Practice Management

Plan your future: who else is going to do it?

It's going to happen anyway.  Luck can change it.  People influence it.  Your FUTURE is an ethereal, hard to grasp, slip out of your grip, often elusive element.  And yet it's real.  You made the decisive step to start up your first firm or maybe you have just been promoted and invited to become a principal in a firm in which you've invested some time. Whatever the path, it's still YOUR future and it belongs to no one else.  Sure you share it, and engage others along the way but it's yours to envision, build, directand control.  We'd all like to think that if we just work hard, do good work and wear a smile, that great things will happen.  Maybe, maybe not.

"If its already 5 or 10 years down the road and you are stepping into a principal role in an existing firm, it's probably time to ask some deep probing questions about the future."

If you are just starting out, start dreaming and build a personal vision of your firm in 5, 10 or 20 years.  Here's the interesting part.  The vision rarely evolves perfectly as imagined.  Why?  Fate, luck, people and your own actions and reactions will literally alter the future as you live it.  Your job is to keep your vision firmly in your mind, constantly scanning the future with one eye on the past.  Personally I had two early brushes with failure on my part to move my early firm to success.  The first brush was mostly due to my non-existent skills at age 28 to understand about cash flow and how it is the life blood of any firm.  My Mom always said, "if you get to choose between being good looking or lucky - pick lucky".  And a little luck served me well as a major project came to me just at the right time and saved the day.  My second brush at age 35 was economic.  Just when the economy went bust, one of my clients began asking me to solve problems where they hired another firm who had  blown both the fee and the schedule, leaving me with only a little fee and less time - but desperate time require desperate actions and I delivered against most reasonable odds.  So much so that the client firm doubled down on my team and again I was rejuvenated with cash - the breath of business life.  Within 6 months, they purchased my now successful firm.  Whew.

If its already 5 or 10 years down the road and you are stepping into a principal role in an existing firm, it's probably time to ask some deep probing questions about the future.  I had this opportunity twice in my career.  Believe me, the first time was a real steep learning curve.    This first time, I had a mentor in the firm working together with me on the firm's Management Committee.  His senior guidance was critical to my success.  I had a job to do and with his support I put my head down and developed my studio into the largest and most aggressive component of the firm generating 20% of the firms income in the first year and for the next 3 years in a declining economy.  My reward was stepping into a larger corporate world than I had ever worked in before.  I had always had the tools but not the access.  The second time, I had greater confidence and maturity on my side.  I was able to better control my destiny while at the same time leveraging my experience with the larger firm's reputation to win prestigious clients and projects for the firm.  In both of these cases, I had mentors and aligned my goals with those of my other principals.  It was not an accident.

But these are my stories, your stories will be different.  Regardless of the economy, or luck, or the effects of age and maturity, take hold of your future.  Create the dream and accept that you can affect the future.  If and more likely when, the future presents you options outside of your personal vision,  look hard at each opportunity and make bold decisions.  You might be facing some of those life changing decisions today and if I can help you understand the options and which way the paths ahead lead you and your firm, give me a call.  I'd enjoy swapping stories and providing evaluation and guidance that perhaps you may not have considered. 

William M. Burwell is a retired Architect and Interior Designer whose career focused on corporate interior architecture through his sole proprietorships, and partnerships from 9 to 120 staff. Bill retired in 2014 and began Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years Bill writes articles sharing his experience in keystone practice areas: Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Practice Management. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com .

 

The intern years: What can I offer my boss or his client?

Attention.  Offer your attention and interest.  If you've already read my previous blog "This is my first job, what else should I be doing?"  you read my thoughts on personal branding and personal awareness at the beginning of your career.  The next period of your career, the intern years, represent a different sort of challenge.  On the other hand, you are obviously up for it since you made it through college and now have sweated out your first couple of years at your first job.  So what's a young professional to do now?

Certainly the tendency has been to show up, keep your head down and get the work out.  Every now and then you let one eye look around at the other activities taking place in the firm and wow, it can be exhilarating and even a little confusing. Ask your principal if you can sit in on the next presentation on your project.  Ask him to introduce you to the client as an intern and someone the firm has chosen to mentor in the business.  Then sit back and soak in the experience.  If the meeting is out of the office, ask to ride along with the principal to discuss ahead what the meeting is about and the issues at hand.  On the way back, debrief with your principal and discuss the client attitude, the sub-consultants and contractors efforts and the progress of the project.

