Philip Valence, Blackridge Ltd., a consultant to design and construction professionals in Wellesley, Mass., offers these tips for young upstarts.
1. Write down a plan. It should be simple and focused, and should reflect your expectations. The plan should include an estimate of first-year revenues and expenses. Strike a realistic balance between billable and nonbillable hours. "People going into a service business typically think they'll be able to bill out 80 percent of their hours," Valence says. "It's more like 50 or 60 percent."
2. Put aside operating cash. Save up a minimum of nine months' worth of estimated expenses, including salary (in lieu of a bank balance, the money can be covered by a working spouse). The reserve is essential, not only to carry you until business starts to flow, but also to cover slow-paying clients.
3. Pay for expert legal and accounting advice. Figure out the best way to organize your business to protect your personal assets, and how to structure a sound financial system so the business can operate at minimal effort. Do it right the first time so you don't have to redo it later.
4. Devise a solid contract that clearly outlines what's expected of the architect, the clients, and the contractor. It should include your policy for collecting fees.
5. Purchase the appropriate insurance policies. Find out what needs to be insured, and how much insurance you need to buy.
6. Stay lean while outfitting your office. Rent or lease office furniture to start off, or share space with colleagues.
7. Open your doors with a contract or two in hand. "When we started our consulting business 11 years ago, we had three contracts," Valence says. "It was a comforting feeling to know we had work that would keep us going for a year."
8. Understand that, at least until you hire another person, running a business is a lonesome endeavor. And it's a seven-day-a-week job. Find a trusted colleague who can give you design or business feedback, along with the occasional sanity check.