Lessons From The Immigrant Hustle: “Come out of your business with as little debt as possible”
With Ignacio Rodriguez CEO of IR Architects
If you can come out of your business with as little debt as possible, you can really grow your business and make a profit sooner. Don’t let debt loom like a mountain over you; bootstrap your efforts to grow your business.
I had the pleasure to interview Ignacio Rodriguez, Founder and CEO of IR Architects and AVR Studio. Ignacio Rodriguez is a self-made and visually-driven architect with an impressive slate of luxury real estate successes throughout Southern California. His elite slate spans high-end luxury homes that range from 5,000 square-foot contemporary new-builds to 70,000 square-foot estates that are among the largest houses on the market in America. Leading IRA to constant advancement and innovation, Rodriguez also launched AVR Studio, a virtual reality studio offering virtual property inspections for clients, developers and financial institutions to facilitate the development process.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Mexico, but I have been in the U.S. for the majority of my life. My parents and I came to the U.S. when I was only a year and a half old. As you can imagine, moving to a new country with a new language and new culture comes with its fair share of adversities. The first couple of years were difficult, as my family struggled to adjust. Technically, I grew up in two cities in Southern California: Long Beach and Compton. I lived in Long Beach up until I was six years-old, and later moved to Carson, CA where my family purchased their first home. Although I lived in Carson, the Compton school district overlapped with my neighborhood and therefore, I attended schools in Compton throughout most of my schooling and it was tough.
I grew up in the 90s during the peak of the racial riots. It made for a very aggressive upbringing, but that gave me character and motivation to do better. It was at Compton High School that I realized I wanted to be an architect. I was actually taught by a licensed architect, which was a luxury considering he could have been working at his own practice. I was fortunate enough that he became a mentor and pointed me in the right direction to get my degree. I always had a great GPA, and was lucky enough to also have great resources, so I ended up securing all the scholarships I needed to attend college for free. I decided to attend Woodbury University and enroll in their prestigious architecture program.
Can you tell us what led you to become an architect and start your own business? What was that experience like?
When I was younger, my dad had a job building large temporary structures — similar to circus tents — and the day before a build, he would go home and sketch out how everything would get built. I got to see that process from a young age. I found the entire process fascinating, it was so interesting to see something go from being sketched on paper, to seeing it in the field being built. When I was in high school, I learned that there was an occupation for that, and that solidified my passion for architecture.
When it comes to starting my own business, I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit that stemmed from spending time with my dad and watching him launch several businesses to help us get by. My dad came to the U.S. with nothing, so he would constantly start different businesses like selling corn out of the back of his truck, or selling tamales during the holidays. As the only son, I would tag along and see how the businesses did. Eventually, he started a party rental business and I became one of his salesmen, at just 12 years-old. At the moment, I didn’t realize how much I was learning. But looking back, I realized that I learned a lot about business processes just by being involved in the conversation.
I also met my wife at Woodbury University, and she has a very business-oriented mentality. So, when it came time to launch a business, we had a great team to be able to do it. We were able to design very cool structures and became extremely balanced: I could do the creative, and she could take on the business side of the machine. With my business background, we could have important conversations on how to grow the business, balance debt and invest back into the business. That helped set the foundation.
What led you or your family to emigrate to America? Can you tell a story?
The biggest part is that the financial disparities in Mexico are extremely challenging. Wrapping your head around that can be difficult. You live there and, no matter how hard you work, it’s not easy to succeed or outgrow the social position you were born into. They emigrated to the U.S. to build better lives and provide better opportunities for their family. It wasn’t easy but luckily for them, they arrived in the 80s during Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program (The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986), and so they were able to become U.S. citizens, which allowed me to become a citizen. But it was still very challenging for my parents.
Being a parent myself now, I can only try to put myself in their shoes and empathize and understand the hardships. Because, when going to a country you don’t know, with nothing, you can just cross your fingers and hope you can make it work — all the while having a one-and-a-half year old baby at your side. That’s insane, but I’m so grateful for their sacrifice!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped you on your path? Can you share a story?
Mentally, my dad. He challenged and pushed me to continue to grow and become better at everything I was doing, whether I wanted to or not. If I had someone to be grateful for, it would definitely be him.
