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Architect’s by nature like to change things, we like to call them revisions. After a few years (I know, they haven’t forced us to leave the internet yet, wow!) it was time to update our professional web site cogitatedesign– seemed like the ideal time to integrate the blog and web site to reside at one domain. The location of Architect’s Trace has moved to here –> Architect’s Trace  Over the next few months I’ll be editing/revising posts from this blog site and posting to the new forum… as well as posting new content.

If you’ve been following Architect’s Trace, thanks and please be sure to note/subscribe to the blogs new address. If you’re new to Architect’s Trace, welcome and I hope you find it of value.

—> New domain for Architect’s Trace <—

 

 

Design on,

 

New house/domain welcoming gifts accepted 😉

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Lee Calisti had a great post on his blog think | architect about the negatives of being a sole practitioner. You can read his post here- 10 challenges to working solo. He asked for others thoughts on the matter and I needed a post topic accepted. If you read my post the other day I also listed my +10 for being a sole practitioner- Solo Architecture Practice +10

With all the positives, much like everything in life, there are also negatives to being a sole practitioner- not the least of which is having someone else write my blog! However, the majority of negatives can be resolved relatively easily. For example, you need to become well versed in delivering bad news to a client, you can read PMt No. 2- Who’s Bad! for some tips. Another must is to align yourself with good GC’s, you can read my thoughts about that- GOODgc BADgc. Well before I link to every post I’ve ever written **spoiler alert, numerous links below** here are my  -10 for being a sole practitioner:

1. When I have a lunch and learn I have to buy lunch and be the teacher.

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2. No big firm resources- books, software, supplies, etc.

3. No one to bounce ideas off of or offer constructive criticism (Facebook and Instagram comments don’t count).

4. I’m the architect, receptionist,  business development guy, PR department, admin department, good cop, contract writer, AR/P department, educator, bad cop, night cleaning crew, IT guy, intern, model maker, lackey, CAD/BIM manager, CA guy, marketing department, general whipping boy, spec writer, etc.

5. I have to buy trace, scales, and sharpies.

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6. No intern to pass grunt work off to mentor.

7. No Friday morning **insert favorite breakfast here** paid for by others.

8. Nobody to foot the bill for the annual holiday party.

9. Firm retreats are extremely lonely.

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And the final, and reason I don’t like being a sole practitioner…

10. No room for advancement within the firm unless I take a pay cut and demote myself first.

There are solutions to each of these… well maybe not #5 or #8 unless you’re open to committing petty crimes. Like anything, as long as the +/- tend to weigh slightly more to the +, it’s most likely worth doing. I’ll admit, it’s tough working on your own and its not for everyone. There are days I question it. However, if you do go this route it will be extremely rewarding!

Are you a sole practitioner, if so, what do you miss out on from being such?

 

Design On,

** One other negative is that I always know what my end of year bonus is… it’s another year of doing this, wait… that’s a positive!

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Lee Calisti had a great post on his blog think | architect about the positives of being a sole practitioner. You can read his post here- 10 good things about working solo. He asked for others thoughts on the matter and I needed a post topic accepted. There’ll also be a follow up to the ‘negatives’- come on, you saw that coming.

Like Lee, I’m a sole practitioner. It wasn’t by any great desire I had, it came out of survival instincts. The economy was bad and my daughter likes to eat and have clothes. So a few fees here and a couple of forms there and BOOM! Legal entity to practice architecture. I was off and running to secure my own work. ** cue wavy dreamy sequence*** Ah, that was 2009… seems like yesterday… but I digest. I know, I know sounds awesome… well for the most part, it is! So what are my top +10 for being a sole practitioner, here you go:

+1. I get to resolve all the ‘bad’ issues that arise- it’s the best learning experience.

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+2. No random principal comes to me at the 11th hour saying “I’m not sure I agree; let’s give this scheme a try.”

+3. I can refuse projects that aren’t a good fit.

+4. I rise and fall… I get credit for both!

+5. I get full authority on creativity… as well as veto power!

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+6. I can sleep go for a run or mow the lawn whenever I have to clear my head.

+7. When I take pens and trace from the office, no one knows but me… shh.

+8. All my days-off for vacation requests are approved.

+9. I’m in control (however loosely) of where my practice goes… such as my design value menu concept.

