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You got a firm? Are ya makin' it?

Dec 7 '06 90 Last Comment
jbirl
Dec 7, 06 3:04 pm

Here's my question:
You have a firm, small practice, maybe a partner or two...Besides the hard work, long hours, spending more time than your though on admin and billing, where is the next job coming from...are ya comfortable financially? I am not talking big bucks or anything, just nice and comfortable. I did not see anything that addresses this specifically in older posts, maybe its an obvious conclusion once you establish a successful practice...

Small firm people, I would love your thoughts.

 

binary
Dec 7, 06 3:14 pm

it's rough.....

being a one man shop, i have to dip into a few markets to eat.... i'm still a bit behind............

you have to learn to market/bid/work/meetings/email/etc.... everything....

in my case, i have no kids/house/truck payments/etc...... i just have rent/cell/food so i can live on potatoes for a week or so if i have to....

if you have any other responsiblities other than yourself..... you might want to work for someone else and run your stuff on the side or work part time..... you have to make sure you have a few dollars coming in somehow...

:

whistler
Dec 7, 06 4:03 pm

Yup! five staff and lots of work, mostly turning down work we don't like or want. Early years were tough as we were raising three kids ( they still are young ) so i make sure I balance my schedule and don't work weekends or late at night. But I could be working harder to make more but for what .... more stress and management of staff. I love what I do and like going to work still have fun and don't have bad clients. As soon as I get a roof on my new house I'll be even happier.

tyvek
Dec 7, 06 6:23 pm

Took about 3 or 4 years to get back to the salary level that my partner and I were at when we worked for someone else. It is tough in the early couple of years. Now I know why they say that it takes 10 years to build a practice.

Now, about 6 years later and 4 employees, my partner and I live pretty comfortably.

PS. in addition to your list there are many, many more things to add. The biggest for me would be. . .

Nobody else to defer tough questions. This is probably the single biggest surprise to me. I never knew how easy my life as a Project Architect was until I no longer had the ability to "check with my boss" on something.

will gallowaywill galloway
Dec 7, 06 6:35 pm

yeh, that is totally true tyvek. being the place where the buck stops is not always easy...

pedromartinez
Dec 7, 06 7:20 pm

...BUT MUST BE OH SO SATISFYING.

silverlake
Dec 7, 06 8:04 pm

i've been on my own for about 3 years and it was really rough at first. its getting easier and i'm slowly making more money and pulling myself out of debt.

i love the bread and butter. it was something i was morally opposed to at first. i can crank out a drawing set quick-like and live off the money while i take my time with the real design projects.

jbirl
Dec 7, 06 9:28 pm

i thought about not being able to check with the boss the other day while i was daydreaming...that would suck- no one to hide behind, for example, when a contractor installs something incorrectly and you want them to re-do it for aesethic reasons...i am sure there are plenty others...
thanks everyone for your input, i got 3 kids to feed, so i value your stories. Thanks!

binary
Dec 7, 06 10:05 pm

when you are self employed...... your company is on your mind all day and night...... if you cant get work...guess who you have to let go.....your workers...hard to do especially when it's a small work situtation

:

mauOne™
Dec 7, 06 10:14 pm

first year on my own, hardest ever!
lots of bread & butter but pulling out of the financial depression
emailing, sweeping, working with contractors, driving around for better prices on materials and the few hours that are left after archinect, either sleep or design.

liberty bell
Dec 7, 06 10:46 pm

I had no idea how invasive it would be.

As dirka said, I'm never NOT thinking about the job - I somehow thought I'd be working less hours on my own!! Although I do now have the freedom to take an afternoon off to go to my son's Christmas play, etc., I also constantly feel guilty if I'm not working. And every social contact basically becomes a networking contact, which I hate, but can manage, because I actually do love the fact that my work life IS my life, it's what I do and there is nothing I'd rather do.

That said, owning a business with a young child is just always going to be a struggle. But that may be a constant struggle for every parent, self-employed or not.

My partner and I are getting by, not making nearly as much as I did while employed, but things seem optimistic and it is good for me to read here that others say the first few years were tough and it got better (we've been in business 18 months). Right now we are definitely not "nice and comfortable" as you posted, jbirl - we are scraping by. I've cut all sorts of things out of my budget - I drive a 14 year old car instead of a lease on a new one, for example. and I worry about money constantly.

On that front, the best advice I can give is: marry someone who has a secure full-time job with great benefits! Health insurance is a nightmare expense, especially with a family. Life insurance, retirement savings, all that stuff was just there and invisible when I was an employee - I do miss that!

