Check out the 2024 State of the Landscape Labor Market Report. Download here.

Protecting Landscape Designs from the Competition

| Topic:

Business Advice

The Un-Biddable Master Plan

One of the big ideas I talk about in my presentations and webinars is the concept of design/build contractors creating an un-biddable master plan.

I know what some of you are thinking. “What possible reason could there be for creating a landscape master plan and then not being able to put a price to it? That’s just ridiculous. Jody you’ve totally lost it this time”.

Now hold on a minute and let’s slow down. Before you call start complaining and sending me nasty emails, let me first explain what an un-biddable master plan is. The concept of an un-biddable master plan or UMP (pronounced ump) was created about 12 years ago by yours truly. I came up with the idea after having yet another one of my plans shopped around to my competition, only to have it underbid by another company. We all know what that feels like and it ain’t good.

Protecting Landscape Designs from Being Bid By Competitors

Although at the time, I used to get really mad at both the customer and the other contractor for “stealing” my job, the truth of the matter was that they didn’t take it away from me; I gave it to them on a silver platter. That’s right, it was my fault. The reason was that I used to create incredibly detailed master plans and proposals that made it easy for anyone to competitively bid it. It was no different than Colonel Sanders writing down mailing his secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken and then sending it to his competitors over at Chicken Delight (“Don’t cook tonight. Call Chicken Delight”).

Well, not anymore. Now I create un-biddable master plans that make it impossible to compare “apples to apples” and my sales have gone through the roof.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about what an UMP is, how to create one and why you should use them.

For those of you that were formally trained like I was, we were taught that landscape plans needed to have a plant list or plant schedule, including a key, quantities, common name, botanical name, sizes and specific notes like B&B or container, etc. These drawings also needed dimensions, construction details, complete title blocks and symbols for everything from existing trees to underground utilities.

After that we had to add a half page of notes describing everything from proper sub-base compaction to the exact percentage blend of grass seed.  It was insane and the drawings took forever to put together.

These days I do the exact opposite and I’ll tell you why.

All of us want to build what we design (that’s why the industry is called design/build)  and the last thing any of us want is to have anyone install our designs. If this is truly what we want, we need to stop making it so easy for another company to come along, take our drawings and give the client a lower price. Right? OK. Good. I’m glad that we can all agree on that. So here’s what you need to do.

You need to create presentation drawings that are drawn to scale but still conceptual in nature. Or as I like to say – subject to interpretation. That’s right. Include enough information so that the drawings make sense, but not enough for a client to get a comparable bid.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not evil.  Your clients can still get other prices if they want to, but that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for my competitors to estimate the project and neither should you.

As we all know it takes a lot of work to do quantity take offs and measure square footages, especially if you do everything by hand like I do.  So why should you do all of the hard work and then let other companies just price it up?  It’s kind of like high school when you had a group project to do. You would do all of the work and your stupid partners would take all of the credit when it came time to do the presentation (sorry I just had a high school flashback).

What I do now is keep things as basic and generic as I can on the plan. For example, when it comes time to letter the drawing I will label the patio, you guessed it, “patio”.  Not wet laid, true blue, bluestone patio, random ashlar, min 12”x12” and max 24”x36”, with 4” gravel sub-base 98% compaction, 4” conc. slab with wwf, ½” mortar joints max not longer than 36” in any one direction, 1.5% slope away from house with expansion joints every 10′.

Wow, I can’t believe I remember all of that!

The same thing goes for plantings. I’ll show a staggered line of evergreen tree symbols and write “spruce”. Not (15) Picea Abies – Norway Spruce 7-8′ 10’o.c., branched to the ground, min 6′ wide at the base, natural (not sheared).

Now just because I keep my master plans “light” on information doesn’t mean that my clients don’t know what they’re getting and that the crews don’t know what exactly they are building. All necessary sizes, quantities or other specifications are included in my proposal, and the construction plans, where they belong. Although I do admit that even on the proposal, I keep the information as basic as I can.

Sorry “Landscape Delight”, you need to get your own secret recipe this time.

Jody Shilan is a former landscape contractor and award winning designer. He has sold tens of millions of dollars of installation work throughout his career and now uses his 30+ years of experience to teach other landscape design/build contractors how to dramatically increase their sales and standardize their landscape design/build/sales process. He does this through private consulting, public speaking, group workshops and his “exclusive” members only website

Jody Shilan appears as a guest blogger for LMN Blog, Landscape Management Network’s resource hub for all things related to building a better landscape business.  For more on the Landscape Management Network, check out the website at

You’re just one step away from better

Start Your Free Trial

30-day free trial. No credit card needed.