Thinking Big in a Small Firm

Practice Management Post 1.1

I have been practicing Interior Architecture since 1971. Now I help small firms manage and market their practices - a skill that doesn't come with a college degree but often only comes through real life experiences. This is post number 1 of many I have written for small firm practitioners to share my experience.

I have read more than a few business publications in my career. Early on, one of the most applicable and most memorable quick reads was the E-Myth, with the "E" standing for Entrepreneur (not the lower case "e" we now associate with technology). The author, Michael Gerber taught me through an allegorical business (A Pie Shop) how things work and why things don't work. It has to be read with an open mind and a willingness to see between the lines to see the cold hard application to any business. This stuff works and it is not rocket science. In fact, the simpler the better. Several key points are permanently burned into my synapses and I have renamed and redefined them many times over the years, but the lesson is the same:

Keep things simple - business owners tend to over think and over complicate their businesses with the wrong organization structure; detailed accounting that becomes a job in itself to post and categorize and define and separate and proportion expense and income. Embrace a flat management structure as long as practical; pare overhead to bare bones until business cash flow allows for some modicum of luxury or maybe just some improvement on necessities.

Waste no motion - Standardize your process and performance. Cross train staff to do each other's work. Do not spend any time or money twice to achieve the same results. Document your errors in the form of a Lesson's Learned binder. Designate an owner of that binder to update and review periodically. Do not repeat errors. Remember that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" - BUT do NOT get caught doing things inefficiently for a sustained time period because "that's the way we always do it".

Think Big, even though you're starting small - From the beginning, plan the firm you eventually want to own. Create the concept, the look, the feel and the idea of your firm as it will become one day - identify what your market will be and how will you be perceived - will your graphic identity stretch between a small start up and a much larger entity? Do not fall into the trap of thinking small and being small. Think of yourself as a small large firm with big plans and big ideas. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking and behavior.

There are dozens of other jewels in that book and its updated "The E-Myth Revisited". It is a good quick read. As I read the book in my youth, lights began coming on in my dark world of firm management until I really began to see the my business much like an outsider looking in - a valuable perspective to bring balance to any operation.

William M. Burwell  is a retired Architect and Interior Designer who focused on corporate interior architecture for over 40 years 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 40 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.