To be honest, 18 months out, I wonder every day if I will ever be able to go back to being an employee. In some ways I can totally see it, in others I can't imagine not being self-employed!

Let's revive this thread in a couple years and see how I'm doing...

myriam
Dec 7, 06 11:49 pm

This is fascinating. Thanks to all who are posting responses. I wish StevenWard would respond...

evangelicalbunny
Dec 7, 06 11:55 pm

Dear Friends,

Three words: Marketing, marketing, marketing. Even Jesus understood this...or at least Paul did.

With Love,

eb

binary
Dec 8, 06 12:28 am

i've been at it for 7 years......all i really have is some small projects..... and other items......

there are times when i want to give it up and work in a whole nother line of work...i.e. post office/produce guy at farmer jacks...... but i have this goal in life.... that is to design and make things happen on every scale possible...... i might not have all the knowledge of a registered architect or a high end designer or a contractor or a webdesigner.... but i do have motivation in what i work on..... architecture related or not, i put in my vision and time to make sure it's up to par..........

always remember that bad news travels faster than good news.....

and a penny spent today will be a dollar earned tomorrow....


you can feed you stomach but your mind is another thing......


i wish great success to all those trying to make it out there...

:

will gallowaywill galloway
Dec 8, 06 12:42 am

sounds familiar LB.

My design partner and i are maybe a tad smaller scales than yourself, with just one house on the go right now, and a few renovation projects (plus a competition or two every once in awhile)...but i have phd to do, and he has his own company to run (developer) so we are always short of time...

that whole business as life thing however is very much something we both feel. whether it is a good thing or not is still up in the air. my wife sometimes complains, but on the other hand it lets me take a day off to join in at my daughter's school for special events. not very easy to do in japan otherwise. most of the fathers at my daughter's school actually only see their children on an occasional sunday and for 30 minutes in the morning (or even less). for me chosing to work on my own was a choice entirely based on a desire to stay in japan and still see my family.

so far it is ok, but is going to get harder if we actually make money at this gig (right now, we are just getting by, after a year and a bit)...can't imagine the time pressure that will come with that. mind you, that will be a nice problem to have, if we can manage it...

timothy sadler®
Dec 8, 06 1:03 am

My wife and I ran our own firm for five years in Nashville, from '98 to 2002. Our trajectory was straight up to straight down - we did corporate interiors and started out right as the corporate office market was exploding. Truly one of the greatest times of my life. We went from making $80K combined on salary to $360K total firm revenue in less than a year. Had a great little office space in a cool building on West End Avenue, did lots of great design work, had great clients, got written up in the business journal, it was amazing. What we didn't do, however, was dial in correctly to the trends in the overall economy and the local office market - when the world tanked in 2002 we tanked with it, so we closed up shop and moved out west. It was all for the better though, we'd had five years of working seven days a week straight, lots of great memories, jumpstarted the 401K and made a book of work to be proud of, but we were stressed to the max and looking for a better way to live. We've gotten to know ourselves better since then, we rely on a more moderate approach for our happiness- starting with our new (18-month-old) little boy, to whom it's much better to give our evenings than to some asshole broker or owners' rep who called at 4:45PM to request 6 different test-fits by 8:00AM...

pedromartinez
Dec 8, 06 1:39 am

thanks for this truly informative thread. reality is good news. even if its bad news.

Katze
Dec 8, 06 1:44 am

Sounds like you had a lot of great experiences over the years OldFogey! Wow, I am impressed with the Nashville jump in salary - you obviously did a great run there for a while! Your bundle of joy outweighs the pressure of ludicrous reps or brokers…:)

Steven WardSteven Ward
Dec 8, 06 7:35 am

i'll respond, but i think i'm a red herring in some ways. i no longer have my own practice, not because i wasn't making it or not getting work, etc, but simply because i DIDN'T LIKE IT. which may mean that i'm lazy or not driven or something. the following were some of my problems, specific to not just having a small office but being a sole practitioner.

issues:

-insurance. (see lb's comments above.)

-meetings- when i was at a meeting, NO WORK was happening at the office.

-billing - didn't want to do it, would procrastinate and never get around to it.

-being billed - cash flow wasn't a problem but going through all the billing and figuring out where it was reimbursable and not was a pain. i probably floated a lot of free reimbursables rather than actually deal with how to bill them out.