"So, what's the take away here?  Clients appreciate knowledge, experience and your confidence to have an opinion and guide their decision making.  They also appreciate your willingness to find a solution when one may not be apparent."

Young interns are typically shy around clients, its normal.  After all, right there seated at the conference table is someone who can hold the firm's future in their hands.  If they like your design, if they like the process and if they like the results, they can propel the firm forward.  Surprisingly, they are just people like the principals of your design firm that have a business, a product and customers to serve.  Clients are much more like peers than superiors.  Sure, they may know their business better than anyone else at the table, but your principal knows his own business in the same manner.  It is an exchange of equals. 

There are two bits of advice I can offer:

First, know what you know.  When your experience has given you the right answer, don't be afraid to voice that experience, even if it's a qualified but firm answer .

Second, know what you don't know.  It's not a guessing game and not knowing every answer isn't a bad thing.  Admit it, express your ability to research and provide the correct answer, or defer to your principal to allow their seniority to answer and learn from the experience.   

Know that you are not expected to lead the meeting, you are there to listen and learn, your first two priorities as intern.  Those are your most powerful tools - ears and brains.  But also use your eyes to note the attitude of the meeting attendees.  Know their positions and interests in the project, from client, to landlord, or designer, engineer, contractor or sub-contractor.  Knowing the players will put their comments into perspective for you.  At the beginning or end of the meeting, exchange business cards (if you are lucky enough to have been provided them) with all present.  See where this is going?  

So, what's the take away here?  Clients appreciate knowledge, experience and your confidence to have an opinion and guide their decision making.  They also appreciate your willingness to find a solution when one may not be apparent.  Being studied, doing research, knowing what others do or have done all provide valid references for your client relationship.  As an intern, this is doubly difficult.  You have two "clients", your boss and his client.  This is what makes interns nervous.  Having said this, do your best to contribute to every meeting.  Make your presence known, even if it is asking questions of others.  You may discover that other's may have had the same question but were hesitant to ask.  Not bad.

To me, interns are special people deserving of great attention and respect.  I always see myself in my interns, recalling the day I was so honored to sit in the presence of our clients.   It completely altered my personal and professional conscientiousness about the client / professional relationship.  Give it a shot.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years.   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas:  Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Design, and Practice Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com 

 

It's not a date, it's a relationship....wait...what?

There is often a gnawing familiarity each time we see an attractive opportunity approach.  It's magnetic. The siren call of a new project can be hypnotic.  Right about  now you should be getting that familiar feeling of butterflies in your tummy.  Once the opportunity has been identified and acknowledged a clear plan of action is needed.  As they say, you will know it when it's right and the time to make your move.  Here's my take on this process:

Dating

     Marketing

     Business Development

The Romance

     RFQ / RFP Response

     Follow-up Calls

     The Pitch

The Wedding

     The Award

     The Promises

     Contract Signing

The Reception

     The Design Presentation

     Production

     Bidding and Construction

The Honeymoon

     Occupancy

     Appreciation Event

The Long Kiss Goodbye

     Post Occupancy Evaluation

     Warranty Inspection

     Performance Survey

This tongue in cheek analogy, beyond it's humorous nature, shows a way of thinking about new prospects and taking the long road to relationship success.  By hook and crook we all will have those new opportunities to pursue.  Whether or not you get to the alter is up to your talent and experience as well as your selling and presentation skills.  Now once the dancing has stopped and the party is over, maintaining your relationship with your new client is up to your skills at listening, staying connected, and expressing a genuine concern for the long term success of the project and the client's satisfaction with your work.  Sound familiar?

"Developing a structured approach with each client in former, current and prospective categories can build your practice on a solid foundation of long term relationships and repeat work."

Now go back up and look at my analogy.  Do not skip the Honeymoon - it's important.  If the relationship falters after the honeymoon there can be feelings of abandonment (you didn't call, or write, or send flowers).  In the worst cases there can be genuine buyers remorse and resentment.  You don't want that.  The counter-action is to continue the courtship with targeted outbound marketing and selective business development contact that keep the relationship alive.  Further, it is not uncommon, after a large corporate expansion or relocation project, that the client contact (project manager) can be lured away by another company to do something similar.  With a little luck and persistence a firm could end up with two clients where there had been one.  Pretty nice wedding gift.