One of the biggest things with my dad was his philosophy of: excuses don’t matter, you just have to get it done. And I apply that to everything I do. During school, he would say ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re upset. If you don’t have good grades, you’re going to get stuck and your path to success is going to get that much harder.’ He knew the value of education for us and therefore, made sure we knew that when the report cards came in, there’s no reason to not have good grades. His approach was to dismiss the excuses, and help me get on a path that led to straight A’s.
So throughout the process, I’ve learned that there’s always a reason why something is done, or not done, but in the grand scheme of things, people don’t care. You just have to get the job done and move on.
How are things going today?
I always envisioned, even when we started our practice, that it would be small. Something that gave us the freedom to design, enjoy our lives and have fun. Now, we have 20 employees, three divisions within the practice, and different tiers of hierarchy and decision-making. I couldn’t be happier. I’m completely blown away. Actually, we struggle to set new goals, since we exceeded our expectations so early on. Now we’re just shooting for the stars.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m a firm believer that you have to give back to the community. A lot of giving back can be done with money, but a lot more of it should be with your time. I believe it’s only fair that once you’ve succeeded you reach out, give back and help those struggling by giving them guidance and direction.
To do so, my wife and I give back to the alma mater of both of us, and surrounding colleges. We provide three scholarships a year to East LA College and Woodbury University. We call them ‘Encouragement Scholarships.’ It’s money that’s there to show students that people who don’t know them — complete strangers — believe in them and that they will succeed. That’s very important to me.
Last year, we sponsored the first year of The IR Architects Studio at Woodbury University’s School of Architecture. I think giving back in those way is very critical.
I’m also on the Board of Trustees at Woodbury University, and on the finance committee, where I review finances, see the long-term goals of the University and see how I can help, which is exciting and fun. I’m also the VP of a nonprofit in Encino called Mid-Valley Youth Baseball. I came in almost a year and a half ago with the idea of rebuilding the program. It was on steady decline, so we stabilized the program, helped rebrand it and got it to a back on its feet. We stay busy giving back, for sure, but I enjoy every second of it.
Can you share “5 keys to architecting your American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be willing to dream big. A lot of it starts with only a dream.
- Be able to understand business. In college, I learned that you can have a great idea, but without a business sense, you can’t succeed. You have to know how the business end works, which will take a lot of work and sacrifice. You can pay people to help, or you can learn in sweat-equity. Through sweat-equity, you understand your product far better than paying someone to do it. It also shows you the amount of effort that goes into something.
- Be willing to wear many hats. You’ll start by bootstrapping your business, maybe with a few other partners, being the CEO, COO, CFO, all the chief officers.
- Dodge the debt…as much as you can. If you can come out of your business with as little debt as possible, you can really grow your business and make a profit sooner. Don’t let debt loom like a mountain over you; bootstrap your efforts to grow your business.
- Don’t lose sight of your goals or business values. As a business starts to grow, you can’t lose touch with all parts of the practice. Especially with IR Architects: with 20 employees, we’re empowering others to take charge, but you always have to remember that it’s your business. It’s up to you to keep the core fundamentals together and make sure they’re not being missed. It could send the business in the wrong trajectory. If you fall asleep at the wheel, you may not notice the effects right away, but it’ll take twice as long to get back on the right path. Never lose sight of your vision and values.
Where do you see the future of architecture going and what can you advise the new generation of architects?
The biggest part now is that the practice of architecture is evolving as architects are becoming part owners of their projects. For the longest time, architects just provided a service. Now, architects are part of joint ventures, new corporations formed for that division. They don’t just have a say, but a financial interest in their project, which is huge. This allows architects to become financially independent and not have to take on projects just to feed their business.
Of course, you can be a great architect, but you have to understand how the project model works financially. If you can understand that, you can have a creative way to get into that business entity. Before, architects would just draw something amazing and go home. The reality was, you were no different than any other employee. Now with social media, where designs are so easily shared, you have to make sure that the design leader for a project doesn’t get complacent. The reality is, you have to keep innovating. Even though the last project you created was super successful, you always need to grow. You can give architects a small piece of the financial to have a vested interest in a project, which can motivate them to go above and beyond the architecture fee.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? :-)
Believe it or not, I would love to sit down and have a genuine conversation with somebody like Donald Trump, just to understand on a personal level — stepping away from all the media — what his core goals are for the country. I want to learn what his real vision is, beyond what you see on TV, and without jumping to any conclusions.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!