All through my career, I’ve never really been big on advertising. In fact, the only place I’ve ever advertised is in Naples, Fla., where I’ve never been successful drumming up any business even though it’s only a short distance from my home.
I gave it a good shot – a nice ad with a picture of a vanishing-edge pool, placed in a local newspaper’s special section on backyard swimming pools. I was confident I’d get some response, but all that came back was exactly nada!
Despite that experience, I’m pleased to report that my “Naples drought” might be ending as the result of a conversation I had with a subcontractor in the area. The owner had called me asking for a statement she could use for marketing purposes. We started talking about business in the area, and I mentioned that I’d heard there were some good pool companies in Naples.
That wasn’t exactly the case, she said, mentioning that with only a few exceptions, the overall state of the Naples market for pool contractors was pretty weak. In fact, she said, local architects and landscape architects were frustrated by the lack of quality design and construction services for pools, spas and other watershapes.
One thing led to another, and she referred me to a handful of design professionals in the area. Shortly thereafter, I had a conversation with a landscape architect who confirmed that he and others in the area were indeed in need of a quality watershape designer. I offered my services, and now it looks as though I may have finally broken through in Naples.
ONE TO ANOTHER
I relate this story not to discredit advertising, but to point out the immediacy and effectiveness of networking as a promotional tool. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I rely almost entirely on referrals to generate business – about 60% to 70% through satisfied customers with the rest coming from professional contacts who can best be categorized as members of the design community.
As time goes on, in fact, I find more and more that designers of all sorts – be they architects, landscape architects, interior designers, sculptors or other artists – are keenly interested in connecting with people who understand both the aesthetic and technical issues of watershaping.
For so many years, the only “experts” available to designers have been mainline pool and spa builders, a branch of the watershaping tree has never had a reputation for sophisticated design work or any particular interest in working at that level. This fact has left the door wide open for those of us who strive to work in that realm.
This orientation toward design is a trend that I see gaining great momentum of late. In my own business, my count of design projects has increased almost exponentially in each passing year. Whether I’m working a referral through a past client or via a strategic alliance with a designer I know, the situations are similar in that I’m called into the process as a result of my willingness to work with aesthetics.
Sometimes it’s a matter of a client hiring me to participate as part of a design team. In other cases, a landscape architect or architect has recommended that I be brought in. Either way, those who are working with water from a design standpoint are increasingly seeking out my services, largely because they believe I’m one of the few people from the pool/spa trades who is prepared to sit at the table with other designers.
Working this way has been great for business, and it can be fun and exciting, too. In my last column, for instance, I discussed a set of projects I’m involved with on the island of Bermuda. My foray onto that beautiful Atlantic island began with a client referral, which in turn led me to work with a mechanical subcontractor who brought me in on two subsequent jobs during which I’ve forged an alliance with a client who builds elaborate spec homes.
It’s a big wonderful web of contacts that conceivably could generate business and further contacts for me for years to come. And it all started because there are people out there who value finding someone within the “pool industry” who has a working knowledge of design and is interested in spending time in the aesthetic arena.
WILLING TO LISTEN
Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for the value of developing design expertise. Yet the chains of events and connections that are now leading people to my door are based on something even more fundamental: my ability and willingness to listen.
When I think back on my lengthening career in the pool and spa industry, I can only come up with a short list of people who are truly interested in design – and even fewer who have ever bothered to get educated about it. For that reason, it’s small wonder that there’s never really been much of a connection between the pool industry and the greater design community.
And how frustrating it must be for designers who are trying to incorporate water into their work and are unable to find anyone who’s willing to have a conversation about water-related aesthetics!
I believe it is because I am willing to listen and capable of talking about design-related issues such as color, materials, texture, settings, ambiance and all of the other factors these designers live and breathe as part of their everyday lives that I’ve won a place at the table with design professionals. It’s interesting and rewarding – but at the same time, it’s a bit disappointing to think that the conversations I’m now having should’ve been ongoing for decades.
In that sense, it’s kind of shocking to think that watershaping is just now becoming its own design specialty. At the same time, it’s inspiring to consider the vast opportunities that moving in this direction now represent.
Because people in the pool and spa industry already possess (or at least should possess) much of the technical knowledge needed to be of service to designers looking to incorporate water into their projects, there’s no question that rank-and-file members of the pool industry can have something to offer to the process – but it’ll only work if they’re inclined to move in a “design direction” in their thinking and their work.