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And the final, and best reason I enjoy being ‘da man’…

+10. It allows me to be more actively present in my daughter’s life, attend her swim meets, dance recitals, volunteer at school, etc.

 

Are you a sole practitioner, if so, what are your reasons?

 

Design On,

** One thing I didn’t mention is that my boss is sometimes a bit over demanding about ‘billable time,’ he just doesn’t get this whole blog thing. And remember kids, much like a battery, in order for things to run well you need both a positive and a negative.

Thinking about starting your own firm or going out on your own as a sole practioner? If so, there are some basics you should be reminded of when starting your firm. Keep in mind, this is not an all-encompassing post and you should consult legal advice as you feel necessary. I’ve worked in the architecture profession for over 20 years, the past 14 years as a licensed architect and the past 5 years as running my own architecture firm.  I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things over the years that are worth sharing. Below is a business outline that I feel is crucial to starting your own firm. I’ll be honest, I haven’t followed it to the letter. I won’t say which I haven’t, but I can say I regret not having done some…vague enough… don’t you do the same.

Strategic Planning

Establish your Vision, Mission, and Values. Going through a strategic planning process will help you in defining your goals, as well as provide the framework to create a specific business plan to achieve them. It will also help you establish and build your unique ‘Brand’ and guide your day-to-day decision making. A situations arise, or goals change, refer to your strategic plan for guidance and/or to revise as needed. Your strategic plan is fluid and it should be revised as needed, at least once a year minimum. The basics your plan should contain are the following:

    1. Vision: How do you see your firm in 2, 3, or 5 years?
      1. How much revenue and profit would you like or need to be successful?
      2. Do you plan on having employees, if so how many?
      3. What project types will you serve? Geographic location(s) you will serve?
      4. What services will you offer? Will they be direct or subcontracted? (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, graphic design, civil, MEP, or structural engineering…)
    2. Mission: What is your key purpose?
      1. Why do you want to do this work?
      2. What do you want to be known for? (unique design solutions, traditional architecture, contemporary architecture, great service, technical abilities, LEED solutions…)
      3. What makes you and your firm unique?
      4. Try and develop a benefit statement or slogan for your Key Purpose.
    3. Values: What are your core principles regarding design and business?

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I don’t think your strategic plan should be shared with your clients or posted on your web site. The purpose of the plan is to guide you, not as ‘fluff’ to market or a sales attempt.  That doesn’t mean write it and just forget about it. To be purposeful your plan needs to be simple and employed as framework for you to reference and guide you as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Bob Borson has some great advice in his Mission Statements post. We all want to be the best and offer the best services, we don’t need to tell clients that… but we do need a plan as to how we’re going to achieve.

Legal Entity

Most business entities can be set up rather easily and with little to no assistance. However, it’s best to consult with an attorney to discuss what type of business structure will fit your needs the best. If you’re not comfortable doing so, a business attorney can also assist you in setting up the legal entity. There are several legal corporation structures, for example:

    1. Sole Proprietorship- personal exposure for all liabilities
    2. Partnership- personal exposure and possible control issues
    3. S Corporation- insulation from many liabilities, tax burden passes through to individual owners
    4. C Corporation- insulation from many liabilities, subject to corporate taxes, flexible
    5. Limited Liability Corporation or Professional Limited Liability Corporation- simple but has limitations

It’s best to consult an attorney and review these, as well as other, options available to you. Meeting with an attorney for an hour is worth the cost and can save you a lot of hassle in the future.

Licensure

Make sure you are licensed in every state (or jurisdiction) that you are providing services. Many states require local licensure just to offer to provide architectural services. Be sure to review the specific requirements for each state prior to offering or providing services for clients or projects. Some states will also require your corporation be registered with the local Architecture Board and have a separate corporate seal and number than your personal architecture seal. Create a method for Continuing Education requirements and tracking for yourself and any other professional architects in your firm.

Insurance

There is a lot to cover when it comes to insurance… there’s Professional Liability Insurance, Errors and Omissions, General Liability Insurance, Property/Casualty, Workers Compensation, etc. Certain clients and projects will mandate what type and amounts of insurance you should carry. It’s best to find a reputable insurance broker and discuss your options with them.

