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Advice for Aspiring Business Owners

The design ecosystem needs fledgling firms in order to continue to evolve, yet architects are often understandably wary of venturing out on their own. The challenges of growing and sustaining a design firm long-term at times may seem insurmountable. They can include deciding whether to specialize in a building type (or types); how to leverage networking and extracurriculars; whether to partner (and with whom); balancing growth and client service; mentoring and retaining talent. Lack of knowledge in these areas for young and mid-career architects and designers can stop them from considering self-employment and entrepreneurship before they even start.

But the rewards outweigh the risks. The freedom to choose the type of work that inspires you, combined with the potential for greater long-term financial returns and one’s own personal growth in leadership make the challenges worth taking on. Plus, your venture will stimulate local economic activity. According to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, about 40% of net new jobs over the last two decades were generated by start-ups.

We’ve put together a little survival guide for those considering branching out on their own. See below for some tips and tricks we’ve figured out along the way, over many years of trials, stumbles, successes and triumphs.

Consider a partnership:
Flying solo and answering to no one may seem ideal, but working with a partner or two may be critical for effective business development. The ideal partner brings complimentary talents and skill sets, as well as a range of new contacts. Plus, partnering means sharing responsibility so no one winds up in over their heads.

The grind IS daily:
All the more reason to take on a partner—no one can do it all themselves. At first, your workdays will be largely filled with tasks associated with running a business, and they need to be met with an air of unqualified confidence, and (don’t forget) a creative spirit. You will undoubtedly make mistakes, but you will learn from them and grow as a leader and businessperson.

Consider a limited partnership structure. Who will take responsibility for overseeing office administration, human resources, bookkeeping, marketing and business development, and the other vital elements of running a successful design firm? You’ll need to delegate responsibility, which means placing your trust in your partner, or the person you just hired, or the person your partner just hired who is a complete stranger to you. Think long-term, and assume your new, younger employees will be with you for years to come. You and your partner(s) must set aside time to train and mentor them so they can do the less glamorous design and administrative tasks you won’t have time for. You’ll also be cultivating an in-house talent pool to draw from as your firm expands and new leadership roles need filling. Cultivate loyalty amongst employees. Teach your staff rather than “managing” them, and ask for help rather than “bossing” or making demands.

Many baskets:
Don’t put all your eggs in one. Another strategy for long-term viability is portfolio diversification. Most architects and designers want to work on lots of different project types, but, unfortunately, many potential clients value specialization. The danger is that you may become associated with a typology in a market sector such as luxury hospitality that fluctuates wildly or is subject to economic downturns and volatility. Early on you should be steering your business development efforts toward multiple markets, so that, for example, when high-end restaurant projects are scarce you have small-scale multifamily developments ongoing to provide steady revenue streams. Your clients may not realize it, but they will benefit from a firm run by well-versed design professionals with a broad portfolio.

And never say no to a first call. A project may seem like a poor fit for your team, but stay open-minded. If nothing else, building a relationship can lead to future projects and referrals.

You are your best publicist:
Don’t be afraid to be too big for your britches, especially when it comes to marketing and business development. Your messaging should always convey the confidence and experience of larger established firms. You know your capabilities, so why give clients a reason not to trust you? Share your successes through press releases, newsletters, email blasts and other forms of communication. This will help your firm maintain a positive reputation and help your design team feel recognized for their work.

Bob Hillier, FAIA, founder, Hillier Architecture; founder and principal, Studio Hillier

Joshua Zinder, AIA, founder and managing partner, Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D)