When you break into the circles of designers and their design-conscience clientele, the resulting strategic alliances between watershapers and those professionals and their clients can become a source of almost constant referrals and business.
Last time, I discussed what it’s like to do business away from home and how becoming involved with faraway projects is the result of years of personal and professional evolution. The same holds true of building strategic alliances with designers: It’s a process that emerges in the course of doing things well across the board.
Every situation is a bit different, and you never know exactly how things will unfold. But if you come to the process with open ears and an open mind and constantly work to educate yourself, good things are almost bound to happen. You can’t just wake up one day and expect to begin working with designers, but you can point yourself in that direction and begin taking an interest in becoming more design-savvy.
A DIFFERENT CROWD
For my part, I enjoy my associations with design-oriented professionals. The business side of it has been great, but it’s also exciting to spend time working with people who are so committed to artistry and aesthetics and creativity. (For someone who came to the business via service and construction as I did, finding my way among the unusual personalities of designers has involved a significant shift in culture.)
So often these days, I find myself working with an architect, a landscape architect and some other sort of artist or craftsperson. For the most part, these folks are concerned with things such as color, texture, spatial relationships, style and mood. I’ve been in situations where those sorts of discussions have gone on for hours – and the gritty issues of hydraulics, structural steel and excavation are the farthest things from anyone’s mind.
I’ve witnessed a tendency on the part of pool contractors to dismiss those sorts of discussions as frivolous and way too artsy. What I’ve found in my work, however, is that not all designers wear only black, nor are all of them pure aesthetes in everything they say or do. What I’ve found instead is that these are serious people who look at their surroundings in certain and very definite ways and that participating with them means being prepared to work through a wide range of conversations.
In other words, you need to be comfortable with artists and with art. For some contractors, I think you might as well be asking them to fly to the moon.
Some time ago, I had the pleasure of working with a designer named Patrick Kennedy, an intensely artistic guy who works in Miami’s South Beach area. I was brought in to help him execute a commercial waterfeature that consisted of a massive angled glass wall in the Astor Hotel, a beautiful Art Deco building. In the course of the project, I helped Kennedy develop a plan that was both aesthetically pleasing and fully functional with respect to hydraulics, lighting and safety.
It was an interesting situation, but no longer an unusual one for me in that my practical knowledge of watershaping came into play in a sort of hand-in-glove context with a purely aesthetic set of design considerations. As it turned out, I was disappointed with the performance of the contractor who did the installation, but the overall results were positive.
I recently visited Kennedy at his office and was pleased to discover that, since the Astor Hotel project had been completed, his star appears to be firmly on the rise in the swanky South Beach area. His reputation for creativity has gotten him involved in an array of new projects – some of which, he’s told me, I may be asked to join.
It’s exciting because I have no idea where my affiliation with this particular designer may lead. But if past experience is any indication, I can be fairly certain that whatever comes of our association, it will be unexpected and probably both fun and interesting.
As I’ve worked with all manner of design professionals, I’ve found myself gaining exposure to an ever-expanding set of ideas and concepts. This in turn fuels my own store of ideas and gives me even greater confidence each and every time I’m asked to participate in the design process.
In this sense, strategic alliances with designers have become part of an upward cycle of new contacts, interesting projects and knowledge gained as a result of my participation. So now, even when I’m working solo on a project with a client, both my comfort level and ability to deal with aesthetic issues are becoming more polished and refined every day.
For example, and as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, a willingness to provide a palette of material options to clients can be a tremendously powerful tool, one that sets you apart from the competition. As I’ve watched the way that other designers combine materials and work with clients in establishing color schemes, textures, contrasts and motifs, I’ve become even more convinced that providing a range of choices is one of the most important things we can do.
In fact, I never cease to be amazed at how impressed some people are about getting to look through books of color samples for tile, marble or other materials. It’s helped me recognize that, to some large extent, consultants are paid to give their clients these options and compensated for knowing what works well together in overall compositions.
By extension, this is the edge people from the pool industry have in this upscale world: Those of us who are specialists in the staggering range of things to be done with water and the materials that can come into play in watershape designs are uniquely qualified to provide options that clients and other designers can’t obtain anywhere else.
If you fix your gaze only on the next hole you’re about to dig and fill with water, there’s a world of interest and potential that is sure to pass you by. But if you couple your knowledge with a confident eye for design, the possibilities for strategic alliances and referral business can be limitless.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].