Solo Notes: It's All You – From Survey to Bookkeeping
It’s been about 10 years since Stephen Shannon, PS, kicked off his surveying career. He started out in college, working full time during the summer and part time during the school year. When he graduated in 2009, he was offered a full time position working as a land surveyor, but over the years he grew frustrated with his role. He says he didn’t really agree with how the bigger firms resolved their boundaries. One of the habits he says he didn’t care for was how the licensed land surveyors would never go out into the field. Instead, he says, crews of technicians who may or may not have had any relevant experience or education did the field work and the surveyors would make decisions based on what the crews brought back. “I’ve seen where that has caused harm to people because the boundary surveys were incorrect,” Shannon says. Another common practice he witnessed and wasn’t fond of was surveyors doing rigid mathematical interpretations of deeds that are subdivided into sections, rather than retracing how the original surveyor subdivided the sections.
These were some of the reasons, as recently as the summer of 2015, he started his own business, Acres Surveying and Mapping LLC, based in Fort Wayne, Ind. He specializes in boundary and elevation surveys and generally works in the northeast corner of Indiana, within a two-hour drive of headquarters.
One key perk of going solo is that being involved in every aspect of the project makes for better quality control, he says. Shannon enjoys seeing jobs out from beginning to end and not being pigeonholed doing just one specific step.
On the downside, Shannon says he loses out on efficiency. “It’s also a less profitable model of business because instead of having a field crew just doing field work and a guy just doing drafting and a surveyor just reviewing surveys and reports and having lower paid people do the book keeping, it’s all you,” he says. “So a smaller percentage of the company’s time is spent on the high-profit parts of the business and a larger percent of the company time is spent on the lower profit aspect of the business; the bookkeeping and interacting with clients and all of the stuff that’s important to run your business but isn’t as profitable as cranking out surveys.”
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Shannon: For land surveying, I really enjoy the research, the getting out and searching for property corners, and learning about the history of an area, and meeting people, and providing a service that has real value to people in preserving their property boundaries, and resolving issues with those boundaries. With running the business, it’s the human interaction, the talking with clients, meeting the clients and being more or less independent.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Shannon: I’ve had my share of running into crazy people and crazy dogs and unusual properties. I’ve always enjoyed doing the large wooded tracts. Late last fall, I did a survey of about 100 acres of farmed woodlands along the river. I really enjoyed that project because I had to research to see if the river was navigable and since it was not, the boundary line had to run down the center of the river. I had to map the river through all its windings and I had to resolve some very unusual gaps and overlaps with adjoining property because the rough terrain had kind of messed up previous surveys of the area. So there was a lot of research and a lot of going back and searching for more property corners and putting together a very detailed report. That was one job that I did recently that I really enjoyed.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Shannon: The biggest challenge I’ve had so far actually was not business related. My wife gave birth to our first child, our son named Joey, last fall. This was about two or three months after I started the business, and he had severe respiratory issues at birth, so they actually had to airlift him to a children’s hospital in Indianapolis. He spent five days there in critical condition and then another month recovering, a very amazing recovery. They don’t believe he has any lingering issues or brain damage from it. So he’s totally recovered, but basically I had to spend the month taking care of him, helping him and my wife recover, and then coming back to Fort Wayne and picking up the pieces of the business and putting it back together.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Shannon: I read trade magazines such as POB. I attend trade shows. I really pay a lot of attention to discussions my peers have on equipment. I follow some land surveyor forums and I really pay attention to what’s going on. I often Google search new technologies like laser scanning and aerial photography and now UAVs just to learn more about how people are using them. I recently purchased a Topcon hybrid surveying system that combines network GPS with a robotic total station in one integrated package. I really like that. It’s worked really well for me. I pretty much try to stay caught up, try to keep my knowledge as current as possible through whatever means I can. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with new technology.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Shannon: The number one thing that I would recommend to someone is that they get a bachelor’s degree in land surveying from a college that has an accredited land surveying program; a really good degree that would allow them to get licenses in as many states as possible. I think it really opens up some major income opportunities, plus it gives people a lot more flexibility as to where they want to live. For example, I have a bachelor’s degree, but it’s not in land surveying; it’s in construction engineering. Then I have gone ahead and taken many additional classes to meet the Indiana education requirements. However, to go to Michigan or to go to Ohio, I’d have to go through a whole different set of education requirements and that really makes it difficult to expand into other states.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Shannon: I got into the surveying profession kind of in the middle of the tidal wave of new technology coming, so I’ve done surveying the old school way … I was taught in school to use a theodolite and a chain. And then, on the other hand, I quickly learned to use the GPS and robotic total stations. So I’ve really seen the new technology get implemented and I really watched kind of the industry struggle to adopt the new technology. The older, highly experienced surveyors — some of them have embraced it, many of them have been very hesitant and have resisted the new technology. Then there are young guys like me who basically embrace any kind of labor saving device. But we have to remember that it’s important to remember how the original surveyors used their equipment. In the future, I really think that over the next few decades, the laws and the educational system are really going to adapt to the boundary surveying in America where we probably have a more European structure in the land surveying industry, where we have colleges dedicated to training new land surveyors, where we probably have lawyers and judges specifically oriented towards dealing with boundary problems and issues. That will take many decades to develop, but that’s where I think the future of the profession will be.
Stephen Shannon, PS, owns Acres Surveying and Mapping, based in Fort Wayne, Ind. He has been in the business of surveying for the past 10 years, but just went solo a year ago. Shannon can be reached at email@example.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 Managing Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.