-marketing - luckily i didn't have to because i was turning away work, but also knew that, were i to have a dry spell, staying in the office working all the time wasn't allowing me to meet and greet. i had no idea how to turn that around.

-loneliness - i was a sole practitioner, working out of a room we renovated as an office at the front of the house (subsequently turned back into a living room). i would go all day sometimes without leaving my chair and without talking to anyone. i would have computerhead so bad that when my wife got home i couldn't talk.

in short, i realized that i could make a lot of money if i committed. i was turning away work. but i wasn't willing to commit to the running of the business. i wanted to be an architect, so i went to work for someone else who would take care of the rest. jury's still out on that decision...

liberty bell
Dec 8, 06 8:43 am

Old Fogey, you and your wife are running your own show again now, right?

Loneliness is definitely an issue, too. Lately I'm on job sites a LOT and that helps - in fact there is nowhere I'd rather be than on a jobsite - but as Steven says, when I'm in the field there is no one to be getting the faxes and doing the drawings. But we're not big enough yet to hire an intern.

And yes, I also constantly commit that fatal - seriously, fatal to a business - error of just letting a reimbursable or two slide because I don't want to deal with the paperwork. I should make my resolution this year be to stop that - should be easy because we are actually implementing a new billing software system as of January 07!

(And there's another self-employment topic: did I ever think that instead of getting all excited and passionate about gorgeous detailing of materials that I would instead feel that way about billing software?! No. It's a strange profession.)

timothy sadler®
Dec 8, 06 10:21 am

SW, your list mirrors mine while we had our practice - all the required administrative stuff fell onto me, and boy I remember just how arduous it was to do all the billing, take care of insurance issues, negotiate fees, etc. We used to talk about doing "double shifts" - the morning shift (8:00AM - 6:00PM) was for running the office, and the evening shift (7:30PM - 12:00AM or later) was for doing design and drawing the projects. Loneliness wasn't an issue, we typically had at least two employees (usually students from the design school where I was teaching at the time) which was always fun, until the employees went bad - the hiring/firing thing was also one of the unexpected challenges.

(Just as an aside, I've always been struck at how in this profession the further up one advances the farther away one gets from doing the real work - I mean, can you imagine a world where for a cardiologist, doing operations and meeting with patients is considered the grunt work, and managing the office, marketing and glad-handing patients is seen as the glory work? How true when they told us in school not to get good at CAD, for fear of pigeonholing yourself into the production role and not advancing. I thought drawing buildings was what we all wanted to do...)

LB: No, it's just me right now, my wife is a senior PM and marketing person at a Big Firm here in town. I'm actually turning away a little from straight consulting and getting into doing development on my own and with a broker friend of mine. She and I would like to work together again but it's a high risk/low reward proposal for us right now. The loneliness thing does facter in a bit - that's what Archinect is for, right?

Katze: You are so right, I can hear him peeping away on the baby monitor right now. We didn't know until a couple of years ago that there was more than one way to skin the practice cat; it isn't always necessary to work oneself to death to have a good life. One day the intensity level will ramp back up but for now it's great to just enjoy Lil' Fogey and work towards developing a different way of practicing (for me, at least).

tyvek
Dec 8, 06 11:00 am

This feels like a great theraputic group session.

Ditto everyone about insurance costs. It can truely be a killer. The only silver lining to insurance (besides the obvious protection) is that a good insurance company can be a real help in contract negotiations. Because we pay so much in insurance costs, I don't feel the least bit bad reviewing things with the lawyers at the insurance company on their dime, thereby avoiding our lawyer fees.

And yes, it does not matter where you are, there is no chance of getting work off your mind. Not just design (the fun stuff) either. I am constantly thinking about everything from payroll to IRA to billing to ordering supplies etc.

LB: Absolutely make it a resolution to be relentlessly anal about reimbursable expenses. I also used to let it slip, but my partner has really hammered it home about getting reimbursed for everything. I mean everything. It has resulted in a few thousand dollar difference to our bottom line and that was coming straight out of our pockets.

But I will say that all of these things that are difficult are also what makes it so great. If it wasn't difficult everyone would do it. Call it the entrepeneurial spirit or whatever, but figuring out a system to easily and quickly keep track of a reimbursable expense for example, and seeing it work is really great. Building the business is almost as rewarding to me as designing a great project.

But don't get me started on the headaches of hiring employees. . .

Mulholland Drive
Dec 8, 06 11:04 am

I just want to say that I really appreciate the comments shared. My hope is that this thread builds and continues to evolve as a resource for those, like me, who are looking to start my own gig, sooner rather than later.

