the architecture of constructing a practice

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    preparing for launch....

    Gregory Walker
    Oct 15, '11 10:31 AM EST

    back to our regularly scheduled programming...


    one of the topics that frequents the dicussion forums, as well as numerous websites, books, and other media, is 'what do i need to do when starting a firm'? the short answer is: a lot. or a little. because, like most of life, it all really depends. but, in keeping with our bootstrapping theme, i'll lay out a few things below which seem, from my perspective, to be essential. (there are plenty of other things that can be done, but the demarcation line, for me, is what HAS to be done. and, once you look back on it, there's only a handful of things which are really essential.)


    i'm going to focus on the pre-flight checklist for today - things that, in my experience and in talking to other startup firms, have emerged as bare bones essentials. the overall list includes:

    developing a set of firm values/core beliefs

    developing a basic marketing strategy

    developing a basic operating budget to work to

    deciding on a name

    settling on a place to work

    creating business cards

    a solid cell phone

    obtain the tools to practice with (likely a computer, but some people still kick it old school)

    and that's about it. again, there are going to be lots of things that you, individually, may see as necessary, but my observations say this group comprises the absolute essentials.**

    ** - for many people, a graphic identity, website, offset book, iphone4S and ipad may be essential. and, as a firm grows, all those things shift to being essential. what i'm trying to do is keep the actual startup costs to a minimum, in order to ask 'how can it be done for a minimal amount?' **


    notice that the first three items are not only free to produce, but may run contrary to what we'd all think are more important (a clever name, catch business identity and flashy electronics). but, in looking back over our firm and in talking with other startups that are 5-10 years on, those three items have been touchstones that all of us come back to periodically.


    what makes them important is that, especially if you're working with a partner (or partners), it forces a kind of deliberation about not just 'how do we get going' but 'why are we doing this and what is the end goal?' and, really, this is what the core beliefs/values/operating practices are intended to address: why are you doing this and what are the ways in which you're going to practice? it doesn't have to be a manifesto (although knock yourself out if you feel that strongly), but it also shouldn't be a set of generic, meaningless crap ('we strive to exceed our client's expectations!' - really? who doesn't?). at their best, they should contain the dna to help distinguish your firm from the herd but also provide an ethical core to what you do.


    one of the best examples i remember reading, for another firm, was one that the NY firm ARO laid out for themselves: they weren't looking to become specialists in a particular project type, but wanted to cultivate a particular type of client, one who need complex, personalized problem solving that just happened to be delivered in a beautiful package.


    for our firm, my partner hank and i took our time carefully crafting these out. we went through multiple drafts, argued over key words and distilled them into roughly 8 values we bring to our clients and 8 beliefs we have about running the studio. you can see them on our website and we still include them in our proposals. they've changed over time, but 7 years in and we both still feel committed to them as a guiding principle. and we've noticed our clients appreciate them as well.



      two key things that became really obvious for me (partnership, LLC) when starting up this year...

      1. how are issues resolved?

      2. what form of partnership (legal) is taken.

      i would say that has been more important than marketing strategy or website design - as everything is driven by that agreement. our 'core values' are also derived from that agreement, and tends to drive marketing/social media/etc. strategies.

      Oct 16, 11 8:01 pm  · 

      holz - picking a legal structure is definitely on that list - missed it adding it in from the draft version of this one. and, yes, it can help shape a lot of discussions about how you operate since there are a lot of implications bound up in the money side. and the money should be taken seriously - this is a business first and foremost. it's our passion as well, but you can't feed yourself on passion alone...

      Oct 17, 11 12:42 pm  · 

      sometimes, i think my partner cares more about money than design - so it's good to have that balance/focus.

      this is a great blog, gregory - definitely enjoying it thus far.

      Oct 17, 11 1:05 pm  · 

      thanks - always wonder if anyone's reading...


      Oct 17, 11 2:42 pm  · 

      Do you take requests?

      Not to put you on the spot, but I'd enjoy a post about the different options for legal structures for firms.

      Oct 17, 11 4:18 pm  · 

      i am reading.

      Oct 17, 11 4:20 pm  · 

      orhan - thanks. 

      brian - throw me a nickel and see what happens... in all honesty, if i put up a big fat disclaimer, i'd be happy to discuss the process we went through. the one thing we (and i'm sure a ton of small firms) have found is that the legal structures vary from state to state in that LLC/LLP/PLC/PC range  - entities that have some limited liability, but can be taxed as a partnership or s-corp. maybe i should have our lawyer come do a guest column...



      Oct 17, 11 4:54 pm  · 

      That makes sense that the structures would vary state to state, and that a lawyer would probably be the one most qualified to answer.

      Oct 17, 11 8:28 pm  · 

      I'm reading!  And directing my Pro Practice students to read too!

      Oct 18, 11 11:57 pm  · 

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About this Blog

Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.

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