How to start up a scaffolding business

Putting up scaffolding is skilled and technical work and you'll need to make sure you're fully aware of safety issues. Get the essentials for starting up and running your own scaffolding business in our practical guide.

Research your target market

When you plan your business it's very important to think carefully about who your customers will be and how much existing competition there is.

Customers

Think about who is likely to use your services. Much of your work is likely to come from other businesses in the construction industry.

Sub-contract work

Many construction projects will require some form of elevated access, both on the outside and possibly on the inside of the building or structure. Try approaching businesses such as general builders, roofers, civil engineers, painters and decorators and so on. Your aim is to make sure that as many businesses as possible in your area that require scaffolding on a regular basis have your contact details, and a good reason for giving your business a try.

Think about other types of business that might frequently require scaffolding. For example, industrial contract cleaners often need high level access to the outside of tall structures, as do steeplejacks and even shipbuilders.

Work for other businesses and organisations

Other types of business might contact you directly if they need scaffolding. For example, event organisers and concert promoters may require scaffolding for podiums, stages and similar temporary structures, as may film and television companies.

Industrial plants, factories, farms, dockyards and shipping, offices and shops might also require your services from time to time. Consider approaching your local authority - these are major users of construction services and may be prepared to include your business on a list of 'approved contractors'.

Once you have identified who your potential customers are, you can direct your advertising efforts at them.

Domestic work

Some householders might contact your business directly when they need scaffolding for a DIY project. Such projects might include exterior painting and general maintenance. You could consider keeping suitable DIY equipment in stock, for example lightweight portable scaffold towers.

Pay attention to the type of housing in your area. For example, is housing one, two or multi-storey? Is accommodation mainly owner-occupied or mainly rented? Is some owned by the local authority or by a housing association?

Establishing the level of competition

Once you have decided who your customers might be, you need to find out how well they are already served.

How many other scaffolding firms are there in your area? A browse on Yell.com and other similar online directories will help to establish this. You could also look at local print directories. How many offer the same services that you intend to offer? These are your direct competitors. Bear in mind that there may be other scaffolders working in the area who don't advertise anywhere but obtain most of their work through a network of contacts within the industry. Look out for outlets owned by major national companies like Deborah Services Ltd (DSL) and SGB (a Brand company). Be aware that although the major national tool and plant hire specialists like HSS and Brandon Hire (and also the builders merchant Jewson) don't offer a full scaffolding service, they do hire out access equipment like towers, stagings and powered-access platforms.

Look at some of your competitors' advertisements and websites:

  • what services do they offer
  • do they advertise any special features, for example a 24 hour service
  • do they belong to a trade association, for example the National Access and Scaffolding Confederation (NASC)
  • what sort of impression does their advertisement give you (for example, does the firm come across as small and friendly, large and efficient, good value?)

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Price your services

How will you decide on your prices?

First decide how you will charge for the work you do. For example, you might base your charges on the approximate area or meterage of building to be covered, making allowances for the type of scaffold required and any special requirements such as waste chutes, safety netting, weather-proof coverings and so on. Alternatively, you might cost each job on the basis of the amount of equipment required, once again taking into account any extras and special requirements. You may decide to use different methods of costing for different jobs, depending on who the customer is and what the job is like.

In some cases, it may be possible to quote a price from experience - for example, you may be very familiar with the amount of scaffold required to cover a particular type of house within your local area. In other cases, however, it may be necessary to carry out quite a detailed costing exercise in order to work out how much to charge. This might include technical drawings or even computer aided design (CAD). Complex scaffolds like dead and flying shores, bridge scaffolds and spectator terraces will all need to be properly designed.

Decide whether you will charge for scaffolds on a weekly or monthly basis, or whether you will charge a fixed price irrespective of how long (within reason!) the scaffolding remains in place. The basis on which you charge for scaffolding might vary from one client to the next, depending on who they are and how often they use your services.

Be clear about what will be included in your 'basic' price for a scaffold, and what will be charged for as an extra. For example, you might usually include erection and dismantling as part of your basic charge, but make an extra charge for any additional labour required to modify the scaffold during the course of a project. Sometimes you might provide your own services, and those of any employees, on a labour-only basis.

It is very important that you set your charges carefully. You must make sure when deciding on what to charge that, assuming you get enough work, you will earn enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings.

Also consider the following points when setting your charges:

  • what do your competitors charge for a similar level of service
  • do you aim to win business away from your competitors with attractive pricing
  • will you vary your rate depending on the type and complexity of the work involved, and perhaps depending on who the customer is
  • will you make a profit on any extra equipment that you have to hire out for a job, or will you pass this on at cost

Quote or estimate

If you give a quote for a job, that is a fixed price. Once it has been accepted by a customer the price can't be changed, even if there is a lot more work to do than you realised when you prepared the quote. So it's very important that your quotes give precise details of what is covered and make it quite clear that any variations or extras not covered by the quote will be charged for as extras.

