Architect Craig Applegath, founding principal of DIALOG’s studio in Toronto, Canada, knows how challenging it is to run a practice. With 25 years of experience and overseeing 150 employees, he understands the excitement and anxiety that goes hand-in-hand with starting your own business.
“When I first started my own practice, I thought everyone wanted to run their own practice,” Applegath says. “It turns out not. Most people just want to work in a great practice run by someone else.” But for those who dream of being the one who runs that great practice, Applegath has some valuable advice.
1. Design Your Life
Before starting your own business, make sure that starting a business is the right thing for you, and figure out what kind of business you want to be in. One of the best ways to do this is through something you are probably pretty good at already: design thinking. However, to really see design thinking effectively applied to designing your career, read Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book Designing Your Life. (I am actually using it right now to design the next decade of my career.)
One of the things that they show you how to do is ask the right questions so you can solve the right problems. The last thing you want to do is start a business that is smart as a business idea but does not succeed in helping you develop the career that will be most fulfilling to you, and that you will be most successful in.
2. Make a Difference
To be successful you need to lead a meaningful, purposeful life—that is, a life that provides you with a powerful and meaningful raison d’etre for what you do. As part of designing your life you will be thinking a lot about this. You don’t want to get into late middle age and wonder what the hell you have done with your life!
Life is short and needs to be lived with passion and intent. Having the goal of making money or winning design awards as your life’s purpose is a good recipe for a mid-life crisis. You have to make money to succeed, and winning design awards will probably help you succeed, but they should be understood as a means to an end.
And that end is something you need think carefully about. Some purposes that serve people well include increasing the well-being of their community, providing clients with consulting that contributes to their success, designing projects that reduce environmental harm, and designing projects that improves stakeholders’ quality of life.
3. Develop a 20-Year Plan
Whenever I tell interns this, they seem incredulous. Typically they say that they’re are having a hard enough time figuring out what they want to do over the next five years, let alone 20 years. But there is a good reason for having a 20-year plan—it is really the length of a well-thought-out career.
In designing a career, you should be looking at it as a life’s project and it having a beginning, middle, and end.
This is in no way at odds with the fact that most professionals change jobs or positions on average every five years. A job is not a career—it is simply a place of employment with defined roles and responsibilities. In designing a career you should be looking at it as a life’s project, and it having a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of your career provides you with the knowledge and expertise you will need to be successful in your mid-career. And mid-career experience provides you with the foundations to build your legacy in your late career.
The objection I hear most often to creating a 20-year plan is, “I might change my mind about my career direction as I go along.” Indeed, you will most likely change your mind as you go along, and you should take stock each year about whether or not your plan still makes sense.
4. Business 101
Most architecture schools do not provide you with a good grounding in the business aspects of architecture practice. So, before you quit your day job to start your own practice, take a course at your local college or university on how to start and run a small business. It will teach you the basics of sales, marketing, bookkeeping, and managing your team.
I also recommend taking a course in negotiation. Architects, for some reason, are typically terrible negotiators, especially in negotiations for fair compensation for their services! And you will also want to start building yourself a library of go-to business books. One of the best books you can read on how to lead, manage, and develop business for a professional service firm is David Maister’s book Managing the Professional Service Firm.
5. Read, Read, Read
One of the most important ingredients for success is to be constantly at the intersections of culture, science, technology, and business, and to do so you will need to be constantly reading—books, blogs, newspapers, and journals. Read broadly and deeply. You need to understand the bigger world around you, but you also need to maintain your expertise in whatever your specialty niche is (and you will want to have at least a couple of specialty niches).
6. Find a Blue Ocean
In the book Blue Ocean Strategy, authors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne suggest entrepreneurs look for business opportunities in uncontested waters (blue oceans) rather than in competitive, bloody waters (red oceans). That is good advice, but one thing is certain: in North America and Europe, architecture, urban planning, and design are mature markets with limited opportunities for new traditional practices.
If you are starting a traditional practice, you will be up against dozens, often hundreds of competitors who will have much deeper portfolios and broader client networks than your new business will have. So you will need to offer something that sets you apart. Maybe you will be the new expert in computational design? Perhaps you can team up with an emerging builder to become a niche design-build practice? Or maybe you will be a developer-architect?
When I started my own practice just as the Internet was emerging, I positioned myself as a “virtual architect” and used the Internet to pull together consultants from all over North America to do projects. It sounded cool, landed me speaking gigs at conferences, and got me noticed.
7. Build and Support Your Network
I have not met a successful entrepreneurs who doesn’t have a deep network of people they trust. Networks are for support, leads, advice, and collaboration. Networks are the important bonds that allow you to see and realize opportunities. One of the best guides to developing your network is Harvey Mackay’s book Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, which points out that networks are not to be exploited but supported. If you build a network of people you support and care about, they will do the same for you. Without a good network, success will be virtually impossible. Make sure your network consists of smart, decent, and honest people.
8. Build Great Teams
Part of building a good network will be spotting great talent for your team. Unless you plan to work as a sole practitioner, you will need to build a great team to be successful. Volumes of books have been written about recruiting, managing, and inspiring great teams, and you will need to familiarize yourself with the field of management and leadership.
From my experience of leading both small and larger practices, there are three important aspects of building and leading great teams. The first is talent spotting, long-term networking, and relationship building with potential team members. Next, select and hire the right team members. Finally, lead, inspire, and nurture your team.
9. Take Care of Yourself
You will not be able to succeed in any new venture unless you are physically and mentally up to the challenge. You will be pulled in a thousand different directions when you start your practice, and you will continue to have a private life with its own demands and stresses.
Networks are the important bonds that allow you to see and realize opportunities.
Learn how to manage your energy and physical and mental health—no matter how busy you are. Set aside a minimum of one hour at least three to four times per week for exercise (some combination of cardio and resistance weight training). Learn how to meditate and do so each day. If you are new to meditation, try the Headspace App.
10. Be a Rational Optimist
Failures and setbacks serve as doors to new insights and opportunities. As a personal coach I know asks when one of her clients runs into a difficult setback: “What is the gift provided by this situation that you would not have otherwise had access to?” That re-framing question cleverly redirects your brain away from negative emotions and forces it to explore new opportunities. It’s what I like to call rational optimism.
For example, like most architecture firms in North America, we are experiencing significant fee competition based on the supply and demand for architectural and engineering services. This fee pressure makes it difficult to maintain the high levels of expertise and client service that our firm is known for. Instead of cutting service and expertise to remain fee competitive, we instead invest heavily in design and production technologies that allow us to be more effective and productive and even improve client service.
There are no guarantees of success in this world, and starting a business venture in the design sector is especially fraught with challenges. But your chances of success will most likely be greater if you look for ways to deploy these ten principles. Always ask yourself when you are faced with a tough challenge or a failure, “What’s the gift?”
Article by Craig Applegath. A version of this article originally appeared on Archipreneur.com; this version has been condensed.