As I write this, it is March of 2014. Design Pro Success Stories should launch within the next month. Us, is me, Jeff Wortham. This is my website, podcast, passion. I love the business of being a Design Professional. I think it’s a blessing and a privilege to be creative for a living. I love that I am well paid because of what I have learned as a businessman. It has given me options in life I never expected to have. I would like to share my experience to help other Design Pros figure out enough of the business side to make a good living so they can better enjoy the creative side of what they do.
I’m going to tell my story in more detail than most people will want to read. That’s ok. The reason for the details is the same reason I chose the Success Stories name. We learn best through stories. Sometimes the smallest of details resonate with us and makes a connection that can change our trajectory, create a distinction, spark an idea that makes a meaningful difference in our lives. If you’re a student, or have been a designer for 30 years there is something in here you will likely relate to. I hope it helps in some way.
My journey to date has been wild at times, scary at times, and mostly full of good fortune that I am thankful for every day. When you ask most people what they do you usually get a job title, mine is Residential Landscape Architect. I don’t really think that’s what I do. I think when I’m at my best professionally I am solving problems creatively which enrich the quality of life for my clients. I love to help people, even if it’s just by referring them to a good book I think they’ll connect with.
My clients have received advice on health, personal growth, public speaking, web development, and lots of other things that have no relationship to Landscape Architecture. I love sharing. This website and podcast are an expression of that same idea, that we can help one another by sharing valuable information.
I’m a firm believer that we should always be learning and growing. I love learning, and feel restless when I’m not discovering something new. My favorite way to learn is through audio books and courses on video. I have listened to hundreds of books over the past 10 years. Most of them are on personal growth and business. This is why the podcast model appeals to me. I find I absorb more in half hour to hour chunks and I have lots of those that show up in my week.
I’m a father of two great girls, Hope and Rose Wortham. Currently, 2014, Hope is studying Interior Design at San Diego State University and Rose is studying business at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, California, which is where I received my Bachelors Degree from in 1986 in Landscape Architecture.
My wife since 2000 is Linda Wortham and is originally from England then spent 24 years in Canada. We love to travel, visit family and take classes to continue to learn and grow personally and professionally.
I seem to be an even split between my parents. My mom is very creative, used to teach belly dancing, paints, teaches drum making, and is a palmist, even teaches it. She taught me to pursue what I love. She’s been a great example of someone who followed their own path.
My dad is crazy-smart, at least I think so. By the way, he is also my mentor, one of my biggest fans and one of my best friends. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering- Nuclear focus, BS in Electrical Engineering, a BA in Liberal Arts, and an MBA. He was in the navy for 20 years, had a few different jobs related to engineering and computer systems when they were starting to be integrated into business in a big way. He taught MBA courses for years, and before retiring for good, taught at my old high school for about 8 years. He too likes to story tell and is currently writing a book.
When I was finishing my AS degree in Mechanical Drafting he helped me see the truth, which was, I wouldn’t be able to live in Monterey, CA on what I would be able to make with that background. He told me that Mechanical Engineers always had jobs and since I had the Mechanical Drafting degree I was on the right track. All I heard was, ‘always had jobs’ and ‘make good money’. I’m in! What do I have to do?
I applied to Cal Poly SLO and Cal Poly Pamona, both in California, in Mechanical Engineering. I was accepted to both. I was on my way! I chose San Luis Obispo.
Not so fast young man
To say that I felt unstoppable is an understatement. Hell, I had taken 23 and 24 units back-to-back in junior college and got all As and Bs. I was only 18 and half way through college! Three years earlier I never thought I could go to a school like Cal Poly. There I was, ready to jump in with both feet! So what could go wrong?
Turns out that it does matter if you like something and or have an aptitude for it. Turns out, not only did I not like Chemistry, Calculus or Physics, I had no aptitude for them either. This high-flying young Texas transplant was metaphorically being shot out of the sky one class at a time. This did not go with my plans at all.
I was also surrounded by a lot of people that seemed to be dealing with the same situation. That wasn’t comforting. I was confused, dismayed, scared, and humbled throughout my first two years at Cal Poly. I was working and using loans to get through school, so at least I didn’t feel I wasting my parent’s money like many of my friends did.
