Solo Notes: Land Surveying Startup Status
Neil Grande, PLS, owner of Titan Surveying in Corbin, Ky., was exposed to surveying at an early age because his father was a surveyor and engineer. Counting his experience with his old man, Grande has been involved with surveying for around 15 years. But officially speaking, he has only been a licensed surveyor and business owner for around eight months.
Grande started the business in February after graduating from East Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in surveying and mapping, and spending eight years working towards obtaining his license. He says the history behind surveying is what initially attracted him and continues to pique his interest. “It’s really fascinating to be able to sit down in the deed room and basically trace back a family’s history of one single piece of property for 150 years, taking all these names, putting them in order, and going back and forth to find out exactly what monument or what place they intended for their boundary to be put at.”
The decision to become licensed and become a business owner was largely tied to compensation. “Before I was licensed, I was basically cutting a trail through the woods and running an instrument for $9 to $10 an hour. That’s basically how it is. It’s a huge salary change once you’re able to offer your professional services to the public.”
Since starting Titan Surveying, Grande says advertising has been key and that the Internet has helped supplement the more traditional approaches, like pulling from contacts he made at previous jobs. Google helped him get his name out to a wider audience and his Facebook page is also a good source of exposure. “Even though only a certain number of people actually ‘Like’ the page, the photos that I post can be generated through thousands of people’s news feeds,” he says. Grande most often takes on boundary surveying projects, from small lots to several-hundred-acre tracts. He also does topographic surveys, ALTA surveys and construction staking. He serves southeast Kentucky and northeast Tennessee.
Grande says the most surprising thing he’s learned since becoming a professional solo surveyor and business owner is that it’s expensive. He’s learned that if he isn’t careful, the costs of everything needed to stay productive can eat away at profits. With that in mind, Grande says how he charges customers has been key. He doesn’t want to be known as the cheapest guy in the area. “So I’ve been pricing stuff really high and I’ve realized that if I’m not going to make any money off of it, I’m not going to do it. It’s as simple as that.” Working alone is nice for him in that his office is at home, which cuts commute time. He also has complete control over how projects are carried out. But on the downside, surveying is hard work, especially without help. “It’s not easy,” he says. “I just finished a 30-acre boundary where I had to lug 60 pounds of equipment 2,000 feet up a mountain. I had to cut my own line and do a boundary survey on the property.”
That said, he’s optimistic about eventually being able to bring on an assistant who will not only help spread the workload, but who he can help become a licensed surveyor. If he ever had an LSIT approach him in search of experience to become a professional, Grande says he’d hire him or her in a heartbeat. After all, that’s how he worked his way up. He went into a solo surveyor’s office asking for on-the-job experience before becoming licensed and was granted the opportunity he needed. “He took me on for a while. So to be able to repay that favor is probably what I’ll be doing one day,” Grande says.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
GRANDE: I really do like the client interaction. I like dealing with people and I’m good at it. I can actually talk to people about issues they have regarding their boundary or finding why they need a boundary survey done in the first place. Then the field work, the work done out in the field looking to see if I can locate any monuments. There’s nothing better in this profession than actually locating original monuments that match in the records and on the ground, whether or not you have to dig them out a foot under the ground and find them; that’s the most rewarding thing about this profession.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
GRANDE: I was working on about an 80-acre tract in a really mountainous area last year and I was working with a crew at the time. We were having to traverse down a ravine to try to find a couple stones that were set around the early 1900s, and while heading down there, my rodman stopped dead in his tracks and there was about a 4-foot long rattlesnake that was right in front of me. It had about nine rattlers on it and it scared us to death, every single one of us. We were 2,000 feet over a hill from the nearest road and if that snake would have bit one of us, whoever got bit wasn’t going to make it. So ever since that situation, we’re a little more careful with stuff like that. Always bring a snake bite extraction kit and a first aid kit in the bag whenever we’re going to be away from the truck all day.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
GRANDE: That’s easy. It’s juggling my time. A lot of surveyors don’t want to turn work down. So when you work solo, since you are the entire show, it is really hard to be able to manage your time so efficiently that you can deliver a product. That’s what the entire thing is about. The surveys have to be done correctly, but you still have to be able to make money doing it. Time is a big factor. Whenever you get three or four calls in a week with people needing surveys, you have to be really great at scheduling and you have to be really efficient to be able to deliver the product that you promised the client in the time they need it done by.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
GRANDE: It’s a message board called SurveyorConnect. The guys on that message board know what they are talking about. It’s the best surveying message board on the web and if I’ve got any questions, there’s going to be someone on there that knows exactly what I’m talking about. I do see a lot of the latest trends and stuff in magazines, but I’m the type of person that I have to see it work in front of my face and I have to know that it can make me more efficient and more profitable before I buy into it. If the product is a new technology that I buy, if I can’t figure out a way that it’s going to save me time or money, then it’s not going to do any good for me.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
GRANDE: If you want to get in today, the main thing you need is an education. I have everything to owe to the Tennessee State program that I graduated from. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be licensed today. Whenever I graduated from there, I felt comfortable with every single licensing exam that I took. Not only is education important, they have to have the drive to be able to do it. It’s not an easy profession, but it’s really rewarding. I don’t know anything that I’d rather be doing other than this. If I could do it all over again I’d be in the same situation I’m in today.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
GRANDE: Since I started surveying, it has changed quite a bit. Whenever I first got going, I didn’t have the latest gear. All the other companies I’ve worked for weren’t using the latest equipment that was out at the time. So I basically went from an old TDS data collector with a basic total station and eventually got into using GPS and now I’m using robotics. I plan on using a Javad GPS system in the near future, but whenever I was first starting up, those were limited. So it’s basically that me and my robot do every single thing. It’s productive for now. It’s a little harder and it takes me more time. But I am going to expand into GPS within the next six months to a year.
Neil Grande, PLS, owns Titan Surveying, located in Corbin, Ky. He became licensed and opened up the business as recently as February. Grande can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.