Down the Rabbit Hole – Designing Business

It’s surprising how conventional architectural businesses can be.  I guess you can’t blame us. What do architects know about business anyway?  It’s not a big part of any curriculum that teaches us how to architect, right?  Those of us who pursue the dream of owning and directing a design firm enter into a world more like the prey than the hunters.  

 My business partner and I started our careers in a highly regarded design firm that was dysfunctional in just about every way.  It wasn’t long in our career that The White Rabbit beckoned us to a new world. With time on our hands, a dream, and a subtle twist of the tale we turned the tables on the notion of the design business and designed one of our own.  Our advantage was that we had no business training whatsoever and at a tender age of 29, little experience as well.  

Although there were bumps in the road, after 24 years Winter Street Architects is a thriving, tight-knit design firm, with some really cool clients.  Below are 5 overarching themes that will help any design entrepreneur or seasoned designer jumpstart their firm.

1.       Focus on your client

How can you help if you don’t know what they need?

Focusing on your client, this seems obvious right? But we can all be a little egocentric at times.  The key is, to marry good design with your clients business in a way that directly has an effect on their bottom line. Your work needs to make your client’s endeavor better, whatever, that endeavor may be.   We developed a process at Winter Street Architects to understand our clients, know their business, and what drives them.  “Walk a mile in their shoes” as I always say.   (more on this to come in a later blog)

2.       Form the cult company

Having a good team is not enough. It needs to be cult-like. 

Not a Jonestown kind of thing, but rather a company that is held together and motivated by ideals, and driven by a common purpose. Little did we know back in the day that forming a firm like ours was much aligned with what business schools teach as being the highest form of business: “the cult company.”  In order to bind your team, and provide motivation and direction for your firm, you need to stand for something. Winter Street stands for ideals of architecture, business, and humanity that are far too many and complex to list here, but at the basis are: honesty, integrity, fairness and pursuit of excellence.  Having ideals at the core of your business will drive everything you do, from hiring, to the workplace, into accounting and management and of course, in the work you provide.

3.       A clear view to the top

Transparency of business workings dissolves a glass ceiling.

People are the engine of any company. In this industry, we mostly sell anticipated labor in the fashion of fixed fees.  So making a profit is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  Many design firms that I know simply over work their employees.  They pay them a market-rate professional salary, and then work them an extra 500 hours, or more, per year to ensure their profit.  Not the way it should be, and clearly self serving.  It pays to be more socialistic and humane.  A sweat shop is for the small minded with shallow souls; aim to have none of that.

It is important that a business be transparent to staff, and that mentoring colleagues is institutionalized.  There should be no secrets.  It’s about growing careers, as well as having more complete and able bodied talent capable of moving to new ground.  How can everybody help if they don’t have a clue about the inner workings? It is about teamwork, there should be no corporate ceiling.  If an employee can do what principals do (bring in new work, new clients, and drive the firm’s vision forward) then they should be able to join the leadership.

 I’m amazed how often I interview architects in their 50’s who know nothing about this business.  They say they love “doing” architecture, drawing, being involved in projects, the details, etc. as they attempt to convince me of their value.  They have been shut out, and kept out by their own unwillingness to fully understand how firm’s operate.  To me they have little value except as a functionary; in fact, they have one foot in the tar pit.   These candidates are highly salaried and have capabilities, but are moving to extinction.  I tell my team you have to make yourself valuable, and it’s not doing what everybody else does.  Being a commodity is dangerous; there’s always that tar pit looming ominously near the watering hole.

The diagram above has been borrowed from the crazed Dr. Emilio Lizardo from the movie spoof The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai. This is an example of a mangement hierachy that should be avoided at all costs. Try not to seperate your team into the two catergories “ME” and “Everyone Else.”

4.       Create your petri dish for talent while encouraging ideas

Provide an environment for the passionate and ambitious to flourish

A key to keeping your design firm moving forward is “home-grown management.”  You can hire experienced people from outside but indoctrination into the fold is hard. Most lessons learned in the early years are deeply imbedded (look at how many people refer back to their childhood for their shortcomings way past mid-life).  Impressions made in the formidable years are strong; subliminal pulls back to those ways and ideas are equally strong and indefatigable.   Starting with young, eager employees, and training new hires in “your way of doing things” can be much more efficient.

In our firm once a new employee is chosen they are one of us. We teach them what we do starting day one…from the bottom to the top.  We are respectful across the disciplines of interior designers, architects and support staff, and across experience levels -from the interns to the owners.  Everyone’s contribution is realized.  We allow everyone access and participation in all that we do (finances, policy, marketing strategy, fee proposals, just about everything that is not confidential personnel information).  Everyone is responsible for the success of the firm.

 My basic rule is that any new hire needs to have a passion for what they do; they need to be ambitious and want to do excellent work.  After that, most things fall into place.  This type of environment is empowering.

 Having, thoughtful, smart and clever people around is a necessity.  Tapping into employee ideas is your greatest source of performance improvements, and why not? Ideas are free.  It is important to share ideas and grow new people into your workplace.  New energy, enthusiasm, and positive outlook feed the firm.  

5.       Reward

When it comes time for a yearly review, and a team member can demonstrate success-especially financial success, how can you refuse that raise or bonus?  It empowers employees to better themselves in terms of bettering the firm.  That’s what we’re about.   If an employee can make money for the firm, doing good work, you should be happy to give them their fair share. 

 But it’s not all about the monetary award. When it comes down to it people want to be valued. As a culture we tend to associate our value with our wealth, but we appreciate other forms of rewards as well.  Acknowledgement of a job well done goes a long way.  Here are 25 ways to reward employees without spending a dime.

 These are a few themes that have worked for Winter Street Architects; we welcome comments and ideas below.


Other resources:

If you are starting from complete scratch, you may want to read Build LLC’s blog about how to start your own design firm.

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