Starting a Deck, Fence and Pergola Company
by Lawrence Winterburn
Starting a deck Company
This is a great time for starting a deck company. Before the stock market correction and recession, construction of decks, fences and pergolas was at an all time high. Anyone with the will and a station wagon could make money building decks and fences. Since then, all the weaker deck builders are gone. They have been washed out by competition from highly skilled homebuilders and renovators that were building decks and fences to keep their companies afloat.
Now, North America is getting back to work, and more people are renovating and doing additions rather than moving. Money that people used to spend on upgrading to bigger homes is now put into improving what they have. Dream decks and pergolas with all the bells is just part of that trend. Now that the builders and renovators are getting busy leaving a glut of work, and a shortage of talent in the decks, fences and pergolas sector. During the recession, the prudent buyers bought low bid–now that work needs fixing and they simply don’t want to build something they have to replace in a couple of years–they want something fabulous and built to last.
If you have ever wanted to start a deck company–Now is the perfect time to do it!
Business Plans (for deck companies)
Creating a business plan for your deck company is crucial. Considering the information in this article and put hard numbers and expectations to your deck company business plan. This exercise can identify problems with your strategy so that you can address them up front.
Once you have your draft plan, meet with your accountant and banker and ask them for candid advice. You will be very surprised at the reaction. Not enough people go through this step when they start a company and your mentors will likely be flattered that you asked them for advice.
Demographics and Your Deck Company
Who buys decks? Many people buy decks–normal decks may get purchased by first time home owners–however they are often the ones that go with the low bid.
When it comes to Nice Decks– High End Decks, these people can decide if they like the way something looks without asking their friends. Our clients are artistically oriented, perfectionist personalities that range from upper middle class to millionaires. In general, they golf, they appreciate fine automobiles and they live in the nicer areas and gated communities. Often it is the wife that initiates the call to us more often than the man of the house.
We have found that areas with sprawling low rise suburbs are prime for our brand of decks and fences. Areas near the major cities tend to generate the most leads.
Seasonality and your Deck Business
In many northern areas where we get winter snowfall, the business will be seasonal for decks and fences. You may find that you can supplement your income doing renovations or snow plowing. Built in home theaters and finished basements can be a fine lucrative addition to your business in the winter months.
We created the Carpentry Contractor Blog to help our deck and pergola builders market those services in the off season. If you are an exclusive builder for GardenStructure.com you have access. Send us a draft article and photos, and we will edit and post it with your contacts and email.
Competition in the Deck Business
If you are starting a deck company that builds more basic structures, you may be more concerned with what your competition is doing. If you are in an area where there is a large undocumented work force driving the price of basic decks and fences down to unprofitable levels this is a grave concern to your new deck business.
If you are planning to become an Exclusive Builder for GardenStructure.com it is less of a concern. Our builders get leads that few other builders get to see. Generally the potential clients have found a project our web site that they fell in love with, and since the competitors have not done anything of that caliber, they are disqualified from being considered.
In general, our design builders are in competition with Landscape Architects and exclusive quality builders of fine outdoor structures. Even if there is a great builder of unique decks in your area, the chance of them even being found in Google is slim. Larger deck companies like Archadeck and Hickory Dickory Decks simply cannot match our design prowess and the quality of detailing. Our builders are known for selling jobs against these types of companies, and usually we do it without giving a lower bid.
Deck Company Marketing Strategy–Your Advantages
Why should people hire your deck company over the competition? What makes you so special? Most builders will tout quality and creativity as their premier assets. Do you really want to hinge your success on the same thing everyone else in the deck business does? How will that set you apart?
Examining why people buy decks, and why, will help you come up with a strategy. Here is what we suggest our “Exclusive Builders” use as headlines on Adverts.
