6 Things I Learned My First 2 Years Running Our Architecture Firm.
For this post, I will focus on the BAD. Why’s that? Because that’s what I learned the most from. We don’t learn as much from the successes…all that does is reinforce that what you’re doing is ok, but doesn’t push you to learn and improve the way the failures do.
Mistakes and bad experiences, are excellent teachers. In my next post, I will go over the GOOD.
So here we go. What I learned….
It’s not what I thought it was going to be. This is actually both good and bad, but as I said above, we’re only covering the bad here. What I found was that as prepared as I thought I was for running our firm, I really wasn’t. Dealing with clients is harder than I thought. Bookkeeping and accounting completely suck ass, and without having a good handle on it, it’s hard to tell how well (or awful) you’re doing. An architecture firm, it turns out, is a business just like any other. “No duh,” you say? Sure, we all know that a firm is a business, but what do we all know about running a business? If you’re like me, very little. So what I thought was going to be a daily routine of going into the office, turning on some chill out house music in the background, pulling out rolls of trace, and designing the best projects I could turned out to be something altogether different.
No one knows what I do. Unless you’re starting off with multi-million dollar projects with seasoned developers as clients, most people who walk through your door have no idea what you do. What sucks even more is that they think whatever you do, it can’t cost that much. “But everyone knows what architects do,” you say? Yeah right. Many clients think that all you do is draw some straight lines on paper. I wish I had a $100 for every time I heard, “I just need someone to do the drawings for me. I have the design in my head.” What about a feasibility study? Who will coordinate with the structural engineer? Who will work with the contractor during construction to make sure they build what wedesigned?
Tip: If a potential clients answers, “I will,” to any of those questions, run!!
Beware the: “I have other jobs after this” client. For those clients that are a bit savvy, they will know that you are just starting out, you’re hungry, and you’re probably willing to take on the jobs other firms will turn down. They also know how to squeeze you on your fee. A classic tactic is to ask you for a discount on this job, with a promise to make it up on future jobs. Kind of like that hamburger guy on Popeye, who kept promising to pay for his burgers on Wednesday for a hamburger today. You ready for this piece of breaking news? There are no other jobs!! 1 in 1,000,000 clients will actually have another job for you (please don’t check my statistics…take my word for it).
You are not Superman. You are not Superwoman. I run my firm with my wife who is an architect as well. Even with the two of us working 90 hours a week, we couldn’t do it all. We just couldn’t. We needed help. You will too. So please, go out there and get help. First, you need to know what you’ll need help with, and that may take some time to figure out. But you’ll figure it out. For example, as I said above, bookkeeping was a completely new world for me. Still, I wanted to do it so that I could learn everything there was to know about our firm’s finances. So, I hired an accountant. He doesn’t ‘keep’ my books, but he advises me on how to. Another example: rendering. We have neither the time, nor the computer hardware, to do this. Could we maybe, perhaps do it? Maybe. But it’s better to just have a pro do it.
That dream job you just landed? It will end. You need another one. Ooh, this was a real slap to the face for us. When you get that one cool job, that one cool client, and that one cool fee, you’re as happy as pig in slop. The office is electric, the coffee tastes better, the sun is brighter, and even that diet you’re on is working. It is all good!! Then, you send that second to last invoice, and you say, “Oh shit…this job is over!” Now what? Simple, get another one. This is easier said than done though, and it’s one of those things I kind of knew we would have to do, but we had no idea how hard (and scary) it would be. People don’t know us. They think we’re too small. Too young. For every 1 client we land, we go through 10 leads. And those 10 leads take up a lot, and I mean a lot of time. Which takes me to the last thing I want to go over.
Learning when to say NO is huge! I wish I had another $100 for every hour I spent on the phone with potential clients. I wish I could get back the hours I spent visiting their unbuildable site. I wish I could get back the hours I spent at our office explaining to people what we do. I wish I could get back the hours explaining to potential clients what the process will be like working with us. I wish. I wish. I wish. Now however, I know better. I just say NO. But now I know when to say no. You say NO when you realize that this “client” will never hire you, either because they don’t really have the money, the land, or the courage to move forward; they’re just kicking the tires and are not truly serious. You will be able to tell if this is the case fairly quickly. Nevertheless, that skill took some time to learn (eh, about 2 years, and I’m still learning). Here are some signs that you should say no:
- The client says, “I have more jobs after this one.” (Great. Let’s sign a contract for all of them then.)
- The clients says, “My buddy says I should be able to build my new house for $100,000.” (This is for those of you that live in Los Angeles, like me.)
- The client says, “I have another architect who charges much less.” (Great. Hire them.)
- The client says, “Can you tell me what I can build first? Then I can see if we want to do this or not.” (HINT…they want you to do that for free.)
Is this all I learned? No way, but they’re the biggies. There were many other lessons along the way. Create systems, templates, and guides for everything you do. Get the right software for you. Get a good task and project management system. Oh, here’s a good one: get a separate business phone number! If not, clients will call you 24/7.
Resources. Here are some of the tools and “help” that I use. Hopefully, you can use them too.
EntreArchitect. This guy is amazing. Mark R. LePage has tons of information on his website tailored to running a small architecture firm. Subscribe to his podcast now!! If you do one thing after reading this, do this!
30x40. Eric Reinholdt has written two amazing books that have helped me a lot. They’re tailored for those folks who are specifically doing what I did (and maybe what you’re thinking of doing)…starting an architecture firm.
ToDoist. I use ToDoist for task Management. Once a week I review my Trello Boards and then create tasks for what I will do that week.
Phone.com. Get a business number. Don’t use your personal number. You’ll thank me later. Don’t worry, you can have the calls forward to your cell during business hours, so you don’t actually have to get a physical business phone.
Finally. If you’re thinking of starting your own architecture firm, do it! Just do it! I don’t want you to read this and think it’s all doom and gloom. There will be mistakes. Learn from mine. Don’t repeat them. Good luck!