‘Nobody likes a bad loser’. These words rung in my ears through my childhood. Being a bad loser was one of those cardinal sins like not sharing with your siblings, taking more than your share of cake or not writing thank you letters to elderly aunts. I can remember shouting matches at the end of games of monopoly, with the board upended and me (or one of my brothers or sisters) storming out of the room.
I learnt over the years to be a good loser, particularly when I was doing something for the pleasure of doing it – a game of table tennis for example. Winning is the motivation but the play is the pleasure. But not all competitions are like that. Industry awards for example – one does not enter these for the pleasure of filling in the forms. There are of course consolations (‘finalist’) but winning is the only real reason for entering. We all put a brave face on it at the awards ceremony, but that moment when someone else gets the prize – however well deserved – is a bitter edged one. Just look at how the camera always cuts to the fixed smiles on the losers’ faces at the Oscars.
When you look at sportsmen and women – in tennis for example – bad losers are everywhere. Not only that, but the bad losers are often the best players. The drive to win is so strong that anything that frustrates that attracts rage, whether it is the umpire, their opponent or themselves. That relentless drive to succeed, to overcome whatever obstacles are put in the way is what allows many successful people to reach the top in their field, whether it is business, sport, or something else.
Of course, this is all dependent on how success is defined. Many sports and business people complain in later life that their focus was too narrow – that in concentrating only on a narrow set of criteria (winning gold medals, grand slams, their first million) they missed enjoying the rest of life – relationships, family, holidays and so on. But if they hadn’t defined their success with such narrow criteria, would they have got to the top? Probably not; and of course very few of us are able (or indeed would want) to get to the very pinnacle in our field. In any case, once you get to the top, there is only one way – down.
But even with more realistically defined criteria for success – a closer alignment of life and work in other words – the drive to succeed is important. Settling for second or third best is something that we all have to get used to, but only if we still yearn to achieve number one.
So please, at the next awards ceremony, try not to look at my face – unless I am winning that is!
I was asked by a group in London to talk on how to pitch recently. This grabbed me – I spend most of my time in the business doing two things (other than answering emails like everyone else!) – having ideas and pitching them to other people. In this post, I put forward (mostly) my own ideas and views on this, but also borrowing some material from others I admire or who have helped me.
Why is a good pitch important? Like most jobs, ours is a lot about communication – ideas are only part of it. A landscape architect or garden designer is only as good as their schemes that get built. This is obviously founded on good ideas, but it is also about being able to convince people of the validity of those ideas – more than that – to excite them. Not just clients, but also those who will build, look after and ultimately use the project. The quality of your communication is at least as important as that of your vision.
The premise of a pitch is that there is a problem; one that needs to be solved. Sometimes clients are aware of the problem, sometimes not. We have an idea, a solution. The successful marrying of the two results in a satisfied client and money changing hands.
The quality of the ideas is obviously important – indeed vital – to the success of a business. If you look at a really successful business like Apple, it solves problems that people didn’t even know they had; nobody knew that they needed an iPad until Apple launched it. What’s more they found really innovative ways of multiplying and monetizing their ideas. They created a whole new market for Apps (written by others) which essentially enhanced the value of their products. And what’s more took a cut in the process.
This diagram (from Contexis) demonstrates the Waterfall of value that derives from good ideas. But without the link in the chain marked ‘sales’ (or indeed any of the links), the value will not flow. Indeed, it may even flow off into someone else’s waterfall.
What do you need to know before you start pitching? Clearly, given what I have said above, having a good understanding of the value you offer and the problems you solve is the first step. As Daniel Priestley (www.danielpriestley.com) says in his book ‘How to be a Key Person of Influence’, “You are already standing on a mountain of value”. If you are in say the Alps, surrounded by mountains, they all look very high. If you look down, all you can see is the ground. But, of course, you are also standing on a mountain. The key here is to understand what makes you unique, what special properties you bring. It may be something simple like geographical closeness, a special skill, or maybe to do with the size or scale of your business. As well as this, think about why and when clients come to you – what are they in the process of doing? Buying a house? Selling a business? Down-sizing? Spending a bonus? Understanding this will help you get a grip on what problems they are facing and how you might be able to help them solve those problems. Think of three good reasons why they should buy from you rather than your competitors. One of these should be a real killer.
Think about who you are pitching to, what their level of knowledge is and their likely level of spend. This last is critical. There is no point in getting in front of someone who will not spend the money on what you are offering. If they are after a Ford Focus, they will not buy a Porsche, however hard you sell it.
Knowing when to pitch.
Don’t pitch too early. You know how annoying it is when you walk into a shop and before you can do anything, an assistant comes up to you and says “Can I help you”. Mostly, you just want to look around for a bit first. Clients are just the same. Plant a seed, let it grow. Let them research you a bit, then pitch. And if it’s the wrong time or place, if they are distracted, too busy or don’t have enough time then reschedule to a slot when they are going to be more receptive to your ideas.
Structuring your pitch. Most of the time it works best if you have a structure to your pitch, although you should always be prepared to change with the circumstances – everybody hates sales patter. The first thing, before you start with a plan is to make sure your visual aids are professional and that you are practiced with them. Have decent photographs of your work (preferably professional) and make sure the software runs smoothly. Fumbling looks terrible. This is the structure I roughly follow:
Introduction as to who you are
An outline of the problem your product or service can solve
The solution you’re offering
A conclusion where you round up what’s been discussed so far and re-emphasise your key points
Delivering your pitch – 9 key points:
Establish a rapport. People are influenced more by people who they feel a sense of connection with. If you’ve shared a laugh, a story, or identified a common connection, your pitch is more likely to land with its audience.
Listen first. This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. Let them describe their problem and what the issues are. If you don’t do this, you won’t succeed.
