Leo Scarborough gives us his views on the state of the party wall services market and how to build a party wall practice in a competitive environment.
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Philippe: Hi and welcome to another edition of our podcast. I’ve got Leo Scarborough with me, founder of Surveyo.co.uk I’ve been in touch with him for some time now. Good guy. So really, really excited to have him on today. Leo, welcome.
Leo: Thank you.
Philippe: So just tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you start in the surveying business?
Leo: Good question. Father’s advice. My father has been a massive influence on me. He’s a floor layer by trade and I wasn’t particularly a great performer at school, got my GCSEs didn’t get too much in the way of A levels and started out on a career path in the restaurant business. I was a barman, wanted to follow my dad into floor laying and he just dissuaded me. He let me do a few hours, a few days with him, kept me on for a bit and then sat me down and said, “You got to back up your ideas, son.” The barman job was great. It was a great payer at the time, at the age of eighteen it must have been and there’s kind of a ceiling to it. The ceiling is the amount you can earn. So sat me down and said it’s time to get re-educated. So having left school with little to no A levels, I’d spent a year in the industry doing bits and pieces. He got me work experiences with various numbers of his contacts and I started life then as a quantity surveyor. I got myself on a course first. On a part-time course and then found myself a job, the hardest way possible actually. 100 CVs, three interviews, one job offer and that’s where I started. So yes, started up as a quantity surveyor and soon realised quantity surveying wasn’t really where my passion lied and ended up as a building surveyor in a multi-disciplinary practice. It was quite a small practice, so I couldn’t get lost in the conglomerate of big companies. Not for everybody. It worked for me. But had to learn pretty fast and got started to take on various complex and senior roles from an early age and it really did kind of spur me to pick things up quite quickly.
Philippe: That’s the advantage of being in a smaller firm, right? You’ve got responsibilities at a much earlier stage.
Leo: Nowhere to hide as well. My boss was a really supportive man. He really lead me down that direction. He never pushed me but the work ethic that I adopted was certainly to push myself, to push myself as much as possible. He allowed me to do it. There were some really rookie mistakes I made in the early days. But actually he allowed me to make them and then, in a very professional way, came and scooped up the pieces, reset me, and allowed me to go off again, having learned my lesson.
Philippe: How and when did you decide to do it alone?
Leo: Well, good question. The actual decision and I always knew probably from when I started my career, maybe within 12 to 18 months, that I was going to be self-employed at one point. It wasn’t a rebellious thing against the hierarchy. It wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t getting supported. It was just a need to be able to prove myself. It was a need to have the potential to earn more. Money is not a driver for me. My family is. So again, a driver from when I was a young boy was always to have a family. Actually you start to add things together. The driver for me at a young age was to have a family and you start to put things together. You say, well, I want a family. I’ve got to buy a house. To buy a house, you’ve got to have a deposit. I’ve got to earn this plus live. Actually, it’s a very simple element of math. I need a house in this area that costs this much. I need a deposit of this much. I have to earn, et cetera, et cetera. So with all of that, I knew I had to be self-employed at some stage because the ceiling on an employed person wouldn’t give me the lifestyle I wanted. I’m not saying that’s all about money. For me, I can buy myself some time. I get time with my family.
Philippe: Mindset is quite an important thing. Because it is pretty scary to leave a good paying job and just start from scratch. Do you remember any of that?
Leo: I always had that from the start. I always knew that I wanted to be self-employed. There was the scary part when it finally came to a head. I got my degree after five years. I was on a five-year part-time course as a building surveyor. Not just party walls, but a plethora of building surveying tasks and jobs based around projects rather than valuations or anything like that, which is more project-based, contract administration, party wall, drawings, planning permission, that sort of thing. Then once I’d met my wife and we got married, I then came out of building surveying for a bit, went into contracting. I helped manage a small building firm and then went on to a slightly larger company doing project management and contract management work, all on the contracting side. It came to a point where I was moving too often. I wasn’t satisfied. It got to a point where I’d stayed with a small building firm for about 3 years, 3.5 years. I then skipped to this other place, slightly larger firm as a contracts manager. Spent only 11 months there and I just could not satisfy myself. So during that time, first child came along and me and my wife spoke and we had enough savings and we had our income and it was kind of a now or never. So in terms of scary moments, I wouldn’t say scary. I would say considered. Knowing that my CV looked pretty awful at the time, because I had skipped around a bit, I felt now is the time to give it a go. I wanted to move. I didn’t know where to move to. I interviewed for several companies before I decided to go on my own after this 11-month period. That was it. Self-employed and now probably wouldn’t look back. There are always options but I wouldn’t look back.
Philippe: So from a practical perspective, how did you get your first instruction?