Developing a structured approach with each client in former, current and prospective categories can build your practice on a solid foundation of long term relationships and repeat work.  You won't find yourself losing projects to interlopers, or competing for work with a client that you had previously won.  This is exactly the type of program I help my clients build and execute and there are dozens of ideas.  If you would like a further discussion, give me a call, I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts.  I'll buy the coffee.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas:  Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Design, and Practice Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com 

 

Old dogs / New Tricks: Sustaining the practice.

"No one....not a soul.  I can count on one hand the likely candidates who might possess leadership skills AND a solid business sense to run my business". 

Founding Principals looking forward to sharing or transitioning leadership frequently and painfully observe that few staff think and behave like them.  Often as those entrepreneurial principals begin to grow their support staff, they hire excellent, skilled staff but not typically entrepreneurial.  The founding principals provide the drive, the relationships, the energy to propel the firm and they look for staff that can run projects and deliver the goods.  As life moves on, firms can find themselves very well supported as the firm becomes a virtual machine with excellence in project design and delivery.  Its a winning formula except for one thing.

How businesses move themselves forward is really not a mystery.  Working for large corporations like Lloyd's Register, GE, JPMChase, Diamond Shamrock and others,  I noticed a common thread.  My division or headquarters contact, sometimes during our project, would be reassigned from one role to another, sometimes in a different city but certainly in a different division or operating unit.  When I asked the inevitable question, the answer, without hesitation, was that they were being groomed for a larger role but had to bring deep, across the organization experience, up the ladder with them to insure future corporate success.  Rotating experiences, cross-division or departmental knowledge creates richer, better balanced leadership with sensitivities to the entire business.  Even my law firm clients rotate principals as Managing Principal to grow a team with a strong understanding of how things work.  It's a leadership track. This is business sustainability - with intent.  

But what does this mean to a 10 or 20 person service firm?  Or, even more dramatically, a larger 30-50 person service firm with 20 years under their belt?

  • Small practices may have a single service - Warehouses, or Civic Buildings, or Interior Architecture like my specialty has been.  In these firms cross-training would include Practice Management, Marketing, Design and Project Management.  Even with a single design focus you can see there is a lot for a younger staff practitioner to learn if they are ever to co-manage or take over your practice.
  • Medium to large firms should consider horizontal movement from practice area to practice area as a requisite for young staff practitioners to gain sensitivities to drivers, markets, project design and delivery and clients in all the firms specialties.  This should be blended with mentoring in critical Practice Management areas including Marketing.  What an immensely valuable person you would be developing as a future principal or leader.

Younger practices might forecast a solid 20 years out while mature firms may see some type of horizon around 5-10 years.  Regardless, the measure of the plan is whether it meets the needs of the firm and contains a strategy for attaining the desired results. A successful plan is much more about the people you hire than the type of practice you have created.  As my version of the Chinese proverb goes, "the best time to plant that tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is today."

It's complicated.  And, while it may seem that the easy path is just to keep working, if you end up happy with the results, luck was on your side.  But I am a believer that we make our own luck by setting forth with intent.  There is a reason the big boys do it the way they do.  Lesson learned.  If you are thinking about planting that tree, give me a call.  I'll buy the beer and bring a shovel.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years. Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com

One step ahead of the Monster

The monster would eat me alive if it caught me.  If I relaxed, if I took my lead for granted, if I let my confidence allow me to slow down - it would win.  As a young practitioner I had more than one bite taken out of my backside by that monster.  The monster was nothing more than voracious competition.  It was always hungry.

I would be awaken in my sleep by fear of the monster.  Just the thought of it instilled heart pounding, sweating in your bed fear in me, but it was a powerful motivating fear. I was building my practice and we were young, idealistic and full of ideas to bring to the six different service areas we offered.  In those early days what we lacked in marketing or financial training, we made up for with a virtual fountain of ideas jam packed with creative thinking. Our investment was energy and youthful exuberance.  We studied our services, and what our clients wanted.  We kept looking for things that the client didn't know they wanted - yet.