Be enthusiastic. This is the biggest seller: deliver your pitch with passion, grounded enthusiasm and with unique flair. Share your beliefs and your story so that people can remember who you are and what you stand for. It’s not a great pitch if it’s easily forgotten
Be confident. If you’re not sure what you want, or sound unconfident, the client will pick up on this. You need to sound authoritative – learn the FAQs that people come up with and have the answers at your fingertips. You also need to believe in your product and your ability to deliver
Be credible. Although you need to believe in your ability to deliver, you also need to be credible. There’s no point telling people that you’re going to be the next market leader when you’re just starting out because they will switch off. Even if you do have something of great potential you must never leave people questioning your credibility to deliver the promised result. If what is being asked is outside you’re ability to deliver, say so or find a partner to work with.
Be clear. Ensure that your communication could be understood by anyone aged 12 and up. Don’t use jargon or acronyms and don’t try to impress people with your insider lingo; instead aim to reduce confusion.
Don’t waffle or be boring. You may well feel nervous and sometimes this leads to a tendency to waffle. Be aware of this and know when to stop talking. Once you have secured what you are looking for, this is your signal to conclude the pitch.
Close the deal. Decide in advance want you want out of the meeting, when you feel the time is right, close it up and get a commitment.
Follow up. The follow up is as important as the presentation. Record details of any questions which need answering. Get back to them promptly and comprehensively.
The best advice I can boil all this down to is that people buy from people they trust and like, and people who are enthusiastic. I tend to take a lot of time making sure that I am only in front of people who are really in the market to buy at the right level. Once you know this, it is better not to discuss price straightway. Show them what you can do, show them photos of finished projects, talk about how you can help them. Once they start to understand and get excited, they may well reassess what they are prepared to spend. In the end, much of our job is finding the ‘Sweet spot’ – what people want to spend is always less than what it would take for what they want. What we need to do to be successful is to find the point at which they are satisfied with what they have got without feeling that have overspent. That way, they’ll go and tell all their friends how wonderful you are!
I am sure you recognise the classic bind for a small business – daily grind. You’re always on the treadmill. You don’t have time to do any marketing because you are always busy. Because you don’t do any marketing, soon you don’t have any work; so you have plenty of time to do marketing. You rush round madly trying to drum up work, then it’s back to the grindstone. But if you could step back from the switchback – the yo-yo – what would you actually do? And why is any of this important? “Why can’t I just bumble on as I have for the last few years?” I hear you say.
Here are a few reasons.
Digital revolution. This sounds so obvious, but most people constantly underestimate not only the impact that this will have on our lives, but more importantly, the way it will have an impact. If you look at the way markets are disrupted by those who use technology to their advantage, it is generally because something starts off as marginal then moves mainstream. Either it starts too expensive and then the technology improves and the delivery cost comes down, or it starts off crap but cheap and the producer works out a way to improve the quality. Now, I’m not exactly sure how technology (particularly digital technology) will affect our market in the future. If I did know, clearly I wouldn’t be here writing this, I’d be on my yacht in the Bahamas. But it will be disruptive. Look at Uber, AirBNB for just a couple of examples.
Austerity. This is here for a while. It doesn’t mean that the government isn’t going to spend, but that money spent on say HS2 or Heathrow won’t be there to spend on say parks, schools facilities or smaller, more localised infrastructure projects.
Baby boomers. (The baby-boom years are approximately between the years 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 52 and 70 years old in 2016.) If you look at a graph of how and when people spend, typically disposable income rises through their thirties forties and fifties when it peaks. It declines slowly through their sixties and more sharply thereafter. What is more, the population is ageing. Not only are we all living longer, but over the next ten years, the ‘Baby boomer’ generation will be entering retirement age.
Millennials. (defined as those ages 18-34 in 2015; they currently make up about 25% of the UK population) This is a generation centred on experience rather than possession. Most can’t afford to buy a house on flat, certainly not one with any substantial outside space.
What are the nett effects of these factors going to be? Well from our point of view it is difficult to predict, but one thing is clear – only the best organised, most fleet-footed firms and practitioners will benefit. You know how some firms or individuals always seem to get the plum jobs? Why is that? In this changing world, who will work go to? Simple:
People you can trust.
Firms you’ve heard of.
I went to a lecture recently by Daniel Priestly of the Dent Corporation (www.dent.global). He said that there were certain people in all industries who were ‘Key People of Influence’. These people tend to clean up on many of the opportunities available. Everybody wants to work with them, for them, get them to speak at events and so on. They can charge more and they can select which projects they take forward. He put forward 5 key activities which these people tend to capitalise on Pitching, Publishing, Partnering, Productising (i.e. presenting their services in a clear unique product that appeals to consumers) and Profile. you can read more about this on his website www.keypersonofinfluence.com.
So, what is the most valuable thing in your business? Could someone buy it, assuming you wanted to sell?
Is it –
IP? Ideas, copyrights, etc.?
A product or products?
You? – Your experience, qualifications, knowledge? (If so, see the 5 ‘P’s above!)
For most of us, it is probably a combination of several of these.
Let’s look at most of what we ‘do’ every day or week and sort it into columns. Now I don’t mean here ‘designing gardens’, ‘cutting grass’ or ‘building walls’. I am talking about generic tasks that are applicable to all businesses.We’ve been working with some business consultants recently (Contexis.com) and they helped us sort day to day activities into three groups.
First, there are the things that are necessary to run your business or add to your productivity, but don’t contribute directly to your turnover. Many of these will appear as costs or overheads on your profit and loss sheet, but that doesn’t mean that they are not important.
Examples would be: I.T., Finance, Legal, Premises, H.R., Compliance, and Administration
Secondly, there are the things that add immediately to sales – to your turnover. So these are effectively better ways of delivering your product or service to the market, better channels, if you like. Examples would be: Sales, Marketing (short term / tactical), Programming and Project Planning, Design, Site works, Client loyalty.
Lastly, there are the things that add to long term value. These are the interesting ones, the more ‘nebulous’ ones: Culture (includes Intent and Values), Vision, Joint Ventures, Client Base Management, Channels, Brand Architecture & Positioning, New product / service development.
