When is it OK to charge higher rates? Bruce Small discovered that when you produce quality work quickly, clients are willing to pay more--which can result in large profits because of the low overhead of his small surveying firm. Small shares his strategies in this exclusive POB interview.

POB: When and why did you launch your own business?

Small: In the late 1990s, I worked for a successful engineering firm in Tucson (Ariz.), and then we sold out to a national firm. I was not happy in the new firm and knew I had to get out. Fortunately, I had taught a seminar for a title company, and they gave me a copy of Dr. Spencer Johnson’s short book, Who Moved My Cheese? It has the famous question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” My answer was go out on my own, so I summoned the courage and took the plunge. It was scary, to say the least, but I’ve never regretted it.

POB: How did you develop your business strategy?

Small: Over the years, I watched my employers make mistakes and learned from them. They talked about innovation and enterprise but were hamstrung by the traditional business model of a typical survey crew, drafter, etc. I also read Dan Beardslee’s Business Management Handbook--he and I have been friends for years. I’ve taken a lot of college business classes and was well grounded in finance, accounting and marketing. I realized early on that if I delivered a quality product faster than the other firms I could charge high rates, and with my low overhead, it would mean a large profit. I also knew that innovation and high-tech efficiency would be essential. I have never been in the phone book; all of my clients come from referrals.

POB: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner?

I work too hard. I will be out surveying in the summer sun and realize it is noon, and I still have not had a break or any water. I really need to learn to pace myself.

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

Small: The Internet has a lot of resources--but many of them (are) not trustworthy. I pay attention when my peers mention a better product or a new technique.

POB: How do you add enough value so that the discussion isn’t always focused solely on price?

Small: I usually don’t have that problem. Many of my friends, especially the attorneys and title companies, steer surveys to me despite my high fees because they know I deliver quality, and quickly. The architects and engineers prefer me because they know I’ll deliver what they need, and quickly.

POB: What advice do you have for other surveyors who are considering a solo practice or who want to make their small business or solo practice more profitable?

Small: Don’t start off by lowballing. If your clients and peers see you as a lowballer, that is how you will forever be perceived. You will never be able to change your product to quality services and higher prices.

Find your niche--don’t try to be everything to everyone. My focus is on ALTA surveys on commercial sites and quality clients. I don’t do construction staking, and I do lot surveys only as a favor to someone.

A solo practice can be a gold mine if you are creative, innovative, a self-starter and have a solid business background. And it’s a heck of a lot better than working for someone else.

Bruce F. Small, RLS, and his wife Vicki own Bruce Small Surveys Inc. in Tucson, Ariz., which they started in 2000. The company specializes in ALTA surveys, with a preferred client list of architects, engineers, attorneys, brokers and title companies. Small wrote his own COGO and field-to-finish software to achieve maximum efficiency. Small can be reached at bruce.small@cox.net.

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.