An estimate is not a fixed price, it's just your best guess of what the job is likely to cost. You are not bound by it. It is perfectly acceptable to provide several estimates, each taking into account different circumstances from best to worst case scenario.

If necessary explain to customers what could lead to the price for a job having to change - for example modifications made to the original specification or a request for additional scaffolding. And if the customer asks for modifications during the course of a job, be clear about how this will affect the overall cost.

It's usual to provide estimates and quotes free of charge on a no-obligation basis. You might, though, decide to make a charge for more complex and time consuming consultancy work - perhaps you will refund this charge if it leads on to a substantial contract.

Trade rates

Clients that are other businesses might expect you to offer them a special 'trade rate'. Large organisations that invite firms like yours to tender for contract work will also expect your rates to be very competitive, as will insurance companies.

Be aware that many of your clients will get quotes from several scaffolding firms, so you need to be able to quote accurately and competitively. Large organisations that invite firms such as yours to tender for sub-contract work will often expect your rates to be very competitive. However, don't cut your own throat. Many clients value a good, efficient, and above all safe service and are prepared to pay a realistic price for it. Make sure that you don't end up working at a loss because your quote was too low!

Special guides are available to help you when pricing all aspects of scaffolding and access work. They give up to date advice on what rates to charge for particular types of jobs.

Your work rate

Assuming that you get a fairly steady stream of work, the amount that you can earn depends partly on the number of days you work and the length of your working day.

You may decide to stick to normal business hours, for example 8.30 am until 5.30 pm Monday to Friday and perhaps Saturdays too. Or you may decide to work longer hours. Remember though that bad weather can disrupt your work schedules. Perhaps you are prepared to work very long hours when the weather is fair and your services are in demand, taking some time off during quieter periods.

Erecting and dismantling scaffolding normally requires a team of at least two people. So you will probably need to make sure that there is somebody available to work with you during your hours of business.

Some scaffolding and access firms offer a 24 hour service. If you intend to offer this service you will need to make sure that you can provide cover at all times, perhaps by taking on extra employees or a business partner. In some cases you will specifically be required to work outside normal business hours. For example, for safety reasons it is quite usual for scaffolds sited in busy public places to be erected and dismantled during the evening or night. Similarly, internal scaffolding that's needed in workplaces may also have to be worked on at night when the building is empty.

Work rate

As an experienced scaffolder, you should have an idea of how long certain types of job will take you. It is very important when quoting for a job that you can make an accurate estimate of how long it will take. It's no good quoting based on one day's work if it ends up taking you three!

The speed at which you work depends on your own skills and experience and on the type of work that you do. Your charges should reflect all of these things.

Non-productive time

Unfortunately, not all of every working day will be spent earning money. Here are a few examples of reasons why you will sometimes find yourself working hard but earning nothing:

  • visiting sites to cost new work
  • finishing off jobs that take you longer than you had thought (possibly due to unforeseen problems)
  • travelling to and from jobs, or going to get equipment from your base or a supplier
  • repairing equipment or vehicles

Sometimes you will find that you are unable to work at all, because:

  • the weather is too bad to work outside
  • another contractor has fallen behind with his or her part of the project
  • you are waiting for equipment to be delivered
  • a vital piece of equipment is broken
  • you are ill or even injured

Remember that the above can apply to your employees as well as to you. Take all of these factors into account when you are estimating the maximum number of productive hours that you and your employees can work each month.

Advertising your business

It is important to advertise your business effectively, to let your potential customers know who you are, where you are and what you can do for them.

Advertising and marketing

Now that so many people search for things like scaffolding services online, a good website can be a very good way of advertising your business and reaching a wider range of customers. Think about getting listed in online directories - perhaps 'contact an expert' directories run by some trade associations.

Social media can also be an effective way of marketing your business, staying in touch with previous customers and making contact with potential new ones. Think too about using relevant forums and perhaps a blog (although be aware that some forum websites ban blatant advertising in forum posts). You could sign up to a review website for trades-people such as Checkatrade. You could also consider trying to obtain work through job-referral websites like Mybuilder.com and Rated People too.

An entry in a local print directory can be an effective way of advertising your business. However, many of your competitors will have done the same so try to make your business stand out.