Let’s look a culture, vision and values first. If you think about it, there is probably a culture which defines your business (regular readers will remember me writing about this before in this blog). This should be something that you could ask anyone in the business about and you would get pretty much the same answer. It doesn’t happen by accident though, and needs nurturing. There is a lot of overlap between this and values. The latter is like a distillation of culture. At B&W, we narrow our values down to three words – Excellence, Creativity and Trust. These values underpin everything we do at the business both externally and internally. It should be evident to clients when they deal with you and when they look at any of your marketing material.
Next Brand. Branding is more than a fancy logo, website or snappy slogan; effective branding captures the essence and values of a company. Tactical marketing generates sales; strategic branding generates loyalty. Ask yourself these questions:
Who are you trying to sell to?
Are you correctly positioned in the market?
Is it immediately clear to potential clients:
What you are selling?
How they will benefit?
Finally, let’s look at the market and how to get to it. One key thing to think about is to try and analyse why your clients buy from you, and no, I don’t just mean ‘because you are good’! For example, what problems are your customers trying to solve when they buy from you? Is it that they need a lower maintenance garden, or maybe they want to add something – a vegetable garden or a swimming pool? Perhaps there are complementary services or products that come before or after they join you – furniture? A glass house? also, think about what situation your clients are in just before they buy from you – what events are they likely to visit for example? Are they developing property – new extension or house, commercial building etc. Have their financial circumstances changed – got funding, sold a business, inherited? Or maybe they are going through some lifestyle changes – having children, kids leaving home, retirement, etc.
One question you’re probably asking yourself right now is ‘But how can I find the time to do all this?’ The short answer of course is because you need to. Try to set aside a particular time each week to think about ‘conceptual stuff’. Perhaps arrange some time away from the business. I know that my best ideas often come while I am doing something else, often when I am away for a few days. A more practical tip is to use the time spent and lessons learnt from pitches to change the way you present the business. To take advantages of these opportunities (and because you never know when you might get a spare timeslot!), make sure you always have the right data and materials to hand – keep data on enquiries; photograph your work, preferably professionally; get testimonials.
Can the SGD truly claim to be a democratic organisation?
I am a member of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Landscape Institute (LI). Of the three, I had always considered the LI to be the stuffiest, the least likely to embrace real change. Which is why last night’s EGM for the Landscape Institute represents a remarkable sea change. At a landmark meeting, members voted to make a number of changes to rules governing the Institute, including the Royal Charter, its regulations and bylaws. In the words of Merrick Denton-Thompson (the incoming president, as of last week):
“The results of the EGM now mean the LI is at the forefront of modern, progressive, inclusive and democratic professional bodies. The changes mean those with a stake in the organisation’s future have a say in it. Licentiate and academic members will now have voting rights and a seat on the Board; experienced practitioners will now have a route to Chartership; those working in landscape and related fields will be able to join as non-chartered members; our disciplinary processes now represent best practice across the sector; the trigger for members calling an EGM is now in line with similar bodies; and our election and voting systems have been simplified to allow far greater online participation. All of the changes mean we can now focus on growing membership and representing the increasingly diverse range interests and practice that makes up the modern landscape world.”
As Merrick suggests there, the changes also include routes for experienced practitioners to full membership, which the SGD has long had. However, the rest of the proposals put the LI clearly at the front of the pack in terms of democracy – they include changes to allow online voting and a more democratic process as well as greater representation.
This is a huge achievement, but is not the work of one president. It builds on the progress made by a reform-minded group of members, as well as the last two presidents – Sue Illman and Noel Farrar, who were both hugely energetic and forward thinking and represents a major turnaround in mindset for the Institute.
I have long argued that the SGD should be more democratic in the way it is organised. The governing council is made up of nine people who are elected from roughly two hundred members who are eligible to vote, but represent the interests of around 1400 people in total. So only around 14% of the membership are allowed to vote. There has been some move to get this changed, principally coming from those that don’t currently have the vote, but the case has not yet been put sufficiently strongly to convince the registered members to change the status quo.
At the very least, there should be representatives on council of the interests of non-registered members, but I actually think there is a strong argument for much greater reform. Some of the reasoning I have heard put forward by registered members – that other grades of membership would dilute the standard needed for qualification once they had the vote – at best sound like restrictive practice and at worst like the sort of arguments used against the suffragettes.
The SGD is still a vibrant and influential organisation. However, if it doesn’t reform, it will find itself becoming increasingly detached from the real world and less relevant. A bit like the Landscape Institute was a few years ago.
I was listening to Yann Martel (the Canadian author of ‘Life of Pi’) on the radio yesterday speaking about his project ‘What is Stephen Harper Reading’. Over a four year period form 2007-2011 he sent a book every two weeks with a written recommendation to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This started because Martel had heard that Harper had stopped reading fiction as he felt it was not relevant to daily life. Martel’s opening line was “I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow…” Martel went on to say that he felt it important that leaders should be able to dream. If they are leading us into the unknown, they need to be able to dream a future, to be visionary. He could see no better way of strengthening this than by either reading fiction, or travelling.
Surely much the same is true of garden design? We are constantly dealing with abstract ideas and unrealised futures, the more so as uniquely in design, landscapes change hugely with time. Our ideas are elusive and the best ones often come to us from unexpected sources or at surprising times (read my earlier blog post ‘Where do ideas come from?’). Many of the core ideas for schemes I have worked on have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they arrive like a thunderbolt, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t thought about it before. Once you have had an idea like that, you can’t ‘unthink’ it. On other occasions great ideas just sort of sidle up to me. There I am playing around with a felt pen and paper, and it seems to kind of emerge, to seep out of the end of my pen in a quiet sort of way, like a flower opening from a tight unpromising bud. And, just like a flower from a bud, you can’t pack it up and put it back in again. I love that moment when the idea starts to take shape (literally sometimes). It really is the most magical part of the process and I get the same buzz from it now as I did when I designed my first project.
