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The aptly-named Diane Flowers is a gardener and landscape designer in Santa Cruz, California. I met her after several searches and hired her services for the 4 years that I lived there. Over that time, I got to know her better and found her views / practices on both gardening and life / work choices refreshing. You can get more information about her business at her website, Sol Inspirations, although she has asked me to note that it is currently being revamped / updated.
Tell us a little bit about your background. What did you do before your gardening / landscaping business?
I started out as an aeronautical engineer. My first job out of university was at a small family operation in Wichita, KS – less than 20 employees. We made airplane components (e.g. fuel pumps, actuators) which were not available from dealers anymore – hard-to-find, specialty stuff. My specific tasks involved working in temperature-controlled walk-in closets full of computers, integrating manual drawings of airplane components into a new computerized system so that they could be utilized by the manufacturing crews.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the finer points of a well-run manufacturing facility. My role was not as exciting as the laboratory experiments I had done during my degree. So, my interest faded easily. After I left, I took on a string of other jobs which did not require a college degree but offered different experiences – such as working at an automotive repair shop as a certified automobile mechanic, doing mostly diagnostic work to keep my hot-rod running (and I loved every dirty greasy bit of it). For a time, I also returned to the science center where I had volunteered as a high school student and did presentations and teaching gigs. Briefly, I experimented with retail too.
Then, I got a job at Walt Disney World Resort – Epcot. I held that for 6 years, doing everything from technical coordination to labor. Much of the work was centered around creating special effects and lighting design – fireworks, smoke, fire and other things that would liven up a presentation. The clientele ranged from corporate parties, motivational presentations, music shows to general audiences. Labor was just that – moving gear, setting up and tearing down shows. Even when I was coordinating, it was common for me to also do a deal of labor to save costs. For example, while doing my rounds to check on the progress of an installation, I would also bring out required gear. Technical coordinating was about many meetings, spreadsheets, CAD drawings, permits and creating cost/time/crew estimates per client specifications and accounting for many variables or limiting factors. Deadlines in all these cases were final and had to be met, period. There were no exceptions ever – not even the weather was an acceptable reason for something to not happen the way it was planned and committed.
Wow. That’s quite a background. What made you switch to horticulture eventually?
Disney was a great place to work. It’s where I learned about organizing, managing, running crews and projects while working across many stakeholder groups. But, I was ready for a different lifestyle. For a year, I looked into returning to college to gain new skills. A trip to Santa Cruz and visiting their unique and highly-recommended community college horticulture program was a turning point. I had started gardening before I was into double digits. Growing up, we always had a vegetable garden and we grew flower gardens all over my parents’ 8 acres. It was, and remains today, my favorite of all hobbies.
For a handful of years, I worked freelance in the technical world while adding to my landscaping knowledge. During school in Santa Cruz, I also took on a few individual projects for some hands-on horticulture experience. That really opened my eyes to the freedom and benefits of self-employment. I decided I would start my own business and not work for anyone else. The “Solo” in “Sol Inspirations”.
So, what do you like best about owning your business?
First, let me say that all my prior work helped me develop the skills to run my own business. So, I value each job experience and respect my prior employers for the opportunities.
While there are the usual perks of being your own boss, for me, one of the most important aspects of my work is being able to engage in a wide variety of projects. Santa Cruz is perfect for a wide variety of year-round gardening due to the coastal soil and the micro-climates. And, being outdoors in good weather, surrounded by natural beauty – it’s a slice of heaven.
The other most rewarding aspect is the lasting friendships I have with my clients. My typical clients are people who often garden themselves but do not always have the time / energy to keep up with the work. But, they tend to be very active in their yards and will work alongside me from time to time. To work with such engaged clients is a lot of fun too – I’ve met some really interesting people, talked about all kinds of things under the sun…. literally. I also nurture those relationships with personalized touches. For example, each client gets a custom detailed written report of the work completed after each yard visit, along with recommendations for things to watch out for. For some clients, I will pick up or drop off materials if they’re too busy – I don’t charge for this service, just the materials. I also do a year-end annual report for my regular longer-term clients – highlighting the key changes in their gardens, along with considerations for the year ahead.
Finally, this is the one job where I can take my little daughter along. Victoria is a future gardener in the making. She has her own tiny rake and pruners and learns alongside me. Family and work go together for me in harmony.
Yes, I’ve never had another gardener (and I’ve hired many over the years) who gave me written reports like you did. I really appreciated them. And, I’ve also enjoyed your little lessons to Victoria in organic plant care.
That’s very important to me. I do not like to use pesticides, chemicals, etc., for plant care. I am constantly doing research and providing my clients with options to keep their yards healthy and disease-free with environmentally-friendly products. I also engage with the many gardening communities in Santa Cruz so I can pick up and share new garden care ideas with other enthusiasts as well.
What are some opportunities / challenges you foresee for your business?
Business continues to grow, thankfully. This brings both an opportunity and a challenge.
The continued opportunity is that, because I keep my client base well-diversified, the periodic turnover does not have a huge negative impact on my income. I don’t have any scientific way to analyze my clients to maintain this diversity, but, after years of being in Santa Cruz and in this business, I’ve figured out my sweet spots (clients over-55, widows, etc.) and am able to find similar new clients to replace those who might leave. Overall, though, I tend to have long-lasting relationships, as I mentioned before.
The challenge with a growing business is that gardening also has certain weather-driven peak times, during which it gets difficult to satisfy all client needs. I am at the point where I need to take on a more regular crew rather than subcontracting. The most cost-effective way is to take on unskilled but enthusiastic people who will do well under supervision and become skilled over time through experience. But, a regular crew requires appropriate, balanced scheduling to smooth out the peaks and troughs – something that takes a lot of planning, booking, administration, etc. So, I’m trying to figure out how to scale and grow in a cost-effective manner. It’s taking a lot of my personal non-gardening time to figure out how to do this best. A regular crew is also a good way to deal with personal downtime in a solo business – say, flu or family errands – which is another tricky thing to manage.
Yes, growing and scaling is one of the key inflection points for solo business owners. Maybe you can find horticulture college students who need experience? Or, just any students looking to make some money?
So, final question….. what advice would you give to others who might be considering a similar business / path?
Get a job in the field. Any job will do to get started. Learn what it takes to do every aspect of the business so that you know what it will take to start your own.
If there are skills you need for your business (e.g. management, administration, etc.) that you cannot get at your current place of work, get a different job where you can learn those different skills.
Teach someone else what you learn – it’s a great way to test your own knowledge / skills while developing external credentials. And, over time, it will be a useful skill as you hire to grow your business.
When you finally have your own business, remember that the people who work for you represent you and your business. They need to work their best to do so and you need to enable that by being clear and specific on what “best” means for you and your business. This is easier said than done when there are so many daily tasks eating up your time. Some call this “working on the business” vs “working in the business”. To me, it’s just about communicating and demonstrating clearly what “best” means for your business. It’s your personal definition of success.
Thanks, Diane. Appreciate your time and your journey. Having worked directly with you, I know how your clients must value your services. And, I wish you continued success as you grow and scale your business.
Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
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