Professional Relationships

Make sure to develop and maintain key relationships to assist you and your firm, i.e. banker, lawyer, finance and tax accountants, insurance brokers, vendors, engineering consultants, code officials, architects…

Startup Capital

Many firms start out as Sole Proprietors working out of their home and ‘bootstrapping’ it with little to no startup capital. Modative’s post, How to Start an Architecture Firm – Introduction, is a good read for how to start a firm via bootstrapping. However, if your goal is to start out a little ‘bigger,’ there’s more to consider. New firms rarely begin collecting revenue on day one, you should secure a source of funds required to cover your operating expenses in the time period between opening and receiving regular revenue to cover operating costs. Collection periods can vary significantly be sure your contract states your collection period. If you plan on starting ‘bigger,’ typically three to six months of operating expenses are needed prior to starting. Operating capital can come from many sources; personal funds, outside investors, personal credit, bank loan, SBA loan, etc.

    1. Establish your operating budget to determine your cash need
      1. Rent
      2. Space/building improvements
      3. Furniture
      4. Computer hardware
      5. Computer software
      6. Utilities, phone, internet, insurance, salaries, travel, etc.
      7. Marketing
      8. etc., etc., etc…..

Developing your Business

How are you going to market your services? How are you going to sell your services? How will you follow up with potential clients? Where will you ‘find’ clients? These all need to be answered if you want a chance at succeeding. Most architects starting out need to use work done while employed at a prior firm to market themselves. When doing so, be sure you have the firms consent, credit them as appropriate, and be honest with your particular responsibilities on that particular project. You’ll also need to continually develop your business and maintain the following:

    1. Marketing materials
    2. Identify potential clients and projects
    3. Website creation and maintenance
    4. Social media strategies (blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN, etc.)

Handshake

Production Management

How are you going to execute your work? Numerous means/methods are required to complete a project, typically one individual does not possess all these skills. This is a positive to a partnership- one partner has a particular skill set that the other does not, together they complement each other’s skills. You’ll ned to develop a method for:

    1. Design
    2. Construction documenting
    3. Project management
    4. Construction administration
    5. Computer systems maintenance
    6. Printing
    7. Contract Management
    8. Fee proposals

Business Management

How are you going to deal with financial and accounting matters? Unless you’re on your own, its best to engage the services of a bookkeeper/tax accountant. They can provide you valuable advice on the financials of your firm as well as strategies to grow.

    1. Invoicing
    2. Financial statements
    3. Taxes
    4. Payroll and withholding

Fees and Services

How are you going to determine fees for your services? You should not be competing on the basis of price alone. However, one advantage of start-up/sole proprietor is that you will typically have a low overhead compared to larger established firms. However, position your firm relative to the competition such that you have a unique characteristic or advantage to sway clients to engage your services, it should not be because your fees are the lowest. If you compete on the basis of fees you’ll end up in bidding wars which will result in lower profit margins, which will ruin your firm quickly as you’ll always be trying to ‘make it up’ on the next project. When establishing your fees you need to know your actual Costs for delivering the services (salaries, overhead, etc.), your Selling point, or Price that will allow you to make a profit without compromising your services… read that last part again… “profit without compromising your services.” You should always strive for that.

Ready?

Based on the above information you should feel a bit more confident starting a firm with a plan in place. Keep in mind, it’s a loose plan that will evolve and change as the firm does, but it’s a plan none the less. Further great advice can be found on the Entrepreneur Architect web site by Mark LePage. site Above all it should be fun running/ owning your own firm. It’s hard work, sometimes frustrating work. You’ll rise and fall but you get credit for both, which is exciting! If you’re not having fun you should re-consider if running/owning your own firm is really what you wish to do.

I’ll close with one last key piece of advice, learn to know when you don’t know and ask for advice. So what tips/ advice do you have for starting and running your own firm, post them up in the comments below!

 

Design Business On,

** I’ll say it again, learn to know when you don’t know and ask for advice.

The New Year always brings with it resolutions, goals, renewed passions, reflections, and resumes… lots of resumes inquiring about employment. I try to respond to every inquiry I can- sorry to those I haven’t. This year has been no different. However, lately the resumes I’ve been receiving have a reoccurring ‘theme,’ one which is quite disturbing. Inquiries such as this:

“I’ve been out of work for a while and I’m just looking to gain experience, I’m willing to work for no compensation”

Or

 “My employment proposal would consist of me actually working in your office without being paid. I know that sounds crazy, but I think your firm and I could benefit greatly.”

