When Is the Right Time to Start Your Architecture Firm?

Many of us enter architecture with the ambition of one day starting our own firm. It’s a tantalizing idea – being your own boss, working flexibly, having complete control. The reality can often be quite different, with many young entrepreneurs feeling out of their depth, isolated, or struggling to get work.

For those of you who have been pondering your entrepreneurial future, I decided to ask three local young business owners about their own experiences and advice. I’ve also included my own answers, from a different perspective of someone who came very close to starting my own business, but didn’t.

 

Rob Henry

Rob is the immediate past president of the ACT Institute of Architects, was the ACT Emerging Architect of the year in 2014, and has been running his own highly awarded residential architecture practice, Rob Henry Architects, for more than 5 years now.

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Sarah Lebner

Sarah (that’s me) is the Principal Architect at multidisciplinary firm Light House Architecture and Science. She has been in this role since 2015 and manages a design team of 9.

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Jessica de Rome

Jessica established her own business, de Rome Architects, in 2013 - a practice of two that produce highly considered projects ranging from residential to public and commercial. Jessica was awarded ACT Emerging Architect of the year in 2017.

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Owen Abbott

Owen is the current EmAGN ACT co-chair and both completed his registration and begun his own practice, Owen David Architecture, last year. Owen also undertakes part-time work in a local firm as a way of providing supplementary income whilst building his practice.

 

When is the right time to start your own architecture/design business?

RH: NEVER! Hahaha. OK, more seriously…. NEVER! But if I have to answer like an adult, I think that there really isn’t a ‘right time’ but rather a more ‘strategic’ or ‘less risky’ time. I personally think you need a good 5-10 years of experience in the industry in order to gain a level of confidence in all areas of business management and design before starting an office. I also think it helps to have a couple of completed projects in your name. There is a reason why a high percentage of small businesses fail in the first three years, and that is because people start them with rose tinted glasses and don’t realise that a large proportion of your time is taken up by things unrelated to the core output of the business, which in this case is design.

SL: I was always determined that I would own my own practice, in fact it’s one of the reasons I chose to study architecture. They say the key to work satisfaction comes down to purpose, autonomy and mastery. When faced with significant workplace restructure a few years ago I came very close to starting my own practice – I had even written a business plan and registered an ABN. At the same time, a unique opportunity arose to take a leadership role in a position that I knew aligned strongly with my values. I was incredibly luck to step into this role where I could do the type of work I wanted, very independently, but with support and collaboration all around me. The project pipeline, firm administration, marketing and insurances were all taken care of for me. I was guaranteed a regular and reliable salary and knew that I could take maternity leave without the difficulty of juggling my own business during that time. So, for me the right decision was NOT to start my own business. Had this unicorn opportunity not presented itself I definitely would have, as I was fairly certain that the type of work I wanted to do, and the type of team I wanted to be in, wasn’t available at any other firms in my local area.

JdR: There’s no right time. I think the hesitation can be whether you have enough skills to go out on your own, and whether working for yourself is the real solution for your desire for change. I think it’s about focusing on your potential. The right time to start your own practice is if the potential you have to offer, and the joy it will create for you outweighs the hesitation of not doing it.

OA: I have always known I wanted to start my own practice, so for me it was only a question of timing. The first step was straight forward; get registered. Undertaking this process really opened my eyes to the ins and outs of architectural practice, forcing me to assess my professional experience and make plans to address any shortfalls. This led to the creation of a basic time-frame and steps for becoming ‘practice ready’. As we all know, plans change, and in seeking advice from my peers and other architects a question was posed to me: are you someone who needs to learn everything before you start, or can you learn along the way? Together with an excellent first client, choosing the latter gave me the confidence I needed to start Owen David Architecture several years ahead of schedule. Being ready doesn’t mean you aren’t still learning.

KEY LESSONS:

  1. Assess your skills and knowledge so that you can make a plan for filling any gaps before you take the plunge

  2. Be ready to put in the hard yards to set up the operations side of the business

  3. Ask yourself why you desire change and be sure that starting your own practice is the best solution

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced starting your business and how did you overcome them? (Or what challenges made you decided not to start your own business?)

RH: I think the hardest thing is illustrating your talent to potential clients. Clients want some level of assurance that you have the skill set, and without any projects in your name, that’s hard to do. When I started I had my own house that I could use as a ‘display home’ which was incredibly valuable and I invited potential clients to the house to see my work. Now it doesn’t have to be your own home, but at least having a project that you are proud of and can take people through will make the sell much easier.