This process of disconnection from reality, this ability to dream is at the core of what we do. If we were entirely rooted in reality, our designs would be very mundane. Imagine visiting a client and trying to describe how you have reached the point you have, but doing it without visual language, without atmospheric terms. Difficult isn’t it? Our ability to verbally flesh a scheme out is what makes it ‘fly’. I always like to present a scheme in person to a client and these days I insist on it. In the past, occasionally this has not been possible, either because diaries did not allow, or because someone else wanted to control access to the client. It is always a disaster for a third party to present your design because they don’t know the story – designs are all about the stories we tell ourselves and others.
This week I’m going on holiday and I will fulfil both of Yann Martel’s conditions – travel (to Cuba) and reading – I always read loads when I am on holiday, and 80% of it is fiction. I also think loads. So while I am away I will be recharging my batteries, but I will also be in my own private dreamtime. Let’s see how it affects my work…
Some of this piece is specific to contractors, some to designers; but much of it applies to both.
Do we work in an industry which undervalues itself and if so, why is that? Our nearest ‘neighbour’ is the construction industry. These figures speak for themselves: look at these comparisons between the various corresponding jobs in the construction and landscape sector (source: www.payscale.com).
Pay at site level seems to be linked more closely to agricultural pay than industrial pay. The higher up the management ladder you go, the bigger the pay gap becomes. Do we undersell our skills, or are they just undervalued by clients – is that the same thing? And what can we do about it?
Once we get locked into a price-driven market, various things start happening:
Driving the price down is the main objective, so Margins are slim. This has various knock on effects:
Pay is driven down. If pay is low then…
Recruitment is difficult.
And staff are Unhappy
Slim margins mean Low Investment.
Low investment and pay levels mean… Low Productivity… and
Bad practices start to creep in: Sharp practices, hidden charges, commission, corruption, etc
Let’s look at the opposite process. If you are in a quality driven market, then:
Quality is the main objective. The best way to drive up quality is…
Attract better staff, which means you have to…
Pay better, and
Train more, which means it makes sense to…
Retain staff. To do this they have to be Happy.
The general view is that because of the tendering process, ‘cheapest is best’ is endemic. In fact, I am not sure that this is the case – it comes down to whether that market is price-driven or quality-driven. We regularly win both design and construction work in competitive tenders when we are not the cheapest. This is because experience, expertise, resources and general approach all play an important part in the selection process. The quality of the tender response is critical. Of course if the quality of the tender response is critical, then the quality of the request is equally important, or how else can a sensible appraisal be made? My impression is that over the last thirty years, tendering on the construction side has got sloppier. When I started in the industry, full Bills of Quantities were the norm in construction tenders, as were full construction package drawings. Tenders were delivered in unmarked identical sealed envelopes and opened simultaneously at a given time. These days they come in dribs and drabs, multiple extension of time are often the norm. What’s more, Bills of Quantities are a rarity (unless the contractor pays to have them done) and drawings have far less detail than they used to. One could view this state of affairs in two ways. Either it puts the contractor at a disadvantage because they are open to the sharp practices of their competitors – under-pricing tenders deliberately and then clawing back cost later – OR it puts the contractor in the driving seat because it allows them to deliver a higher quality service and work more closely with the client and design team. It all depends on the attitude (on both sides). John Melmoe of Willerby’s recently said to me ‘Price tendering is a thing of the past – it is dead’. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but you can see where he is going. The bulk of his work is now achieved through partnering and negotiation. This achieves higher quality, shorter programmes, more profit and less conflict. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the end result isn’t cheaper as well. But how do you break into a market like that? If established firms clean up all the work before it ever gets to tender, what hope is there for the others?
How do you know how much to charge – or put another way, what are the signs that you are not charging enough?
1 You have no time to market because you’re too busy serving clients
If you are constantly busy, running around after clients, working evenings to catch up – then you are not charging enough. Charging more will increase your returns, your quality of life and improve the quality of your clients – ones who appreciate you!
2 Your prospective clients compare you to someone else
If your clients are price shopping then you’re a commodity, and they are not seeing the value of your service. You quickly get sucked into the price-driven market cycle – not good!
3 Too many ‘Yes’s from practically every prospective client
If your hit rate is pushing 100%, then you’re not charging enough. Everyone likes a bargain and that’s what you are.
But other than the generalised statement of ‘moving to a quality led market’, what are the practical reasons for why you should charge more?
Here are a few:
Not all your time is chargeable. If you are a garden designer or landscape architect, then this is particularly true. Probably only half your time, at most two-thirds can be charged for. Here’s the problem – in a 40-hour week, especially starting out, you’re going to spend half that week pounding the pavement (or more). You need to network, build your site/portfolio, blog, make phone calls, write proposals, and on and on. Once clients come in, you’ve got administrative work to do – somebody has to send the invoices, pay the taxes, and buy the toilet paper.
Feast or famine. While you’re doing all that work you’ve got, who’s going to be doing the marketing, networking and getting the next job? Probably should be you – which means you’ll then have to take more time out doing that.
Bills, Bills, Bills. As well as the rent, rates etc., there’s all those hidden costs – software, insurance, accountancy, coming here! Etc. etc. etc.
Setting your own value. I bet you have something that you buy regularly, but only when it is on offer. If you make a habit of allowing others to negotiate your price down, or always expecting a discount, then it sends a message about how both they and you value your service. They will always try it on. You set the price – you set the value. If you want to offer a better deal, then don’t offer a discount. Drive a hard bargain for a decent price, but then over-deliver. That way the client will respect you but also think that you offer a really good service and recommend you. Getting a good price in the first place also allows you to be more flexible over small things that crop up along the way.
You can only sell each day once. Consultancy and service industries are like hotel rooms – you can only sell your time once, and if you don’t sell it then it is lost for good. Your charges need to take account of this in two ways. Firstly, you need to cover for the down time, but also, when you are really busy you should sell the last bits more expensively. When customers book a hotel room or a flight, they always get a better deal when they book in advance online. Leave it till the day they travel and they’ll pay through the nose. It follows that you can charge more for last minute approaches by clients – and this is not unscrupulous – last minute rushes and running around are always disruptive.
