Mike French sells standard deck-building plans via his Web site.
Mike French sells standard deck-building plans via his Web site.

If it wasn't for the Northern spotted owl, Mike French probably wouldn't be operating an online deck design business, Virginia Decking and Remodeling (www.vadeck.com) — a unique operation in the deck-building industry.

Twenty-five years ago French started as a conventional deck-building contractor. But in 1990 the spotted owl nearly drove him out of business. Lumber prices went “out of sight” when the bird made the U.S. Endangered Species List, French remembers. At that point he had 20 decks sold but not built, and suddenly the price of lumber had tripled. French says he felt obligated to fulfill those contracts. But adds, “doing so forced me into a very difficult financial situation that I didn't want to repeat.”

ON LINE DECK-DESIGN GURU Today French designs, markets, and builds decks, mostly throughout Virginia, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania. Building remains his principle revenue source.

But he also sells standard and custom deck-building plans, offers consulting services to home owners so they can act as their own general contractors, and sells information — gleaned from his years in the business — to get people started in their own deck design/build company or to help contractors add deck building to their existing home improvement services.

French has sold hundreds of plans to homeowners and contractors throughout the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Homeowners typically save 25% when acting as their own general contractors under his direction, French says. Standard plans are available for as little as $29.95; French requires a design fee retainer of at least $500 before starting custom plans.

FUTURE PLANS The deck builder says he's currently developing a “lights out, end-to-end deck sales solution.” Using online resources, including interactive forms — a design worksheet and a cost calculator — a client can visit the Web site at any time, choose and modify plans online, price materials, and download a contract. After French receives a signed copy of the contract with a down payment, he places the contract and completes the plans with a contractor in the client's locality. He is in the process of setting up a national network of contractors.

French is confident that the Internet is the future of his business. He recently designed and “sold turnkey” a $40,000 deck, he says. “And I never saw the guy or met him.”