Some firms spend a lot of money on large, eye-catching display advertisements. You will have to decide whether to compete head on with these firms, or look for a different way of attracting customers. You could, for example:

  • focus on your own unique selling point (USP) in your advertising material. This might be, for example, "25 years experience", "Family run firm" or even simply "Friendly, honest service"
  • advertise in other ways. For example, you could distribute a paper flyer, plastic card or sticker with your business name and telephone number on it as part of a mail-shot that you do, perhaps in the early spring
  • look into becoming listed by an insurer, specialist helpline or directory as an 'approved tradesman' (most of these organisations operate a quality screening process and some will only list firms that have been trading for at least two years)
  • contact local residential landlords associations to enquire about being included in their suppliers guide

The important thing is to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from your competitors.

Other ways of advertising

Your local paper may run a regular 'contact the experts' advertising feature. If you want to advertise to a wider audience, consider trade journals for the building industry.

A direct mailshot can be a cheap but effective means of advertising your services. Sponsorship of a local sports team or event might also prove effective.

Remember that your vehicle can be a very effective means of advertising if you have it sign-written and keep it clean and presentable. A well designed sign, with your business name, logo and telephone number on it, could be attached prominently to each of your scaffolds.

Word of mouth

Word of mouth recommendations are very valuable to your business. Everyone has heard horror stories about 'cowboy' tradesmen who bodge jobs and swindle their customers - and they want to be sure that you're not going to do the same to them. You will have to earn your reputation through good, reliable workmanship - but even small things like politeness and considerateness can pay big dividends. Make sure that any staff you employ are good ambassadors for your business too.

Try to build up a network of key contacts within the local construction industry. You might also look into becoming listed by a local authority as an 'approved contractor'.

Decide which services to offer

You will probably work on both new and existing buildings. Some of the construction projects that that you might provide access services for include:

  • general building work, including repairs, maintenance and improvement, to a variety of different buildings including domestic houses and commercial and industrial premises
  • maintenance and repair of listed buildings and monuments
  • roofing work and chimney repairs
  • painting, decorating and cleaning (for example the outsides of high buildings)
  • civil engineering, including bridge building and maintenance

As well as construction projects, you might also offer specialist access services and scaffolding for the following:

  • marine engineering and shipbuilding
  • temporary structures for special events, such as pop concerts and sporting events
  • film and television sets
  • heavy industry, for example petro-chemical plants and offshore oil platforms
  • agriculture
  • hygiene-sensitive areas (for example food preparation factories)
  • hazardous areas

There are several different scaffolding systems and techniques available, some of which are particularly suitable for certain applications. You might decide to develop specialist expertise in complex designed scaffolds like cantilevers, birdcages and bridge scaffolds.

For most scaffolding contracts you will be expected to erect and dismantle the scaffolding as required. In some cases, you might also be required to modify and/or expand the scaffold during the course of the project. For major projects, you may be asked to provide detailed design and consultancy services.

Many scaffolds will require 'extras' such as rubbish chutes, lifts and conveyors, spine beams, safety netting, tarpaulin screens and weather-proofing, and so on.

You might decide to specialise in a particular type of access provision. This might necessitate specialist equipment and training. For example, scaffolds erected at sites where hygiene is important are often made from special materials such as glassfibre reinforced plastic (GRP). Similarly, GRP scaffolding may be required at sites where non-conductive equipment is needed for safety reasons.

Other services

As well as scaffolding work, you might decide to offer various other services. Some examples include:

  • specialist access services, for example rope access, 'bosun's chair' and 'cherry picker' access
  • crane hire
  • skip hire
  • other plant hire
  • asbestos removal
  • sales of new and used scaffolding equipment

You might even decide to offer services such as roofing work or remedial stonemasonry, depending on the skills that you have available.

Quality of service

The scaffolding industry is competitive and you may decide to offer your customers a range of 'added value' services. These might include, for example:

  • free estimates and quotations
  • a high level of public liability insurance
  • membership of a recognised trade association
  • training of all operatives
  • safety audit and certification, for example using the SCAFFTAG system
  • a freephone telephone line
  • 24 hour, seven day service
  • a 'no job too small' promise

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing scaffolding business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • the premises, vehicles and equipment are already in place
  • there may be established customers
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • staff may already be in place

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up.

Your market research into the sector as a whole, and the locality in particular, will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because he or she can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, scaffolding, other equipment and so on. Is all equipment in a safe and usable condition? Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • the reputation of the business - it may well be worth searching online and checking review and feedback websites to see what past customers have had to say about it
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller

Make sure that the business does not have any outstanding liabilities - for example unsettled claims for compensation - before making any commitment to buy.

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

If there are established regular customers and other important contacts, take the trouble to go out and meet them soon after you take over the business. Some of them will have built up a good relationship with the former proprietor over the years and may be wary about a change of ownership. You may be able to get the former proprietor to introduce you personally.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.