Point of Beginning

Changing Directions

January 3, 2012
Growing your business requires strategic thinking and a willingness to pursue new paths of opportunity.



Surveying and mapping companies today operate in an environment that is technologically, economically, socially and politically more complex than any other period in history. This market energy can prompt reactionary responses from struggling firms--solutions that focus primarily on playing “catch up” to rivals in a fight for survival. Many hardworking, technically adept surveyors built their firms from the ground up after gaining experience, taking the exams and being professionally licensed by their respective states. However, they may not have the business background to confront these multifarious challenges facing both businesses and the surveying profession.

The paradox is that in this economy, some firms thrive, while others do not. Today, companies require tactics involving innovation, creativity and business savvy. Survey firms need avant-garde business strategies rather than reactive and symptomatic fixes. Such strategies require the fusion of the geo-technical profession and business perception. The effort entails identifying the root causes of weakness in a business model and crafting an appropriate response. As Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Change is a necessary part of business development and growth.

Developing a roadmap for your company’s future strategies first requires an honest assessment of your firm’s values, vision and mission. This is the time for surveying firms to reflect on past intentions and measure whether their initial aspirations are being met. Then, they can close those gaps and set new goals that will continually stretch their capacity and capabilities.

Core values are a company owner’s innermost beliefs. These guiding principles tell the client who you are. Quoting from the “Code of Ethics,” professional land surveyors should uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the land surveyors’ profession by:

I.          Using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare;

II.         Being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients;

III.        Striving to increase the competence and prestige of the land surveyors’ profession;

IV.       Supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines.

A surveyor’s beliefs are the driving force for the growth and maturity of his or her company. At the end of the day, the business should be a trusted source for the client’s surveying needs. Revisit your core values, reflect on why the business was started and why you chose this profession, and hold true to those values.

The next step is to align your vision with your values. A vision should provide more than a panoramic view of what your surveying business looks like in the near future, because it’s guaranteed that the world will be much different in five or 10 years than it is today. Therefore, vision statements should not change with time--they should be timeless. Your vision tells your clients why you do what you do, why you love surveying and why the world is a better place because of your passion.

Only after you have established who you are and why you are in business can you clearly communicate the services your company offers and how these services benefit clients and the wider geospatial community. Your mission must echo your vision and values.

The second stage of planning requires evaluating your strategy. Begin by listing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) to your business. SWOT analysis is one of the most common and highly effective tools used to develop a successful business strategy. Applying this concept to a surveying firm helps to identify the company’s core competencies and illuminate deficiencies in resources that place the company at a disadvantage. This tool will also help identify avenues that can be exploited as new opportunities, and it can help detect areas of vulnerability. Once synthesized, such lists become a focal point for interpretation and serve to guide a chosen strategy.

An assessment should be split in two parts: internal aspects and factors that are within the company’s control, and external factors that are out of the company’s direct control.

Looking internally allows you to scrutinize the firm’s resources while assessing its competitive position. If ample financial resources are available to grow the business, then you are in good shape. However, if you are saddled with a weak balance sheet, take a hard look at your numbers. Financial ratios should show profitability such as gross profit margin, operating profit margin, net profit, return on total assets and stockholders’ equity. Look first at your liquidity and your ability to pay your liabilities, then at your leverage such as debt-to-asset ratios that measure the extent of borrowed funds used for operating. In order to stay in business, a company needs to make a profit, plain and simple. Thriving and achieving a sustainable competitive advantage requires you to identify current processes with the aim of understanding whether they provide value.

In economics, profit is the difference between a firm’s total revenue and its total opportunity cost. Put another way: Economic profit = total revenue – total opportunity cost. If we relate this equation to offering professional surveying and mapping services, the total revenue is the income earned from those services. The total opportunity cost is the cost of all inputs that go into the production of the services provided and the chosen methodology therein, and the profit is the difference.

If revenue can’t be increased due to a slumping economy, then focus can be placed on opportunity costs. By virtue of its position in the profit formula, reducing cost could result in an increased profit. Based on this assessment, we can ascertain that opportunity costs are in some way related to the processes and methods in which we choose to conduct our day-to-day business activities. Further, since doing a process a certain way results in a certain opportunity cost, a more efficient method of doing the same activity could cost less and yield more profit.

Take a look at your value chain--the activities that add value to the services you provide your clients. Analyze each of the activities that make up this chain, and look for areas to add automation or improve performance to create a more streamlined operation.

In order to sustain performance and deliver value to clients, a significant effort must be made to identify any possible inconsistencies in the system that could impede current or future performance. Develop a weighted assessment of your company’s strengths by reviewing finances, customer service, technical skills, reputation and the quality of your surveys over the last one to five years and see how they rank. 

