Too young/Inexperienced to run own practice?


Alright archinecters--this place has embodied a love-hate relationship for me over the years. I visit occasionally for the taught commentary and criticism of the latest happenings in the architecture and design world, though Ive often found some members here to be overly pessimistic, overly critical, narcissistic animals. That said, its a place for anonymity and here I am looking for some feedback, although feeling admittedly vulnerable as I type.

I remember posting here a few years ago asking the community about starting a 'rendering' business. I was told that I would need a farm of servers, plotters, computers, software, office space, etc. Since that time, I have been self employed successfully for almost two years. My bread and butter work has been rendering for architects, planners, landscape architects, engineers, and private clients. Its been great, but has become really quite montonous over the past few months. Prior to my setting out on my own I was a landscape architect/designer for several offices over about 5-7 years (I say 5-7 because I worked through school for several firms, worked from home during busy periods in school and did design build for several years prior to attending school, as well as several years of full time work after graduation). 

When 2008-2009 hit I was just wrapping up my degree. I maintained nearly full time employment through finishing my degree during the brunt of the recession in late 2009 before landing a full time job with a small office which proved pretty unappealing. I planned to stay in this office for a few weeks--a survival job if you will. Life happened, I needed to pay bills, so I ended up staying with that company for approx 3 years, the last year working almost entirely from home 150 miles away. During that last year I also worked for another larger firm on contract. This firm has won several national awards and I learned a lot working closely with the firms leaders. 

Slowly I transitioned from full time to part time to contract and finally full on self employment. As this transition occurred I tenaciously pursued freelance work, feeling liberatedfrom the non-compete contracts, etc.  I picked up lots of rendering work and that naturally transitioned into more conceptual work with the occasional CD set.

This is approximately where I am at today--I have leased a small office suite in a great location right downtown in my small town, built a great studio space with powerful computing tools, and developed real leads on my own projects. I am finding small municipalities and developers to be be my main client. I am offering and have delivered land use planning and visioning services. I feel that I am a good designer with sound background knowledge in conceptual planning, streetscape, housing, etc. So far my clients have been quite pleased with my work and I iften hear that I bring 'fresh' perspective and effective graphic communication to the table. I have continued to develop new leads by 'floating' drawings and ideas for how to improve local parks, empty parcels, streets, river corridors, trails, etc with fair amount of success. I continue to provide rendering services as well to help pay bills.

My weaknesses as I see them are limited experience in construction process. I was a foreman for several design build companies prior to school and feel fairly comfortable producing a clean CD set, but limited experience actually working with contractors and other consultants at this level. 

I am almost licensed, completing last exam this Spring and finding that I am filling some of these knowledge gaps by actually studying for the exams, but still worried about my first hand experience. My goal has always been to be a great designer/thinker first, be happy, and make a living THEN be a licensed practical LA second. I have felt that clients hire designers and thinkers, NOT so much project managers (though of course pm skills are valuable as well). 

As Im sitting in my office working everyday, by myself, my mind often runs and due to my checmistry or whatever I find myself comparing myself to others who have been working at the same form for over a decade and what they must think of me out here on my own, so young (early thirties) and relatively inexperienced. I wonder if I have the knowledge to sustain my little practice and grow it into the quality design practice I dream of becoming. The last thing I want is to be a middle of the road or worst local design office mixed with the sea of other mediocre LA's and designers. I want to do great work, I want to stand on my own principles, and do things my way. I just hope Im not fooling myself. My wife tells me I am doing all the right things and doing great, but Im always evaluating myself. I often do projects when I can find free time pro bono just to challenge myself and use as a calling card--sometime it turns into real work and sometimes its just an intellectual exercise.

I guess my question is whether anyone out there has had a similar experience? I have read up a lot on different syndromes that often affect the entrepreneurs psyche--like imposters syndrome, but have a hard time finding young architects/designers that experienced similar circumstances. I have always looked up to the likes of Bjarke Ingels and others who started young.

Thoughts? Thanks..

Jan 24, 14 4:35 pm
Sounds like you'll be fine. Being in business always means you are working ahead of your comfort zone and you need to BS and learn as you go.
Jan 24, 14 5:24 pm

Thanks gruen, just having another arch/designer share some encouragement is helpful. As you know, being in such a competitive profession--even from one discipline to another such as arch to la means no one is going to give you a pat on the back, especially when you have become/becoming the competition. 

I know ghery doent carry a huge fan base around here but I love the 'sketches' film when Pollack asks ghery if he remebers a time when he would spend his days 'pretending' to be an architect. Pollack mentions how he 'pretended to be a film maker' for a period of time early in his career until one day he woke up and realized he was one. In essence, there is a lot of truth to the adage 'fake it til you make it..' except I hate the fake it part. I was never one to 'play the role' and have always been passionate about the work and struggled with the business/management side, but it would seem Im finding my rhythm so to speak and people really do see and appreciate hard, thoughtful work. 


