Start up - should I stay, or should I go?

In support of Burwell Consultants, William M. Burwell writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Design; Marketing, Firm Management and Project Management.  Check him out at 

Practice Management Post 1.13

This post isn't for those who have been down this road, on the other hand you may easily relate to the topic.  But for those who find themselves right in the crux of the decision making, this post might offer some eye-opening insight as to what lies ahead, just around the corner but sometimes in the distant fog.  It's a little forward looking radar you will need in your toolbox.

Folks start up their practice for many different reasons.  What I typically hear is:

  1. A client enticed me with my own  project.
  2. I was laid off in a recession.
  3. I was tired of being worked to death with no real upside.
  4. I didn't feel appreciated in the larger firm.
  5. I wanted to be my own boss.

What I DON'T typically hear is:

  1. I had a lot of money and thought it might be fun.
  2. I wanted to sleep late and have weekends off.
  3. I felt it was a simple concept, so I made a go of it.
  4. I know a lot about business, accounting and organization.
  5. I'm well known in the industry.

We were two guys in my partners third bedroom.  Side by side work areas, a single line house phone and nearby was a 40 cup coffee pot always hot, not always fresh.  More often than not my partner had his dog at his feet and a baby kitten slept on my shoulder while I designed. Impressive? - you bet.  The two of us shared most of the thoughts in the first list above but we had nothing in common with the second list.  The single largest attribute we possessed was having a client - and we had exactly one.  Each of us had a hardworking and patient spouse and honestly not much else.  It was the blissful beauty of youthful ignorance mixed with a heady excitement.

Luckily the story has a happy ending and after 12 years, we were an overnight success. Personally, I have never felt such adrenaline highs and such absolutely terrifying lows.  With those days and extreme emotions now securely 45 years in the past, I can offer to my readers some clear headed advice.  Before undertaking any similar venture here are a few things I would do ahead of time:

  1. Write out your intended mission of this new firm to clarify all decision making (see my blog "Thinking Big in a Small Firm")
  2. Create a business plan to provide a path to success, including some cashflow analysis and business projections.
  3. Consult a lawyer for advice on setting up the business and understanding risk.
  4. Consult an accountant for advice on understanding the financial responsibilities of such a business.
  5. Discuss your plans with a banker or lender you may need to help finance the early days and months of the business.
  6. Locate a mentor who has owned a business and who can provide plain language insight.
  7. Make certain your family supports the risk you are about to take.

Unfortunately so much of this has little to do with design and projects.  So little is taught in college in spite of overwhelming understanding that a very high percentage of graduates may end up self-employed. This has been my passion, to help young professionals turn a leap of faith into an educated leap forward.  Give it a try, I bet you'll like it.

William M. Burwell  is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture in sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff.  Bill retired in 2014 and began a Small Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence.