Is it possible to thrive in a challenging economy? Michael Davis thinks so. Over the past decade, his small surveying firm in Texas has remained highly profitable--even during the difficult market conditions of the last several years. Davis shares his strategies in this exclusive POB interview.
POB: What made you decide to open your own business in 2001?
Davis:I’ve been involved in land surveying since I was 18. I spent about 20 years in the corporate world before I was introduced to the idea of solo surveying in 1999 through RPLS.com. I began researching and buying some of my own equipment with the thought that I would “someday” like to open my own firm. Then in 2001, shortly after 9/11, the company I worked for closed their Dallas office, which I was managing. At that point, I didn’t have much of a choice, so I launched my own business. Within a few years, I was making enough money to survive. After four years, I was making more than I ever anticipated and loving every minute of it.
POB: How did you develop your business strategy?
Davis:I was fortunate in that I had several good clients who had indicated they would give me projects if I ever went out on my own. Having those business relationships in place really helped. You can run out and start beating the pavement and knocking on doors, but it’s hard to do it that way. It’s much better if you have a strategy and a network of clients in place before you launch your own business.
Through my own network of contacts, and with all the different places I’ve worked and all the different things I’ve done, I’ve been able to diversify my services so that I can handle probably 80 percent of any type of surveying that’s out there--from heavy construction to housing, from roads and bridges to pipelines. When I come across any areas that I don’t have experience in, I try to meet people who are in those areas and learn how to do it. Diversification is crucial. But that was a natural progression for me; the adventure of surveying is what drew me to the profession.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner?
Davis:The biggest challenge for me is staying on top of all the paperwork. What I really love is the surveying end of it, but if I don’t send out the invoices then I don’t get paid. I do use a payroll service to do my payroll and handle government-mandated deductions and reports, so that helps. I’ve actually been so busy over the last year that I’ve been able to hire a number of surveyors to help with some of my projects. But that has presented another challenge, because it can be difficult to find people who do quality work. I’ve had to go back out and redo some of the work I subcontracted out, so it can be like taking one step forward and two steps back.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Davis:There’s always something new coming down the pipeline, and I like to be on the leading edge of it. I first started using robotic total stations in 1992, and I still find that technology to be invaluable, although I also use GPS where it makes sense.
There’s a lot of information on the Internet, so I do a lot of online research to stay on top of trends. I also have a good relationship with the local Leica dealer, so I’m usually one of the first people to try out any new equipment they get in. I’ve been puttering around with laser scanners for over a decade now, but for a solo guy, that’s a huge investment. My robot has a reflectorless laser in it and allows me to get anything I can point and shoot at. It’s not doing 50,000 points per second like a scanner might, but it allows me capture what my clients need.
I’ve met a lot of surveyors who don’t really know how to use a robotic system or reflectorless, which is just amazing to me. It’s such a useful tool.
POB: How do you add enough value so that the discussion isn’t always focused solely on price?
Davis:I don’t have an outside office, and my equipment is all paid off. As a solo operator with very little overhead and a lot of experience, I’m highly productive and highly profitable. It’s really a matter of using the right technology for the job and knowing how to use it efficiently so that I can offer a competitive rate without compromising on quality. And for my return clients and the ones I get through referrals, the quality of my work makes a difference. I’ve been able to get new clients because they’ve seen what I provided to someone else and they were impressed with my ability to deliver the files electronically and organized in a way that made it easy for them to pull the data they needed.
Time is money, so I put a lot of effort into understanding what each client needs and what the challenges are before I start on any project. That allows me to use the right tools, be efficient in my work and meet my clients’ needs.
POB: What advice do you have for other surveyors who are considering a solo practice or are struggling to keep their small business or solo practice profitable?
Davis:You have to diversify. A lot of firms have already learned that the hard way. You also have to be willing and able to use all the tools at your disposal.
As a solo surveyor, I still have deadlines and other client-induced stresses along with the usual headaches that running a business entails. But the rewards far outweigh the negatives. Having control of your destiny is rewarding enough; making an-above average living doing something you love is the “icing on the cake.”
Michael B. Davis, PLS, is the owner of Alpha Land Surveying Inc., Roanoke, Texas, which he launched in 2001. The firm provides a broad range of surveys, including ALTA, boundary and topographic surveys; cadastral surveys; railroad surveys; right-of-way-surveys; vertical control surveys; platting and replatting; construction layout and staking; geodetic control for engineering and construction; and just about anything else that requires precision measurement expertise. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
***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.***