4 Startup Tips for Small Interiorscaping Businesses

Recently there was a post on Interiorscape.com from a newbie interiorscaper asking for advice on starting up a new business. I had already decided to blog about this very topic before I got home and saw her post, so I took this as a sign from the Interiorscape Gods that I was on the right track.

No subject is as evergreen on the forums as this one, but as Jack White sang in “Fell in Love with a Girl”, “I said it once before but it bears repeating now!”

Here are four startup tips for small interiorscaping businesses:

1. Determine Company Direction

The most important decision an aspiring interiorscape business owner must consider is this: In which direction do I take my company? By the time they’ve grown to be large concerns, established interiorscape firms have invariable diversified into several business lines: large corporate and institutional clients, exterior containerscaping, holiday and special events, etc. Newbies don’t have that luxury. It’s important to focus the (usually) limited financial and human resources of your firm on a niche that you can work successfully, because steadily growing your client base and recurring income stream is vital to your survival.

If you’ve done any technician work yourself, you’ve probably already developed some preferences about what types of accounts you’d like to cultivate. Do you enjoy dealing with people within the confines of their personal residences? This can be challenging, because homeowners typically take everything that goes on under their roof very personally. You have to be detail-oriented to the point of obsessive-compulsion about cleanliness, plant aesthetics and scheduling service visits to please the client and mesh with their busy schedules and those of their domestic help, in some cases.

Or maybe you’d prefer to work in the small office sector, where building relationships is much more do-able than in the large-corporate environment where turnover of management and staff is more frequent and problematical. Dealing with principals and their close support personnel is almost like becoming a member of their staff yourself. You become a trusted face around the office, privy to conversations overheard and interpersonal relationships worn on sleeves. You are an outsider who has access like an insider, and you must continually earn the trust and confidence of your client. However, the rewards can be rich, especially in terms of loyalty and longevity. Small office clients, especially professional firms like law offices and accounting firms and small branch offices of larger companies, tend not to bid out their contracts unless there are serious issues with service quality or costs. They can remain with your company much longer than your own children may remain with you.

If you’re going to be running a start-up business with only yourself as the full-time staff, it’s even more important not to spread yourself too thin. Many newbies will get themselves in a lather about the prospect of landing a large corporate account that bills a big number every month…but beware. Putting most of your eggs in one basket can be tragic if and when…and it’s always “when”…that contract goes out to bid or the new bean-counter in the accounting department decides to comparison shop for a better deal elsewhere. If that formerly fabulous $2,000-a-month job that was 85% of your recurring income suddenly deserts you, you’re in big trouble. It’s difficult and time-consuming to sign up a couple of dozen small accounts, but if you lose a couple, the downside to your bottom line…and your survival…will be minimal.

2. Create your brand

A big part of creating a new company is creating an identity for it. Pick a great name…don’t settle for something geographical (you may want to expand beyond your local reach one day) or cutesy (“Bloomin’ Things” may tickle your fancy, but it suggests that you’re a florist, not an interiorscaper) or generic (“Indoor Plants” certainly pegs your line of business, but it doesn’t distinguish you from the pack). Put that name on everything: your uniform shirts and jackets, your vehicle wrap or lettering, your stationery, even your watering machine’s tank (and yes, you should invest in a watering machine!). Clear, attractive vehicle graphics represent one of the most cost-effective marketing tools you can buy for your new enterprise. You’ll literally be driving a rolling billboard around your service territory, and you’ll be surprised at how many calls you’ll get that are generated by that single method of advertising. And, oh, did I forget to mention…build a good website and establish a social media presence. Nothing too fancy or expensive, but today’s business environment demands that you have an online presence that prospects can access.

3. Marketing

You’ll also want to quickly expand your client roster within your chosen niche so that you can build a healthy monthly recurring income stream right from the get-go. That’s vital, because that revenue will help to fund your purchases of plants and containers for your next round of new client acquisitions and keep you from sinking deep into debt as you try to gain traction in your new venture. One of the best ways to do that is to enlist your clients as marketing assistants. The qualified lead is the single most valuable tool for growing your business. And qualified leads are generated by happy clients. If you’ve acquired an account in an office building with a number of other similar-sized tenants, ask your client contact person to recommend you to other tenants they know in the facility. Offer a bonus of some sort to your client for each referral that turns into a new account…a free plant and container for their office or perhaps a one-time statement credit. You’ll be surprised at how many “hot tips” you’ll generate, and your new prospective client will already feel a significant level of comfort with you because of the recommendation by your existing client. The best thing of all about this technique is that it can rapidly multiply your potential new business leads in a very short period of time at very little cost to you, the busy owner/operator.

4. Networking

Others may advise you to join your local facilities management association, or a networking leads group, or engage a telemarketing firm or direct-mail outfit to go after new business on your behalf. All of these methods can be productive, but you’d be surprised at how meager the percentages of success are with these and other traditional marketing tactics. The problem is that they are all shotgun techniques, hitting their targets only rarely and by accident. What you want is targeted, qualified strategies that give you the best chance of successfully launching and growing your new business. Choose a niche wisely, service it with professionalism and flair, get your name out there where other potential clients can find you, and work your established client base for qualified leads and referrals.

Do these things, and we’ll be seeing you around!

Clem Cirelli, Jr. is a career horticulturist and interiorscaper at Belmont Greenhouses in Belle Mead, New Jersey, with over thirty-five years' experience in all segments of the green industry. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Rutgers University, has written for Interiorscape Magazine, has spoken at TPIE and the Mid-Atlantic Interior Landscape Conference, and contributes regularly to the industry forums, Interiorscape.com and GreenChat.

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