 
Yes, it is crazy. No, neither I nor you will benefit. Unless you’re independently wealthy or all your bills are allowed to be paid via Monopoly money… wait… no. Under no circumstances should you work for no payment (pro bono work is a different post). The message you’re sending is that you don’t value your skills/experience and that they’re of no value to someone else. If you have no value, you’re of no benefit to me. If you’re just looking to gain experience by not being paid, you’re on the path to a bad experience. You may as well state “I want you to teach me for free so some other firm can benefit.” You’ll leave as soon as a firm offers to pay you. Benefit to me, I don’t think so.

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There is no benefit to me. If I’m not paying you what obligations do you have to me for valuing your work? What incentive do I have to teach you anything, I’m not investing in you or your skill set. You have no obligations to me. If you’re not compensated for work you do, what does that say about how you value yourself? Why would you ever work for free? What’s in it for you? An employer who allows you to work for no compensation is not invested in you, they’re using you. I don’t see any benefit for you. I don’t care how much experience you think you’ll gain, don’t do it. Do you really want experience from an employer who doesn’t value you? The answer is no. You want a firm that is willing to invest in you. When you invest a return is expected, a return with interest- interest in you.

It’s still a tough economy for the AEC profession, however, if you can’t find employment use your time to enhance your marketability. Learn new software, brush up on current building codes, enhance your knowledge of software you already know, etc. Follow firms you like via social media- join in the conversations, express interest in their work, and ask questions. If you’ve been out of work, what have you been doing and figure out how to take those experiences and market them as a valuable asset. Have you started a blog, learned a new skill, have a new hobby, etc. Market your skills and experiences as valuable, and to their fullest extent. Because honestly, the inquiry’s I receive about working for free don’t get considered by me. You don’t value yourself so what value should I have for you, harsh, but it’s true. Get out there and sell yourself, and by sell I mean you expect to be paid to play.

 

Design On,

** No, I’m not hiring… but hope to soon.

Holy cow! It’s been over a month since my last new post. I have caught myself in the midst of another self-imposed social media disconnect. As a sole-proprietor it’s tough trying to balance work, family life, continuing education, marketing, social media, etc. Social media is typically the first thing to go when my work and/or life get busy. I don’t know how some of my colleagues continually post new content and be active on social media on a daily basis. Not me, I can’t do it. Let me re-phrase, I don’t want to do it.

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I often find myself disconnecting from the daily use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Houzz, LinkedIn, etc. The disconnect typically lasts for a week… or two… or a month. It’s usually initiated by work, vacation, family, etc. I’ll admit that the first few days are tough. I wonder:

“What’s ‘this guy’ up to?”
“What’s ‘that guy’ up to?”
“Am I trending on Twitter?”
“Has Twitter forgotten about me?”
“What does it mean to trend on Twitter?”
“Does this post make me look fat?”
“If I ask my followers for $1.00 I can continue my AIA membership… that’s what Kickstarter does.”
“I wonder what architecture is doing today?”
“Will I miss the coolest cat picture ever?”
“I do have a lot of the ‘answers’ to architecture… should I share them?”
“Maybe I’ll start hand-penning blog entries and mailing them to my followers, that would get me trending for sure!”
“Should I post cat pictures?”
“Will my blog dry up and blow away without weekly posts?”
“Will the interweb catch-on to me and demand money back for my waste of bandwidth?”

As days pass, stress dissipates- no trying to keep up, no capturing the perfect photo or pen the perfect tweet, post, status update, etc. Things turn out okay and I survive. Well in reality I thrive. I reconnect with what it’s like to live in the moment and actually interact, face-to-face, with real people. I don’t question our modern means of communication and social media, I think it’s a great tool and has truly made the WORLD more accessible for many. I just question our modern ‘need’ to be connected 24/7. I often wonder if I would be more active on social media if I worked for someone else or when my firm grows and I have ‘people.’ I don’t think I would. Maybe I would. No… I doubt I would. Do yourself a favor and take a social media break. Even if only for a day, trust me the interweb will still be here when you get back and things will be fine.

