Four Reasons Why Permaculture Businesses Fail to Produce Right Livelihoods

The last post, I spent some time dispelling the 3 main myths around permaculture consulting. (You can read it here). This time, we’ll delve into 4 reasons why a business in the regenerative field might fail to produce the right livelihood for its operator:

Failure Reason 1: Not Understanding Value

Many businesses within the regenerative niche (consultants using permaculture, regenerative designers, landscapers, and ecological farmers) don’t understand their value. I see a lot of permaculture businesses grossly undercharge for the work that they do. It’s a common problem – A lot of us that work in this field struggle with quantifying what it is we actually do for our clients. I’ve also noticed that we are often scared to charge prices that are reflective of the value we provide because we fear that clients might reject us.

We need to understand how to price our service or project. If we don’t know how we came to our price, how can we ever expect our clients to understand? One way of understanding value is trying to assess the value of the liabilities you are solving. If you are dealing with a $500K liability, charging $5,000 would be grossly undervaluing your services. In the consulting world, it’s not uncommon to charge 10% of the value of the liability that you are taking away.

Every industry, service, or product will have its own metrics, rules of thumb, and reasoning. Get really clear on what you charge, why you charge it, and stand behind your value. If your clients say no, that’s fine. They weren’t a fit for you and now you have the time and space for another client that is a fit.

Failure Reason 2: Lack of Niching

Permaculture is known as being a solution to everything for everyone. But recall the saying that “if your product or service is a fit for everyone, it’s a fit for no one.” When you are starting a business, it’s really important to figure out who your perfect fit is. Who are the clients you would love to work with? What kind of problems do you want to solve? The reason this is a critical element to success for any business is that a poorly defined niche will make marketing almost impossible. Once you know who your perfect fit is, you’ll know where to find the people who have the problems you want to solve with your product or service. This principle holds true for any business.

Identify your niche.

It is also important while defining your niche to determine whether there is anyone to serve within that niche. “Food forests for breathatarians” might not be the best idea, for example.

Failure Reason 3: Poor Sales Process

Sales is the aspect most permaculture business owners dread. Most of us go into business so we can do more of the stuff we love, only to discover that we have to “sell” ourselves, our services, and our products. As a technician, engineer, and permaculture designer, this was definitely not what I left my oil and gas job to do, and I can tell you that learning to sell has been a steep learning curve for me.

I think the reason everyone hates selling so much is that we’ve all had negative experiences with horrible salespeople. Bad salespeople are pushy, slimy, and in your face – most of us don’t have any desire to force ourselves onto prospective clients. The solution most of us resort to then is: Well, I’m not going to sell. Of course, we all know where this leads – no sales, or just as bad, awkward sales calls.

Have you ever had a call where someone is inquiring about your services and you stumbled, said “um…ahhh… we sometimes charge this for this and other times we charge that for that…” all the while in the background the client is probably losing faith that you actually know what you are doing? Listen, you can be the best technician in your field, but if you don’t have a smooth sales process you’ll never land a job, or at least not the jobs you want.

Scared of becoming this guy?

What if I told you that sales could be the funnest part of your business going forward? Don’t believe me? Think about it this way. Think about your sales process as a filter. Think about your niche as the thing determining who you let through the filter. If you frame it this way, your sales process is merely a well thought out conversation to quickly determine whether you want to work with your client and vice versa. The goal of ethical selling when thought of in this way is not to convince anyone that they should work with you, but rather to determine if you:

– Are able to solve their problem,
– Will enjoy working on the problem, and
– Can charge what you need to charge to make it worth your while.

Simple, right? The other thing a polished sales process will help you do is set expectations right from the start. A lot of consultancies fail because you and the client had differing and unspoken expectations. A good sales call should address these expectations right from the beginning. It’s all part of the filter.

Failure Reason 4:  Lack of Professionalism

In most cases, I think this is more a symptom rather than something one goes out of their way to do. First off, let’s define what “lack of professionalism” means. This can manifest in a lot of ways, but here are some of the more common ones I’ve encountered:

– Not returning emails or phone calls.
– Passive-Aggressive communication.
– Unwilling to admit mistakes when they occur (which they will.)
– Not giving updates to your clients (if required.)
– Not warning your clients if you are falling behind schedule.
– Incomplete work.
– Not meeting expectations.

As I noted, these are typical symptoms of bigger problems, such as not charging enough, or working in a niche that you are not eligible to work in, or not clearly defining expectations in your sales and contractual processes.

When we undercharge for our work, we tend to take on more projects to make ends meet. In contrast, when we charge sufficiently for our work we can afford to have the right resources to knock the project out of the park. Not overselling means that we have more time for emails, that we are less likely to make mistakes, and that we can ensure that our projects are completed on time.

When we choose the right niche, one in which we are experts and the work is within our capability to excel. When we accept work outside of our domain of expertise, this can cause problems during and even after the work is complete.

Next time, I’ll talk about one of the most important things you can do before starting your permaculture consulting business in order to maximize its chances of success.

Managing all the facets of a consulting business is challenging, but it doesn’t need to be painful. After seeing so many businesses struggle with similar issues, Javan and I wanted to set up a program to resolve these problems once and for all. Regenerative Mentorship is the program we wished we had a decade ago when we got started in this field. It’s our effort to help get more consultants and designers into the regenerative field fixing the world. If this post or the ideas in it resonated with you, please check out our program here.


In less than 10 years, Rob & Michelle Avis left Calgary’s oil fields and retooled their engineering careers to help clients and students design integrated systems for shelter, energy, water, waste and food, all while supporting the local economy and regenerating the land. They’re now leading the next wave of permaculture education, teaching career-changing professionals to become eco-entrepreneurs with successful regenerative businesses. Learn more and connect with Rob & Michelle on;

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