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Posted:  10 Mar 2013 22:52  
Hello, My name is Carla. I live in Venice, FL. I am interested in starting a small interior landscape design and maintenance business in my area. I have a few questions about getting started. Would it be okay to post them here? If not, do you have any recommendations for additional information sources.
Posted:  11 Mar 2013 15:27  
That's what we're here for, Carla...post away!
Posted:  12 Mar 2013 20:11  
Thanks Clem,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions for me. With guidance from someone with your experience and skill, I know I will be on the right track for a success!

1. How do you charge your clients for plant maintenance? Hourly or by plant?

2. If I don't maintain a greenhouse, what type of arrangement should I set up with local nurseries?

3. How do you handle plant replacements? Do you propagate?

4. What equipment do you find ESSENTIAL to your work?

5. Do you carry any special license or insurance? If so, is it required by law?

6. Do you use any digital rendering software? What type?

7. Do you recommend any information sources, journals, or training courses that would benefit me?

8. Where do you find your advertising dollars are best spent? How do you search for leads?

9. Do you have any plant or container suppliers that you would highly recommend?

10. How do you handle holiday display and installation? Do your customers purchase and keep the materials or just “rent” the finished decoration?

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions for me. It really is wonderful to have someone like you to look up to as I begin this new endeavor.
Carla Botschner
Posted:  13 Mar 2013 00:31  
I can certainly guide you, and from the intelligently phrased questions you have posted, you seem to understand that you cannot get the "magic answers" from anyone...you will have to find out a lot on your own, through trial and error as most of us did, or possibly by taking a course or two with someone who has tons of experience in our little industry.  That said, I'd be happy to answer your Top Ten List:

1. Labor is a function of time.  Driving time, service time, installation time, replacement time.  You will need to figure a way to estimate your time in order to bill accurately.  There are of course other billing factors, such as the cost of replacements, equipment, consumables, etc.
2. Most 'scapers don't have greenhouses and so must shop for their plants either at local nurseries or via a broker in Florida or elsewhere who can get them what they need.  These days, most local sources will require COD payment in cash or by credit/debit card or maybe company check.
3. Plant replacements are budgeted into the cost of each contract and reflected in the monthly service billing rate as a sort of set-aside.  If you meet or beat your budget, you get to keep the extra profit; if not, you will incur a loss.  Estimates are based on real-life experience, but generally target around 10-15% per year of the total installed value of the plant inventory for replacements.
4. Essential equipment will vary from company to company.  I myself require a Model #3 Aquamate watering system, good quality pruners, florist shears (scissors), a moisture meter and/or probe, a "crumb roller" like the ones waiters in fancy restaurants sometimes use to clean off the tablecloths between customers, a compact folding pruning saw, leaf polish, a California car duster, a 5-gallon bucket with some sort of tool organizer (you can get these in Lowes or Home Depot) and a 2-gallon watering can with a wide opening for filling.
5. Business licensing varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Check with the Secretary of State in your state and with the county and/or municipality in which you are based.  Pesticide licensing also varies somewhat from state to state, but if you will be applying ANY type of pesticides on your accounts, you will need a license for your business and for yourself as the applicator, as well as insurance coverage for pesticide applicators.
6. I use Photoshop.  It's a steep learning curve, but very powerful once you know how to use it.  There are many other affordable photo-editing software products on the market, including some freeware versions that work fine for basic work.
7. Go to one of the big industry conferences if you can.  There is one at Longwood Gardens in PA each spring around this time, and national meetings at TPIE in Florida in January and the Plantscape Industry Expo in Las Vegas in August.  There are no longer any interiorscape periodicals being published (this site was originally created by Interiorscape Magazine, but that no longer publishes).  There may occasionally be training courses given at community colleges or universities, but they are few and far between.  Penn State was going to establish an interiorscape major a few years back, but I don't think it ever came to pass.  This forum is one good place to go for info, and there are some good books you can acquire, the best of which is "The Healthy Indoor Plant" by Rosemarie Rossetti and Charles C. Powell (you can get it on Amazon).

I'll finish the rest of your bullet points later!
Posted:  13 Mar 2013 00:52  
Okay, dogs walked, all's right with the world...

