BY JOHN OGBURN
It’s always interesting to think back on key decisions that have landed you squarely in the spot in which you currently reside. Certain decisions that may not have felt overly important in the moment, but in hindsight, decisions that have now set the course of your life and/or career. In the case of the development of EnTerra Design Group, it all began with a Craigslist ad. A small, local outdoor living design and build firm in my hometown of Charlotte, NC was seeking to fill an entry level design/sales position. I was fresh home from college and looking to get my feet under me prior to really buckling down and finding my career path. I had just completed an undergraduate and graduate program in engineering graphic design, which by the book would have placed me somewhere in the front end of the product development process – in the 3D solid modeling and virtual prototyping phase. Answering this help wanted Craigslist ad and ultimately finding gainful employment in the outdoor living industry, turned out to be one of the most key decisions I’ve made in my professional career. To me, this is pretty funny to think back on, as it’s kind of the vocational equivalent of finding your wife on Tinder. Please don’t get me wrong, there is nothing at all wrong with either, but it just goes to show that what may seem inconsequential in the moment and a decision made only to satisfy a shorter term need (want :), can prove to be momentous moving forward.
Prior to coming across this ad, answering it and beginning my path in the outdoor living design industry, I really had no previous inclination towards this line of work. However, as I progressed in this new role, I found that my formal education actually provided a great foundation to build from, specifically in the design and planning portion of the position. The skills I had previously developed in 3D solid modeling and parts/assembly layouts, transferred well into the development of detailed 3D design renderings and subsequent installation plans of outdoor living projects. The ability to present my design concepts as 3D visualizations gave me a leg up with the prospective clients I was meeting with, especially at that time. Of course, this was only a piece of the equation. There was still plenty to learn (and still is) regarding the specifics of the industry – design principles; installation techniques/standards; materials; plants; understanding project scope and designing within budget; etc, etc, etc… Honestly, as I got my start, my modus operandi was a bit “fake it till you make it”. Even that being the case, my technical skills and a more personalized, solutions-based approach with clients, rather than a pushy sales approach, brought slow and steady success to build from.
I have always had a love of nature and appreciation/attraction towards being outdoors. This is something I believe was ingrained at an early age and continues to be a strong influence in my professional and personal life. This interest has made work feel less like work and more of a realization and continual appreciation that I can carve a career out of something I truly love. As such, I poured myself into building my knowledge base on all areas I felt I was lacking, and continued to hone the areas I felt I was already proficient at.
I spent a few years with the company I originally answered the ad for, prior to making a slightly upward move to a larger, more established firm, also serving the greater Charlotte, NC area. I held the same position – design and sales; however, now with a bit more project management responsibility. This newer firm also provided access to more comprehensive projects with larger budgets. This was largely due to their offering of completely turn-key projects, inclusive of all elements I had previously designed, but now with the addition of swimming pools and spas. I quickly developed a passion for designing and planning custom pools, and the surrounding outdoor living environments. As my ability to design custom swimming pools advanced, I had to keep my construction and planning knowledge on pace as well, to ensure the projects were being built properly. I was beginning to see that I was designing beyond some of the capabilities of the in-house crews that staffed the design|build company, which subsequently required more of my time in the field to help oversee some of the critical phases of construction. This time spent in the field, working through challenges and finding solutions provided a tangible connection from the design process to the implementation. It didn’t cause me to stop pushing the envelope with my design work, rather it allowed me to be two steps ahead with understanding what challenges to expect with certain design features/styles and then in-turn, how to properly estimate and plan for these effectively, prior to beginning construction.
Roll the clock forward a bit – after spending several years with this poolscape, hardscape and landscape design|build company, I had further established my own name within the industry here in Charlotte. I was finding more success and felt as if I was on a career path with this company. In one of our weekly morning staff meetings, the owner with whom I had grown very close with, casually announced that he would be selling the company. This was one of those announcements that wasn’t all together surprising in hindsight, as he was the type of business owner where everything is for sell at the right price; although, it did catch me off guard in the moment. After the change in ownership, it was within a year’s time that the doors to the company were closed…abruptly and without warning. The closure left several of “my” projects still in various stages of construction and no plan by the new owner for completion. The full details of this occurrence are not particularly important for the purposes of this article, only to say that this left me in a position of feeling pretty desperate. I felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me. I struggled majorly with the scenario of “my” clients, those that I had made promises to as a representative of a once strong company, now in an upside down situation with little recourse. This weighed heavy on me to say the least. The decision I faced was to cut ties with the clients, leaving them even further hanging and make a lateral move for myself within the industry, or, stick it out, by finding solutions on how to carry out the completion of these projects. After careful consideration it was obvious that there was no real decision to be made, that all things considered, I had to see these projects out, fulfill my promises, and in turn protect my reputation…and allow me to sleep at night. As with many challenging situations, the circumstances can seem overwhelming at the onset, but with some time and hard work, what once seemed insurmountable, then becomes another opportunity to build from.
Although I didn’t recognize it initially, this was the beginning of EnTerra Design Group. I was very fortunate to have had several great clients that afforded me the trust to continue work in a revised format. It was extremely rewarding to help see these projects to the finish line and to be completely in the driver’s seat. This opportunity not only provided the short term need of paid employment, but the more I progressed with these projects, the more it became obvious that it was time to do this for myself…officially. I can confidently say, this would not have been a decision I would’ve made, at least for several more years to come, had it not been somewhat “forced” upon me. Thinking back on this occurrence provides perspective on much of life in general to me, as what initially seemed to be a total setback was actually one of the best things that has happened to me in my professional career. Many important events often tend to unfold in this manner, not exactly as planned but ultimately lead you on the path you were meant to follow.
As I began brainstorming and outlining the business model of my future company, I knew I wanted to focus on the design aspect of the process. I was accustomed to working on higher-end projects, many of those previous opportunities being the poolscape and outdoor living portion of new luxury home builds. I looked at the luxury home market for inspiration as to how I wanted to position myself in the market. As with custom home construction, the process typically begins with a design professional – the architect. I felt Charlotte and the surrounding areas had/has the clientele and outdoor living demand that would support the need for a true design professional that specialized in luxury poolscape design. With this basic concept, I was off and EnTerra (In Earth) Design was born.
I immediately began setting meetings with the previous material supply vendors and specialty trades I had developed relationships with over the years to let them know my plans. I felt networking with the various leaders in our market would be a great way to begin gaining some traction. I also reached out to a select few poolscape and outdoor living contractors, all of which had previously been “competition”, for the opportunity to share my portfolio and offer my services as the design leg of their process. I was specifically interested in building relationships with those that were exceptional on the build and management end, but who could use some help on the front end design and planning process. Ultimately, these relationships have proven to be the foundation of my business, providing great opportunities stemming from both sides and the ability to grow each others’ businesses through truly collaborative teamwork. The core principle of these partnerships being a significantly higher value being placed on the quality over the quantity of projects.
Success didn’t happen overnight; however, the business was sustainable from the beginning and with time, word traveled of the work we were producing. The market was hungry for a quality option to provide a step-above approach for luxury poolscape and outdoor living design, planning and execution. Now, five years in, my reputation is established and we’re fortunate that clients are now seeking us out both here in our home market of Charlotte and beyond. Our client’s appreciate our design abilities, attention to detail, communication, and hands-on approach to ensuring their projects are completed as designed and to the highest standard of construction.