The Dream of All Designers
By Yu-Ngok Lo, FAIA, CDT, LEED AP, NCARB
It is common among residential designers to ponder at some point the possibility of starting his/her own firm; however, not many of us manage to pull it off. There are a variety of possible reasons why this is the case: family issues, financial reasons, and inability to find enough clients are just a few. While I wouldn’t consider myself to be highly successful yet (although that certainly is my goal), I am among the lucky few architects who managed to start my own practice. So, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my experiences and recommendations with readers who are considering becoming their own boss.
I would argue that “starting your own business” requires planning and a tremendous amount of effort and would normally recommend that a person not start their own company right after college/school. In fact, it is always a good idea to work for a design firm for a few years to get some experience, save some money, and, most importantly, get all the credentials you need (for example - AIBD’s CPBD). In addition to learning all the technical skills necessary, basic business management skills are equally important. Firms might not have resources or budgets for you (an intern) to be involved in every aspect of a project; however, that should not stop you from learning on your own time. Volunteer to accompany your boss to a jobsite whenever possible; ask technical questions (there are no stupid questions); on your own time, review construction documents for other projects you might not be working on; ask your boss to let you attend a meeting with a client or a consultant meeting, then stay late at work to make up the time (if needed). It is important for you to take the initiative and prepare yourself to be on your own. Guess what? Once you start your own business, there will be no “boss” or “supervisor” you can go to with questions. You must seize opportunities whenever possible.
It goes without saying that it is important to have ample savings to back you up before starting your own firm. Why? Because it will take a while before you get your first check from a client after you quit your job. In order to ensure your savings last until you begin receiving payments from clients, it is always a good idea to keep your overhead as low as possible. Don’t hire anyone (unless necessity requires it) when you first open your firm; use your home as your office; buy used equipment instead of new. These are some examples of how you can reduce your overhead expenses. If feasible, allow yourself time to secure your first commission/project before quitting your job.
One thing I learned early on is how important “public speaking” is. I used to stammer when standing in front of a big crowd. So, I decided to force myself to overcome my awkwardness and began signing up for speaking opportunities at professional conferences. I also sought professional help from a speech therapist to improve my project presentation skills. Developing client relationships is another crucial aspect of business development that needs to be mastered. It is NOT simply do whatever your client tells you to do, but rather understanding what your clients’ needs are and collaborating with them to come up with a design solution. As a residential designer, you are likely to be working on something that is extremely personal to your client – a home they will be living in for the rest of their life. Gaining the trust of your clients will go a long way toward building good relationships with them.
Obtaining and maintaining talent in your firm is another important lesson an owner must learn once your organization begins to expand. This is particularly important in the current economic climate. One way to attract valuable employees and retain talent is to offer them flexibility in work hours and workplace. Instead of mandating employees stay in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, give them a project/task and a deadline and allow them to finish the work at their own pace. Many studies show that employees, especially the younger generation, work a lot more efficiently this way. Some younger design firms don’t even have a fixed office space; the entire workforce is mobile. If necessary, managers and staff meet once or twice a month at a mutual location (such as a coffee shop) to discuss certain projects. All other communication is handled via email, text, and teleconferencing.
The most significant and most frequently asked question is: How can I get new clients/projects? There is really no perfect answer to this question. I’m reluctant to admit it, but luck sometimes plays a huge role in getting new clients or projects. However, there are many ways to increase your chances of successfully winning new projects or clients. Developing your portfolio, so that you have something to show your perspective clients, is the first step. Although it might be difficult to develop your portfolio while still employed, there are many ways to expand your design skills on your own time. Speaking from my personal experience, I used to participate in design competitions that were launched by real clients (such as GoPillar and Arcbazar) and work on un-built projects on weekends and after work. It not only allowed me to continue developing my design skills, I also learned how to tackle real life design problems and talk to real clients. Some of the projects I completed were submitted to design award programs such as AIBD’s American Residential Design Awards afterward and received recognition. In fact, I received my first residential project commission at a design award gala.
Marketing is also a continuous effort, and that’s putting it mildly. You have to constantly brag about your work and explain to the public how you can bring value to your clients. With the help of today’s social media technologies, online marketing is made easier than ever. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are some of the basic channels that can be used efficiently to market your firm at no cost. Some firms occasionally host design exhibitions to showcase their work, while others sponsor events to get their name recognized. Many bigger firms hire a dedicated person to do nothing but business development marketing. Whatever the case, you must keep thinking about and be actively engaged in promoting your business 24/7. One of the best ways to boost your firm’s (or even your personal) reputation is to start entering design awards. You never know what you are going to get!
It is true that starting your own firm is never easy. It takes planning, hard work, and patience. It sometimes requires luck! However, with the right mindset and preparation, the rewards can be tremendous. One of the reasons for starting my own firm was to be able to realize my design on paper and get it built. The satisfaction cannot be described with words. The excitement of being able to do the things you love at your own pace as a career is worth the sweat and tears. There is no better time to become an entrepreneur than now, so start planning!