Advice for Starting a Design Firm
May 16, 2019
This blog post is breaking my rules.
You may have noticed that the writing we do here is almost entirely devoted to helping people understand what design professionals do, providing helpful information about the process. One of the tests we use to vet a blog post idea is, “Would another architect like to read this post?” If the answer is yes, then we have to defend why we think we should publish it anyway. I love architects, but this blog isn’t about pleasing them, it is about informing everyone out there. So, this post is breaking some rules.
So, if you’re a potential client or someone looking for advice on your project, you’re not going to get anything out of this post today. For some reading that might interest you more check out this collection of posts for people looking for general information on what design professionals do.
If you’re an architect (or interior designer or landscape architect) looking to start your own firm, though, this one’s for you. While Board & Vellum is only eight years old now (it feels like 80), I’ve learned a lot and hope I have some advice that can be helpful. I’ve taken Board & Vellum from a desk in my attic to a 40-person, multi-discipline design firm that does all types of projects. I hope there’s some helpful advice here. So, in no particular order, here’s your “advice on how to start a design firm” clickbait.
Tips for starting a design firm.
- Figure out your office. I started Board & Vellum with a loan from myself to the company for $10,000. I used that to buy a computer, some basic supplies, pay for the hosting of my first website, and have a tiny nest egg. I knew that rent wasn’t in the equation, so I took over my attic, threw up some IKEA desks, and sat for hours working and watching the final seasons of Babylon 5 (I am shameless). I knew that my client base wasn’t going to need a conference room and that meeting at their office or business would help personalize my approach. After a year, though, it became clear that some clients want to hire someone a little more put together, so I rented our first tiny office. It was still stupid cheap (and you should aim for that), but was functional and made it look like I was a real firm. Later on, you can invest in a great office but, for now, keep your overhead low.
- Business books. Read as many of these as you can, and try and take what resonates with you and incorporate it into your company. You need to stand out, so don’t do what everyone else is doing, but certainly learn from them.
- Be the boss you wanted to have. When it comes time to hire your first employee, remember that they are putting their faith in your business expertise. It is horrifying. But it is also a chance to be the person you always wanted to be. Be a good person and help empower them. You can teach while not crushing.
- Get used to taking risks. When I hired my first employee (who is still here), I knew that I had enough money or projected income to pay him for a year. I also knew I only had enough work for six months. I figured at the end of six months, we’d design a fake restaurant or something, but that it was worth the gamble. Hiring someone, even though it was a huge financial risk (and he was making far more than me at the time), enabled us to leverage our skills and it paid off almost instantly.
- Help people. Well, this is more universal life advice than specific advice on starting your own firm. I’m a big believer in just helping people to help them. Don’t help them because you think it’ll come back to you as more work or a referral. Just be a good person who helps people, and karma will reward you if it sees fit. As a firm, we will go out of our way to help people who need architectural advice but maybe can’t afford our fees, or other such scenarios. It just feels good. And yes, some of those people who we’ve helped with advice but who never hired us ended up referring us work because we’re honest and they felt that we treated them well.
- Ignore some advice. Your bank isn’t the most critical thing in the world. When I started the firm I put together this complicated budget and projected income spreadsheet. I went to the bank (because that’s what business books told me) and sat down expecting to be grilled. They didn’t even look. The reality is, you should avoid taking out big loans early on, so your bank really isn’t that critical. Later on, the game changes when you need a line of credit and all sorts of other things but until then, ignore some advice and just be cautious with your money. You can change banks later.
- Look legit! Now this one is personal to me. I am so confused at so many people starting a firm who don’t pull together a website or set up business cards, social media, Google Maps listings, or any number of things. Even if you’re working and you know you’re going to start a firm, spend the evenings for a few months getting up the basics. Get a basic website. (Don’t stress about how perfect it is, you can redesign it later. Get a cheap template and put the damn thing online already with some good content about who you are.) Get business cards. Get a phone number. (And don’t use your cell phone number, that’s such a dumb mistake I made. Use a Google Voice number if you have to.) Set up your social media, get a logo, email address, and generally just look like a company. It isn’t that hard, and so it becomes something that people think they can forget. “I’ve already got some projects, I should be working on those and not the website.” Dumb, dumb, dumb. When that work is done you’ll need the next project, and if people can’t find you and figure out who you are it will be that much harder to line up future work.
- Make it personal. If we are approached to go after a project and we don’t know the client and don’t have examples of similar projects in our portfolio, we won’t go after the project. However, if we have a personal connection to the client, then we will go after the project and often times, that personal connection has far more of an impact on winning the job than our portfolio does. Business is personal. Find a way to convey your personality (and not the personality that you think people want to see, convey your actual personality) and use that to make connections and build project leads. A blog is a great way of getting your voice out there, as well. And if you’re just a miserable person who no one likes, well, good luck to you!
- Figure out your business development style. There is no secret formula to this, but you don’t want to be a stereotypical used car salesman. Find what works and be honest, straight-forward, and trustworthy. I will go to great lengths to avoid the phrase, “Are you looking for an architect?” The reality is, that if they are looking for one and they’ve met me, liked me, and know I’m doing something I love, chance is, they’ll call me. It all works out. Find your own style but keep it authentic.
- Put together a great proposal. This sort of goes along with the “look legit” tip, but make a real proposal! Don’t stop it at two pages. Make it personalized, thorough, and act like you really want that project! It takes more work early on, but we land almost 60% of our projects we put a proposal out for, and I think a large part of that is the time we put into each one.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. You only have so much time, and your clients aren’t architects. As you’re building your firm, they aren’t going to notice that the photo isn’t perfectly Photoshopped or that the formatting on your title block was slightly off. Get a great design for the project and realize that the details of the other stuff can be handled later. If you spend too much time focusing on the details now it simply will not pay off.
- Write a damn strategic plan. I’ve written about this so many times. Do it. You only need three or four pages, but write down your goals, your potential clients, and your specific plan. I used this as a road map, and it really helped focus my efforts. If you can’t write this down you should question why you want to do this in the first place.
- Know you’re not going to make a lot of money. Architects don’t make a lot of money compared to what the public thinks we make. And when you’re building a firm, you’re going to have to do projects for fees that aren’t ideal or spend months in between large projects. There’s a good chance you won’t make a lot of money. My take-home salary for my first year was just around $25,000 a year. You’re going to need help and, yes, that sucks. I had a husband who was working and we made a strict budget at home to slash everything. I’ve had friends who have leveraged family or saved up for years first. Whatever you do, know that it can pay off once things establish themselves, but you’re going to need to weather the storm first.
In the end, I think the thing that I’ve learned the most is that taking risks when starting a firm doesn’t mean that you take stupid chances. It means that you take calculated chances and do your damn best to ensure they succeed. You’re going to work your butt off. You’ll freak out a million times over. And, quite frankly, it may fail. Heck knows that Board & Vellum benefited from a lot of luck when I first started it, and it could have turned out much differently. But I know, and you should too, that the act of starting your own firm and going through the motions, is going to make you a better design professional no matter the outcome. In the end, that’s really the best reward of them all.