Leo: I had an overlap. Although I had this period of time where I spoke to my wife, I always had something going on in the background. I’ve always had a plan B. There’s always something to move on to. I’d actually built up a layer of clients just doing some private work. Bits and pieces in the evenings, weekends, and that kind of built up and up, to the point where me and my wife made the decision to go it alone based on the clientele I had. Then kind of in the first month, hit the marketing pretty hard. But more by luck than judgment. I was actually recalled back to my previous employer to do contracting. That kept me going for the first eight months. After that, there was no need for it but it was mutually agreed that I’d stick around for eight months and then after that, the client base was there. It built itself.
Philippe: Sounds easy.
Leo: Yeah, yeah. Of course, yeah.
Philippe: If you had a word of advice for a young surveyor who actually wants to do what you did, where should he start?
Leo: Young surveyor. I would say educate. There are several trainings I’ve had over the years and the hardest lesson I had to learn was that it doesn’t come easy. Going back to those hundred CVs, before I started out on my career: 100 CVs, 3 interviews, 1 job offer. I was waiting… Waiting for something to come across my lap and it just didn’t happen. It just did not happen. As soon as I got my head around the fact that I actually had to try, that’s how I ended up on an HNC course before I actually got a job. It was because I had to plump for something. I had to go and get educated. I had to try again. I had to reinvent myself. I was too accustomed to earning some money by that point. I felt I couldn’t go back into fulltime education but there are so many different options now. You need a good employer to help you along the way. But there’s an element of fortune. I wouldn’t say luck. I think you make your own luck. But you’ve certainly got to get out there and as soon as you realise nothing is going to come crashing on your lap without you trying, then that’s the way to do it. Also I would say to any trainee I’ve had or any young surveyor is to go out there and get some work experience. People feel that you try something you want to do forever. I would almost look at it in reverse. I would go out for work experience to find the things that I don’t want to do. Even if it’s three days. Three days here and three days there, a weekend, kind of come and help you, et cetera, et cetera, just to see what it’s all about, just to give a test.
Philippe: That’s a good quote. Get some work experience to realise what you don’t want to do.
Leo: As I sit here now I know what I want to do when I grow up. I still don’t. I found it very difficult to sit down and say this is me forever. But you do what you need to do with the information you’ve got at the time.
Philippe: You were talking about marketing before. How do you market yourself as a surveyor?
Leo: Again, a learning curve. In a surveying profession or a service profession, I would say you’re selling a service. It’s not like I’m making something. I can go out and tell. I haven’t got TVs that I make and that I can sell out the back of my van. I’m selling my knowledge. I’m selling my professionalism. After doing a bit of cold calling and a bit of Google Ads and even Facebook, actually what I needed to do was go out and network and press hands and show my face and say this is me and be professional and approachable. For me, having worked through my professional career, up to the point where I went self-employed, I had an address book full of contacts. It was a case of going out, telling people what I was about. Being quite – not arrogant but being forthcoming about it, saying I’m ringing you because I want some work. I’m ringing you because this is who I am. I’ve done work for you before. You know me. I’m now self-employed. Again, one of the learning curves for me was that it took – I still work on it as a kind of rule of thumb. By the time you’ve asked somebody for that work or met somebody initially and told them what you could do, I say it’s 12 months from pressing hands to getting work. You sell yourself. You sell your relationship. You sell your professionalism, but 12 months from pressing hands to getting some work. That’s normally how it works.
Philippe: And for someone who has no black book of contacts, if you were to advise someone to go out there and get your first client, what would you tell him?
Leo: Relationship-driven. There are various marketing associations out there that will help develop. So I actually joined a networking company called BNI when I first started out. The learning curve in that 12 months. I didn’t just get to know to get contacts. I also got to learn how to be professional as a company. So all of the company aspects, the presentation, the standing up, being approachable. Even silly things like how to submit your VAT return. What to do with all the bits of paper you accumulate over a daily basis. I found that worked really well because I felt I was actually achieving something, to be out there, networking, publicly networking. So again it’s – I’m not sure – for me, Google Ads and Yellow Pages and things like that didn’t work because you’re trying to tell a name on a bit of paper that says “party wall” below it or contract administration or building work or whatever you want to do, window cleaning, plumbing, electrical. The market is saturated. If you look at it, the market is saturated. You type in “party wall surveyor,” I’m not the first one that comes up. Several people – you interviewed some people using your software. I’m the first people to come up. I’m going to be on the first page. But realistically, I don’t attract that much work through cold calls. Negligible, if anything. All referrals, all referrals.
Philippe: Yeah. How could referrals be improved?
Leo: I would say through work ethic. So if you look at the Party Wall Pro software for instance, that gives a very good professional basis to get those referrals. If you’re slick and if you are organised, and if you know what you’re doing at the tap of a button, then it’s certainly going to help generate more referrals. As a party wall surveyor, I see several clients a week, several adjoining owners, several surveyors working for the adjoining owner, or the agreed surveyor. I would say to meet those people and be professional and slick and know what you’re talking about and be reactive rather than on the back foot you can be proactive. It’s certainly going to help to generate those referrals.
Philippe: Talking about party wall, how did you get from what you did before and into slowly into party wall because a lot of your practice now is dealing with party wall. How much of your practice do you focus on party wall?
