Solo surveying definitely has more pluses than minuses, according to Kate Anderson, PLS. She owns and operates Vara Land Surveying in San Francisco and, to her knowledge, is the only licensed female surveyor in business in the City by the Bay. While being the first and second set of eyes on projects can be challenging, Anderson says pretty much everything else is positive. “I set my own schedule, my own rates, my project flow. I have very low overhead and a lot of flexibility, so that allows me to have a very good work-life balance.”
Anderson exclusively serves the city of San Francisco. Her work includes condominium conversions, boundary surveys, topographic surveys, architectural site surveys, lot line adjustments, easement preparation and records of surveys. Well aware of how few and far between females are in this profession, she says she strongly encourages those who are thinking about joining the field to make the move. She’s found that what sets her apart is something many clients seek her out for. “Being the only licensed female in the city definitely gets me noticed and I get a lot of projects that way.” To stay sharp for those projects, in terms of tools and know-how, she says networking with other surveyors has proved beneficial for business.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Anderson: There are really two main things. It’s the variety of the work and the people I work with. I love taking on different types of projects or new challenges, and to keep things interesting. I feel like I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of really great clients, and the folks in the city are a pleasure to work with as well, so it’s very nice to have a good professional network.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Anderson: One of the most interesting projects I worked on was for a law firm that was adjusting its property line to acquire a portion of the adjoining government-owned property. That was a remnant freeway parcel downtown and needed to be transferred from Caltrans to the City of San Francisco before the lot line adjustment could be completed. On that one, I worked with a number of different people — the Redevelopment Agency, the Director of Real Estate in San Francisco, the Joint Powers Authority, the Department of Public Works. So, it was really fascinating seeing how all the different agencies had a stake and came together on that one. And it was a success, as well. But in terms of field work in general here in San Francisco, we’re looking for monuments in the form of crow cuts on building corners and storm drain inlets, cut crosses on stone steps and concrete columns, nails on the building corners, etc. So, it’s a real scavenger hunt. A lot of my projects also require detailed measurements of building interiors, so I see a lot of beautiful Victorians that are 100-plus years old.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Anderson: I’d say it’s the business stuff — taxes, insurance, accounting. I’d rather just stick to the surveying. That’s exactly why I don’t hire a huge staff and fill an office, because then I feel like I would just be managing people. I’d be doing very little of the hands-on surveying, which is the part I enjoy.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Anderson: I’d say definitely do it. If you’re interested in running your own business, there’s so much room in the profession that I believe an interested person could definitely find their niche — especially a female, anything that sets you aside. If you’re ambitious, I would definitely encourage people to consider this as a real career opportunity.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Anderson: Definitely through networking. I’ve got a great equipment dealer. He keeps me in the loop on new technology. I’m also an active member of the California Land Surveyors Association, which allows me to keep up with what other surveyors in the area are doing, what new technology they’re adopting to service their client base. I don’t really believe in competitors. I think there’s a place for everyone and certainly lots I can learn from other licensed surveyors in the Bay Area. So, I love networking with them and seeing what kinds of projects they’re doing and how they’re moving their business forward.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Anderson: I’ve been in this profession for about 14 years, which is a relatively short amount of time. But even so, AutoCAD has changed a lot with the switch from Land Development Desktop to Civil 3D. Technological advances with the equipment are considerable, too. My total station can be operated by just one person. But looking ahead, the profession is ever-changing with technological developments, things like GIS and laser scanning. I think it’s important for me to be mindful about staying on top of these trends to at least evaluate if they have a place in my business model or could be of service to myself or future clients.
Kate Anderson, PLS, began working for a surveying firm in 2001 as a draft professional. She quickly moved up to project manager and then, about seven years later, to project surveyor once she obtained her state license. She started her own business, Vara Land Surveying, in early 2010 and has been serving the city of San Francisco solo ever since. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information can be found at her website, www.varalandsurveying.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 Associate Editor Valerie King at email@example.com.