The #1 way of selling a client on your company is coming up with a design that makes your competitors cringe. Building designs so inspired and beautiful that they want to quit the business when they see it. Something that looks so different, that it was beyond the client’s expectations–yet, one that compliments the home beautifully. If you are going it alone it could take decades to create a repertoire of details. I know some big deck builders that cut their details out of magazines… That’s just not our style. We started from scratch about 20 years ago and started designing our own details. Our “Exclusive Design Builders” benefit from using our designs and photography in their marketing.
Future Value of Decks and Pergolas
What will what you build look like in 3 years? Have you visited your past customers? 5 years? 10? When you have a deck company this is just something you have to do. It is how we learn what works and what doesn’t. If you never hone your techniques, you will never develop as a deck builder.
We share our methods for improving durability and making our projects age gracefully with our “Exclusive Builders”.
This is something that takes time– confidentially, to sell against young upstarts I often suggest that a deck company that has only been in business for 6 months has no business offering a 5 year warranty. Nothing they have built has lasted that long yet, so you as the consumer have nothing to look at that they have built.
Another reason you may choose to align yourself with a company that has been around for decades. As you build projects, ask for referrals, ask for testimonials, and ask them to put recommendations on your Google places page. (We help our builders set that up). Referrals, References and Testimonials are how you prove that you are the best deck company to deal with. Many of our builders have a list printed out of past clients, and suggest the potential client call just 3 of them at random.
Skill Set for Building Decks
Are you a brilliant carpenter? Can you come up with concepts for decks, fences and pergolas and format them so that your clientele can envision what you propose? Are you a good manager of people? Can you estimate the value of decks, fences and pergolas?
There are a few decent books by Taunton Press that can teach you the basics of framing, trim and deck building. When it comes to fences, you can buy a few DIY fence plans from www.gardenstructure.com that will get you up to speed on professional techniques, and also some great plans for pergolas that will inspire you to build better.
There is software available to render decks if you are not good at sketching by hand, or AutoCAD, or, learn Google Sketch up to really create great drawings. We are hoping to transition our drawings into Sketch up in the coming year. When it comes to learning to design concept plans, this is something that comes with experience. Start simple, and work your way up. If you are one of our Exclusive Builders, we will share some resources.
Marketing a Deck Company
A former President of Amex Bank of Canada shared his philosophy with me years ago. (William White). “Market Consistently–even when you don’t need the business”. This enables you to have more leads than you can deal with and allows you the advantage of picking and choosing the most profitable and or prestigious jobs.
A good on-line presence markets your business while you are sleeping, on vacation or off with the flu. Today this needs to be the centerpiece of any marketing strategy for a deck company.
There have been huge changes in the marketing business. Direct mail has always been a favorite of the deck companies and if you want compelling photography to use, we can provide it.
Not so long ago we all had Yellow Page Ads, however, very quickly the viewership for these antiquated directories has crashed. Don’t waste your money on phone directories.
Google is now the source for all marketing on line. Facebook is the up and comer.You can pay them just like you did the phone book–or you can create inspired content to build your reputation. Both methods cost. GardenStructure.com gets 1 million targeted visits for decks, fences and pergolas every year, so we can certainly help you get leads as well.
If you are planning to start your own Website, you need to understand something that most webmasters will neglect to inform you. New websites, once Google finds them, are not searchable for many months, (6-9 months normally). This is because there are companies that produce gibberish content to game the Ad sense system of ad production. They are capable of producing many thousands of low quality pages from diverse domains.
So once you create your website, and you have done everything right, and waited until you get out of Google’s sandbox, then you get to see how well you have done. You may find you are on page 20, and in that case you won’t get any traffic. In about another 6 months, if anyone has linked to your site or pages you will achieve “Page Rank”.
Page Rank is Google’s judgment mechanism and is an important part of their Algorithm which decides where to show your page. If nobody links to your content telling Google that your content is good, it will take longer to climb in the search engine ranks. It could literally be years before you get a rank good enough to get visits and actual leads from your website.