The good thing was I didn’t feel I had any other option except to push forward and find something I could do that I also liked. Not feeling you have an option to back out is scary but it does keep you moving forward and looking for an answer until you get one. This was one of my earliest life lessons that has served me in running a business and taking care of my family.
The Lesson – Persistence and Optimism Pay Off
I was talking to my friend Collette one night about my situation and she said that she had a girlfriend that was in Landscape Architecture. Because I was doing yard work for money she thought I was doing landscaping and that might interest me. I decided to look into it. Cal Poly’s Landscape Architecture program is not something you can take classes in unless you are in the major. However there were classes in the Horticulture department in Landscape Design, being taught by a Landscape Architect; that would do.
Suffice to say, I was in love! I was drawing again and loved the marriage of practical and artistic. Turns out, that is how I’m wired and Landscape Architecture is just that balance. Engineering classes taught me to ask good questions and be analytical and now I got to be creative too. I was into photography and have a strong sense of aesthetic so this view of the world felt very natural to me. To this day I paint and take lots of video and photos but at the same time I hate seeing poorly designed irrigation.
Worth the Wait
The Horticulture program was too thin on design for me, so I applied to Landscape Architecture and waited a year to get in. It was the most worthwhile wait ever! I don’t think I could have designed my own profession any better to meet my talents and interest. This really was luck and tenacity coming together.
The Lesson – Fail Fast Forward
When I finished Cal Poly, I had been there 6 years. I didn’t feel any of it was wasted. This is where the entrepreneur started to show up in me. Entrepreneurs expect to fail a lot because they don’t define it as failure. They understand that to really achieve in life you have to take risk and try things. All of our tries don’t work, but they can all teach us something. I listen to the feedback I’m getting, and if it’s bad I start looking for a way to make it better, while moving forward. Fail Fast Forward! I highly recommend this mindset.
School is Out, Grab a Shovel
I was married in my last year at Cal Poly. I met some guys that were finishing in the Landscape Design program in Horticulture and they were moving to the bay area near San Francisco because there was a growing economy. My wife and I decided to go also. We moved to Walnut Creek, California.
From the age of 14-16 I worked summers in Texas where I was living at that time. Working summers in Texas had a big affect on my mindset towards design. I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty or work hard because of that background. It came into play while at Cal Poly. They had a Construction Management program, and one of the comments I heard from one of the students was that Architects and Landscape Architects made stupid design mistakes because they didn’t understand how things were built. I didn’t want to be one of ‘those’ designers.
Fresh out of Cal Poly I decided to get a job working for a landscape contractor for a while to learn more about construction. I was soon working in the trenches and being called college boy by guys who didn’t understand why I would choose to do that work. I was playing the long game. That was the rebar in my foundation. It tied together the theory I had learned in college and put real details in my mental files that I use to this day.
Sometime in 1988 or so I decided I wasn’t learning enough to warrant staying in construction so I got a job in a Landscape Architecture firm in Walnut Creek, CA. I was tennis partners with Tom Baak, another LA. I told him I was looking around and he offered me a job.
Tom was great, very hands off. He assumed we were competent and stayed out of the way. I could have used a lot more mentoring, but it was a nice environment to learn and grow in. We did sub-division work, green belts, and model homes. We also did custom residential design. This is what I liked the most. Tom let me do plant design and some irrigation design. I had already learned a lot about plants and irrigation so he let me run with that.
Congratulations! You are now self-employed
In the fall of 1990 Tom asked to talk to me. This never happened and I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. We were in the beginning of a recession and it was clear to all of us that work was drying up. He informed me that I was being let go. He also knew that I had side work so he thought I would be the least affected. He felt lousy about it, I could tell. That situation is bad for everyone.