Why a month since my last post? Here’s a few things I’ve been up to:

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Bath Sketch

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2 MOD

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There’s always talk of a life-work balance and how best to obtain. The older I get the more I realize I don’t want a life-work balance- I want my life to outweigh all other that I do. My family and personal relationships are far more important to me and I want the scale to tip in their favor. I am an architect, but architecture is not my life. My family is my life. Although, yesterday my daughter said “Dad, can you design a modern house for us to live in, I’d like maple floors and lots of glass.” So maybe only slightly off-balance.

“I trace the cord back to the wall
No wonder it was never plugged in at all”– De Longe, Tom/Hoppus, Mark

 

Design On,

** Disconnect and go do something else… seriously, go do it! The interweb will still be here.

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Last summer, my than 8 year old daughter, had outgrown her first bike and it was time for a ‘real’ bike. We purchased her a new bike- no training wheels, no wicker basket, no white tires, and lever handbrakes. My wife and I attempted to teach her how to ride.

A brief sidebar- my wife and I are both avid cyclists. The misses a roadie myself a mountain biker. The Tour de France is a big deal in our house; our schedules revolve around the races. My wife races sprint tri’s, marathons, bike races, etc. In addition to my mountain biking I also dirt bike- basically ‘activity’ is part of our lives and being on two-wheels is a big part of the activities.

Every weekend we were at the neighborhood field holding on to her or the bike and running behind, beside, in front, wherever. She was easily distracted by squirrels, friends, copperhead snake (okay I’ll give her that one), birds, etc. She wasn’t getting it or just wasn’t interested; I believe it was a lack of interest. I tried sweetening the pot by informing her once she was riding proficiently I’d be able to send her to home depot, the beer ice cream shop to get me stuff. She was having none of it. Summer came and went. The bike sat in the garage. Life moved on, months passed.

Yesterday, after finishing up some yard and house work, I was sitting outside relaxing while my daughter was riding her scooter up and down the sidewalk. My wife came home after a bike ride, showered, and joined us outside on the beautiful North Carolina spring day. My daughter than decided she’s had enough of the scooter and puts it away. She walks over to her bike, kicks up the stand and holds the bike with one hand as it leans away from her. She visually looks over the bike from front to back and back to front again. She swings her leg over and sits down. A squeeze of the front and rear brake and she’s assured of something. This was all of about one minute. My wife and I are watching but not saying a word. My daughter then looks over at us and says “I’m going to teach myself to ride a bike.”

The next fifteen minutes were spent with her figuring out her balance by ‘riding’ from one end of the garage to the other. Then it was down the grass for the next five minutes. After that she was riding up the sidewalk to the stop sign and back. Thirty minutes in, she rides up the drive way and states “Come on dad, get your bike so I can beat you around the circle!” Lap one around the circle wasn’t even close, she beat me. Lap two, she beat me and my wife. Lap three, she went undefeated. My wife and I are extremely proud and amazed that within thirty minutes she taught herself to ride the bike- it was one of those parent moments that make you realize what’s really important. We pried her off the bike, ate dinner, read some books, and soon she was fast asleep for the night.

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Later in the evening I started thinking about the day’s event. I firmly believe that last summer my wife and I provided the framework to our daughter as to how to ride a bike. Even though she wasn’t interested at the time, she was listening. I believe business sometimes follows a similar path. Over the past few years I’ve talked to whoever would listen about what I do as an architect and what value I bring to a project. Work was slow to non-existent. However, I knew I had done the right things to pursue projects. At the end of 2012 I was mentally exhausted.

January 2013 started and I shifted focus to other things that had been put to the side or blatantly ignored- yeah, yeah, I know… with any luck I’ll finally re-do the web site this year! However, before I knew it I had two substantial projects with executed agreements- a significant residential renovation/addition and a new custom single family home. In addition, I’ve talked to four potential clients about residential projects and another about a tenant up-fit. I firmly believe this has come about because I laid the framework and just finally stepped back to let things happen. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating a complete hands off approach to business. However, much like life, I’m starting to realize that even in business, sometimes one need not try so hard and trust that things will work out. For that epiphany, I have my daughter and her business with the bicycle to thank.

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Cheers + happy cycling!

 

Design On,

** Turn your device off and go ride a bike… seriously, do it!