8. Advertising is tricky.  You can spend a lot of money hiring telemarketers to do cold calling for you (I wouldn't), or you can go about it in different ways.  Try joining a commercial realty association (IFMA, BOMA, etc.) chapter in your area.  You will meet most of the people who would be buying your goods and services that way, and network yourself onto bidder lists and maybe into some actual contracts.  DON'T do Yellow Pages.  Build a website and get it SEO (Search Engine Optimized).  That will cost some money, but it will be well spent if you get the right people doing it for you.  Look online for other service businesses in your market and scroll down to the bottom of their homepages to see which company did their web design/hosting and interview some of them.  I don't "search for leads"...most of our new accounts come from referrals from existing clients or from our retail garden center/store.  But if you want to grow fast, you might try e-mail marketing (Constant Contact allows you to do it fairly inexpensively yourself).  You can buy so-called "targeted lists" of potential customers, which will be the same lists that a janitorial service company might want to use (interiorscaping is such a specialized little corner of the green industry that e-mail marketing companies probably won't know what you're talking about).
9. I can certainly recommend the owners of this site, NewPro Containers, as a very good supplier of containers an related items for the interiorscaper, but there are many others that you can search online.
10.  Holiday can be done as a lease, but if you only have one or two lease clients, it might not pay to do it that way.  When you're just starting out, try to sell the decorations, trees, wreaths, etc. up front and charge annually for storage, installation and takedown.  That will generate some cash sales at a time when you're just starting out and maybe can't shoulder the burden of financing the costs of a lease program just yet, as well as selling the recurring income of the annual holiday installation work.

That about does it for your first ten questions, Carla...I'm sure you'll be back with many more as you go along in your journey as a newbie interiorscaper!  Good luck, and welcome to the biz!
Posted:  13 Mar 2013 21:15  
In the State of Florida you will also need a pesticide license. They lump interiorscapers into the (L&O) Lawn and Ornamental category here. You MAY be able to bypass the license if you plan on NEVER spraying and just replacing and throwing out any plant that becomes infected.

Without the licensing you cannot spray anything in the accounts nor on the business property. You can contact The Bureau of Entomology and Pest control in Tallahassee. There are requirements that have to be followed just to sit for the test. I've held the license for my company up here in the Tampa area for over 16 yrs but I doubt the test has gotten easier. It's not supposed to be. The chemicals we use are poisons.

I'm not trying to discourage you, but its not quite as simple here as many seem to think. All it takes is a complaint from one client and without the correct documentation (MSDS), licensing and know how, you could end up with quite a few problems. Legally and financially.
Posted:  13 Mar 2013 21:59  
I think Carla is probably feeling a little overwhelmed right about now...or not.  The pesticide licensing issue is one that a lot of 'scapers pooh-pooh, until it comes back to bite them.  And many larger corporate and institutional contracts require pesticide licensing just to bid, considering it a sign of professionalism. 

At any rate, in New Jersey it's up to $50,000.00 per day for non-compliance with the pesticide regs.  Licensing your business costs about $150.00 a year; for the responsible certified applicator, $80.00 a year; for each additional operator working under the applicator's supervision, $30.00 a year; the insurance will be another few hundred a year or so, depending on your state and carrier.  Sometimes it's best to just bite the bullet and replace the plant...unless it's a 20-foot-tall Ficus, that is.
Posted:  13 Mar 2013 23:11  
The yearly fee for the pesticide license renewal here is $350 for the business PLUS $10 per tech who holds an ID card. My license (PCO) is $150 yearly and I have to take 4 hrs of CEU classes. 2 hrs in Core (law) 2 in my category (L&O). Renewal here is in June.

Florida has really tightened the laws. Because we aren't a "true" pesticide company such a Terminex or Orkin we only have to face inspection every 2-3 yrs as opposed to the yearly ones that the pesticide companies deal with.

All employees also have to take CEU classes. It can be done, in house, as we do it, but you'd better keep meticulous records.

Fees for any non-compliance vary and depend on the infraction.
Posted:  14 Mar 2013 05:45  
WOW! Clem, you are amazing. Thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions. I feel like I have a lot more direction after reading through your responses. I will spend my time going through each subject and make sure I do this right.