Dapper Napper
Dec 8, 06 11:06 am

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your responses. It's something that us freshly degreed interns who spend our days dreaming of a time when we can throw off the "shackles" of bosses, timesheets, and PTO. I consider myself a very rational person, thus I do not see my time as a cog in the corporate machine as wasted time. It's a position that I will probably fulfill my career in.

Honestly, I don't see myself ever being a one man show, not that I'm lazy, or not ambitious. It's just not the career path I beleive I would be successful in. Steven W actually echoed many of the thoughts I have had about being a sole proprietor. But I admire those of you who are.

Of course my tune might change if I marry well.

Dapper Napper
Dec 8, 06 11:07 am

I meant this is what new interns need to hear.

Living in Gin
Dec 8, 06 11:43 am

This has been one of the most interesting threads to read... I'm currently a corporate cog who dreams of one day running his own firm, and it's been interesting to get a dose of reality.

When I reach the point where I'm ready to start out on my own, I'd ideally see myself partnering with somebody who can run the business/marketing side of the firm while I run the projects, but then, who knows how unrealistic that idea may turn out to be. At least now that I've worked for so many terminally-dysfunctional firms, I have a pretty good idea of how not to run a design firm.

For those of you who are sucessful proprietors and are happy with the direction your practice is headed, what has been the key to your success? What makes your firm different than the ones that fail?

binary
Dec 8, 06 11:47 am

if you can partner (that is if you want to)..make sure that person has business skills.......... most architects can draw/etc but when it comes to business, that a whole nother story...

:

liberty bell
Dec 8, 06 11:56 am

I want to echo Old Fogey's notion of the "double shift": A typical day for me is answering contractor emails at 7am and then doing face-time with clients and contractors and my partner from 9 to 5, when I pick up my son at school. Family time rules until 9:30, then it's typically a second shift to get actual work/drawings done - often only an hour or two because I'm so wiped out by then, but sometimes after midnight.

I don't want to discourage anyone from having kids because it is frankly the source of the greatest joy and beauty in my life - but having young kids and running your own business is quite a load. I imagine myself doing this 10 years ago before I became a mom and feel like it would have been a cake walk! Except of course then I wouldn't have the experience and confidence I've gained in the last ten years...such is life.

Three days ago I was on the verge of starting a "Join Me In Bitching About Self-Employment!" thread because I was feeling really discouraged - this thread is wonderful, helpful, and so well-timed.

liberty bell
Dec 8, 06 11:57 am

Oh and the key to what level of success we have achieved thus far is my partner is a design genius.

Sarah
Dec 8, 06 12:11 pm

We started our practice about 2.5 years ago. We do more multi-media and installation work than architecture, so have different set of issues. The biggest advantage is that no liability insurance is required. I can't imagine having to pay that as well as the rest of the bills. My partner and I live together and run our firm out of our house. We tend to collaborate a lot with other designers so that helps bring in work. I teach, which helps to offset some of our expenses. Meaning that I often do not bill my contributions to projects (I use to criticize design firms that did not adequetly bill their work, but when you are trying to make it you realize that this issue is not as cut and dry.)

Like others have said, almost everything we talk about now relates to the business, how to get new work, where to get clients. It is also difficult to go from a job where 100% of your time was spent doing design work, to a job where 90% of your time is spent NOT doing design work. Jury is still out whether it is really worth it.

I understand Steven Ward's dilema well. If your main interest is in design work, there are often more opportunities to do this working for someone else.

pedromartinez
Dec 8, 06 12:34 pm

how many of you supplement your practice with a teaching gig? the extra income is an obvious benefit. but what are the negatives?

do you feel that it compromises the intensity of your practice?

timothy sadler®
Dec 8, 06 1:39 pm

Sarah and pedro both get to the main problem we had and what sounds like a lot of us have, which is coupling a labor-intensive design and documentation approach with lack of a diversified income stream. For whatever reasons, within and without, it's hard for architects to see themselves as more than people drawing buildings for other people only when they ask; we seem to always (and usually vehemently) shy away from doing other things to bring in revenue, like hardcore marketing, expanding into multimedia development, furniture sales, move management, for-hire PM, etc. To architects, if it's not spreading lead the peer pressure kicks in and other kinds of work doesn't count, even if it is more lucrative. It's really a shame, sometimes our traditions really get in the way of our professions' business innovation and advancement.