Have you ever wondered if you could take care of your responsibilities to the people you love most? Have you ever doubted whether you could, and what kind of spouse or parent that makes you? These were the questions going through my head when I was let go. I am basically optimistic but this was a tough one. My wife and I had a house payment and she was 5 months pregnant with our first daughter Hope. Our life was about to get more expensive and complex
Be Prepared for the unexpected
Before I was let go I really wanted to design. The conceptual design work in the office was all done by my boss. I decided to do some side work. As a designer I was looking for my own voice so this was really important to me. I began going out to new sub-divisions door to door with a brochure I designed and getting my own jobs. At the time I was let go I had 7 side jobs. I had learned how to do my own work and handle clients when there was nothing at stake. I had also learned a little marketing from my wife who did that for a credit union at the time. As a kid in Texas we were Jehovah’s Witnesses and I had to go door-to-door and talk to people, so that part didn’t scare me either. It’s true! When you believe in what you’re selling it’s not that hard.
Another strange coincidence, I had decided to apply for my Landscape Architects license exam in 1990. I took the test, 2 days and 6 sections and passed all 6 sections on my first try. This wasn’t ever that important as a residential LA but it gave me an added level of confidence and credibility when I was let go from my job.
The economy got really bad and my work dried up almost entirely. Thankfully, my wife had a good job that was secure. I was working at home and taking care of our daughter for the next couple of years. That ended up being a real blessing because it allowed me to connect with my daughter at that young age more than I would have if I was working full time and having someone else raise her in daycare.
In 1993 or so the economy started to recover and building of new homes was back in swing. They became my target audience with my brochure door-to-door and my business became a full time thing. Within a year of things picking up, I started running a labor crew on the weekends to help my design clients get their landscape installed affordably.
This didn’t leave me any time with my family so in 1994 I decided to start a design/build company – Blue Sky Landscaping Inc. I got my contractors license, bought a truck, and hired a full time crew. This is also the year that we were joined by my second daughter Rose, in case there wasn’t already enough going on.
I have met a few others since then that have done the same thing. They had the LA background and then started contracting. I am one of the few that went back to LA full time. The others stopped designing and did contracting only. The main point is, we all decided to do one or the other. You just can’t do both well unless you have a lot of help.
That leads me to a year or so later when I re-assessed my business. I did not like managing a labor force with standards far below my own. I was also spending most of my time managing that part of the business and it left me feeling drained, with no energy for design. I was not happy for the first time in my business since going out on my own.
By 1995 I was looking at winding down the construction business and going back to design only. This is also the year my marriage ended. I had two young daughters that mattered more to me than any business. Doing everything I could to avoid having my daughters become collateral damage became my first priority. As part of that, I moved to Pleasanton, California half and hour south of Walnut Creek. This allowed me and their mother to have equal time with our daughters and see them every week-day and alternate weekends.
You may be asking yourself why I am sharing such personal details on a website for Design Professionals. Valid question. All of these details move us in one direction or another and shape who we are personally and in our businesses. Years ago I read the book ‘Loving Frank’, about Frank Lloyd Wright and his relationship with a woman who started as a client when Frank was married. He was a brilliant Architect but undeniably human and full of flaws like the rest of us. If someone reads parts of this that resonate with them then they can also see themselves on the other side of the rough patches. They do pass if you let them, and they can help us become better if we learn from them. That is why I am including them. There is a great expression; How you do anything is how you do everything. For me, the lesson is figure out what is most important and take really good care of it. That changes as we get older, so we need to constantly be asking the question.
Our personal life affects us at work more than anything else because it is so important to us. Leaving out my major personal decisions in a talk about who is Jeff Wortham is leaving out most of the story. If that’s the version you prefer then you probably haven’t read this far anyway.
Back to Design
Going back to design only was great. I reconnected with my love for design. Lesson learned. Back to the idea of Fail Fast Forward, you will note that I did not spend a long time in design/build. It didn’t work for me. Move on. The economy was better so I made the most of it and built up my business. I spent every weekday afternoon with my daughters from 3-6pm fully present. I did design and meetings at night with clients that needed it. I’m pointing this out because I was in charge of my calendar and didn’t let clients dictate how I spent my time.