Look at this graph – it sheds some light on the relationship between value, price, and how a client sees the service they are buying. At the top is ‘Nuclear event’ – which basically means when a client has no choice but to hire you. This refers to the sort of service that you don’t have any real choice about and are not in a position to quibble about price – the business equivalent of calling the fire brigade. Bottom right is ‘Commodity services’ where you will be hired purely on the basis of price. The further to the bottom right you go, the less there is to distinguish between suppliers of service. The sweet spot is about 2/3 of the way up towards the left – ‘Hired for experience’, although you will notice that trusted brands also make an appearance.
Along the way, let’s look at a few other practices that go on.
In the insurance industry, we are outraged when we learn that an insurer has passed our details on to someone else because they get a commission payment. What’s more, in foreign defence contracts and the like, such payments are classed as corruption. Why should it be alright therefore for a client to pay for a sculpture, piece of furniture or the like and the designer or contractor get a ‘secret’ payment? It’s not alright; it’s dishonest and lacks transparency. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with an honest commercial mark-up – as a contractor you buy the furniture and you sell it to the client. Their contract is with you. If you are a garden designer and you take such payments, then you are either greedy or you’re not charging enough. Charge a decent rate and then you are free to recommend what works best rather than being tempted by whichever supplier pays you the most. And don’t be fooled; if it didn’t sway specifiers’ minds, then suppliers wouldn’t make such payments. (If you want to read more about this, I covered it in an earlier post in more detail: ‘Should Designers Take Commission Payments?’)
Who supplies what?
Should designers supply plants and other products? This is a difficult one – although many of you will probably already know my views on this – I have hardly made a secret of them. To my mind the process works best when it is crystal clear. It should be clear which part of the process the client is buying from which person, and who is responsible. In many ways, design and build is the clearest in this respect – there is only one person to go to when something goes wrong. That is how the world mostly works – if you buy a car or a telephone and something goes wrong, the manufacturer cannot blame ‘the designer’. However, let’s accept that that is not always possible or desirable to procure everything on this basis.
To me it seems obvious that the next best thing is if the client pays a reasonable price for the design part of the process and gets clear unbiased advice. The contractor then does the rest. The clue is in the name – the contractor does contracting and the designer does designing. In some cases, perhaps because the contractor doesn’t have the skills, or perhaps because the job is too small, it can make sense for the designer to supply the plants. But to my mind, this only works when the designer procures, supplies and actually carries out the planting. They are in fact then acting as a contractor, but it also makes the liability envelope clear should something go wrong. Otherwise the responsibility chain gets very tangled. What if a designer supplies the plant, but a contractor plants them and someone else is looking after them? See what I mean?
I’ve touched on this earlier. However, I’d like to explore it in a little more detail. At the point of awarding a contract, the client is in the maximum position of power. The (prospective) contractor wants the job and there is always the real possibility that if he doesn’t jump through hoops, then the client will go to the next cheapest on the list. It is of course not in the client’s longer term interest to force the price down at this point, and this is one of the drawbacks of the tendering process when price driven. Because once the contract is awarded and the work is well underway, the boot is on the other foot. It is too difficult and expensive for the client to kick the contractor off site. Generally, he wants to get the job finished as soon as possible, which requires the co-operation of the contractor. At this point the contractor has the scope to make hay – charge more or less what he wants for extras and variations and claw back all that money he artificially cut from the tender in the first place. Both practices are short-sighted and unethical. How do we protect ourselves against this? Work with good consultants and reputable clients and don’t get drawn into these games. And don’t expect to win every job. It is always possible for someone to undercut you, but it frequently means they can’t deliver a good quality product or service, so the practice is not really sustainable in the longer term.
So… in summary it is best to be:
Quotations and proposals should be clear and unequivocal and make a good basis for any future variation. Drawings and specifications should be well defined, comprehensible and unambiguous.
Honest and fair
… even when there are easy opportunities to be otherwise. This is the only way to earn respect and build a business.
Compete on quality, not price
That way you get the sort of clients you want and a decent return for what you do.
(This piece was originally delivered as a talk at FutureScape in November 2015.)
John has invited me to write this month’s blog post as it is 15 years this year, since we started the Triangle Community Garden (www.trianglegarden.org) with a group of friends around our kitchen table in Hitchin.
Over the years, the question I get asked most often is: what is the community garden for? So I thought I’d try and answer it properly this time …
As many of you will be aware, the community garden movement started in the 1970s in cities, where plots of land lay undeveloped awaiting a better financial climate. High rise populations looked longingly at the waste land and sought ways to cultivate it and use it in the meanwhile. Once these ‘meanwhile gardens’ became established they took on massive importance to urban communities, as oases of usable productive green space and a way of bringing people together for positive ends.
At the Triangle Garden our tagline is ‘Connect, Grow, Enjoy!’ and it’s the sharing of the process of growing, creating, planning, gardening, harvesting, baking, making and just soaking it all up, that is what it’s all about.
Many people assume that community gardening is all about food growing, and for many projects it is, but the Triangle Garden has always been about the making of a garden, for everyone to enjoy.
That’s not to say that we don’t grow food – we do – but there are other, equally important, yields to be had. Over the years we’ve shared in the creation of a place of unexpected peace and beauty; a magical place between a busy road and a noisy railway line, with a magnetism for children and a time of its own … a secret garden.
Volunteers have come and gone, and as the Triangle Garden has evolved, so those involved have grown with it. We’ve learnt skills, like willow weaving, composting, pruning, mosaic making, peace-making, delegating, problem solving. We’ve shared wildlife adventures: the discovery of bats, hibernating newts, basking lizards, new froglets, bumblebees, butterflies, the creation of a wildlife pond, a bug hotel and a pollinators’ garden. We’ve made mistakes, missed opportunities, suffered setbacks, had successes, been inspired, worked hard and had fun.