Another challenge was all the administrative side to starting a business. You need time to consider branding, marketing, accounting, etc. etc. I was fortunate to have a good accountant to call on, a friend that was a graphic designer, previous experience in the financial side of a business, and a partner that was very supportive and researched allot of areas of unknown.

SL: The perceived challenges that made me decide not to start my own practice included continuing to learn and develop my skill while working in isolation, being more socially isolated, finding a steady stream of the type of work I wanted to do, setting up the systems and templates I would have desired, having the ability to take maternity leave in a lower stress manor, guaranteed income (we had just bought a house), and feeling supported when a tricky situation or problem arose. I think there are creative ways to address all of these things when you start out, but the choice I was given presented an alternative that was far richer in opportunity.

JdR: The challenges are in establishing your name, creating contacts, building rapport, and setting boundaries. The way I’ve approached this is by seizing opportunities, knowing when to say no, and knowing what path to work towards.

OA: I think the biggest question is usually ‘how and where will I find clients?’ In hindsight I can reflect that the greatest barrier between me and any potential clients was my lack of availability. Prior to starting practice I would occasionally get the opportunity to undertake private design work for friends or family. Initial excitement was followed by dreams of grandeur and would eventually be swallowed by time constraints, work deadlines and lack of momentum. My decision to leave my job and start my own practice opened up the time and drive for me to follow up and capture those opportunities, and since word has spread that I am willing and available, further opportunities are presenting themselves. I have also been very fortunate in securing clients through referrals from other architects who are too busy to undertake smaller jobs. This is where networking can really pay off.

Another obvious challenge comes with maintaining financial buoyancy through practice start-up. For me this was more involved than some simple financial maths. My considerations ranged from; lifestyle to happiness; from personal pursuit to professional goals; from work-life balance to financial security; and from salary to supplementary income. The prospect of a reduced income during practice start-up is a difficult one and can only be overcome by a reflection on the purpose of starting practice, be it: challenge, passion, financial gain, self-fulfilment or something else. I have balanced this by taking up some part-time work with a local firm, in order to continue to further my experience and provide supplementary income without compromising my availability to follow up potential work for my own practice. This secondary employment (and they do understand it isn’t my priority) also allows me to engage in a collaborative office environment and not become too isolated.

So in a way, maybe the greatest challenge was not in finding or funding my own employment, but rather in taking the first step and committing to making it happen.

KEY LESSONS:

  1. Be ready to establish yourself from scratch, and have an idea of how you will demonstrate your skills in this context

  2. Whether you have clients lined up or not, know how you will go about finding them, or how they will find you.

  3. Assess your finances more broadly and have clear limits and goals set over certain timelines (write a business plan.)

What are some of the best resources you know of for young architects and graduates who may be doing work privately?

RH: I used the AIA’s Acumen to get assistance with template letters and proforma’s. I also just asked other architects for advice. Typically people are very happy to help and share stories on the do’s and don’ts. I admit though that I started with a fair bit of experience and with that experience had built up a good set of tools to use before going into business. I also devoted a day a week in the beginning to work on fine tuning things I regularly use. I think today there are allot more resources online and other organisations like ArchiTeam whom have allot of advice for starting a small business. There are also useful government websites for small business management information and your accountant should be able to provide you with useful links as well.

SL: I recently wrote an article on 50 resources for young architects in 2019 – they’re all in there! I also strongly encourage everyone considering starting their own business to red The E-Myth (affiliate link).

JdR: The AIA info is useful, such as Practice Notes / Acumen. The best resource really is having a network of colleagues and peers you can turn to for advice, knowledge and insights.

OA: I have been collecting resources for many years. Often I uncover a filed away document that must have seemed mildly useful at the time, but upon recovery, years down the track, becomes a life saver. I have things from uni I have used, or old information sheets from open houses that have come in handy. For AIA members there is wealth of online resources available relating to architectural practice through the Acumen Notes. Another great resource that can’t be overstated is networking with your professional peers and employers. EmAGN (the Emerging Architect and Graduates Network) is an excellent way to network with your peers in the industry and can be great way to rub shoulders with many established architects. Architects are generally happy to give advice and information to someone just starting out, just ask them.

KEY LESSONS:

  1. Collecting and studying resources is something you can easily do long before officially starting your business.

  2. The Australian Institute of Architects provide extensive Practice Resources.

  3. Consider your network of peers and colleagues as a valuable resource and support network.

Thanks to Rob, Jess and Owen for sharing their experienced and advice on this topic.


Sarah Lebner