A Balanced Life
It is very easy to tell yourself as a business owner that you have to work when your clients want you to. This is not true. We do ourselves’ and our families a disservice when we act on that premise. I did that for a while and then started telling clients I couldn’t meet on the weekends, that was family time. I got more respect as a result because so many of them wished they had that option or self-discipline. Others value family too, so they give me a pass. This is a major point in my personal growth. Design your business to meet your needs so you can better meet your client’s needs. If you are burned out and resentful you are not at your best for your clients. Balance.
As business owners, we will have more unified teams if we allow them the same. This creates the need for good management of work-flow and time commitments, but we as owners control that. Every time I re-focus on that things get better in our office.
A New Beginning
In 1999 I met my wife Linda while on vacation. That is a very cool story for when you know me better. She lived in Canada and moved to Pleasanton, CA and we got married the following year.
She brought with her more than her charm and good looks. She connected me to learning again. This was much better than what I had done in college. This was something of my choosing, for my direct benefit. This is where some of you will start to shake your heads, but stay with me, because this is where my life jumped to a new level.
Tony Robbins is known by those who don’t know him as a motivational speaker. He is not that. He is a guy that has worked out a lot about why we behave the way we do and then come up with ways for us to take control over our lives and our behavior to make it what ever we decide we want it to be. Who knew we had such choices? I did not at that time.
My wife had just finished listening to some tapes by Tony when we met and after her telling me about them I decided to listen as well. They were full of exercises which I did, but more importantly they helped me see where I was just following along with what I thought I was supposed to do. Shortly after I listened to the tapes he came to our area and my wife and I decided to go. By the end of the three days we had signed up for three courses that would change our lives dramatically in the years to come.
The reason I mention this at all is because it had such an affect on my mindset and how I approached my business after that. I had such limiting beliefs about what was possible as a Landscape Architect. I also thought I was near the top of what I was capable of in my business. Long story short, I doubled my income in the next 2 years. I started looking at everything as possible instead of why I couldn’t do it. That shift in thinking is the most powerful thing I have ever discovered to this day. I had not grown up around anyone that thought like that so I didn’t have any reference point for that way of looking at my life. They are called limiting beliefs, and we all have them. I realized later as my business got more complex I hadn’t eliminated my limiting beliefs, I had raised the bar so much that I couldn’t see them for some time. I still deal with them, but at least I know what’s really happening and what to do about it.
Because I had grown my design business so much the only thing I could do was hire someone to help me. In about 2001 I hired my first design employee. At the time of writing this he has been with me for most of the last 13 years or so. He worked as consultant for me from his own home so I wouldn’t need an office. After a year or so of that I decided it was time to get an office, the first of my career. That may not seem like much of a big deal to a lot of readers, but trust me, when you get your first office outside of your own home, it gives you a sense of legitimacy like nothing else. Business continued to grow until 2007.
Of course the recession that started in 2008 had a major impact on my company. Our revenue dropped over 25% that year and another 30% before leveling off. I had to let my associate go in 2009 and I worked alone for the next year. In 2010 I decided to go back to what had helped me so much in the past. I went back to learning. I took a class called Business Mastery put on by Tony Robins. Although it cost me $5,000 at a time when money was very tight I realized I had to find answers I was not coming up with on my own. The next year I increased my revenue by almost $100,000 and that was in 2011. In 2012 we increased even more than that. I’m not bragging here. This is the power of leveraging other people’s knowledge and reducing the cost, the time and the pain all at once. That is why I am doing this podcast and blog, to share success and learn from one another.
2013 was the year of my big business education. I went back and got even more education on many aspects of business. The fourth quarter of 2013 I started applying what I had learned earlier in the year and had my best quarter of the year. The fourth quarter is usually my worst quarter by far.
I want to start Design Pro Success Stories by sharing what I have learned that has lead to my success. I also want Design Pro Success Stories to be the resource and connection to information for Design Professionals. As the community develops it is my hope to listen to what the community wants to learn more about to help their businesses and then provide it.
If you have read this far you are probably a family member, thank you. If you aren’t a family member I really appreciate you taking the time to get to know me, and what motivates me on this labor of love. I’m excited about the potential of this community and this platform. I hope you find my story and all of the others helpful on your way to success as a Design Pro!