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From the Architect's Desk



In From the Architect's Desk

By lthomas

Getting to the Heart of (Business) Matters

On 15, Dec 2014 | In From the Architect's Desk | By lthomas

So you think you want to start your own architectural business? Really, how hard can it be, right?

Let’s say you have completed your professional architectural degree, studied and passed your ARE (the seven-part Architectural Registration Exam required to obtain your professional license), worked for a while in a firm of some size, and now you want to go out on your own. Wasn’t this what all the study and work was for?

While starting a business may have been the plan for some, many of us fell into our own practice almost by default. I did not plan on starting a firm and never imagined that it would grow into a ten-plus person operation. I began by doing what I could to use my professional skills and earn income after my first son was born. Long before the Lean In debate it was clear to me that I wanted to see my son as he grew up, and I also wanted to continue in the profession that I loved. So my sole proprietorship was born soon after my eldest son. A good nanny fits into this — as well as a supportive spouse with health insurance. It is hard, if not impossible, to be both Mom and Architect without help. For ten years I worked from a home studio. It was a business model that worked well.

By the time my sons entered lower school it was possible to consider moving out of the house and into rented office space that would help the business grow. The Special Sauce that made this work was that my sons walked over to my office after school.

Still there was the question of how to grow. How do you go from one to ten people? What is important in running a small firm that makes it different from a sole proprietorship? How do you get the nerve to sign the five-year lease, take out a business loan for all new computer equipment and (gulp!) hire employees? I sure was not taught in school how to do this or a million other small business items, but I figured it out. Remember that You don’t know what you don’t know!

Many of the hats I wear or share as the owner of my own architectural business — Architect, Human Resources Director, Marketing Director, Project Manager, Bookkeeper, IT manager — are not about designing buildings. Here are just a few things I deal with as a business owner:

  • Landlord issues/lease terms and repairs.
  • Errors and omissions insurance, tenant insurance, workers compensation insurance.
  • 401k choices and management.
  • Group health insurance and annual health insurance review.
  • New technology hardware and software purchasing and financing.
  • Upgrades to office furniture
  • Telephones/ internet/ web hosting services.
  • WBE (Minority Business) updates and certifications.
  • Cash flow management, receivables and payables, collection issues.
  • Employee salaries and reviews/firing and hiring /unemployment claims.
  • Quarterly taxes and end of year reconciliation.
  • Weekly review of accounting and bookkeeping issues.
  • New project initiatives, collaborations.
  • Project marketing, photographs, web posting (including these essays!).

Sigh. Deep breath. If you are still interested in going out on your own, here’s what I can tell you I now know.

Put together a diagrammatic business plan. Follow what is working and change what is not. Hire really good and talented people and pay them well. Thank those who help you. Charge what you are worth and reinvest in the business all the time, as it will pay off in the long haul. Acknowledge that you are the boss and take the blame for a mistake because you also get the praise when the result is good. Know that there will be bad years and remember that when there is more work than you can handle. Accept that every person you hire may not work out or will move on. Remember that if it was easy, anyone could do it. Begin!

I have slowly built up this firm from just me to a small office. I have a partner and ten wonderful colleagues who I could not do this without. We do custom residential and also institutional and commercial work, and also work with larger national firms that need a local firm or minority participation. The last lease I signed was for ten (!) years, and then I took out a loan to gut and refurbish the space that I thought was way too big at the time. Now we are full. I can’t believe that I started all this 29 years ago. I won’t say it’s easy, but if you have the right combination of business savvy and determination, going out on your own may be the right move for you, too.