As we pushed these new ideas out, sure enough, the monster picked up on our move and emulated our services and offerings.  However, just as he stepped up, we changed the game and moved ahead two steps to his one.  The monster was so busy figuring out how to match our service and creativity, that he couldn't implement this own innovation and creativity.  They were followers, we were the leaders.

Our secret weapon was a two edge sword.  One edge was knowledge.  We analyzed each area of business and what made the client happy and learned how to relieve their anxiety by stepping up our game on knowledge and service.  The second edge, was systematizing our delivery.  We standardized our document package never drawing the same line twice.  This provided us the dual benefits of improving our profit or allowing profit at very competitive fees.

Keeping the monster at bay is a full time job.  Small firms, medium firms and large firms all fight the good fight.  Think about it - no seriously, think about it.  Clients love a thinking firm.  They want designers who think around corners and bring creative ideas and experience to the project and exceed their expectations and performance goals.  There are plenty of firms that just want to meet the minimum, get in, get out, done.  Own the project with your client, think about what would take the project up a notch, be more competitive, more successful, add analytics, know the market, do your homework.  You won't be seeing any monsters except in your rear view mirror. 

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years. Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management. He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com

 

Check your Vision: 2020 is around the corner!

In my hometown, like most of my peers, I began my firm in the early 70's.  We're boomers.  Many of us in the early AEC community literally grew up together.  We experienced Houston's boom-bust cycle every decade for the past 5 decades - Oil Embargo, Banking Crisis, Dot Com Bubble, Wall Street Collapse, and now Oil...again. Around here, it's a way of life.  So you work hard when it booming, stuff your profits in the bank and save it for the bust.   There are plenty of lessons learned, of course.  But the best lesson learned was the simple rule that what goes up must come down.  In addition, after the first two cycles, we learned the pattern and could foresee and plan around a potential market fall.

When we are in a boom like the recent "Shale Play" that created unprecedented opportunities for office, building, housing and retail development to satisfy expanding businesses - that rising tide floated everyone's boat.  For those who started their practices to ride the wave it seemed like each day was better than the last and tomorrow would be better still.  It can be difficult if not impossible to explain the situation to young practitioners.  Possibly the two worst actions taken were 1) to spend the new found wealth, and 2) to expand at the peak of the boom.  When that rug is yanked out from under your practice those are the two most regretted and often unrecoverable decisions.

It's the beauty of hindsight, isn't it?  As we say here in Houston, this is no place for crybabies.  The solution is to look the future square in the eye, keeps those lessons learned near the top of your thinking and create a positive plan for 2020.  It's never too late to begin anew.  

As a veteran "boom-bust" survivor, here are some of my lessons:

  1. Understand that the cycle will turn.  Do not fool yourself.  If it doesn't turn right away, just be patient - and prepared.
  2. Avoid leveraging your firm.  Pay cash and pay as you go. This includes not expanding your office and staff at market peak.
  3. The best time to spend money on marketing is when the market is up.  Sell from a position of strength.
  4. Reserve a portion of your profit.  Nothing can shut down your practice with more certainty than failure to meet payroll or rent.
  5. Talk to everyone you can, especially more seasoned practitioners, and attend all the market forecasts to develop your own feel for the trend of the market.  Learn the warning signs.

Each of these points are fairly self explanatory, but there are many fine points as well.  Consider a mentor who has survived the cycle and may be very helpful in guiding you in your practice.  The decades in Houston or any city are kindest to those who survive because over long periods of time the money you invested in your people and your firm will be well rewarded.  Every step along the path of firm building has hazards and pitfalls.  The longer your firm survives and thrives, the stronger and more savvy you become.  You might find a little more insight for your 2020 plan in my early blog post "Thinking Big in a Small Firm" at http://www.burwell-consulting.com/blog/2015/2/27/thinking-big-in-a-small-firm.  If I can help answer questions or help your firm see around the next corner, give me a call.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas:  Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com 

 

What happened to 2015?: Visions, Goals & Strategies

Like a slap on the forehead....2016. it's. here. now.  It seems not 5 minutes ago that I was plotting my course through 2015 planning my vision, how I was going to pull it off and what my strategy would be.  I'm not sure the dust has settled quite yet and now this year became last year and next year became this year.

