I’ve had to make a huge effort to take myself out of the money issues. It’s not difficult to prepare a proposal for services, but when somebody wants to squawk about the proposed fee, then I have to step back and not involve my personal feelings. Initially, I also struggled with budgeting each project correctly. Having to balance the work product against the budget continues to be a chore, but now I can spend the time that I feel is necessary to complete a project. The budget is all my responsibility, and I do not have to worry about answering to someone for going over budget. However, I do miss having peer reviews of plans.

One of the worst aspects of being a business owner is having to deal with all the vendors and take marketing calls. I give a lot of credit to my wife, Dawn, who handles the bank accounts, does most of our administrative work and answers the phone when she’s around. She also pitches in on field work. She spent a year and a half working for the U.S. Census Bureau and still found time to help out at Outermost.

POB: How did you develop your business strategy, and what have been your most successful marketing techniques?

Poole's wife, Dawn, serves as the company's chief financial officer, administrative assistant, marketing manager, field technician and cheerleader.

Poole: I was very fortunate to work for a medium-sized engineering firm in my local area for 18 years. During my career at that firm, I was responsible for the survey department, which was primarily a support for the engineering projects. The owner decided to start an ownership transition process and invited a group of us to serve as a board of directors. In conjunction with that new position, we were given the opportunity to attend business seminars in addition to our professional seminars. The owner was a fan of The Zweig Letter management newsletter and had ZweigWhite come and evaluate the company. Through these various seminars, retreats and evaluations, I learned a great deal about marketing and managing a professional company. Much of this was more than is necessary for a solo operator such as myself, but each experience is an opportunity to learn more about what you don’t know. I did write a business plan prior to starting Outermost Land Survey, and I revisit that plan each year around tax time. It is broken into one- and five-year goals and is modified each year as necessary. I have not met my goals yet, but as revised, I am roughly on track.

I believe the most successful marketing that you can do is to keep your current clients happy. Satisfied clients will tell their friends and neighbors--you just never know when the need a survey will come up. The next best technique I’ve found has been to market to my peer professionals. A large part of my workload comes from two engineering firms that do not offer land surveying. I provide most of their surveying services, and they freely recommend me to potential clients that they can’t service.

POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?

Poole:
I don’t spend a lot of time trying to stay current on new technology. The professional magazines are very informative, and I primarily rely on them to keep me up to date. POB has been around the profession even longer than I have, and it keeps me current. For questions I will use the RPLS.com online community, and then I can get an international audience to assist me when it’s needed.

The profession has moved so quickly during my career that it’s tiring to try and keep up. The best you can do is to make sure that you have what you need and are aware of emerging technology and its potential for you and your business. GIS is a great example: We know it’s out there and it’s time to embrace it and not ignore it. The best advice I have in this area is to maintain your subscriptions to the professional magazines and communicate with your peers.

POB: What education tools have you found to be the most valuable?

Poole: I am a huge supporter of professional seminars, and they are not even required in my state yet. I sit on the state society (MALSCE) board of directors and am a member of our professional development committee. I also serve as the state coordinator for NSPS Surveying USA and the TrigStar program. In these capacities, I have access to many seminars and other educational opportunities, such as the Proprietors Council. I also read virtually nonstop, and I’ll read just about anything. I love reading old surveying texts or legal tomes such as Curtis Brown’s books. Also, when in doubt, I will confer with other local surveyors that I respect. I am lucky that there are some good surveyors around here. They also call me with questions sometimes.

POB: What advice do you have for other surveyors who are considering a solo practice or are struggling to stay in business?

Poole:
As a business owner, you cannot remain stagnant and expect the world to beat a path to your door. You need to get out there, diversify, participate and let the world know that you are available. Volunteer to serve your town in some capacity (be careful of potential conflicts), work with your state organization as well as NSPS or ACSM. Also, use existing programs such as NSPS Surveying USA and TrigStar to promote the profession as well as your business. When my old high school won the state TrigStar exam a few years ago, the teacher made a long award speech during the school’s awards night and mentioned Outermost Land Survey at least six times. I was surprised to hear this but very happy!


This display, which Poole set up in a local bank, served as a valuable marketing tool for his firm.

Also, don’t be afraid to take reasonable risks. I made the investment in GPS about three years ago and haven’t looked back. I am one of the few in the area to have made the investment, so now I get to do some network GPS surveying for other surveyors--my favorite kind of work right after beach topographic surveys. Be aware of your limitations and don’t exceed your ability, but don’t shortchange yourself, either. For instance, I don’t like construction layout. I will do small residential projects, but I refer other projects to another surveyor who enjoys that type of work. Conversely, I do enjoy difficult boundary issues, and other surveyors will refer that kind of work to me. Prior to purchasing my GPS units, I had very limited experience with GPS work, but I bit the bullet, bought the equipment, and learned how to use it. Don’t hold yourself back. Additionally, don’t be afraid to “play with the big boys.” You will be surprised to find out the extent of work that you can actively compete with the bigger companies over.

On the business management side, use contracts, and require hefty deposits upfront. Of course you have to be a little flexible as most municipalities will not pay deposits. But make payment upon completion a part of your contract. Charge interest on accounts over 30 days past due unless authorized by you previously. Watch your cash flow, and aim to keep your receivables and billable potential as “money in the bank.” Keep a good eye on your receivables; I like between $8,000 and $10,000 owed to me, and that keeps my cash flow going strong. (Billable potential is the amount you have under contract but not yet due.)

Also, be careful about accepting large jobs. Be sure you can handle the job financially since you’ll need to be ready to interrupt your cyclical cash flow when planning a large project. Waiting for payment can be deadly when you’re counting on one large client to pay quickly after you’ve been on their project for a month.

Ultimately, being in business for myself has been a rewarding experience. I can remember my first introduction to land surveying and the moment I made up my mind that I was going to pursue it as a career. I was in ninth grade, and as part of our woodshop class the teacher took us outside with an old transit (of course, this was in 1971), a tape and a level rod and showed us how to do a simple topographic survey. I fell in love with surveying at that point. The more I’ve learned about surveying, the more I’ve loved it. I have never regretted my decision to be a surveyor or business owner.


Donald Poole, PLS, is the founder and owner of Outermost Land Survey Inc. (
www.outermostlandsurvey.com) based in Cape Cod, Mass. He was licensed in Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky before relocating to his hometown on Cape Cod in 1983. Before launching his own firm in 2002, he was the survey department head for Coastal Engineering Co. Inc. Poole is a long-time member of ACSM, NSPS and MALSCE. He serves on the board of directors for MALSE as well as the professional development committee and is a past president of the local chapter.
 
***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 pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.***