The landscaping sector provides plenty of fertile ground for self-starters, according to recent figures. Far from being dominated by the ‘big boys’, the four major players in this sector accounted for just 3.3% of the UK’s landscaping services industry revenue in 2014-15. What’s more, over 80% of the nation’s landscaping businesses employ less than five people.
This industry is largely local and relies on word-of-mouth, which means it can be relatively inexpensive to get your business off the ground. The flipside is that it’s hard work in terms of building up a customer base, seasonal in its very nature and unpredictable. So what’s involved in setting up on your own as one of Britain’s 60,000-strong (and growing) army of landscapers? Here’s what you need to know…
Recognise the opportunities and challenges
Your ‘typical’ customer might not be who you think…
Britain’s stock of suburban gardens will always require TLC and the occasional makeover. Yet it’s not just domestic spaces that require landscaping. Take the public sector for instance, where the desire to make savings and improve efficiency has led to a move away from in-house groundsmen and landscapers in favour of outsourcing, both for one-off projects and rolling contracts.
Then there’s the business world where consumers are starting to care about corporate social responsibility, which means more businesses than ever are keen to display their ‘green’ credentials. The result is that carefully landscaped and tended exteriors are now on many a company’s wish list.
Once you are established don’t overlook local businesses and even your local authority as sources of possible work.
Experience counts – and so do qualifications
Word of mouth remains essential for building up your landscaping business. So what’s the value of ‘letters after your name’, a qualification? For one thing, a recognised qualification can be a useful trust indicator when you’re trying to land those all-important first jobs. If you’re aiming eventually towards landing more lucrative commercial contracts this becomes even more important.
There’s personal benefit to be gained here, as a good course will focus heavily on the practical and will help you bridge the gap between enthusiastic amateur and professional. The Royal Horticultural Society is a useful starting point for seeing what’s available.
The importance of a business plan
With any start-up, a business plan is a necessity if you’re applying for funding. It is highly desirable even if you’re not. There are many attractions of giving up a tedious 9 to 5 job. However, saying goodbye to a predictable monthly pay cheque is perhaps one that holds the least appeal. You may relish the idea of working in the great outdoors. However, from an income perspective landscapers tend to find themselves heavily at the mercy of the elements.
Playing the game
The trend is to try and schedule the more ‘structural’, with major up-rooting jobs in off-peak months when routine garden maintenance and planting work is less in demand. This, though, depends on the flexibility of your customers. You will almost certainly need to put away money from your busy periods to cover the lean times. This requires planning so pay close attention to the following:
- What you have to offer. Define in precise terms your services. How does this fit in with what competitors are offering and how do you intend to carve a niche for yourself? What is your capacity? When in the year will there be a call for these services?
- How do you intend to market yourself? There is no ‘magic formula’ for landing those first few jobs, but one way forward is to start with your own social network. Put the word out, for instance, by building up a mini-portfolio of jobs you’ve done for family and friends. Showcase this on social media. The next step could widen your net by setting up your own website, getting yourself listed on local directories and even considering a flyer campaign. Get this costed as part of your business plan.
- Calculate the required initial investment, including vehicles and tools. Also, calculate likely annual running costs by researching suppliers.
- Research pricing. Look at your likely competitors for this.
- Come up with projections. One way of doing this is to assume, for instance, that by year 3 into your business you have become established and you are working at full capacity. What is your projected annual turnover less likely expenses?
Getting set up
It’s common to start off as a sole trader and for this you’ll need to register as self-employed with HMRC. If you want to give your business an ‘established’ feel you may wish to consider the possibility of trading as a limited company. Setting this up can be inexpensive and hassle-free and you have the option of retaining the company as ‘dormant’ unless or until you decide to start using it.
Tax for sole traders is dealt with via Self Assessment. Companies are taxed via Corporation Tax. Whichever business structure you choose, get into the habit of good bookkeeping, i.e. keeping track of all paperwork relating to the transactions your landscaping business is involved in. This helps to make dealing with tax returns much easier.
Expanding your team
You’ll need to register as an employer if you take on staff on either a permanent or casual basis. All employers must keep payroll records and you’ll probably also be required to operate PAYE as part of your payroll.
Employers’ liability insurance is a legal requirement if you’re taking on staff. Your insurer or broker should be able to advise on issues such as risk assessments and manual handling training requirements to minimise the risk of claims relating to work-related injuries.
Even though it’s not a legal requirement it’s also prudent to consider comprehensive cover for claims against customers and members of the public as well as insurance cover for your tools, materials and equipment. Given that your livelihood is dependent on you being physically fit, personal accident cover may be desirable, too.
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