Im ok with learning as I go, I just hope it keeps going..

Jan 24, 14 5:56 pm

@Larchinect:  a few thoughts.

In my experience, those practices that survive, and prosper, over time are built on a diverse set of skills spread among a number of individuals. At the first firm where I worked, there were three founding partners - one highly skilled at marketing / design; another highly skilled at how buildings go together and studio operations; and another highly skilled in management / marketing. They came together to form this firm and operated in this way from the very beginning. Today that firm is highly respected and, some years back, won the AIA "Firm of the Year" award, along with a slew of design awards over the years. They've also been extremely profitable.

Those of us down in the trenches always referred to their structure as "the three legged stool" -- i.e. a strong, and relatively equal, foundation in design, documentation and management, all supported by a very solid approach to business development.

In your narrative above, you seem to recognize that you may not be as strong in all areas as you may think prudent or necessary. If you work hard enough, you probably can learn much of what you don't already know -- but, you may never be as competent in every area as you might need to be. For that reason, you might want to consider taking on one, or more, partners who strongly complement what you bring to the table. It can get pretty lonely - and stressful -- carrying the full weight of the firm on one set of shoulders.

Good luck.

Jan 24, 14 8:21 pm


Thank you. I think your advice is sound and something i have also been considering. I have teamed with a friend who does dvelopment services to help with the economic/managementside of the planning work we've been doing. I would love to offer him a partnership of some sort, but feel i just dont have the backlog of work yet to make it worth his while. Id als be leary of bringing someone into the fold from a completely different discipline before another design person...i get the three legged stool analogy though, its just tough to know when and how exactly to do this. Im thinking it is just a matter of time before i pursue that option. I agree that looking at othernsmall firms there is a difference between thesmall locals and the 'big boys' in management structure. Again i dont think im anywhere near ready for this just yet, but things have seemed to move exponentially faster and faster over the past few months in terms of workload, project types, etc.

Thanks for the ffedback and encouragement, means a lot! Much appreciated.

Jan 24, 14 9:01 pm
I think you always need to be faking it because you always want to progress.
Jan 25, 14 7:02 pm

Larchinect, wish you were here in Minneapolis, we could have a good time I think. 

Jan 25, 14 7:55 pm

Listen to the wife. They are always right.

Jan 25, 14 11:30 pm

I may not have the same years of experience but in your first post, the last paragraphs hits home with regards to the entrepreneur's psyche and all. I can't help but compare myself to others. I think we're our own worst enemy when it comes to that attitude. I'm trying to shut out comparing and just evaluate myself based on my actions, what I can improve and all that. 

"Compare where you are and where you wanna be and you'll get nowhere"

Jan 26, 14 4:33 am


I can see how it could be easy for someone in the same position to concede themselves to 'safe' design. I think when you are on your own, especially when you are on the younger side your mind is wide open to the possibilities of each new project. Working solo, we may start with fresh ideas and incrementally pare our concepts back until they feel safe--along the same lines there is something to be said for 'knowing the rules before you break them.' Unfortunately though if we follow that rule for the first half of our careers we risk the possibility of leaving a legacy of really boring work. Further, I have been reading a book called 'Die Empty' in which the author explores the zen concept of 'beginners mind' as career philosophy. What he is talking about is leaving oneself open to learning new things, new approaches, and hence new solutions. We all know someone (maybe ourselves in some way) -they/we tend to take an authoritative stance, become defensive, and sometimes bitter when we are confronted with a problem or idea that is unfamiliar. I have thought for a while that design is about critical thinking and offten non-linaer. I have experienced situations where the design team becomes entrenched in following a formula--not to say that there isnt a time and place for formulaic problem solving, just that for me personally that approach isnt very appealing. On the flip side, I view everything as such a process, that even when I have won a competition or commission and it comes time to implement the concept I want to re-work it. Perhaps this is just my way of learning and growing.If I were to become complacent I would have gotten off the elevator before my floor so to speak. 

Yeah--Not that I am an authority on the subject by any means, but I think its important to maintain a sense of individuality even when it appears contrary to what is en vogue. Thats why I hate critiquing others portfolios. If you read through a lot of the critiques here you see a lot of (presumably) architects chasing the same carrot with regard to graphic style, technical skill, design theory, etc. It could be argued you find the same thing in the office or professional environment--chasing fees, office structure, business protocols. In some ways this is dictated by our respective professions standard of care, but I might argue that we see it reflected in our craft and culture as well. 

Trying not to wear my  heart on my sleeve too much here, but pleasantly surprised by the constructive discussion. Glad to hear others face the same dilemmas.

Jan 26, 14 4:49 pm

Great stuff, If you want help i could assist with some drafting

Jan 26, 14 6:32 pm

Thanks damar, not much backlog now, but keep in touch.

Jan 26, 14 9:53 pm

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