We tried to diversify our revenue in our little firm, but it was tough. We sold a little furniture and I did some multimedia development and renderings which helped a little bit, but at the end of the day there were always so many issues relative to the design side that it couldn't all fit in my day, plus people from the client community just didn't see architects as diversified service providers, so it didn't really work. Other people here could probably do it better than we did though, we were just very narrow-focused. The most important thing for me right now is how I've recalibrated; design issues were so important then but I've pretty much flushed all of the purple Kool-Aid out of my system at this point - it's easier for me to enjoy expanding my skill sets into doing other things for revenue that aren't necessarily design related, like actively trading in the stock market, for example.

Rim Joist
Dec 8, 06 2:00 pm

Whaddya liking these days on the ticker tape, Mr. Fogey?

whistler
Dec 8, 06 3:08 pm

I have always thought of being more diversified in my practice, but I stick to the stuff I know ... building and real estate, the stock market and market types scare the crap out of me. We diversifiy the work in the office by not sticking to a particular building type ie Residential. Most of the time in small firms ( less than 6) you tend to do stick to typical building types but I tried to change that early, I learned years ago from other firms that were too specific in the work they had and when the stock market went tits up they suffered but in the meantime we had lots of government work at a time when the Govt. kicked in lots of money to schools etc. Its important thing to have the variety ( to keep it interesting ) as well as not all jobs are pushed out in 6 months but some larger planning jobs that last years. The diversity is good. I always go job hunting when we have too much of one project type especially when its mostly residential.

whistler
Dec 8, 06 3:08 pm

I have always thought of being more diversified in my practice, but I stick to the stuff I know ... building and real estate, the stock market and market types scare the crap out of me. We diversifiy the work in the office by not sticking to a particular building type ie Residential. Most of the time in small firms ( less than 6) you tend to do stick to typical building types but I tried to change that early, I learned years ago from other firms that were too specific in the work they had and when the stock market went tits up they suffered but in the meantime we had lots of government work at a time when the Govt. kicked in lots of money to schools etc. Its important thing to have the variety ( to keep it interesting ) as well as not all jobs are pushed out in 6 months but some larger planning jobs that last years. The diversity is good. I always go job hunting when we have too much of one project type especially when its mostly residential.

ralphyson1001
Dec 8, 06 3:19 pm

wow this is definitely a great topic and comes as rather timely for me as well. one of the problems I find as an intern is that most of the behind the scenes stuff that my boss deals with and that yall are talking about here (insurance, employees, etc) isn't visible to me. it is hard to know whether to branch out on my own or not when i don't really know what is involved.

when LB mentioned insurance, i thought she was talking about health insurance. but is the professional insurance the REAL big hassle??

Fogey- you mentioned design issues "were" so important. what does that mean. does that mean that age has tempered your idealism or what?

now here is an additional question- how difficult is it as a small firm/sole practitioner to not get pigeon-holed doing tilt-ups and burger kings? that is, the projects that pay well but may not be the most exciting?

e
Dec 8, 06 3:56 pm

i've been doing my own thing for five years now. i moved to seattle for personal reasons. the industrial/digital design firm i was working for asked me to remain a part of their company to help them set up an office in the northwest. after a few months, the company, like so many during this period, fell on hard times. it was easy for them to let me go. i just didn't want to go work for someone else again and had been thinking about going out on my own for a long time. my former employer provided me with the shove that i needed.

the most valuable thing that could be helpful to people going out on their own, outside of drive and skill, are building relationships. to build relationships with clients and competent vendors/contractors takes time. getting new work is so dependant on the work you have already done and hopefully done well. the best and most important form of PR for a small firm is word of mouth and that is obtained through good solid relationships with others.

i hear a lot of bad mouthing of clients on this site. i certanly have a tough client from time to time, but they are still what enables me to do what i do. i always keep that in mind. i am grateful for all of my clients. the one good thing about running your own firm is that you can decide who you want to build a relationship with and who you do not. a former boss of mine taught me the importance of interviewing a potential client as intently as they interview you. she was great at it. a good client is essential to you completing good work for them.

i share lb's comment of going back to being an employee. that would be a tough one for me. i also agree with the lonliness issues. it's tough, but that is going to change real soon.

Rim Joist
Dec 8, 06 3:59 pm

"it's tough, but that is going to change real soon."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's what's known in literature as 'foreshadowing'...