I realize there are a lot of regulations around ANY use of pesticides in a public space. I am a Master Gardener in Sarasota County and am involved with the Extension here. I will find out what is required of me for operation. That's one time when it's better to comply and not try to beg forgiveness later.

Thank you Plant Lady for your insights as well. I want to cover my bases for sure.

I sincerely thank you for taking the time to respond and help me along. I know I am in the right industry!

Posted:  14 Mar 2013 15:47  
Carla, you're welcome.  You asked a lot of intelligent questions, and I hope our answers will help get you started.  And as Barb Helfman always says, "Now go get 'em, Tiger!"
Posted:  21 Mar 2013 04:26  
Carla, there's also a good online training by Johnson Fediw Associates.  Here is the link to their website http://jfaconsultingbiz.com/
Posted:  21 Mar 2013 15:20  
Hey Carla

Suncoast Nursery grows Interiorscape quality foliage
We are located in Bradenton,FL near i-75 and sr 64
Contact me at [800]786-6085 and i can send you an availability and directions to help you find us
I look forwardd to hearing from you
Bill Mccormack
Sales Manager
Suncoast Nursery
Posted:  26 Mar 2013 15:51  
I'm a one-man operation, but if it's of any help to you, Carla, I'll answer your questions.

1. How do you charge your clients for plant maintenance? Hourly or by plant?

I charge a monthly rate which is due at the end of every month.  The monthly rate is decided by a formula I use which takes into account such factors as how long it will take me to maintain the plants per visit, fuel costs, travel distance from home, vehicle wear and tear, a percentage of the total cost of the installed plants to cover replacements (which should be minimal if you know what you're doing), supply costs, and the most important factor of all: how much I want to pay myself.

2. If I don't maintain a greenhouse, what type of arrangement should I set up with local nurseries?

I buy straight from a local nursery which gives discounts to legitimate contractors.

3. How do you handle plant replacements? Do you propagate?

I replace plants as soon as I think they're looking like crap.  Ask yourself this question: do I want people to know I look after this plant?  if you answer no to that, get that sucker out of there.  And if I suspect spider mite on a plant, it goes straight to the garbage.  Pesticide regulations are strict in Canada, so the headache that comes with spraying isn't worth the hassle.

I don't propagate anything.  It wouldn't be feasible.

4. What equipment do you find ESSENTIAL to your work?

Being a one-man operation, the bare essentials for me are a watering can, floral shears, anvil and bypass pruners, insecticidal soap and pyrethrin (Domestic class pesticides aren't much of a headache), and baby wipes or something else to wipe the plants down with.

5. Do you carry any special license or insurance? If so, is it required by law?

I carry no special license or insurance, although I do hold a pesticide applicator's license for greenhouse use.  I don't carry insurance because I'm only looking to supplement my income with the few accounts I have; I don't need any extra costs.  I pick and choose accounts that would be, what I consider, low-risk.  So, I don't deal with overhead baskets at all, for example.  I don't need that falling on someone's head, or damaging furniture, carpet, or anything else.  I stick to pots and planters only.

6. Do you use any digital rendering software? What type?

Nope.  I'll show pictures of plants and containers if the customer wants to see them.  If they want some sort of plan done up, I tell them there's a price for it (because I'd have to do it by hand), and then they usually change their mind.  It may sound awful, but I really try to let the customer have no say in the plant material chosen.  Containers, I'll do my best to get what they want, but I'm not having them pick plant material that makes a mess everywhere, or needs to be replaced every month because it's out of bloom, or has a higher light requirement, or needs a lot of maintenance.

Like I said, this is to supplement my income.  I keep it as simple as possible.

7. Do you recommend any information sources, journals, or training courses that would benefit me?

I've found this site to be great.  I-Plants magazine is another good source.  I try to avoid help from people not really in the industry, such as anyone who wants to tell me "what nan used to do."  It's usually bad advice.

8. Where do you find your advertising dollars are best spent? How do you search for leads?

Word of mouth is the way to go.  Ask for referrals from current clients.  Check with local florists, nurseries, and garden centres who DON'T offer interior plant maintenance services.  Even though they're not doing that work, they may have people who call or drop in asking for that service.  If they can pass a few leads your way, tell them you'll pay them back by buying the plant material for the installation from them.

