Brett Polich of EWP Architects: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Launched My Business or Startup

An Interview With Doug Noll

Doug Noll
Authority Magazine

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Talk to people who aren’t your colleagues or target clients. Four years ago I joined a group of other business owners who meet monthly to discuss business and help each other. I’m the only architect in the group. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from attorneys, accountants, engineers, PR professionals, technology executives, and many others. After getting together, I walk away with a perspective I didn’t walk in with. When EWP Architects started, I was focused on what was right in front of me. Now, I see the bigger picture. Talking to people who don’t walk on my road brings me perspective, plus it’s fun.

Taking the risk to start a company is a feat few are fully equipped for. Any business owner knows that the first few years in business are anything but glamorous. Building a successful business takes time, lessons learned, and most importantly, enormous growth as a business owner. What works and what doesn’t when one starts a new business? What are the valuable lessons learned from the “University of Adversity”? As part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brett Polich.

Brett Polich, AIA, is the Managing Principal at EWP Architects. He is focused on putting his team in a position of success so they can give clients their best work. He helps navigate challenges by keeping an eye on big picture goals while thinking over finite details. Having spent more than 20 years focused on workplace architecture, he is excited by the continuous evolution of the office.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Amazingly, it was a complete and utter accident. I was roughly eight years into my career and working as a core and shell architect undertaking large scale education projects. I was burned out, unhappy, and looking for a new path. I considered teaching full time and was exploring that road when a friend reached out to me. The firm she worked for was looking for another architect. The firm focused entirely on commercial interiors. At the time, I didn’t really know what that was. After several conversations, and a bad day at my current firm, I relented thinking I would spend a year there searching for the next step in my career. That was 18 years ago. It was clear, very quickly, that I was meant for interiors.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

There are two things that quickly come to mind. Very early in my career I was at a firm that went from 40 people to eight in about six months. The firm was focused on golf clubhouse projects and parks and rec. After the 2002 downturn, many of their projects collapsed — not literally, just the financing. Some bond issues didn’t pass. It was rough. The partners handled it terribly. Every Friday, we would show up and someone would have a dismissal letter for them under their keyboard. The partners were nowhere to be found. It was an early lesson on how not to treat people or run a firm. However, there were some great people there and I learned a lot from them. After that experience, it took me five years before I found someone I could really learn from and who respected and cared about me. Not having someone who is interested in your success is hard.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I’ve always been a hard worker. I started delivering newspapers at nine and mowing lawns at 10. At 11, I got a job cutting the little league fields. Nothing is cooler than being 11 with a key to the little league fields and being able to drive the tractor. The second year of architecture school was a big weed out year. Most people left because they didn’t want to work. I got through that year because I outworked the requirements. Things are hard and nothing is promised.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are good. Things are hard and they are challenging. Nothing is the same. I tell my clients the pandemic didn’t change things. It sped up a change that was already happening. Navigating through a tough climate, opening a second office in a new city and staying focused on workplace architecture after the pandemic aren’t obvious good choices. We just have to outwork the situation. From challenge comes opportunity.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For me, it’s a collection of things that happened. It will make more sense if I share my take away first — having shared goals is important and communication is vital.