So, new dog? What?

timothy sadler®
Dec 8, 06 4:18 pm

Also known on the Discovery Channel as "stalking"...
:-)

Sarah
Dec 8, 06 4:22 pm

OldFogey's statement:
"the client community just didn't see architects as diversified service providers" is significant. Every time we tell a client that we do advertising work, documentaries and built projects they just look confused. We are slowly trying to limit the kinds of projects we do, because many people just don't buy it. We do have the advantage that one of us is an architect, while the other has serious experience doing multimedia work for big names like IBM, Disney, MGM and Microsoft so when we present ourselves we choose which of our backgrounds to sell more. I am hoping that we get a more steady stream of clients in the next couple of years. So far we do OK, but our income is less that 1/2 of what it was when we worked for others.

A good friend of ours that has a succesful design firm told us to just hang in there. He believes that establishing a succesful practice has mainly to do with not giving up. How long it takes I am not sure, maybe 5 years. A few posters here seemed to have had better luck establishing themselves in a shorter time frame.

For those considering doing it themselves, I would say why not, but be ready to supplement your income with other activities like consulting or teaching.

e
Dec 8, 06 4:24 pm

lula said she has demanded more crunchies, a new bed, and someone to entertain her, and since i have to do the work around here, well, that means someone else must do the entertaining.

whistler
Dec 8, 06 6:48 pm

I would say five years is a min. before you feel confident to take a holiday and not check email or phone. I think that's a pretty good indication that you can breath and not feel every job you have is going to leave you and walk to the next struggling architect down the road. It might be less but if you're like most of us there's a certain sense of paranoia that keeps you a little edgey and always looking for that perfect client. As an example I think that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been more successful because of their own paranoia.

binary
Dec 8, 06 7:39 pm

what day is it again........?... that's how i feel everyday..... work 7 days a week on alot of stuff...... architecture related and not....... if you can't market yourself, no-one else will....

:

brian buchalski
Dec 8, 06 10:43 pm

well, in the essence of full and fair disclosure, i'll begin by pointing out that i do not have my own "firm" and that i'm not even a licensed architect yet.

however, once upon a time, i did attempt a career in financial sales and it was a surprisingly relevant experience for someone considering a career as a business owner. what many people probably don't realize is that despite having the backing of a large corporation such as merril lynch, edward jones, american express, etc. most of their sales people are—in essence—set up as "independent" contractors with special relationships with their parent companies. in other words, those corporate organizations while providing a foot-in-the-door/name brand recognition are not especially generous with their salespeople who are instead rigorously trained to think of themselves as running their own business...and in a comission heavy environment we basically did. i did that for about 1.5 years and it was definitely intense & stressful in a way that only running your own business could be...literally speaking if you wanted a paycheck next week, then you needed to sell something this week, period. always thinking about the pipeline. "abc - always be closing" as they said in the movie (glengarry glen ross?)

on the surface, you might think that an insurance man or stockbroker (or a financial advisor) would be a fundamentally different pursuit than architecture but if you dig slightly deeper you'll find that similarities abound. both tend to be small operations and often with a single person serving as the visionary of the practice. what's fascinating, however, is that whereas architecture and both its university education & professional internship focus heavily on the cultivation of technical skill and what might be called "style" or "taste"...the training for a financial advisor pays very little attention to such issues and focuses heavily on salesmanship.

the general fact of the matter is that most financial planning just like most architecture requires very little expertise in the subject matter for the needs of the typical client. morover these tasks can be delegated to underlings with relative ease and modest oversight by the visionary founder/owner. in finance there was never any doubt that our key task was creating work...finding prospects & converting them to clients...in other words Sales with a capital S. there may be some issue of ethics involved with this approach but what i quickly realized was that—for example—even if you failed to sell a client the best life insurance policy then they were still better off than if they had no life insurance policy at all. from a standpoint of fiduciary responsibility it's actually difficult to argue with that. moreover, the greatest sin that you could commit was simply failing to stay in business and that alone justified the sometimes paranoid & compulsive behavior of the sales people. if you truly believed in helping your clients reach a retirement goal then it certainly wasn't helping them by going out of business within three years.

i'm probably rambling a bit here...but my central point is that if you want to be an architect then it is possible to be a designer, build models, play with crayons and all that other fun shit we did in school...however, if you want to be the principle of an architecture firm then you are first and foremost a salesperson and there's no use denying this.