9. Do you have any plant or container suppliers that you would highly recommend?

I usually buy whatever I can get my hands on locally, but I've ordered from Lechuza.  Pricey containers, but the client paid for them.

10. How do you handle holiday display and installation? Do your customers purchase and keep the materials or just “rent” the finished decoration?

I don't offer this service, but if I did I'd rent it to them.  Unless they wanted to spring for the cost of buying eveything, then I'd make my money on the installation.

Hope this helps!
Posted:  27 Mar 2013 22:25  
Wow!  Great replies and support for a person looking to start their own business!  Glad I happened along to see what was going on here.

I too, am giving serious thought to starting my own interiorscape biz.  I've got a degree in botany and plenty of experience working my tail off as a maintenance person for a large interior plant care service back in the big city.

My situation is a bit unusual and I'd appreciate any comments.  I'm currently living in a small Colorado town about a 90 minute drive from the ever so chic and well-to-do resort town of Telluride.  And Telluride has a green future ahead of it. 

That's if I can sell myself and my services to the folks up there.  Can't go the referral route since I'm just beginning, so...

Putting together a web page is a given, but should I go up there with a truck load of plants and my very best saleswoman smile and do some "cold" calling?  Maybe call ahead and make some appointments with managers or others who would have the authority to seal the deal?  What incentives might I use to get people to consider using my services?

I figure if I hit the area hard the spring and summer, I'd have enough accounts lined up to make it worth my while to move to a town closer to my clients (the only people who actually reside in Telluride itself are Swiss bankers and movie stars. PLUS, I'll be dealing with running an interior plant service in a mountain resort in the winter, and adding holiday touches, as well - no small undertaking.

What do you all think?
Posted:  06 Apr 2013 22:57  
Rose Lady, your ideas for starting up remind me of when I was starting up a couple of years ago.  I figured I'd add 2 new clients every month, and by the end of the year I'd tell my employers to stick their job and I'd be off working for myself.

That didn't happen.  I learned very quickly that you get a lot of doors closed in your face, and if you're lucky, some people will politely say no instead of being a jerk about it.

However, I wish you better success than I had starting up.  I'm in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada and we're not always up to date with trends.  Things catch on here ten years after it does everywhere else (i.e. curbside recycling is still in its infancy here!), so maybe you're in a region where people are more receptive to interior plants.  The only way to know for sure is to give it a shot.
Posted:  08 Apr 2013 00:08  
It's not really about whether people in your region are "more receptive" to indoor plants, it's how you go about informing and educating them about the benefits.  Many small offices are relatively devoid of plant life, either because nobody there thought enough of it to make it a priority when they moved into the space, or they received a lot of gift plants when they opened the office and watched them die off over time due to lack of proper care, but with no investment in the plants on their part, they didn't consider it a loss.
Posted:  09 Apr 2013 20:14  
I have to disagree with you, Clem.

How can you go about informing and educating someone when they're not interested in what you have to say?

My personal experience has shown me that when I approach a potential client about interior plants, it all comes down to the individual I'm dealing with.  They've already formed an opinion of the idea before I give my spiel.  If they have a personal interest in interior plants, they're more likely to listen to what I've got to say.  And they're more likely to have a personal interest if they're a woman; men can't be bothered with it for the most part.

If they're interested and want to pursue the idea further, they're usually turned off by the cost of plants and the fee I charge to maintain them. They feel that $24.95 for a 6" Aglao is ridiculous.

AND (this is the part I love), if it all goes well and we talk about budget, and what the client would like in a container style and colour, they always want something "really nice," but "cost-effective."

It ain't easy getting clients, but when you do, it's a great gig to be at.
Posted:  10 Apr 2013 04:22  
$24.95 for a 6" Aglaonema IS ridiculous, at least in the NY/NJ metro area market.  Wholesale cost for one (not including a container) is about $7.00 right now.

