A little more than 20 years ago, Andrew Johnson, PSM, started working for a surveyor in Illinois. He was a drafter and knew little to nothing about surveying, but his boss deemed field work — whatever that was — important. “At first, I didn’t really care for it,” Johnson recalls, “and then, after about two weeks, I fell in love with it.” He and his wife moved down to New Mexico so he could get a degree in surveying from New Mexico State. Upon graduating in 1999, Johnson took a job in Florida, and eventually ended up buying an existing business, Sanibel Surveys, which he has now owned for 10 years.
As a solo surveyor, he has the unique pleasure of working in and around Sanibel Island, Fla., on the Gulf Coast. A specialist in coastal areas, he mainly does residential surveying and permitting for construction, both through the local city government and through the State of Florida. Even paradise has its pitfalls, though, leaving business much lighter during the months when the snowbirds are away. “The year-round population like myself that live here on the island full time is probably between 6,000 and 10,000,” Johnson says, “but then around this time of year when we start getting our seasonal residents and snowbirds come down, our population will go up to, I believe, somewhere around 30,000.”
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Johnson: I most enjoy working for myself. That part of it is my favorite, actually. I’ve worked for other big firms before, but I like the sense of accomplishment and the flexible schedule that I can have. I have two teenage kids, so if they’re doing something I can take an afternoon and go be with them. With my customers, I like being able to be hands-on with their projects and solving projects that come up on their construction.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Johnson: This is a sanctuary island, and alligators were protected here for a long, long time. So, when I first bought the company, that was always quite a challenge — to go and do projects and then have to be on the lookout for large alligators. Unfortunately, a few people actually ended up losing their lives, so the city changed its policy. So, we still have to deal with alligators and the occasional bobcat, but mostly it’s not as scary as it used to be. I used to see 14-foot alligators pretty regularly. Not fun.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Johnson: Businesswise, I stayed solo for all these years and I’ve certainly had times that I’ve really wished that I had a crew to go and do some of this work. But the big problem for me is that our population is very seasonal, so the workload sort of follows that ebb and flow of the seasonal people, just by volume. It’s a challenge to keep up with it when they’re here, and then keep up with it during the dog days of the summer when everyone’s pretty much gone. So, the times that I’ve wanted to stray away from being a solo surveyor are obviously when it’s super busy. But I can’t really do that and keep anybody busy year-round. It’s been a struggle.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Johnson: I have a Trimble S6 robot and a Topcon HiPer Pro RTK system. I honestly tend to not worry too much about staying on the cutting edge. My equipment does what I want it to do and I know how to work it. I love reading about the technology and seeing what’s new, but in terms of implementing it in my business, I don’t really worry about that too much.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Johnson: I would say if anyone is the least bit interested in it, go knock on doors an try to get an entry-level job. I think it’s the kind of thing — and it’s true for me and many people that I know — where you find out very quickly whether you like this field or not. It’s not the kind of a field where, you know, maybe you grew up your whole life wanting to be a doctor or lawyer or whatever. Most people don’t even know what surveyors do. So, in a way, I think, when people try it, they either get hooked or realize it’s not for them. Maybe it’s too tough, they don’t like being outside, or that part of it. But I would just say they should go knock on doors, maybe get a job with a crew and see if they like it, and I think they would know within a week or two.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Johnson: Gosh. It’s changed so much. I started when electronic data collection was still in its infancy and people were still reticent to get away from writing every single thing down on paper. Now, with GIS and just the availability of data, I think that’s the biggest thing — there’s just so much data out there and I don’t think that’s ever going to stop. I think eventually everything that we do will be available.
Andrew Johnson, PSM, owns and operates Sanibel Surveys in Sanibel Island, Fla. He considers beaches and coastal areas his specialty, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SanibelSurveys/.
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.