This month we’ve been busy picking and receiving donations of apples, to be processed locally into bottled juice, and sold to raise funds. We don’t make much money out of it, but it’s positive and fun, and makes use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. People can’t wait to give us their apples or offer us their orchards to pick.
They say horticulture is a de-stresser because plants can’t talk back at you, but I think it’s more than that. Working with nature grounds you in a way that nothing else can: nature works to its own agenda and at its own pace – try and tame it at your peril! But when you observe it, try to understand it and work with it and not against it – then it gives back in spades!
Our Growing Ability project for adults with learning disabilities, demonstrates that in abundance. In between the weekly sessions, nature is at work, rewarding our ‘gardeners’ for nurturing their plants and helping to achieve a small step towards a result they can be proud of, whether it be a crop of beans, a bed of strawberries, some bee-friendly flowers or a long-awaited and much-revered aubergine.
For those who attend, the project is a place where they can come together for a purpose and interact with the natural world.
Through planning their crops and tending their plots, our gardeners are learning and consolidating their literacy and numeracy skills, recognising cause and effect, and taking responsibility for seeing something through. From choosing and buying seed, to enjoying and sharing what they’ve grown, there is much to discover, learn and remember.
Observing and interacting with nature, even just being outdoors, can be therapeutic – individuals enjoy sharing their knowledge and feelings about the life around them: whether it’s birdsong, butterflies, earthworms, bees or the robin that frequents our allotment.
The social aspect of the project cannot be underestimated either. For some of our gardeners it is the only activity they do outside the house during the week. With no work, no spare cash and a limited circle of people who accept you, life can be very isolated. Sharing one morning a week in a supportive, positive, natural environment is a highlight to look forward to.
Our Growing Ability project has a sister initiative, born a couple of years ago from the desire of many of our gardeners to lose weight and get fitter. Growing Health provides a supportive environment where individuals can learn about weight management, portion control, and how to plan and cook healthy food on a limited budget, using the facilities available at home – usually a microwave and a kettle. The group share cooking and eating experiences, support each other in setbacks and successes, take regular walks together and play outdoor games in the summer.
In the first year of the project, the group lost a total of 3 stone 12lbs, and this year another 14lbs was lost overall. As well as playing basketball and cricket, and walking together around the park during sessions, individuals are now choosing to walk into town instead of catching the bus and several have joined Hitchin library, making regular visits on foot. At break times in both projects, biscuits have been replaced by fruit as the snack of choice. Impressive stuff .. . and thanks overwhelmingly to our amazing staff team led by Project Manager Liz McElroy.
I must end now, having probably gone on far too long, but that’s what happens when you’re passionate about something… (just don’t get me started on latin drumming).
Any questions on this blog, please drop us a comment below.
Vicky Wyer (landscape architect at Bowles & Wyer, Chair of Trustees at the Triangle Community Garden, wife and mother to his children, mad drumming woman).
Our community gardening sessions are on Friday mornings and the last Sunday of every month and are open to all. Our learning disability projects: Growing Ability, Growing Health and Growing Gang (a community-based work-experience project), run during the week from our allotment and the Triangle Garden.
If you’re in the area, come and find us at our next local event: Apple Day in Hitchin town square on 17th October 2015, 10am-2pm. Follow us on twitter @triangle_garden and Facebook: TriangleGarden
We are all familiar with complaints about ‘red tape’ – needless bureaucracy that gets in the way of getting the job done. This is normally laid at the door of Government or ‘Brussels’ the point being that it is imposed by someone distant and unaccountable. But the truth is that in the construction industry we do a pretty good job of tying ourselves up in red tape with little or no help from anyone else.
It used to be that people complained about Health & Safety regulation in the construction industry, but this attitude has largely changed. Most people in the industry have become used to the regulations around H&S now and most do not find it burdensome. Few could question the aims behind the regulations or their necessity. The industry still causes more deaths than any other in the UK – 39 in 2013-14 according to the HSE. ‘The construction industry is the most dangerous sector in Britain. There is no trade like it. To put it in context, 448 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. Over the same period, more than 760 construction workers have been killed on British sites.‘ (The Observer, April 14 2014).
For some time, people complained about CIS – a scheme set up by the Government a decade or so ago to try and increase the tax take from the industry. The building trade had always been riddled with cash-in-hand subcontracting. By shifting the duty of collection on to the employer from anyone not registered, HMRC effectively ironed out a lot of the casual work practices. As it has matured the process has become (relatively!) streamlined, or perhaps we have just all become more familiar with it! In any case, although no one wants to pay more tax than they need to, it is difficult to complain about the Starbucks and Googles of this world and not expect one’s own industry to sort itself out.
But I didn’t start this piece to talk about those pieces of legislation. What annoys me is the whole direction of travel in construction management and contracting. Two events earlier this week prompted me to write this article. Acting as a landscape architect, I was asked to fill in a nineteen page form (for a commercial organisation, not a local authority) in order to get paid for my consultancy work – a completely unnecessary diversion of time and resources. It included questions about how often we review our equality and diversity plan, whether we produce an annual sustainability report, our anti bribery and corruption policy, what work we had done with this contractor before and ‘what we had learnt from that project’. etc etc. Should I really need to fill out 19 pages and send in three years’ accounts to get paid. The serious point here is that it works against smaller practitioners. I am all for weeding out the ‘cowboys’, but do we need to go this far?
