Author Topic: Surviving as a Self-Employed Gardener  (Read 1545 times)

Alan Sargent

  • Full Member
  • ***
  • Posts: 129
Surviving as a Self-Employed Gardener
« on: January 01, 2016, 04:26:43 pm »

Surviving as a Self-Employed GardenerFinance Matters Really Matter

At the risk of becoming seen as fixated on the word ‘Survival’ – having written both The Head Gardeners Survival Manual and The Landscapers Survival Manual, I still find that I cannot find a more suitable word to convey the very essence of Self Employment! The thrill of starting out working for yourself, making decisions that concern the very vitals of your life and that of your dependents is quite intoxicating (as well as terrifying!).

I know the constant battles that rage every day during the first few years of self -employment. Balancing the essential requirement to earn a living with your hands whilst at the same time trying to secure more clients, more enquiries, more contacts, more suppliers – ever more and more, becomes very daunting. Too often we are tempted to take on work that we do not want, just to keep the money coming in.

Marketing and Networking are very large subjects, which I will not have room to cover in this feature, that form the super-structure  of your business and will become easier as time goes on. To raise the super-structure you must have solid foundations, as without a sound base you will not survive beyond the first few months. The strength of those foundations will depend on your ability to understand the essential principles of finance.

The basic exercise is to establish, understand and agree the realistic income figure you need to provide for you and your family, especially if there is only one breadwinner. I know that it is a very emotive and difficult task, but the first requirement is a complete, open and honest financial survey of your outgoings. Leave aside any other income stream e.g. Family Allowance, which should not be included in your figures as they are really additional monies and not ‘earned income’. Include everything you can think of, including rent or mortgage, electricity, heating oil, school fees, food, pet food and vets bills, transport costs, hire purchase repayments, insurance, television licence, tools and equipment, accountants fees, water rates, council tax, postage, holidays etc; the list may run on and on. It must be comprehensive, and if you find that you have missed something of significance, you should add it on and revise your figures accordingly.

You will end up with a Grand Total of your family and business expenditure, which should be divided into fifty two equal amounts, as your outgoings will not stop because of inclement weather or sickness. For the sake of regularity, let’s assume an annual expenditure of £30,000.00. (It is a fact of life that an employed person earning, say, £20,000 p.a. may be fairly comfortable living on that amount. However, once self- employed, costs rise dramatically primarily due to the additional costs of transport and insurances (as well as tools and equipment) and the two figures should never be compared.

The nominal expenditure figure of (say) £30,000.00, when divided by 52 (weeks) equals £578.00 approx. per week. However, you will probably only work for 45 weeks per annum due to holidays, Bank Holidays, sickness and inclement weather, averaging 40 hours per week. 45 x 40 equals 1,800 hours, and therefore your weekly base expenditure figure rises to  £666.00 approx. , or £16.65  per hour. This is the lowest amount that you can charge to continue in business. (Obviously, your figures may differ from this example)

Bear in mind that this formula does not include any improvements to your equipment, transport or ability to weather a slow period or unexpected costs to your family or business.
It does not include the most important element of running your own business – the profit factor! If you do not aim to make a decent profit, self- employment loses its’ main attraction! I appreciate that many people enjoy working for themselves, making decisions without the requirement to gain permission first – but this pleasure needs to be tempered with realism. If you cannot make enough profit to withstand bad debts or a miscalculated quotation, things will become very difficult.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a Consultant, is how and when to increase my rates. Should it be annually, and if so, by how much? There are so many factors to consider, and once again, every firm will be different. I suggest that you adopt a piece meal solution to avoid risking losing an important customer.

We are currently enjoying a very stable economy, with neutral inflation and steady general prices, therefore it should be unnecessary to raise your rates at the time of writing, based purely on an idea that all rates should rise automatically each year. This is not to say that you should not increase your income in other ways. It should never be forgotten that we are all learning more and more skills as we progress, and by definition, become more extensively serviceable to our existing and future customers.

Even the most cursory inventory of your abilities, tools and equipment will show that you have become more valuable to your clients, perhaps gaining more skills certificates, or becoming a Member of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture – anything that proves the natural progression you have made in the world of horticulture. As the years go by, you are not the same person who started out self-employed! These skills should be recognised by yourself and treated as additional value when costing your rates.

Always remember – all you have to sell is yourself!

Never concern yourself with your competitor’s rates. It seriously does not matter if another firm is charging a lower rate than you. Do you really want to be the cheapest gardener out there? Of course not! You should not try to beat anyone on price, no matter what type of gardening business you are in. I assure you that I receive many comments from the public all desperate to find a contractor that will ‘slow down, stop rushing, and just do a good, clean job’.

You can have no idea if your competitors are making a profit or living on a credit card. Maybe they have secondary income, or no mortgage. They may have independent means, and only work as a gardener for a hobby. Never try to beat any price! I have been working as a professional gardener for nearly fifty years, and have never attempted to be competitive on price.

If you treat each customer as a separate entity, consider each one carefully. How much potential is there in their garden for additional works? Could you offer to increase the variety of skills you currently offer. Produce a library of all of your clients, marking them in order of importance to you and your business. Try to be dispassionate and remain subjective. Record when you started working for them, and the rate you charged then, and now. How much difference is there? When did you last raise their charges? Analyse and compare, and produce a chart covering your whole business.

Make a decision to increase your charges by around ten percent for any new enquiries. If you already have a busy order book, you have nothing to lose if they reject your price. (You may be amazed to find all newcomers accept your new higher rate). Selecting those existing sites that you feel are not enjoyable or you would not mind losing, write to announce that your rates will increase (do not give a reason or percentage, just the new amount. You do not need to justify yourself. You are making an offer which they can accept or refuse) on a certain date. It is better to give a couple of months’ notice, and don’t worry about the time of year – you are not obliged to work from season to season.

Nearing the end of my working life – physically at least! – and having worked for over forty years as a self-employed gardener, both as a general horticulturist and landscaper, (and six years as Head Gardener to Goodwood Estate) I have seen many decent people lose their businesses and homes because they did not recognise – or chose to ignore – the absolute necessity to earn a living and make a profit.

I spend most of my time now either carrying out certain specialised tasks which I thoroughly enjoy (flint work,  fine detailed restoration paving, topiary etc) and as a Gardens Consultant, writing books and articles including  a regular column for The Horticulture Week. I know I am extraordinary privileged, and welcome this opportunity to hopefully pass on a few words of hard earned wisdom!

Alan Sargent FCIHort

The School of Garden Management (www.tsogm.org)

(Originally published in The Professional Gardener Magazine in July 2015)