I started EWP Architects with two partners. They left the firm some time ago. All three of us were working together at another firm. After the 2008 downturn, things changed and there just wasn’t any room for us where we were. The obvious answer was to break off on our own. Plans were made, things were organized and then fear set in. All three of us were in different age brackets, had different career backgrounds and (clearly) different objectives. For many reasons, the three of us never got it all out in the open. I was probably too young to see it at the time, but it’s clear now. Plans were delayed and things happened. Our planned start date slipped away. When we finally made it official, much time had passed. Our first day was a sunny fall Friday afternoon. Two weeks later, my second son was born. While driving my wife to the hospital, one of my partners called. I (stupidly) answered the phone in the car on speaker. He asked me how to put paper into the printer. My wife, mid contraction, looked at me as though there were nuclear tipped daggers coming out of her eyes. I ended the call and reset my priorities. The next six hours were filled with phone calls, emails, text messages and the birth of my son. My partners wanted me to focus on their view of the business, but I wanted them to focus on mine. My vision was not theirs. More discussion and planning was needed. It just didn’t happen. Twelve years later, my wife and I (well mostly me) still laugh about that drive to the hospital.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My team makes us unique. It’s not the quality of our design or the depth of our drawings. It’s the people behind the work. Architecture is often judged on the quality of the photograph. That’s rarely what architecture is about. The process is everything. The hardest thing we do is to figure out how to effectively communicate with our clients. Building a relationship and taking care of them is the most important thing we do. Without a good working relationship, we can’t understand their real needs or their personalities. Our best projects come from our best working relationships.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Hang with your friends and befriend your colleagues. Recently a bunch of my college friends got together after work. We are now all at different ends of the profession.Chatting and hearing about their challenges and seeing what they are doing with their careers left me excited to keep going. We’ve developed some great traditions at my firm. One is our weekend-long holiday party. Our entire team gets rooms in the same hotel. There’s a get together of some sort in the afternoon, a nice dinner, and then a fun after dinner bar. I look forward to it every year because it’s so much fun to bond outside of work. Everyone’s spouse is invited. They are all so different, and it’s always cool to hear what they are doing. These types of events are so important, I see everyone walk away with fresh energy.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am so very grateful for the people I get to work with every day. A few of my colleagues have been with me for over a decade. Stepping back and looking at the arc of my career, their presence has been one of the most impactful things on it. I’ve learned from them and they have given me their patience, time, and creativity. I didn’t think much about being a leader when I started the firm. My thoughts were on architecture, design, and getting things done. Somewhere along the way I realized my job had stopped being all about drawing and design. My primary role became taking care of the people that worked for me. Recently, we’ve made some organizational changes to set the firm up for success over the next five years. It’s clear to me that my long-term colleagues don’t need me every day. They’re doing great work and doing it in a way that takes care of our clients. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I tell people I do three things — work, sleep, and play dad. My boys and I are active in our local scout troop because it’s a great group of people. About a year ago, I took on the role of scoutmaster. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting more out of it than the scouts. Seeing the kids thrive and take on challenges is really cool. Getting to undertake unique experiences with my boys is nothing short of the best. As often as I can, I take time to share a leadership story with the troop. One of my favorites is a Simon Sinek story called”Leaders eat last”. I wholeheartedly believe it. Try and tell that to a group of 12–16 year olds.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first launched my business” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Things take time. I don’t often agonize over decisions. I stress about enacting them. Once we make a decision I want it done and to move on to the next thing. Early in my time running the firm I was frustrated by things — our office, software purchases, staff development, marketing, etc. — coming slowly to fruition. My answer was to work harder and make it happen faster. But, some things just take time. That’s ok. It’s a balancing act for me, but I’ve learned fast isn’t always good.

Basic and functional are just fine. Early on I wanted us to be viewed as a polished and experienced firm. I didn’t want people to know we had no infrastructure, that there were just three of us, or that we were working out of a living room. None of that was why people hired us. At the time, our clients were a mix of those who trusted us and those who liked our low fees. The polished firm thing didn’t mean anything to them. Twelve years later, it’s a different world and we’re a different firm. Some things we’re polished and some things are still basic and functional. Turns out that’s just fine.

It’s ok to say no. So many people in business can finish this sentence. It’s not the projects you take, it’s the projects you say no to. We have a good process now and a lot of experience with deciding which projects we are a fit for and identifying those we are not. Everytime I’m looking at a project trying to decide if we should take it or not, my annual seven figure payroll obligation starts to blink in the corner of my eye. When we first started, I was remiss to say no to any project. It didn’t matter if it fell into our focus of workplace interiors. Fix your leaky parking deck, ok.. Super complicated project with a fast deadline and questionable payment terms, ugh sure. It’s a hard thing to come to terms with. It’s harder when it’s a good client asking you to help them with a project that’s not a good fit. After 12 years I can tell you, it’s not just the projects we said yes to that made us successful. It’s also about the projects we passed on. Clients will respect you if you’re honest with them.