The other incident concerned a job we were working on in Central London. There are multiple small roof gardens on this project, which is run on a construction management basis by a large firm. Over the last few months we seem to have been copied in to so many emails to do with every aspect of the job, by almost every consultant. Sometimes in these situations, people add recipients to the list to cover themselves – better be safe than sorry – but the result is that you end up receiving so much information, most of which is not relevant, that it is difficult to find the important bits that you do need to know. Despite this, the design was fully co-ordinated. Anyway, in amongst this avalanche of information, we had missed an update to the programme and had less time than anticipated to put the tender package for the landscape together. I was called in for a meeting with the management team to ensure I met the deadline (which incidentally we did, although it was an effort). What I found difficult to understand was that the landscape element wasn’t due on site for another two years – summer 2017. Programmes are clearly important, but two years? Funnily enough we only ever get about two weeks to price things…
Sometimes the bureaucracy is just an irritating but necessary task to carry out to complete the job. At other times, it actively gets in the way of you carrying out your job properly. As well as making the whole process more expensive, it also works against small firms and in favour of larger operators. Instead of blaming ‘The Government’ or ‘Brussels’ for red tape, perhaps we should look closer to home. And this is something that our industry should be able to sort out itself, without government stepping in.
The question is, how do we achieve that?
If you have had similar experiences, I would love to hear from you.
A couple of weeks ago, the subject of a talk by Oliver James attracted my attention – ‘The joys and perils of ambition’. It was staged as part of the Midtown Big Ideas Exchange, which has been running for a couple of months or more now. I was kind of interested in this. I have long been fascinated by the fetishism of leadership in the business environment. We are all encouraged to be proto-leaders. To become a leader you have to be ambitious! What makes this more interesting is that it tends to run counter to one of the other great pillars of modern business thinking – teams. Overly ambitious people just do not make good team players, as we all know from watching the slow motion TV car-crash in that is ‘The Apprentice’. So, the questions rattling around my mind while I was waiting for the talk to start were: Is ambition a taboo subject in teams? Are leadership/ambition and teams paradoxical? How threatening is ambition to leaders?
Oliver James began by speaking about what motivated us all – why did we want to achieve? In the short term of course, each little (or large) victory makes you feel good. In the long term promotion brings rewards – we all do it for recognition and money. The funny thing is, often the perception of your contribution is often more important to success than the contribution itself. But why do some people really succeed in climbing the greasy pole, while others don’t?
James’s first answer to this was that the ruling elite set the rules… Those who are successful in business/society map the criteria for those who follow. The downside of this is that over time, those who succeed are often those who are good at – well – succeeding, rather than at actually being good leaders. This is of course a well-known and worn political conundrum, but none the less true for that. He noted that many people who are successful come from troubled backgrounds – around a third have lost a parent before the age of 14 years.
He postulated that many leaders are towards the wrong end of a spectrum; most exhibit some (or all) of the dark triad of leadership qualities – Psychopathy/Narcissism/Machiavellian tendencies. The term psychopath carries a lot of emotional baggage and immediately conjures up images of a knife-wielding madman. However, there has been a lot written about this recently, and I suppose what we are talking about here is people who see everything in terms of how it relates to them and what they can get out of it. Ultimately, this leads to a certain disconnection from others and from reality .
Oliver James also talked about extrinsic and intrinsic goals. Most leaders (according to James) are driven by the former, whereas actually, there is more chance of success form the latter. He explored this in some detail, although the arguments were at times very convincing and at other times less so.
If what we are all seeking is ‘happiness’ what is that? He argued that it probably doesn’t exist and what’s more, if we try to chase it we will surely fail, like chasing rainbows. What we should be seeking is emotional health. This (he argues) is the best way to describe happiness – or perhaps to describe success? Six key behaviours demonstrate this:
Live in the present
Display Fluid two way communication – know when to listen (and learn) and when to speak.
Insight – spot what is about to happen
Playfulness – but not game-playing
Vivacity – enthusiasm is infectious
Authenticity (as opposed to sincerity)
It seems to me that we all demonstrate some aspects of all these behaviours – both the dark triad and the six healthy ones. I can certainly see elements of all of them in myself – as I guess others can. There are plenty of online tests of psychopathy, although how effective they are I have no idea! Try this one: http://www.playbuzz.com/gregs/can-you-pass-the-psychopath-test?
James continued by stating (somewhat depressingly) that we are all led by psychopaths. What I found fascinating about this was that he was speaking to a group largely made up of business leaders (or aspiring business leaders). We all, of course, lapped up every word.
His concluding argument was that our ambition should be emotional health. Perhaps this makes you a good team player? Of course (in theory) it makes you a good boss too, but would you ever get there to find out?
He finished – with a flourish – by singing a couple of phrases from a Bananarama song:
“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it– that’s what gets results!”
*Thanks to InMidtown (http:/inmidtown.org) for the use of the Oliver James illustration – and for putting on the series!
Back in the spring, I was asked by Jim Wilkinson, the organiser of FutureScape, to speak at the event, which took place last week. Great, I thought, mentally running through which projects I might talk about.
“The title of your talk is ‘The Way Forward’ ” he said.
“That sounds very grand, what does it mean?”
“Well, last year you spoke about marketing; everybody’s done that now and they want to know what to do next” Quiet groan to self.
However, when I started to think about this, it occurred to me that all small businesses face a similar challenge, and it is one that all the self-help management books don’t really talk about.
Businesses start with an idea. Perhaps it is one you have carried around with you for years. Maybe you are pushed into it by redundancy, or maybe you’re just a brilliant entrepreneur. You nurture this idea, feeding it with time and money. You have great hopes for it, but somehow it stays stubbornly stunted. Why is this? Let’s look at the reasons and explore some possible solutions.
Not enough work. Wrong sort of work
What most people complain about is simply not enough work. Or perhaps the wrong sort of work? Do other people seem to get all the best jobs – how did they get that?
Well, one answer is to diversify. This could be a matter of selling a different type of product to the same clients – maybe offer maintenance to your existing clients. Alternatively it maybe lateral expansion into a new market – schools or care homes for example.