In short, banking on a new website to get you traffic is erroneous. It is something you should do, however it is a long term project. Not instant. Getting set up as an “Exclusive Builder”, with GardenStructure.com will get you an online presence that may get you leads within days (for existing content on our site), and if we create new content, it could take 2-3 months. Numerous areas are already set up for builders, like Boston, Charleston SC, Vancouver BC and Houston Tx. Call us to find out how long it will take.
Once you have more leads than you can deal with, you can filter these down to only the most profitable prospects. Small and basic jobs will have more competition from handymen and relatives, so you really need to invest less time on them. Small jobs like 3 sections of fence can be good fill in work; however you have to remember that these take the same planning and prep to do–with less profit. They need to be marked up accordingly to maintain profitability.
We have devised methods for dealing with small job leads, and qualifying clients over the phone before attending the site.
Free Estimates or Paid Consultations?
What exactly is your time worth? If it isn’t worth anything, maybe you should reconsider being in the deck business. Simple jobs you will likely have to offer a free visit to be considered, however more complex jobs, like multi level decks and pergolas, or decorative gated entrances will require more expertise and planning.
You need a strategy to get paid for your time even when you don’t get the job. It has to do with perceived expertise. People will hire someone they deem an expert to help them plan their project–and if that expert is you, you get paid for your time and will be placed on the short list to get the job.
We share our strategies with all our “Exclusive Builders”.
Visiting with clients Presentation Materials (Meeting with new clients)
So how do you prove to your client that you are an expert in your field and deserve to be paid to help them plan their dream decks or pergolas? This has to do with presentation.
When you arrive you will have the finest photography of the most creative designs in the business. You will have examples of detailed working drawings and photos of the completed projects. You will have estimate sheets at the ready. You will show up, listen to the clients needs and make thoughtful suggestions that they likely hadn’t considered. We share these photos with our Exclusive Builders in an optimized format for display on Tablet Computers. (below)
You will have a design agreement at the ready if they want you to create concept drawings.
80% of the time when you do a paid consultation and concept drawings–the job is yours.
We have created a basic set of detailed drawings and photography formatted for tablet presentation so that you can look more professional at estimates. Get in touch for more information about better presentation materials for deck companies.
Designing Decks and Pergolas
Some people ask me how our decks manage to look so different than everyone else’s. Back 20 years ago I decided to subscribe to the ostrich school of design. Stick my head firmly in the ground, ignore what everyone else is building and concentrate on coming up with my own details, which I could copyright and protect. When I did this, I really didn’t expect it would take quite so long to accomplish, but now we have our own unique details for decks and have made great strides in improving durability.
The founder of one of the largest deck companies in North America confided in me that he never designed anything. He simply cut and pasted pictures out of magazines and books, and emulated what other people spent time designing. This strategy can work, if design is not your strong point, however GardenStructure.com can offer you a better set of detailed drawings which you can draw details from, or pass the details on to your draftsman or architect.
Designs and Details, where to find them;
The Taunton Press has a few titles that may offer “Deck Ideas” and details. They are likely the most trusted large publisher since they are primarily composed of builder editors. Sadly they have produced nothing worth referencing on the subject of Fences or Pergolas worth noting.
There are also many DIY and Professional level plans at GardenStructure.com under the DIY Plans heading. These fully detailed plans will offer unique detailing and full size templates for the printed versions. There are plans for pergolas, arbors, fences and gates, trelliswork, gazebos as well as decks.
Many of the existing titles on decks and deck design that you will find at book stores are sorely lacking and contain many critical errors in both technique and specification. Even the Taunton books contain many details I would take exception to, so if it doesn’t look right to you—don’t buy it.
Our custom design service can supply you with concept drawings for projects like decks, pergolas, gates and privacy screens. By loading in $500-$1500 for concepts, (elevation and layouts), you will be able to offer your client a genuine design that blends with your client’s home and matches their budget and keeps your margin of profit intact.
