“Getting paying clients is the key to starting your own permaculture design business; Everything else is secondary.” – Pete Widin
I wish I’d been told this when I was in school, about to enter the REAL world as a tender would-be landscape architect. My idea of a design business was the day to day mess of billing, design deadlines, and the constant need to source new work to stay afloat.
There really isn’t a certain type of person who comes to landscape design as a passion or profession. Each one of my friends had different plans for their budding career after we graduated. Most of them, however, went to work for landscape design firms who were part of large companies or federal agencies. I was a bit different. At heart, I’ve always been somewhat of a lone wolf. I wanted to have my OWN design business.
I knew that I wanted to be out on my own, but I didn’t feel like I had the experience or know-how to go off and support myself as a self-employed designer. I was lucky and strategic enough to land a job in Portland, Oregon designing urban home landscapes with a firm of exactly 2 other designers, and an install crew of 3 people. This was a small company, and I relished the opportunity to have a role in varied tasks and decisions made each week. You don’t have to be amazing at everything business to operate your own, but willingness to learn new things is essential. I took that maxim of “the bending tree does not break” to heart the two years I spent in Portland.
The second job I had there was where I really learned about how to start a design business from scratch, and discovered more of the way I would want to run my own design firm. I hooked up with a landscaper who had his PDC, and was big into social and ecological benefit along with having business savvy. My role was to build a permaculture design business from scratch, using a handful of existing contacts but really reaching out on my own to source work for the new venture. Having the bigger picture and vision of my own business in the future helped me pour effort into this new gig, and it really paid off!
Now that’s a long story short, but I want to get to the point of this article, and give you some insight on how I’ve been getting clients for my own business. What I learned in Portland was that when you have a niche carved out for yourself, the people who need your help will seek you out. It’s all about making it easy for them.
You’ve probably heard people say “network, network, network” in relation to getting your name out there, landing the job of your dreams, etc. There’s a big dose of this in the recipe I use to find permaculture design clients, but it sure isn’t the only piece to the puzzle.
I’ve had people call me up seemingly out of the blue to ask about my design and workshop services, but that can all be traced back to one thing: My Niche. Think about all of the weirdest animals on the planet, for example. I’m going to use Barnacles here because I was just up in Maine for a week music recording!
When the ocean tide goes out in Maine, the maroon and peach-colored granite turns to white as a thick layer of barnacles is revealed below the tide-line. These strange shell-fish found an incredible niche on the surface of rocks where the water rises and falls. It’s not a glamorous place to be, and it can be pretty harsh to be constantly flooded or burning up in the hot summer sun. But they niched down, finding a spot where no one else was doing their business. And? They proliferate like you wouldn’t believe. It’s the perfect gig.
That’s what I found for myself when I chose to use my experience in residential design to focus on urban homesteads. I have a deep interest in farm planning as well, but I’ve really carved out a niche for myself helping homeowners with small sites make the best use of their space for producing fresh food and habitat for humans and wildlife.
The focus that I’ve gained from finding my niche has unfolded the map to getting clients who not only pay me well for my design work, but who are also people I would want to hang out with anyway. Now THAT makes life worth living, and the work a joy to do. There are few better feelings than knowing you get to hang out with amazing new friends while getting paid to design.
If I make this sound too simple, then that’s good. I’m tired of feeling overwhelmed about business and making a living. Simple? Great. That’s why I took this approach to starting my own design business. Because it’s straightforward, didn’t take up all of my time, and it Worked.
So what’s your permaculture design niche? Which skills and passions make you uniquely suited to be the best person in your field? Permaculture is a big world, and the concept applies to many areas of design, planning, and consulting. Retreat centers? Medicinal herb farms? Urban schools?
Ultimately, it’s about what excites you. It may even seem like your idea of a niche would be impossible to make a living doing. If so, I’d love to hear what it is! Often the roughest, most tawny colored stone holds as gem.
If this path seems like a promising one for you, I’m excited to share that I’ve found a niche in wanting to help other PDC grads and designers get their business going, and take it to the next level. The Design Clients Challenge starts soon, and is a Free email course with live Q+A sessions with me, Pete, to help give you a healthy dose of inspiration and practical plans for your permaculture design business.
I realized recently that in order to help the world more, we need more permaculture designers out there making a great living helping People and Planet care for themselves and each other. Are you ready to join the vibrant group of professional designers already making it happen, and ready to lend you a helping hand?
You can sign up for the Free Get Design Clients Challenge here. Can’t wait to see you inside, it’ll be a blast!
I’d love to keep the conversation going. Comment below with where you’re at in your design business, and what you feel is holding you back. The Professional Permaculture Designer page on Facebook is where you can find me. William is a member there too. Let’s hang out and grow the permaculture design movement!