Solo Notes: Taking the Leap
Deciding to go solo and start your own business is a challenge in any economy, but it’s especially daunting in the midst of a recession. As Brian Hefner shares in this interview with POB, being successful requires a strong business plan, a broad network of trusted colleagues, and a healthy dose of self-honesty.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge as a solo surveyor?
Hefner: In a normal economy, launching a new firm presents the challenges of financing, outfitting, and developing a backlog of work. With the market diminished, those challenges have probably doubled. So my biggest challenge was starting from scratch in a depressed economy. Self-financing was the only way to go; financial institutions really aren’t interested in backing a new business in this business line. You no longer have the option of getting bank financing and then wondering how you’re eventually going to be able pay that back out of future profits. So the decisions on pulling together everything I needed, from equipment to software to computers, were more critical because everything had to happen strictly on a cash basis. Of course, the benefit to that approach is that it made accounting simpler. But my network of contacts in the industry--suppliers, clients and peers that have helped me out--was invaluable.
My other big challenge has been making sure that I’m fully aware of my strengths and weaknesses so that I don’t oversell my capabilities and can continue to improve where needed. I know some very bright people who are better than me at different things, and I do not hesitate to ask them if I think they might be able to help me improve in those areas.
Hefner: I spent most of the last 10 years of my career in a regional management position at a large engineering firm. Through this role, I gained a lot of experience in putting together regional business plans and marketing plans. Of course, large organizations need a very formal plan to keep a number of people in line and focused in the right direction and to provide a metric to measure all those people against. For a firm like mine, which is currently just me, it’s a lot easier and less formal. Still, I did make projections based on client types and market types and even down to how much business I expected to do with specific clients this year.
A lot of the planning came into play when I had to decide how much insurance I needed. Insurance costs for general liability or professional liability are a function of two different things--how much your gross receipts are expected to be in the coming year, and what your work profile is. (High-liability fields, such as heavy construction layout, require more-expensive insurance.) Having that information in place helped me get the most realistic quote and best deal for insurance and helped me to be honest with myself about what to expect--how long until I could expect to write a check for myself out of this business, and how long I should expect to pay for various pieces of equipment (do I need to finance it for six months or three years based on what I project to come in?).
In general, I do think it’s important to put a plan in place that is formal enough to follow. Does it have to be formally presentable and bound so you can take it to bankers? Yes, if you expect to get financing. I didn’t go that route, but I do have all those projections and could print them out if needed. I think they are vitally important as a way to measure yourself and reassess yourself on an ongoing basis.
POB: What have been your most successful marketing techniques?
Hefner: I’ve primarily been a land development surveyor for the majority of my career--overseeing the field work as well as being part of land development teams and strategizing the best way to meet the client’s goals. That’s still a large part of my business model, but that business isn’t necessarily very fruitful right now.. So my marketing strategy has been twofold: Number one, to keep up that network of contacts I’ve always had and try to find out what’s going on; and number two, to look for new areas of opportunity.
My network consists mainly of people I’ve done business with in the past--referral sources such as architects, engineers and other surveyors, land developers, attorneys, and anyone who has a place to be involved in any project who may have the ability to put my name up for something. I keep in regular contact with these individuals so that they don’t forget me.
I also put in a great deal of time researching what niches I might be able to fill as a rebound occurs, be it supplying data for a BIM, serving a specialty niche with laser scanning for theme parks or industrial applications, or consulting on energy projects. There’s a very small part of my contacts list I’ve developed over the years who are people that I admire and trust for their wisdom and who always seem to have a good overview of what’s going on in our world. I try to take these individuals out for coffee on a regular basis and just listen so that I can find out what’s going on and where something might be moving.
POB: What advice would you have for other surveyors who are thinking about going out on their own?
Hefner: Self-honesty is really important. I know of two types of people who have gone solo. There are those who are doing it because it’s truly what they want to be, and they intend to be their own boss for time eternal. And then there are those who had no choice and have hung out their own shingle as a stop-gap measure but would love to work for somebody else again. There’s nothing wrong with the latter as long as they’re honest about it and run their business accordingly. Be honest about what your goals and expectations are, and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can build on your strengths and find help to improve on your weaknesses.
The other thing is that if you have a wife and family, like I do, be honest with them and make them a part of it. Understand how much work is involved. As a small business owner, there are a lot of things I do that are completely unrelated to putting out a particular deliverable. I handle the invoices, I do the precalculations and all the research, I do all the running around, I’m in the field, and I do all the drafting. There’s always something to do; I could probably work every waking hour if I wanted to. Launching your own business is a journey, and it’s going to be all-consuming. Make your life partner your work partner to the extent that they know what’s going on and can support you. Maybe they won’t be able to help with your boundary determination, but they can help with everything else and can help make things a little easier when you have a frustrating day or when you’re having a hard time getting through something.
The bottom line is that you need to know exactly what you’re getting into. A small corporation has all the same rights and responsibilities as a large corporation, and there’s a lot to it, so you have to know what you’re doing. Do your research, and make sure you’re honest with yourself about your capabilities and limitations.
Brian K. Hefner, PSM, is the founder and owner of Hefner Land Surveying Inc. (www.hefnerlandsurveying.com), based in Longwood, Fla. Hefner has 25 years of surveying experience and served as the director of surveying for a large multidisciplinary design and engineering firm before launching his own business in early 2010. His goal: To offer the same service and expertise as the large firms with a nimbleness and flexibility that the large firms can’t match. Hefner relies on subcontractors for some field work and plans to expand beyond a solo outfit in the future.