a couple of more points i'll share...1-even as a financial advisor with the support of a large corporation it was normal to take a minimum of five years to get the practice off the ground. and it wasn't considered easy either. statistically, 9 out of 10 sales people/financial advisors will fail within the first five years. most don't even make it one year. if you achieve success any quicker than that you might want to adapt an "it's too good to be true attitude" about your success because you might just be the unwitting beneficiary of market forces that could soon change. and that brings me to point 2-although its couner-intuitive, you'll actually be in much better shape if you start your business during a down cycle in your market. this will be tough and it might be a painful grind that could nearly kill you...but if you survive then you'll be in excellent shape for growth when the market eventually turns back in you favor. on the other hand, if success comes too easily—as it might during a boom cycle—then you risk being lulled into a false sense of security and entitlement that will expose you to some very painful experiences when the market cycle takes a downward cycle. and it's likely that all the "easy" success will allow you to get away with bad habits that will simply chew you up alive when things turn down.

lastly, i'll add a point #3-and that's to reflect upon your own personal experiences as you consider your career path and whether or not you'd like to be a business owner. for example, i grew up in a household in which both of my parents were small business owners so i had first-hand experience from a young age that being the boss meant you worked all the time. monday nights meant we cleaned the shop (including yicky tasks like bathrooms & emptying trash) & if you wanted to go home earlier then it was best to help mom & dad. likewise, we rarely took vacations of more than 3-4 days because if the parents weren't working then they weren't making money. it was odd, as a child, seeing your parents more anxious & stressed when on holiday than at the office...i almost loathed vacations. consequently, i've been well trained for the rigors of business ownership. by contrast, if you grew up in household of, say, teachers who always had generous holidays and a janitorial staff at hand to clean messes...and this is part of your expectations then i wouldn't be surprised if you found it very difficult to deal with the exigencies of business ownership.

ok...back to bed for me

timothy sadler®
Dec 9, 06 1:44 am

Puddles: You rock. Sleep well.

trace™
Dec 9, 06 10:36 am

I really consider my business to be about 1.5 years old (technically its older than that), as that's about when I restrategized and made some important choices. It's been a great year and next year looks better.

Vacations/Time Off - doesn't exist. I don't go 10 hours without checking emails/phone calls. I can be anywhere, but I need that connection. It's been many years, literally, that I have done this.
Also, as others point out, it's a double hit - you are losing money while gone as well as paying for the trip.

Money - it's out there. There are successes and failures in every business, every day. You make money by being the boss/manager/marketer/sales person, not by doing only creative work (regardless of how much talent you might have).

Empolyees/contractors - e made a great point - it takes tons of time to establish reliable relationships with contractors (as in contracted to do work, not building related). I've found this one tought to swallow. I just assumed that most people were half decent workers and if they had some talent they'd follow through with their promises.
Personally, I still act like school life - if it has to get done it has to get done, so nights and weekends are given up to do this.

It's tough finding others that work like this. I value those that I find that have this sense of business integrity and I do my best to keep them busy and happy.

Patience and Perseverance - these are keys, even Trump makes a point to state these as the most crucial ingredients to success.
I am finding them to be very true.
I was very impatient about the marketing, too, expecting quick results. My largest project so far took over a year from when I got the lead to putting a bid in on it.

Learning - I no longer learn software (well, looking forward to learning Quickbooks - what fun...not!) or hone my design skills, it's all business. I've got The Rainmaker, by Ford Harding on the trainer and am enjoying it. Inspiring, easy to read, etc., etc. I thank Archinect for that, somewhere a while back there was a similar thread with wonderful books suggestions.

Its not as much fun as looking at pretty pictures, but it's helping me expand my marketing skills.

Fun - as every successful person points out, from Buffet to Trump, every truly successful person enjoys and has a passion for what they do. Obviously you dont have to love it all the time, but make sure you have that passion for business.

Reality - puddles makes another good point - what do you expect? I grew up with self employed parents, so my father never wanted to take large vacations because he lost money. However, he has worked about 3-4 solid days a week, with paper work done the other days, here and there. So when I wanted to go skiing as a kid, he could go on one of the other days outside of the weekend.

To me, that's incredibly valuable. 9-5 has its perks, but is too damn boring for me. I don't mind working on a Sat (just about to start) when there's nothing to do and hitting the trails on a Monday afternoon.

Control and Business - do you want to have a 'business' or do you want to be a contract worker/freelancer? To grow a business, you have to give up tons of creative fun and find others that you can have do your work.
Being a freelancer allows you to keep control of the creativity, but it also means you can't grow as a business and are limited by time.