The opposite might also be a good strategy. If you find yourself chasing round after lots of small projects with no time to think, perhaps you need to focus. Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies put this brilliantly when asked about singularity of purpose and focus: ‘If it’s too broad, there’s too little focus. But if it’s too small you might not give yourself enough money to grow. So there is a trick to working out what you’re in the business of. You have to work out exactly what it is you’re doing, and do that better than anyone else.’ I must confess to not being the best person at this – I tend to get dragged in to distractions too easily. But I do understand what my core market is, and we are very competitive in that market.
It may be you need to do more effective marketing. Once you’ve got your message and market clear, the starting point should certainly be your website. This may sound obvious, but it is amazing how many small businesses ignore it – out of date, unloved websites are positively counter-productive; they actually put people off. Use quieter times to rethink your marketing material. During a downturn in business a few years ago, I spent the time putting together some A4 landscape format sheets to make a digital (or print) brochure: four or five general sheets, then half a dozen or so case studies. Over the last few years, we have gradually added to these until we have about 80 or so sheets which we can choose from to make up a brochure – although we still don’t vary from 12-16 sheets in any single brochure. Finally don’t ignore networking and social media. These frequently are slow burners in terms of marketing – they often produce leads in unexpected ways.
Do you have too much work, not enough money? It’s a common enough problem with smaller businesses. There is a simple answer to this – put your prices up. It is a straightforward way of slimming down the workload and making more money at the same time. Often, it is surprising how the market reacts to this. Consumers do not always equate lower prices with value as much as they do higher prices with quality. In a market for luxury goods and services, the latter is often a bigger driver. If you can’t put your prices up, then look at your costs – can you buy more cheaply? Could you put more pressure on your suppliers for price? Or trim your overheads – how much plant do you really need? Could it be hired in?
Maybe cash flow is the problem. Most SMEs are pretty awful at credit control, especially in the design sector. It is almost as if they are a bit embarrassed about asking for money. Be proud of what you do and don’t be afraid to ask for payments regularly and on time. If you go out for a meal, the restaurant doesn’t say ‘That’s fine, drop by tomorrow and pay; or whenever you like really.’ If credit control is a serious problem, then one solution that some businesses use is invoice factoring. It can be expensive, but is often used effectively by enterprises that are expanding quickly. Another solution is simply to build up a cash cushion that allows you to ride out the vagaries of the market and still take advantages of opportunities as they arise.
Could you expand if you had just a bit more money? The obvious first stop is family. This has been the favoured way of funding businesses for hundreds of years. It can provide solid funding from somebody who trusts and understands you and is unlikely to foreclose without notice. Failing that, you might think about Asset based lending. This is bascally borrowing against some asset as surety, including intangibles such as future profits. You can find good articles about this at Fresh Business Thinking. Don’t write off the banks either. Since the government has been encouraging banks to lend to smaller businesses (with schemes like Funding for lending, British Business bank, Enterprise Finance Guarantee) they are quite keen to lend money, only if of course they see you as a good risk. One solution that we sought was essentially selling of part of the business to grow the whole. This allows other people to come in and re-invigorate the enterprise and often provides a much needed cash input. Branson has expanded his empire in this way – with almost every step; he sells part of his existing business to fund the expansion of a new enterprise.
Not enough you
Perhaps we get to the crux here – this is why most businesses plateau. They expand rapidly while they are based on one owner, but eventually that person runs out of enough time and energy to grow the business further. The solutions to this are sometimes obvious, but also sometimes counter-intuitive. I found that getting away from the coal-face often paid dividends.
Spending time with family and friends for a while often allows you to recharge and focus. Equally, instead of working, find inspiration! Go to an industry event, an exhibition or a networking opportunity. This should be a real driver in your business allowing you to absorb new ideas and move forward.
To really move the business on, you have to look at how you relate to others in the business and what the culture of the company is. You need to be open in the way you talk to others. I always find that talk to everyone as your equal is a good mantra – and this cuts both ways. Don’t undervalue yourself but also don’t patronise others. And you won’t always be right – Andrew Strauss put this well in a recent interview: “There’s a fallacy that strong leadership is about being right all the time. Actually strong leadership is admitting you don’t have all the answers sometimes, and encouraging other people to think a bit as well. I always think probably the best leaders are those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses the best and don’t pretend to be all things to all people”. I have a friend in Spain who runs a large language school. She runs a session with her staff each week called ‘Challenge Jill’ in which they can ask her what they want and question any of her decisions.
Listen to everyone: talent is everywhere. Ask people what they think; listen more than you speak and you may just find out what your people are capable of. Teams need nurturing. If you value your staff you will get more out of them and they will respect you. Andrew Strauss again: “Good leaders have empathy and care deeply about the people they’re leading. My philosophy is that if you care about them, they’re more likely to want to be led by you”.
Give back – this again is one of those counter-intuitive things. If you have achieved, give something back. Volunteer on a charity project, become a committee member in your professional or trade association, or become a school governor. Often these are self-affirming activities, and it can be great to use your brain for something other than work! They can also be good networking opportunities.
Despite all this, things go wrong. But don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the learning process. I think almost everyone has some event from their childhood seared into their brain, some occasion when they failed. Failure is how we learn, and avoiding making the same mistake again is a huge motivation. Many great thinkers and entrepreneurs have remarked on this:
Coco Chanel, fashion designer
“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
Richard Branson, entrepreneur
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company
“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”
Winston Churchill, UK prime minster
“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
Drew Houston, Dropbox co-founder and CEO
“Don’t worry about failure. You only have to be right once.”
Thomas Edison, inventor and businessperson
“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“Many of life’s failures are made by people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
J.K. Rowling, author
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”
Finally and perhaps most importantly – surround yourself with good people. Stelios Haji-Ioannou (the founder of EasyJet) once said that he always surrounds himself with positive people – negativity is a killer. But there is not point in surrounding yourself with great people if you are not going to share the responsibility – and the glory – with them.
I’d like to finish with a quote from Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDry: “Never think of yourself. It’s about your staff, your customer, and your business. You’re tenth on the list. If you’re thinking that you are doing it for a Porsche then forget it, because you’ll never make the right decisions to build the business.”