GardenStructure.com is producing articles and focused information for our “Exclusive Builders”. Details for attaching decks and pergolas to stucco, floating foundations, retractable canopies, waterproof decks and design guides are all available for the asking.
Deck Sales is a process. It is the rare occasion in the decks business that you can show up and sell a deck, pergola or fence in one visit. Old fashioned high pressure sales tactics have fallen out of favor with the consumer. They want to go slow, learn a little about the project, plan carefully and feel entirely comfortable in order to sign an agreement with their chosen design builder.
These days, paying a designer to help plan their project is palatable, because it also means that they don’t have to commit to any builder or budget until the project is planned to their satisfaction. They feel empowered when they can show the plans to 3 or 4 builders for competitive quotes. In my experience though, if you design the project, you will build it 80% of the time.
Paperwork- Agreements, Change Orders, Warranty, Waivers, Design Agreements
Every deck company needs clear and professional paperwork. These days we print on demand and everything is laid out in Microsoft Word or compatible word processing software.
Agreements should protect you in the event of non-payment or cancellation, disaster, death of a client and delays caused by something out of control. A good deck company client contract should spell out who is responsible for obtaining a permit, what work will be done, of what materials and should have working drawings and specifications list attached. It should spell out clearly, who owns the extra materials brought on site and numerous other issues that may spawn disagreements between you and the client.
Change orders will protect you from not getting paid for additional items or changes that occur during the project. It is common courtesy to communicate the cost of additionals and extras before going ahead and doing them. If it is something that needs to commence immediately you can communicate that to the client verbally today… and get it in writing with a signature within 24 hours. I like to keep a few blank change orders in the truck just in case.
When a client doesn’t want to obtain permits–a waiver will excuse you from responsibility if charges are laid. Composite decking companies often exclude labor and disposal from their warranty. If the client wants composite, you need a waiver so that they acknowledge that you are not responsible should the composite decking fail. That way you cannot be held responsible for labor to replace the decking should the worst case happen.
Design Agreements will outline what details and drawings you agree to provide at what cost. If the client is paying you for the design of their decks or pergolas or any feature, you need to spell this out with terms that protect you in the case of disagreement.
Transparent communication is critical in this litigious society of today!
Signage on vehicles is simply a good value. Compelling graphics and branding can get you many low cost leads. People use their cell phones these days and if they are interested in a consultation they can type in your web address or just take a photo of your vehicle to reference later. We can provide high res photos for use on vehicle wraps as well.
Other Sales and Service Opportunities
Many deck companies now sell everything from barbecues to furniture, outdoor kitchen appliances and cabinets, landscape and deck lighting as well as hot tubs and other accessories like heaters and umbrellas.
Our builders get solid discounts on Shade FX Retractable canopies that are designed to be installed under our pergolas.
If you have the budget and spare manpower, you should consider running a post hole auguring service. You get your footings and posts dug and set for the lowest cost, and you can cover the cost of the equipment and labor digging holes for private clients and your competition. Quite often when your post hole dig and set clients realize that you build as well, you will end up doing the entire job for quite a few clients.
Many deck builders are also supplying stain application services. From pre-finishing deck and pergola parts, to scheduled maintenance of decks and pergolas, you will get plenty of profitable repair work to keep your crews busy.
A solid workmanship warranty can offer confidence to buyers. We ask our builders to offer a full 5 years. Materials are often excluded, however if 1 board doesn’t live up to expectations we suggest dropping in and changing it. It is inexpensive to do and can lead to more referrals and an excuse to drop in on the client–keeping you top of mind.
If you take pride in your work, offering 5 years doesn’t mean much. Any grievous errors will show up in the first year so the other 4 years is free.
Other Resources by GardenStructure.com
YOU WILL ALSO FIND links to articles on building decks, pergolas and fences
For more information about becoming an “Exclusive Design Builder” in your area please contact Lawrence [email protected]