Finding the right person at each prospective client company is a process, not a shot in the dark.  Some companies invest a lot of time and money in telemarketing and qualifying leads before attempting to close the sale.  A scattershot approach is doomed to failure in most cases.  You need to research each potential client to find your way past the gatekeepers and to the decision-makers.  Success will follow.
Posted:  11 Apr 2013 00:09  
To compare NL to NY/NJ is comparing apples to oranges.  Our province has a population of half a million, with a little over 100,000 in the province's capital city.  That's a far cry from the millions of people you have.

Our wholesale cost for a 6" Aglao is $10, at best.  If we don't sell it for $24.95, we don't make a profit.  Our greenhouses are fuelled by oil, and that's not cheap these days.

Interior plants (gardening in general) were big business in our province in the 60s, 70s, and by the 80s it started to decline.  The 90s not so great, and these days, the arse is gone out of her.  All those people who loved plants back then (because they were from England) are either dead or just about near it.  They're old, and their kids never took up the interest.  Business was so great back then, my boss tells me that they would send a truck down to Florida every so often, load up on tropicals, and haul it back for sale.  Now we buy from a middleman because to take a truck down to Florida would drive the cost up even more.  To even take a truck to a grower in Ontario would be too costly because we just can't sell enough to justify buying the volume we would need to get a great price.  It's one of those drawbacks to living on an island that takes a 10-hour ferry ride to reach over the Atlantic; it's a completely different market for us.  I like to think it's going to pick up again within 10 years... maybe the green movement will roll through here then :P

Anyway, I digress... but see what I'm up against?  Not to mention the grocery stores and box stores selling less-than-quality plants at low mark-ups to customers who have no idea (and don't care) what a balmy January wind will do to the plants they have sitting near the entrance.

Clem, we're in two different worlds with this industry... and yours looks a whole lot better.  $7.00 retail for a 6" Aglao is amazing!
Posted:  11 Apr 2013 15:30  
$7.00 WHOLESALE.  That's not our cost, either, just our wholesale selling price to most trade customers who don't buy in volume.  Retail is more, but nowhere near $24.95.  If your market demands that you change the way you do business, then you need to do that to survive and thrive.  To keep butting your head against an immovable object and expecting different results is the textbook definition of insanity.
Posted:  11 Apr 2013 22:19  
Eh, what can ya do?  Times change, markets change, customers change.  And like all employess say (especially those starting new jobs elsewhere soon, such as moi), I don't own it, let the owners worry about that stuff.

Don't get me wrong, business is great.  A few years ago we had a drought, which caused a water ban, and it was our best year ever up to that point, but the bulk of our greenhouse/garden centre business goes to contractors.  Low prices from box stores attract the homeowners... and then the homeowner calls us to ask us how to take care of what they bought :P

I'd just like to see interior plants beome popular again... and to see those casual gardeners visiting us to buy, instead of asking advice and buying elsewhere.
Posted:  12 Apr 2013 03:01  
We have a busy retail garden center at our facility, and you might be surprised to learn just how many people have a good number of interior plants in their condos, homes and offices and don't know that it's possible to get professional care for them.  When we tell them what we can offer them in terms of service, they say, almost without exception, "I never knew we could get that!"

You've got to have ways of reaching out to the potential buying public, whether it's direct mail/e-mail marketing, telemarketing, in-store promotion of your services if you have a retail outlet or florist shop, etc.  We can't just sit there and wait for the phone to ring.
Posted:  29 Apr 2013 20:30  
Interesting discussion.  I'll kick in a couple of observations here. 1.When to replace plants: don't wait till they're not looking good.  Your purpose as an IL'er is to keep your clients' plants looking beautiful.  If it's not beautiful, it shouldn't be there.  Sometimes you can take out a less-than-beautiful plant and rejuvenate it at your facility, and use it again.
2. Clients selecting plant material: Don't let them.  Find out what they want, their budget, then show them what you plan to use, maybe give them an either/or choice.  Letting clients tell you what plants to use is a recipe for disaster.
3. Finding clients: Lots of good suggestions.  Especially the maintenance co. prospectus lists.  Usually you want to get to the facilities or office mgr.  And make sure you're armed with lots of research showing how having plants in the work place benefits the bottom line.  Keep an eye out for openings of offices, etc.
"Go get 'em tiger."
Posted:  19 Dec 2013 13:30  
Carla, you're welcome.  You asked a lot of intelligent questions, and I hope our answers will help get you started.

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