Next, list your core competencies and capabilities. Identify those highly distinctive competencies in the geospatial sciences that match well with the key success factors in the surveying and mapping field. List your abilities, no matter how basic they may seem--for example, the ability to use and understand surveying equipment, such as total stations, theodolites and levels. Being able to calibrate and adjust these instruments is a necessary competence. Likewise, the ability to apply geometry principles, and transfer data between computers and instruments, CAD and GIS, are all distinguishing traits. These are your intellectual capital--the human tools that allow you to provide superior geospatial services and ultimately affect your quality and recognition among customers. Also, the knowledge that is inherent among your employees allows you to outperform rival firms.

Another internal area to examine is your firm’s marketing and communication efforts. These must accentuate your company’s image. A firm that has an attractive customer base and is well-recognized and well-respected will be in a more comfortable, competitive position. A weak image or reputation hurts your client base and erodes credibility among clients, making rivals appear to be the better choice. The more attractive and respectable your firm looks, the better your chance of getting chosen to provide geospatial services.

External factors that can affect your business include changes in technology, legislation, economic conditions, demographics and even social lifestyle. All businesses operate in a macro environment, and these forces can help mold your strategy. Looking at these closely will reveal opportunities that your company can pursue as well as threats that it must plan for and try to avoid.

Technology is a huge external force, and one that is moving at a rapid pace. Today’s surveyors can centrally locate, process and manage their data through software, and can push their efficiency to new heights by adding cloud computing to the mix. They can move from one job to the next without returning to the office to pull out cables, hook up and download. However, the ease of use of location-based devices and the increasing demand for these tools also creates new challenges for the traditional surveying profession.

Take stock of the dominant factors in the geospatial field, such as the size of your market as well as the number of rival companies in the geographic area in which you compete. Take a look at their strengths: Is there one firm that gets all the ALTA surveys? Is hiring a surveyor who is licensed in neighboring states an option? Is pursuing work in multiple states a possibility?

One tool that can help you use external pressures to your advantage is the Five Forces Model of Competition, developed by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. This model directs you to identify new competitors, such as engineering and architectural firms that gain contracts in your area and have their own surveying resources, or startups that are created by surveyors who have left larger firms. It also directs you to identify substitute services, the buying power of clients and the intensity of competition in the geospatial field.

Another useful tool is strategic group mapping, a flow chart that can show the potential for profit based on the firm’s position in the market. Professionally prepared market reports developed by market research firms and associations can also provide a valuable assessment of opportunities that could be pursued by your firm.

Choosing a course of action is key to unlocking your business potential. The iconic business leader Jack Welch said, “Strategy means making clear cut choices about how to compete.” In his book “Winning”, he explains that the key to success is picking a general direction and implementing the “HE- double hockey sticks out of it.” Simply put, if you make a plan and commit to it, it is more likely that you will accomplish your goals.

Today more than ever, the strategic paths we carve determine whether we maintain a sustainable competitive advantage or relinquish to mediocrity or failure. Thompson, Strickland, and Gamble in their book “Crafting & Executing Strategy” identify some generic strategies that can be adopted. One is a low-cost provider strategy. Not to be confused with being a “low-baller,” this strategy relies on continuously searching for cost reduction without forgoing quality. This approach requires you to manage costs in every area of your business. Since the time required to search recorded documents and perform fieldwork varies due to the complexity in certain cases, a surveying firm must be vigilant in recovering those costs. Keeping good records and improving on ways to retrieve them will help reduce research time and costs. Habits such as shutting down computers and turning off lights when leaving the office, and using both sides of printing paper can also add up to cost savings over time.

Another strategy is broad differentiation, in which you offer a service that is different from your competitors. In this case, your focus would be on innovation. This involves looking closely at your competitors’ services. What type of surveys are they most known to perform, and where do they lack expertise? For example, providing high-definition laser scanning could be an option if it’s not widely offered in your geographic area.

A third course of action is being the best value provider by offering extra features as part of your services. This is a blend of innovation and cost reduction. Adding services such as data risk management or acting as the QA/QC lead on projects can help you carve out a successful niche. By using automation, and specifically information systems, you can integrate data into your business processes from the creation of a project to the delivery of a survey; for example, a system can be created with links to financial, CAD, GIS, survey data and office documents in a seamless intellectual web-based portal that provides the necessary business intelligence needed to outperform rivals.

Take a fresh look at your company and be willing to change. Step through the processes of assessing your firm and reevaluating current strategies. Then move not only to grow your business, but also to plant seeds for the future of the surveying profession. Your vision must be embedded in your company’s philosophy and delivered through your strategic goals to your clients.