Welcome to Episode 22 of Design Create Inspire! I figured now was a good time to go back a little and explain how and why I decided to start my own business. Deciding to go into business for yourself can be daunting - there are so many pieces to the puzzle and sometimes it's easier to just go work for someone else. For me, I always knew I wanted to be a business owner. I was born and bred an entrepreneur, so I was going to make that happen no matter what. So, when I started design school, I also took business classes so I could start building that foundation.
It’s easy to look at someone’s success and think it came easy or they somehow were handed it. A lot goes on behind the scenes...every single day (especially at 3 am!). There is a lot that goes into starting, running, and keeping a business alive that isn't shown to the world. There are many times along the way that you may question what you’re doing and feel overwhelmed. You wouldn’t believe how many times I asked myself, “should I just go work for a firm? I would probably make more money than I do now, I wouldn't have the liability that I currently have, and the pressure of maintaining a business would be on someone else's shoulders.”
I've been very close to getting to the point of giving up. So, what forced me to continue to build my company? It might not be your typical answer - I had a baby! My goal was to go 100% in on BYoung Design in 2-4 years after I graduated grad school and instead I would work full-time for another firm. However, now that I had a daughter, this goal was expedited. When I thought about going to work for a firm I knew the paychecks would be consistent and I would probably start off making more money than I would be working for myself, but at what cost? I knew I would be working 40+ hours away from home and would now have to figure out full-time daycare. Or I could sacrifice the early lack of money to be home, take care of my daughter and work when and how I needed.
Working at my own pace in the begging was incredible! If I felt overwhelmed, I’d slow my projects down or take on less. If my daughter was sick, I could take care of her during the day and work through the night, sometimes until 3 am. I could choose what worked for my family and myself. Don't get me wrong though, this wasn’t easy! I was always "on", whether that meant parent-mode, boss-mode, or house-mode. I also wasn’t receiving stable paychecks like I would at a typical job. Some months would be great and then some months I’d receive nothing.
In this industry, there is a constant ebb and flow of work. Some months were crazy busy and I felt the need to hire and other months it was slow and I was glad it was just me. Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. You have to stick with it during those lulls and know that there will be a peak again soon. I’m an optimist and just KNEW that having a successful firm was just around the corner. I knew I was chipping away at it slowly. Some years I would focus heavier on marketing, other years I would focus on developing my workflow. I was constantly improving, learning, and growing as a business owner and company. Which allowed my company to get better as the years went on.
So, what do I wish I would have known from the very beginning? Sometimes I think ignorance is bliss, because if you saw the future of what you needed to go through and the time it would take to build a successful business, you might not want to get started. However, at the same time, if you had an idea of the hurdles you would have to get over, you could be prepared and not let them feel like setbacks. So, let's talk about what I wish I knew...
As architects (or emerging architects) we all want to design our dream projects. One of the reasons a lot of us want to start our own studio is so we can have free range on how and what we design. However, it is important to remember that this comes with time. Your first projects are likely to be far from what you dream of designing. However, each project builds on top of the other and each one comes with valuable lessons to make you more prepared for the bigger projects. It is important to treat each client as if you are designing your dream project. You never know, that client may come back years later wanting you to design something else for them and this time it might be more in line with your goals. It's important to appreciate each step along the way and use each project to become a better designer and business owner
Not Just an Architect
When you start a practice you take on the role of everyone - architect, graphic designer, marketer, social media/content creator, accountant, project manager, negotiator, people pleaser, etc. This can be difficult sometimes and we can’t expect to be perfect at each item. Hiring people better than you at these tasks is key, but that comes with time. Taking on all these roles is not for everyone. Some architects might have zero interest in doing anything but designing! For those people, working in an office where a project manager hands you a scope of work and the client's vision and sends you off to just design, might be the ideal situation. You don't have to meet with the clients, you don't have to worry about billing, contracts, accounting, etc. You just design. And that is OK! You have to know yourself and what type of person you are, not everyone is meant to own a firm.
As I mentioned above, income can be unpredictable when you are first starting. You may not be making what you would be if you went and worked for someone else. However, each year you are building up your business for YOU, which means in a few years you will be able to start benefitting from your hard work. You have to have a long-term vision if you are starting a business, if you are looking to be an overnight success you might want to try something else. It takes patience and perseverance.
It is also important to realize that a lot of the work you do isn't billable time. To grow your business, you'll be working on marketing, meeting with potential clients, contracts, project management (that isn't billable), accounting, etc. These are all items that you have to do to keep your company running, but you're not getting a paycheck for - at least in the beginning. Eventually, your billable rate should account for these overhead expenses, but you'll find yourself working a lot more than you're billing out for. Besides, even when you're not working, a lot of the time your mind is still at work. It's harder to disassociate when you own your own business. I learned from an early age the importance of work/family balance, so I don't check my work emails on the weekend and try my hardest to put work away to spend time with my family. However, that doesn't stop my mind from racing in the middle of the night or new ideas come to me at random hours. It's not as easy to "leave at the office" as a typical 9-5 job may be.
Rejection comes in many forms when you are running a business. Specifically working hard on trying to land a specific client and then not getting the job. This can be deflating when you've spent hours meeting with the clients, preparing proposals, etc. however, it is good to remember that it just means it allows space for a better job to come along.
You won't be the right architect for every client, but not every person will be the right client for you. Be ok with saying no to projects that aren't in line with your values. This can be especially hard when you're first starting because you want to say yes to everything. Just make sure to keep an eye out for red flags and don’t let clients take advantage of you. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, you’re smart and they’re hiring you for a reason. Remember the value you bring to the table.
Mistakes happen! I have learned valuable lessons from every project I’ve ever worked on. Some mistakes seem monumental at the time, others are less significant but come with valuable teachings. Even little mistakes like communication (or lack thereof) happen that have helped me improve my workflow and discover a better way to work.
Mistakes, like in anything in life, are bound to happen and a valuable part of growing a successful firm. One of the biggest mistakes I ever had on a project is now one of my most valuable experiences. The lessons I learned are some that I would never have been able to learn from a book. Experiences like that help build you as a leader, a business owner, and a professional.
Of course, we try to limit our mistakes as much as possible, but we have to remember we’re human. That’s why we have insurance and open communication! Another valuable lesson I have learned is honesty. When you make a mistake, figure out how to make it right. If I quit with the first mistake I made, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Slow and Steady
Building a successful business takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. Each year my revenue slowly increases, but the keyword here is slowly! There wasn’t a major jump after that first year or even my first award. What kept me optimistic was that it was at least slowly increasing. My goal was probably double what I was bringing in, because there are a lot of expenses and overhead with running a business, plus trying to survive and pay for a living. But I knew if I stuck with it I would get there.
The thing with architecture is a lot of work comes through referrals. So, I needed to have enough projects under my belt where clients would start referring me. When you're first starting, you don’t have that working for you yet and you have to rely on people taking a chance on you. You can work on marketing, portfolio, etc. but there’s nothing like a happy client who has experience working with you to give confidence to that next potential client. So, I knew growth would be slow at first. Now, 6 years into my business I’m finally getting to the point where I have a waiting list and I’m working on projects that light me up.
So the key takeaways are: be patient, optimistic, and hard-working. Rome wasn't built in a day and a successful architecture firm can't be either. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll be reaping the rewards! Good luck! Don't forget to check out this week's podcast episode to hear me dive deeper into this topic.
P.S. Next week I'm going to discuss tips on how to get started, so stay tuned!