By Jennifer Zuri


A pond installed by Kathy Smith, Tropical Water Gardens.
Photo courtesy of Kathy SmithStarting a new business or adding new services to your existing business can be a scary proposition in a challenging economy. Sometimes the best way to go about doing something new is to find people who are already successful in the business you want to tackle, and then follow in their footsteps.


Kathy Smith of Deland, Fla., did just that when she ventured out on her own a few years ago to establish a pond installation and retail business. She watched experts on television add ponds to landscaping projects, and attended local garden shows for additional inspiration. “I wanted a water garden for my own yard, but saw a lot of ponds that weren’t really done right,” said Smith.


She created her first two ponds in her own yard after doing more research on construction practices. Unfortunately, she did it wrong and had ongoing problems with green water. “My main goal was to learn how to do ponds the right way,” she said.


 


Ponds done right


Smith went back to the drawing board and learned more about proper filtration for ecosystem ponds by attending a “Getting Started with Water Features” seminar at Driftwood Nursery in Naples, Fla., in 2006. She went home and proceeded to tear out her ponds and reconstruct them properly.


 

Kathy Smith, Tropical Water Gardens, placing rocks for waterfalls.
Photo courtesy of Kathy SmithTo gain additional experience, Smith offered 5 weeks of free labor to Virginia Water Gardens in Fredericksburg, Va., in exchange for hands-on training. She was hooked, and in 2007 sold about five water features operating as Tropical Water Gardens.


Like Smith, Tom Dieck of TRD Designs, Ltd. in Katonah, N.Y., knows all too well about installing ponds the wrong way. Dieck started his landscape business in 1986 before water gardens gained popularity with homeowners. “Back in the early 90s, the majority of ponds were installed using the same construction practices as pools,” said Dieck. “An 8- by 11-foot pond would cost around $30,000, so there wasn’t a lot of call for them back then.”


Fast forward to 2006 when Dieck attended a hands-on pond building day and forever changed the way he viewed water gardens and how to install them. He learned a simple construction process that allows a small to medium-sized water feature to be installed in just one day, resulting in a greater profit margin on the project. Dieck started including water features in a greater percentage of landscape designs for his customers.


In Perkiomenville, Pa., fellow pond installer Duane Troxel remembers the days when he first started dreaming of starting his own pond installation business. As a kid, water gardening was a favorite hobby, and he started checking out other people’s ponds before venturing into

 

A pondless waterfall by Duane Troxel, Tranquility Water Gardens and Landscape.
Photo courtesy of Duane Troxelthe business. Troxel, who works for a burial business, attended a sales and marketing seminar led by Greg Wittstock, founder and CEO of Aquascape, Inc., and was impressed by the help and support available. Troxel later went on a pond tour and was convinced he could make a go of installing ponds part-time. He attended a training session on pondless waterfall construction and gained additional confidence. Business cards were drawn up and Tranquility Water Gardens and Landscape was born.


 


Displays go a long way


In addition to handing out his cards, brochures, and exhibiting at local garden shows, Troxel markets water gardens by installing display ponds in prominent places throughout the community. The local hardware and feed store sports an ecosystem pond installed by Troxel, complete with signage so shoppers know who to call to have a similar feature installed in their own backyard. A local restaurant on a busy highway opted for a pondless waterfall to attract attention to its locale, while Troxel reaps the benefits of diners calling him for their own water feature. A second restaurant recently approached Troxel for a display water feature.


Smith also believes firmly in the power and attraction of display water features. She has one installed at the entrance to a local country club, another at a restaurant, and two more at local nurseries. Smith said signage by the display features is critical so potential customers know who to contact.


 

Duane Troxel, Tranquility Water Gardens and Landscape, setting boulders.
Photo courtesy of Duane TroxelAlong with displays at local businesses, Smith also sets up water features in her booths at garden shows. In fact, her first two sales came from people who saw her work at the show. She can create both an 8-foot-by-11-foot pond and a pondless waterfall within a 20-foot-by-30-foot booth. “Customers buy water features from me because they can see my work at the shows,” said Smith. Her pond pricing includes plants, fish and lights.


 


Focus on existing customers


When it comes to marketing water gardens, Dieck is able to tap into his existing landscape customer base. Whenever Dieck needs to e-mail existing or potential customers, he always includes a photo or two of water features that he has created.


Dieck has spent the past 24 years of his business building relationships with his customers. He creates friendships and even invites customers to dinner at his home, where he can take them outdoors to enjoy his personal water garden. Dieck explains the relaxing benefits that water features provide in our fast-paced, stressful environment. His guests feel like they’re on vacation when they lounge in his backyard oasis and realize they want to create the same experience at their own home. Most of Dieck’s business comes from word-of-mouth advertising, but he occasionally places ads in high-end magazines, theater playbills, or local sports pamphlets.


 


Continued growth of the industry


When Dieck first started installing ecosystem ponds four years ago using rocks and gravel, as opposed to the gunite-type pond, water features made up 5 percent of his business. Today, that amount has grown to 30 percent. In fact, he said that 2009 (despite the recession) was his best year to date for water feature sales.


Dieck, a Certified Aquascape Contractor, recently signed off on a $90,000 water feature project and said larger features provide their own unique challenges. He’ll often hire other nearby certified contractors to help with the job. Quite often, a collaborative effort leads to a more creative design in the end. Approximately half of his water feature installations are projects over $50,000, and the other half are smaller features. His rapid success and creativity led to his being awarded the Rookie Certified Aquascape Contractor of the Year in 2009.


Smith is experiencing similar success with water features despite the sluggish economy. She recently landed a $21,000 pond project but typically finds that smaller features are the sweet spot for the majority of today’s consumers. She doesn’t lower her price just to get the job. She remains busy enough without having to do so.


In addition to pond installations, Smith has a retail water gardening store located on her 2-1/2-acre home property. She’s a one-woman crew who is starting small and growing into the business. The store is currently open on Saturdays or by appointment during the week. Smith’s weekdays are spent installing and maintaining water features. She tries to allow one week in-between installation projects so she can focus on pond maintenance for current customers or selling jobs to new customers. This allows her opportunity to rest between installation projects until she’s ready to hire a crew.


 


Education is key


All three contractors are fairly new to building ecosystem ponds and they all agree on what helped them step out with successful footing. “You have to be teachable,” said Smith. “Learning from others is critical to installing ponds properly.” Troxel taps into the Certified Aquascape Contractor network for advice and information and continues to attend water garden seminars.


Dieck agrees that continuing education is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage. “When you attend industry events and rub shoulders with others in the business, you become energized and return home with renewed enthusiasm,” he said. “That networking experience never leaves you.”


 


Jennifer Zuri is marketing communications manager at Aquascape, Inc., St. Charles, Ill. For more information, visit www.aquascape.com