Money is a tool. It’s very easy to get lost in the numbers. I was 33 years old when I started the firm. I had managed multi million dollar projects, I managed our household funds, but I had never managed six or seven figure internal budgets. We crossed into seven figures of revenue in year three. My reaction was not to overspend, but to over save. I was taught all my life to save my money, so that’s what I did. Running a business is not the same thing. Money is a tool. It facilitates better computers and software, a better office, and people who are experts in things I am not. Today, we still “save” money in a contingency fund, but we take care of our growing staff and spend money to facilitate our success.

Talk to people who aren’t your colleagues or target clients. Four years ago I joined a group of other business owners who meet monthly to discuss business and help each other. I’m the only architect in the group. I’ve had the opportunity to learn from attorneys, accountants, engineers, PR professionals, technology executives, and many others. After getting together, I walk away with a perspective I didn’t walk in with. When EWP Architects started, I was focused on what was right in front of me. Now, I see the bigger picture. Talking to people who don’t walk on my road brings me perspective, plus it’s fun.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder?

It’s easy to get bogged down by what’s on your desk, staring back at you. It’s easy to get caught up with that client who doesn’t pay his bills or that contractor who just seems to do whatever they want. Somewhere along the way it clicked for me that I need to take my own advice. For years, I’ve been telling clients projects are successful when we look at the big picture while we focus on the little details. Every entrepreneur needs to find a way to step back and see the big picture. For me, lots of little things enable me to do this and I’ve gotten much better at it over the years. You have to have a long view of your business, but keep your eye on what’s in front of you.

I’ve gotten into a habit of making annual lists. At the end of the year, sometime between Christmas and New Years, I make a list of everything we at EWP Architects got done the past year. I list all the completed projects I can remember off the top of my head, all the internal changes or improvements we made, the staff we’ve taken on or those who have enjoyed major milestones. This process helps me see progress,the arc of business and the volume of work.

On a day to day basis, we have certain metrics that help me see what’s going on. Cash flow, billings and receivables work in hand. These numbers help me feel at ease with the ups and downs. They quantify things and give me perspective. I know good billings and good receivables trigger good cash flow. If I see good cash flow, I can worry less about billings and receivables because they often come around.

The best advice I think I can offer is to remind you these are things that matter only to you. Your objectives aren’t necessarily those of your team. Early in my career I worked at a firm who hounded us (the staff) about our utilization rate (how much of our time was directly billable to the client). We were penalized if our rate fell too low. For those wondering, yes, this was the same firm that went from 40 staff members to eight before collapsing. The crazy thing was, our utilization rates were low because we simply didn’t have enough work. This was a great lesson for me to not project nonsense on my staff.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

The world seems to be changing at an ever increasing pace. I often wonder what my kids will encounter as they enter the workforce. Will the idea of a workforce even exist? As an architect, it’s hard to argue that change is bad. After all, everything I do is about changing something. What jumps out at me is a change toward dependency. When we realize we need something, we expect to order it on our phones and have it arrive shortly thereafter. The trend seems to be toward a desire for more and more things to be provided to us by others. My movement would be away from dependency and toward self reliance. People who can solve their own problems, deal with what’s in front of them, and find solutions to problems at hand will enjoy success. Help is tremendously important, support is necessary. Dependency is scary.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My team and I publish a small part of our work on our website (www.ewparchitects.com). You can also follow our work on LinkedIn and Instagram.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.

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Doug Noll
Authority Magazine

Award-winning author, teacher, trainer, and now podcaster.