The Land Surveying Business Climate – Recession Survival Strategies

I recently was making a new friend on Land Surveyors United and he sent me an email with a quick note implying that the economy wasn’t too good where he worked and jokingly made reference to going “mining” if things don’t pick up. What caught my attention is when he mentioned that 2 months ago he was “flat out” and now has very little work. This didn’t surprise me and I now know, from experience, that this is just the beginning for him, and things may get worse.

If you look at the timeline listed below, you will see that Rhode Island has been in a recession from August 2007 (economist agree to this, it’s not just my data). Land surveyors and engineers in this area went from being full out with work to having no new work coming in at all. The phones have just completely stopped ringing. I know that I was prepared, or at least preparing, for a slowdown – But I wasn’t prepared enough for a complete work stoppage.

I’m not talking about it being slow – I’m talking about it being DEAD!

I've talked to other surveyors and engineers who are experiencing the same thing and several have told me that they’ve picked up their phones to make sure their phones are working (me too)- it's that bad. If your area hasn't reached this low point yet, let me warn you that the future is this: People are absolutely unwilling to spend ANY money and very little new work will be available.

And, what little work that materializes will be snatched up by fear ridden low-ballers chasing cash in a desperate attempt to “keep the wheels from coming off of the wagon”. The willingness of some to take any job, at any cost, regardless of what it will take to get the job done, has been very discouraging and is a failed strategy form the start by these despicable cutthroats. The good news is that eventually they will be out of business: The only viable business strategy is to be profitable – even if it’s only a little.

Economic Timeline:

  • Things started downward in August 2007, but our backlog held out for quite awhile.
  • Then in January 2008 business stopped dead. No new work came in and the phones stopped ringing completely.
  • We experienced a small bump in April 2008. Then it went back to nothing, again.
  • By June/July 2008 it looks like we hit rock bottom (at least I hope) with virtually no work coming in and no phone calls.
  • Beginning in late August, the phones started to ring again with inquiries into having surveying work done. Not everyone is going ahead with their plans, but at least they’re thinking about spending their money again.

For a long time now, whenever I would tell people that the economy was getting bad, I would get a response that I can only describe as, living in a fantasy world. One week I would meet with an engineer, for example, who would tell me that everything was fine. I’d say, somewhat quizzically, “really, because I’m finding it just awful”. He or she would say that, “yeah the phones are slow but we’re doing a lot of work”. Then in the very next sentence, he or she would confide that they are owed tens of thousands of dollars for over 90 or 120 days! As the financial/lending house of cards tumbled down, people completely stopped paying their bills. This was very common with developers who owed on work already completed and billed.

A week or two later this company typically laid off nearly everyone. I’ve witnessed this several times and have also had entire field crews call or stop by my office looking for work, where their bosses told me weeks before that everything was rosy.

To prepare you I offer the following advice:

  • If your business is not near the bottom yet, or coming out of the recession, please prepare yourself for the worst. Cut all costs; reduce the number of offices, employees, vehicles, etc. If it can be eliminated or sold for cash, do it now!
  • Be prepared to keep your business running with absolutely no work or payments coming in - for many months. You will not be seeing much in the way of deposits, if anything and you will only receive payments in dribs and drabs.
  • Collect everything you can from people that owe you money and don't release any work unless you’re paid first. This is a practice that has to be changed now and forever. We, as land surveyors, are not banks and should not engage in the business of lending money. In case you haven’t noticed lately, even banks are not very good at evaluating risk and successfully lending out money. If a client isn’t paying you it’s because you’ve allowed him or her to use you as a cheap way to borrow money, often at no added cost above the amount borrowed – What a good deal for him or her!
  • Do invest in the following; yourself, technology and marketing. Now is the time to stop carrying everyone else on your shoulders and invest in yourself. Work to payback you! Invest in technologies, like Robotics and GPS, which enable you, as a business owner, to reduce your staff, and get the job done better, faster and cheaper. Finally, do invest in marketing as this is the only way to successfully navigate your ship through these turbulent waters and grow (save) your business.

I am only being somewhat alarmist because I’ve been dealing with this severe recession and I want you to be ready for it. I will say, however, that the people in my area, now in 16 months of recession, may be loosening up on their purse strings and hopefully will spend a little money on surveying their land. I think we're ahead of the curve here and I want you to be prepared. It is, however, still a very difficult business environment.

Good luck and work hard!

Eric D. Colburn, PLS, is a successful entrepreneur operating a professional land surveying company and several online websites and blogs. To learn more about Eric D. Colburn, PLS, and read other articles written by him, please click here for his professional land surveying blog at and here for his professional land surveying company at

This Content Originally Published by a land surveyor to Land Surveyors United Network

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Reply by Jim on January 30, 2009 at 11:24am
Good luck!
Reply by Mike Moe on December 7, 2008 at 6:05pm
Very nice post. thank you!

Mike Moe

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