I do have a vague recollection of identifying my vision for this young firm and a handful of idealistic goals.  I followed my strategy fairly well for most of the year but didn't take the time to cross check my activities against my plan perhaps as often as I needed.  On the other hand, I did have some success on hitting a few goals. So maybe all was not lost and actual progress was made.

This must be what most of my clients feel like.  I do recognize the successes I've enjoyed and most importantly that I am indeed on the same track to attain my goals and maintain my vision.  I'm not one that believes the vision and goals change year to year.  However, the strategy to stay on track might vary a little or a lot depending on success and failure, the market shifts, and life in general.  And people.  Don't under-estimate the human catalysts that are your staff and clients - they can cause ripples in your strategy.  Hiring a key player can alter your marketing or your product or service offering.  Gaining (or losing) a client can draw down resources intended to be spent in another direction.  But maybe that's OK.  The human factor is not a bad thing, in fact it's what plans are all about, impacting staff, clients, those in your general sphere of influence and most of all, yourself.

Keeping your eye on the ball, making steady progress towards completion of your goals while being true to your vision is the holy grail.  Having a coach, mentor, strategist or consultant to help you put down on paper what you've been thinking but have never crystallized might just help you and your firm get on the right track.  It can bring focus to your daily, weekly and monthly actions and before you know it, it will be 2017 and we'll be slapping our heads again.

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas:  Marketing, Design, Project Management and Practice Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com 

 

The Cloak of Invisibility: Hiding in plain sight.

For a some, a great day is when you can simply come into the office, do your work and go home.  In fact if you can string enough of these days together it can be what seems to be a perfect job.  Highly productive, great focus, little employee contact and no nuisance meetings - what could be better?

Congratulations you just initiated that cloak of invisibility that, while personally satisfying, may be the death knell for your career or your business.  Whoever said, "Out of sight, out of mind!" knew what they were talking about.

For Individuals:

There is no merit to be won by sequestering yourself in a corporate cubicle day after day.  Failure to engage, exhibit leadership, be inquisitive, be supportive of others can mean that you are simply not seen.   By way of example, I had a mentor / employer who taught me to never go to a job site without connecting with someone like the superintendent or client representative.  In fact, even unscheduled visits should be noted in some type of memorandum to all parties only if to mention a few areas of progress and report all is well and on schedule.  Take every opportunity to outwardly promote your project ownership.  

Share your experiences internally by sending memos of "Lessons Learned" or details that work or failed.  Take any challenge as an opening to a conversation and respond professionally.  Openly (but not gratuitously) praise the work of co-workers who have helped you meet a goal or solve an issue.   Ask lots of questions and record the advice of senior staff.  Exhibit your passion for your profession by writing about your experiences in a personal blog or contributing to the company blog or website.  Create artful project imagery to share in Instagram or social media.  

For Practitioners:

Most practitioners, by nature can be more outgoing, but everyone fights the tendency to leave the office or attend outside activities when times are busy and work must get out the door - and many have families they want to see periodically.  Assigning social media posting or marketing processes to someone else in the office or bringing on a firm advisor or mentor, can be a way to do both.  By having an automated system of eBlasts, flyers, social media posting and encouraging staff to Instagram elegant visuals of projects in progress can place you and your firm pointedly in the market place in spite of your physical absence.

However, clients do like to engage with professionals they see and know.  Set aside time to mix and mingle at association events.  Bring "staff in training" so they can learn from the master about how to hold their own in conversations with clients and referral sources.  Teach them how to ask questions that keep the conversation alive and point out that one learns while listening - not talking.  Take time to work the room and see as many contacts, however briefly, that the time allows.  Work the room and have your staff spread out to locate friendly faces, especially talking to folks you may want to meet.  Buy a table and invite clients and referral sources to join your group.  Mix it up.

If invisibility is the death knell, then engagement is the antidote.  The task may appear daunting, but truthfully, taking a systematic approach to self and firm promotion can help employees and employers alike to be successful, well thought of, and engaging while getting the job done.  

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 Burwell Consulting a Firm Marketing and Management Consulting firm, to share the wisdom and experience of those 45 years   Bill writes articles sharing his experience in four keystone practice areas: Design; Marketing, Firm Management and Project Management.  He graduated from the University of Houston College of Architecture in 1971 and now serves the College on the Dean's Committee on Excellence. Check him out at www.burwell-consulting.com 

 

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 www.burwell-consulting.com 

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.