Why Architects are Super Well-Suited for Startups
Disclaimer: There is an upcoming sequel to this post entitled, ‘Why Architects are maybe NOT Super Well-Suited for Startups.’ Stay tuned.
Here’s my list:
- Architects are trained to imagine and pitch the big-picture vision. We’re pretty comfortable imagining “a world where…” and expressing what that would look and feel like in very tangible terms. Sure, we may only be drawing the first floor plan this week, but we’re doing it, knowing how it will fit into the big picture vision.
2. We test and learn by making lots of things, iteratively. Architects test circulation by drawing a plan. Or making a film. We assess three-dimensional form by creating at a physical model. We evaluate whether it fits into the city by placing that model into a larger, contextual site model. Architects test hypotheses by making. Many prototypes at different scales, visible from several different perspectives and angles. Each ‘product,’ which has to be beautiful in its own right, serves to test different hypotheses and should offer insight into the larger thesis as a whole. Within each experiment, iterate quickly.
3. Related to #2, architects are rapid prototype-rs and ship-pers by nature. Architects prototype and build (ship) in order to convince others of their vision. Because buildings are expensive and hard to make, we build and ship prototypes in a variety of media: a) paper (hand sketches → computer drawings → measured digital plans, sections and elevations)
b) Models (physical, 3-dimensional represenations of the real thing) and; c) Renderings (digital drawings of your vision of the building). At the end of the day, architects draw, make, print, and ship fast in order to convince others of our vision.
4. Architects are okay with rapidly changing plans and uncertainty (the pivot). Architecture students, especially. Things change really quickly in a normal week of architecture school. You learn to ‘kill your darlings’ and move forward. No ONE idea is sacred. Pivoting happens weekly, sometimes daily in your first year of architecture school, and you realize that if you let your first idea go, you may move on to produce something even better.
5. Architects think in terms of systems. Execution is everything. Not just the ‘what’ (plumbing, mechanical, cladding), but the ‘how’ and the sequence in which systems must be installed. Vision is great, but thoughtfully-considered execution is critical to the success of the project. As a result, architects are often considered to be the ‘quarterbacks’ of a building project.
6. Related to #5, architects are taught to think in Phases. You can’t build a house without going through the phases: Schematic Design → Design Development → Construction Documents → Bidding and Negotiation → Start of Construction. Startups are similar in that when you raise, you’re asking investors to fund a specific phase of your company and you are telling them you will produce ABC and accomplish XYZ within that time frame.
7. Architects are really scrappy at learning new techniques. Because we obsess over finding the best and clearest way to express an idea, we often find ourselves asking, “Can I learn this in 48 hours?” With the help of Youtube instructional videos and online forums, the answer is usually yes. Do I need an awesome digital rendering to make my presentation legit? A stop motion animation? A film? When your back is against a wall, it’s amazing what you are capable of learning and making in a compressed time frame.
8. Architects are good at filtering feedback. We get a ton of feedback. And you quickly realize that you can’t listen to it all, so architects must become really good editors. Filtration and focus. Get good at figuring out which feedback to listen to, and which feedback to ignore (for now). When you find a good source of feedback (eg. an insightful user or an advisor), don’t let go.
9. Choosing between sleeping an extra 15 minutes and showering. This happened at least bi-weekly for me in grad school. During my first year it happened weekly. Startup pace in early days can be similar. But you get used to it, and you realize how much is actually do-able in one day if you focus and prioritize. (btw do both whenever possible.) You learn to prioritize tasks, focus, and do as much as humanly possible with very limited resources (time and money).
10. If you can’t show it, you don’t get to say it. In architecture school I made a rule for myself: If I didn’t have visual or physical evidence of something I was describing, I didn’t get to talk about it. It’s just too hard to ask people to visualize something you are imagining without any evidence, even if small. Concrete, tangible things are crucial in presentations. Show (rather than tell) as much as possible.
11. And finally, the last one is really important. We believe in intentional serendipity. There are lots of late nights where you discover something cool by accident. Your concrete model cured in the mold funny, but it turned out better than you thought. Or an accidental lens setting in Max produced the perfect effect. When you are at studio, making things and talking to friends, good things tend to happen. Sometimes Kanye drops by. A friend helps you un-jam the laser cutter, or you find scrap materials that you need to complete your model and make your 10 am deadline. (New definition of ‘scrappy.’) I know I’ve benefitted on numerous occasions from this. It tends to favor those who are prepared for it to happen.
I’m now working on Mosss — if you’re a designer interested in joining a startup (or even an architect transitioning out of buildings and into experiences), would love to hear from you.