Relinquishing some design control is tough, but you also get more control by being the boss - give and take. I'd rather be designing all day, but could never achieve my goals doing that.

All in all, everyone that is heading out on their own needs to evaluate their personal needs and expectations. Everyone wants more money, stability and freedom, but it doesn't work like that. You have to figure out what you want, figure out a way to get there, then go for and not look back.


Luck - heh, almost forgot. I believe luck, for lack of a better word, is an absolutly crucial ingredient. Some get lucky immediately, some don't get any breaks for many, many years.

So you need luck, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of it when it does come.

modo
Dec 9, 06 12:56 pm

Here's a question. I have a friend who has about an 8 year old firm. He has asked that I join him as an equal partner. I am high up in a large corporate firm. I have been considering leaving the firm and going out on my own. The opportunity to join a small office that has already been through the "difficult years" is very appealling. The best of both worlds - Independence to practice the way i want coupled with a realiable busness plan that already has a name brand.

The question is what are the pitfalls to look out for joining a small firm as a partner?

treekiller
Dec 9, 06 1:34 pm

now i know why puddles doesn't wear pants...

archie
Dec 9, 06 3:27 pm

I've had my own firm for over a decade. From day one I made more money than I did as an employee. The first three years I worked day and night, with small kids, but it was out of my house, so it was not so bad. It is difficult to work by yourslef, lonely, and hard to make substantial money, because you can only do so much. I have employees now, lots of them, and make much much more money, and have to work less. That doesn't mean I still don't work a lot- I'm here ona Saturday for gods sake... However, I would not trade it for working for someone else EVER. You get to decide what kind of work you want to do, and what kind of business you want to run. I am sending my kids to college with no worries, and can give nice bonuses and perks to my employees, have money to donate to charities, have my retirement funded.

It is stressful, though. I need to bring in work to support a whole bunch of families. If you have ever been involved in a lawsuit, even if it WAS your consultants fault, you realize why your hair is grey. You must be very good at business, or don't try this at home. I realized early on that I had a natural knack for business that I did not know existed, and it has made running my own business pretty easy from a financial point.

By business sense, I mean not only the ability to understand financial statements and do business planning, but also great at marketing and sales. You need to be able to identify business trends and take advantage of them. You need to be able to lead a team, and inspire your employees to do their best. You need to be able to wow the clients, make them trust you, and understand what you can do for them.

You have to have a clear vision of what you want to do, and a strategic plan for your business to be successful, I think. I meet with a peer group of other business owners monthly, and that helps a lot. For me, I want to do preliminary design for most of my time, at least half, which is what I do. I had to set the buisness up to support that goal, or it would not have worked out that way.

The negatives:
-as stated above, vacations are hard, and it is difficult to be truly 'away'.
- It is no fun being a boss. Employees can be unrealistic, a pain in the rear, and unreliable.
- there is the streess of needing to be constantly financially successful to keep your employees emplloyed, bigger bonuses every year, the latest fastest computers, etc.
- you have no one to blame when there is a screw up, even if it is not your screw up, but the screw up of someone who works for you. It is still your fault.

tyvek
Dec 9, 06 7:19 pm

Great points archie.

The responsibility to bring in work and be financially successful because you are directly responsible for the mortgage payments, college educations, etc. for each and every employee and their families is often overlooked when thinking about starting your own practice. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously.

David CuthbertDavid Cuthbert
Dec 10, 06 8:53 pm

firstly I think this the single most important thread on archinect to date.

For the last 5 years I've been the lead architect in a municipal office on some dodgy island in the Caribbean. We are funded primarily by overseas agencies, and it involves alot of financial management. Its been a great experience incomparable even, however the stress is unbearable and about 2 years ago decided that by the end of my time (which has extended to 2008) I would open a practice.

Here's the fun part. Because its presently a small office i work in, I see all the benefits that can be taken into a private practice of comparable size. Single handily managing multiple projects of different size and scales, managing a small technical staff, managing the finances, etc.

The two aspects I however had no clue about was setting up and implementing a business plan, and the procurement of business. The former I've managed to learn over time and from the advise/pitfalls of others. But I'm still clueless to a large degree when it comes to marketing and advertising. And it freaks me out. I think because I like many other architects like to have create some safety net in our heads about what and how its all going to happen. Nonetheless in the meantime I'm trying to save enough capital for the first 18 months where I suspect I'll be self financing the practice. And just trying to learn as many lessons as possible.

Am I missing anything is the biggest thing...

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