Leo: Probably 60 to 70 percent. I found that there were a lot of people out there that didn’t know what they were doing in terms of party wall. There seems to be a need for it. You’re feeding off of building projects all the time. So it’s not necessarily a facilitator. But it’s something that a lot of building owners or adjoining owners or even architects don’t necessarily know much about. A lot of architects will be able to produce the notice, send it off. But if they get anything other than a consent, they find it very difficult to manage, especially if they’ve got several projects on at one time. So for me, it led from a simple need. All of a sudden, I – I don’t know. I got 10 party wall projects in the space of a month, where we’ve only been kind of getting one or two before and it was a simple thing for me to go out and build upon.
Philippe: You make it sound very simple, everything.
Philippe: Yeah. I should dig a bit deeper. So in your kind of day to day job, what kind of tools do you use?
Leo: It’s all diary management for me. If it’s not logged in my diary, it doesn’t get done. To be honest, I even saw one earlier that I’ve – since I’ve clicked on the iPad, I realised there’s a photographic schedule last week that should be out the door. But it’s not in my diary. I don’t know why. I haven’t looked in my diary but it’s not in my diary. It is now but it will be. But everything for me is generated from my diary: hours, miles, jobs, where I am next, where I was last week, where I am tomorrow. All driven from there. Then everything kind of filters down. My whole filing system is built off the back of my diary.
Philippe: And in terms of the schedule of adjoining owners, before Party Wall Pro, how did you do it? All your adjoining owners, all the details and all?
Leo: Oh, just hard-filed, every time, everything. Like I said, live from my diary. So if I was working on this today, that would mean going to my filing cabinet, getting out my files, having a pile. Sometimes the files never got quite put away and they linger about and there are Post-it notes and various reminders. I mean in the morning I would have 20 reminders off my phone. It’s impossible. If you worked 20 hours, by the time you got into one job, finish that, put it down, picked up another one, you’re not going to complete 20 jobs in 20 hours. It’s just sometimes impossible. So all the reminders in the world just didn’t quite help me achieve my workload.
Philippe: So how is life now with Party Wall Pro? Let’s do a bit of self-promotion.
Leo: It’s slick. It just – rather than having everything on my diary, I still use my diary that says today I will work on this. But a very simple – I forget where your numbering system is, but the ones or whatever the filing number is are very easy step by step processes where your job is at the hit of a button, what notices are live, what notices aren’t, where you are. Party Wall Pro is great if you feed the information correctly into it. So the building owners, the adjoining owners, all the surveyor’s names. So for instance before I came in this interview, it reminded me that I needed to upload the building owner’s permission, the signed letter that says that I have been awarded the project and a very simple reminder but I’ve gone, yes of course. I went to my briefcase. It’s in there. Scanned it, uploaded it. It’s there forever. It will never get lost. It can never be misplaced. It’s not kept in a filing cabinet in my office where I’ve had to then answer the phone when I’m out and about and can’t quite get a hold of it because it’s in there. Party Wall Pro. The next thing is an app. That’s what we need. But just to have it on the go, open my laptop, hotspot. There you go. That’s where we are. That’s what we need to do.
Philippe: All right. So there’s no going back for you then.
Leo: I don’t think so. Not at all.
Philippe: So back to the real purpose of this interview, if you had to give just a word of advice for any young surveyor who wants to maybe develop his or her party wall practice a little bit more, what should he do?
Leo: Number one, educate. Get out there. Learn as much as you can. Read. It’s not the most exciting projects in the world. Not the most exciting subject matter. There are a lot of good books. There are a lot of good case studies. All the complexities of it. It’s process-driven but it can be quite hard to navigate sometimes. So number one is educate. Number two is experience. If you aren’t sure, if you want to adopt some more complex party wall matters, then get out there. Get shadowing. Get a bit more education. Get a bit more experience and just see if it’s something you want to do. It’s not all about enjoyment. But you’ve got to be able to enjoy it. You’ve got to be able to invest in it in order to succeed and really you need to get out there and absolutely identify whether or not that’s what you want to do.
Philippe: Are you looking for anyone?
Leo: Leading question. Currently no. But with the aid of Party Wall Pro, I’m sure there will be some need for it in the future.
Philippe: Great. So last question, who should I interview next? Any names you can think of off the top of your head?
Leo: I would say a guy called Barry Martin But he’s – I think he retired last year. But he was – he had been doing it a long time. It would be good for you to get some investment from the older guys, just to see what it looks like at the end of a career. Even like Rob Martell. Rob Martell and partners in Berkhamsted High Street, they are a good practice. They were set up in the 90s, traditional building surveyor and quantity surveyor in practice. Probably one of the few. I would try them. Rob Martell but I’m not – again I’m not even sure. His name comes out but I haven’t met him.
Philippe: All right. OK. I will look them up. Thank you so much.
Leo: No worries, Phil.
Leo’s firm: SURVEO
BNI UK: https://www.bni.co.uk
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