Once qualified, many architects have the ambition of starting their own business, taking full responsibility for the design of their projects. However, most begin by building up their experience with an established company; below we offer fifteen tips for architect businesses that could help you to branch out and set up your own firm.
1. Start thinking about it now
Nobody with any sense is going to quit their current job and start out on their own without planning. From the moment you start working as an architect, you should be thinking about opportunities to pave the way for your own business. Remember, every client you work with while working for your employer is a potential client for your new business when you start. Stay in touch with all your contacts and get a feel for what they will be needing in the future. Learn from your employers about what makes an architect firm run well and think about what you might do differently if you were in charge; even if you don’t feel you’ll be ready to branch out for a few years, you can learn things that will help you when you eventually do every single day.
2. Keep your spending down
So, you’re ready to start out in your own architect business, and your competitors have designer offices, branded expensive automobiles, and so on; you need that too, right? Wrong. When you start out in business, it’s a bad mistake to invest what funds you have in building a superficial image. Spend your funds wisely, on good employees, good computer hardware and software, architect liability insurance: all the things that you actually need rather than what you think will impress clients. If your work is good enough, clients will be impressed. With every outlay, you need to think about whether you are spending funds on something your company actually needs or something you think might be nice.
3. Define your aims
If you set up your own architect business just because you think it is the thing to do, or because you love architecture and want to have complete control over design, you may be setting up to fail. When you set up your own architecture business, you cease to be just an architect, you become an architect/entrepreneur. You need to have a specific aim in mind and a clear vision of the way you will achieve it; people who don’t know where their journey’s end tend to get lost. Having a goal that you are focused on will help get you through the inevitable difficulties any new company faces; if you don’t have a goal, you’ll feel like giving up every day.
Recommended reading: How to start your own architecture firm
4. Be a builder
If you’ve been working for an architect company, you will doubtless know how to design buildings, but you may well have been kept insulated from the actual process of building. If you have been working with site managers, procurement specialists, etc., you may well have missed out on learning about the nitty-gritty of the building process. Owning your own architecture firm, you need to know the building process inside out. One of the best ways of doing this is to actually get your hands dirty and work on a building, perhaps on a charity project, getting a feel for the processes that are involved in turning your drawings into reality.
5. Create your brand
Many people will offer you professional services to create your brand, but when you think about it, who knows your company best – it’s you. As an architect you are already a designer and creative, use your skills to create attractive eye-catching publicity material that speaks of exactly what you are about as a company. Not only will this establish firm contact with potential clients, but you will save money on expensive design services.
6. Diversify your revenue streams
You’re an architect, you design buildings, period, right? Wrong. When you start out in your own architect business, you may well find that you won’t be able to land big contracts for lucrative building projects straight away. While you’re waiting for your big break, how are you going to keep the company afloat? There are many different ways you could leverage your expertise, perhaps by writing blogs or textbooks about your profession, sharing your experience with others and building a reputation and garnering advertising revenue at the same time.
7. Don’t neglect hand drawing
Every architecture company in the modern era uses digital design software, and there is no denying this will be essential to your company’s success. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned processes you probably learned as a student of drawing plans out by hand in the first instance. Don’t neglect your organic skills that can help keep your inspiration and creativity flowing.
8. Learn about business
You’re trained as an architect, not as a businessperson. The best architect in the world can’t expect to be a success in their own business unless they understand how business works as well as how buildings work. Taking a business course, or a series of courses, can help you to develop your firm as you want it to be, taking care of finances, human resources, publicity and so on. Not only will this help you to control your firm but you will also save money from not having to buy in outside advisers.
9. Don’t just learn from the good
Hopefully over the course of your education and career you’ve seen plenty of examples of good practice, but remember that one of the best ways to learn is to learn from mistakes. Think about mistakes that you have seen and how you will avoid them in your own business. You should also think about the mistakes you have seen in terms of taking out architect liability insurance to avoid damage to your business if mistakes are made.
10. Contact previous clients
People who have been happy with your work are one of your greatest resources; let them know when you go into business for yourself and ask them if they have any more work they need doing or, if not, if they can spread the word about your new business. Word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertising available. Naturally, you have to be ethical: don’t breach any confidentiality or competition agreements you signed with your previous employers.
11. Look out for what’s new
Simply imitating established firms is not going to be enough to make you stand out from the crowd, established practices will have substantial portfolios and client lists and you need a reason for those clients to consider moving over to you. The great advantage you have over an established business is that you can adopt new trends quickly when they are still thinking about them. Make sure you keep up with the architectural press and be ready to offer your clients new ideas as they emerge.
12. Get online
So much business is done online these days, you simply can’t afford to neglect the opportunities for advertising and client engagement the Internet offers. Make sure that your website is clean, efficient, and reflects your design ethos. Create a social media presence and make sure that it is regularly updated. Always ensure that it is easy for clients to contact you through all the platforms you use.
13. Show flexibility
If you start out with absolutely set ideas about the type of work you want to do, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. In the first few years of setting up your own architectural practice you may have to take on jobs that you think are too small or too boring for your talents. Don’t be arrogant, give these jobs as much attention as you would to the “dream” jobs and you’ll soon find your reputation rising and the chances of getting the sort of work you really want will improve.
14. Know your limits
You might dream when you set up your own architect practice of multimillion dollar contracts suddenly falling into your lap, but think about how you would manage them if they did. Do you have the experience, skills, capital and staff to take that sort of project on? Biting off more than you can chew could lead to financial disaster and severe reputational damage; be honest about what you can manage and don’t take on more than you can cope with.
15. Sharpen your pitch
Pitching for contracts is one of the most important skills an architect can have, one that often isn’t taught on architectural courses and that you may not have had the opportunity to practice working for other companies. Practice makes perfect, try out your pitch on your family, friends, and staff; use your phone or tablet to film yourself giving a pitch and think about what you can improve.
Hopefully the tips above have given you some good ideas about the way you can make a success of your architecture business. Don’t forget, once you have made a success of things, you could lose everything over one liability claim that might not even be directly your fault; architect liability insurance is the best way to protect your hard-earned gains. Learn more about this essential tool for architects.