Can you remember what it was like when you first made the leap and started your own firm? Chances are, you left the security of a regular, paying job. Previously, someone else danced the rain jig for clients. Someone else called the copier repair guy, the phone tech, the computer guru. Your Social Security, medical insurance, and 401K didn't drain entirely from your own pocket. You didn't have to pay for the chair you sit on, the software you use, the fluorescent lights that shine overhead. Overhead ... you didn't have to think about that at all.
So now you're the one who has to foot the bill for the office space. Ouch. Ah, but your name is on the door. The plans you draw have your stamp on them. This is your business and your dream. As you can see from the five firms we've profiled, many start-up experiences are similar. It's hard to get clients to pay on time--or ever; it's tough to attract the quantity and quality of work you need; and when, for goodness' sake, do you find time to design? Then again, maybe baby firms and more seasoned ones are not so different. These are problems all firms reckon with, no matter what their vintage. But the difficulties loom so much larger when faced for the first time.
Most of the firms we interviewed dealt with their first-timer fears by identifying mentors they could consult. Several added partners to share the burden. All had solid firm experience before they ventured out on their own. Yes, it's scary out there, but not one architect regretted the decision to fly solo. It was and still is, they insist, the best decision they've ever made.
year one: benjamin ames, associate aia
staff: 3 (principal, project architect, intern)
years in business: 1
projected revenue for 2003: $125,000
projects on the boards: 8
completed projects: 5
project types: residential additions, renovations, new homes
awards: Honor Award, Excellence in Architecture, AIA Chesapeake Bay Chapter; Kitten McD. Herlong Memorial Design Award, AIA Northern Virginia Chapter; Habitat for Humanity Housing Design Award, Virginia Foundation for Architecture; AIA Adams Award of Merit; Dean's Thesis Prize, University of Maryland
experience: Browne, Worrall, & Johnson Architects, Baltimore; Design International, Baltimore; Heery International, Atlanta; BTAV Architectes, Paris; Thierry Melot Architectes, Paris; Norman Smith Architecture, Washington, D.C.; SBCH Architects, Atlanta; HNTB Architecture, Washington, D.C.; Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Alexandria, Va.
education: Georgia Institute of Technology, B.S. in Architecture 1989; University of Maryland, M.Arch. 1992
Five years ago, Benjamin Ames was working on airport projects at Washington, D.C.-based HNTB Architecture. Moonlighting on houses, however, introduced him to the detail-oriented and client-driven work that constitutes a residential practice. It sold him on the specialty. "It was really appealing to work on these at night because it was such a contrast with the stuff I was doing during the day," says the 36-year-old architect. The experience caused him to abandon the commercial track and turn to an accomplished residential practice, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA. Ames signed on as a subcontractor to Gurney, who became his professional mentor, and sublet space in Gurney's offices for his personal work. Two years later, he launched Amestudio.
Architecture school did nothing to prepare him for the realities of running his own firm, he says. But working with Gurney, who has a thriving high-design practice, did. It was Gurney who taught him about time management, making sound business decisions, and the importance of having good product resources--from getting specs off the Web to having a wide variety of material samples to show clients. "It helped both in my understanding as an architect and as someone responsible for running a business," he says.
Although he has his own practice, Ames is not yet a fully licensed architect (he has taken and passed five parts of the Architect Registration Examination). He claims it's the biggest mistake he's made so far. He's up-front about the issue with his clients, and it hasn't lost him business. "When I do new homes, typically they're smaller, modest-sized homes, and when I do additions, a registered architect's stamp is not required to get a permit," Ames says. He uses a licensed structural engineer on every project and is researching liability insurance to minimize his exposure.
Amestudio's one-room office is typical of a young practice on a budget. "We're proudly furnished by Ikea," Ames says. "The only luxury I have in my office is my flat-screen monitor and my Aeron chair." His office, in Alexandria, Va., is in Gurney's former building, which is also home to the AIA Northern Virginia Chapter. Gurney's new office is only a stone's throw away, and the two men still talk frequently. Another up-and-coming architect and Gurney crony, David Jameson, is just down the street. And Virginia Tech's architecture school, a block away, is a handy source of interns and a budding creative community.
Although he works 10 to 12 hours a day, Ames says the intense involvement in each project and the close relationships with his clients make the effort gratifying. Because he's his own boss, he's able to schedule his work around time with his wife, Sophie, and 2-year-old son, Nicolas.
Unlike many young practitioners, Ames already had built work under his belt before he started his firm, so he hasn't had to promote his practice aggressively. The strong housing market and an existing core of referrals and repeat clients have kept him busy. And he's picked up work from the AIA listings. So far, he's exceeded the salary he made working at a larger firm.
Perhaps it's a good problem to have, but Ames is concerned about growing too fast. He's more interested in attracting the best projects than simply filling up the boards. He knows it's a delicate balance between financial success and artistic accomplishment. "I don't want to take on too many projects at once and have to staff up to the point where I don't feel like I have as much control, " he says. "Balance is important to me."
verbatim: benjamin ames
Was it a good decision to go out on your own?
Yes. I thought there would be certain things I'd regret or miss. Other than missing the daily personal relationships you create when you work in a large firm, I can't say I regret the decision at all. I get so much more satisfaction out of working on these smaller, modest projects because I have such a personal investment and involvement in them.
What surprised you about running a firm?
How quickly it can grow. A publication like yours or like Washingtonian magazine can generate a lot of interest in a short period of time. I had envisioned the number of projects I took on slowly creeping up. And I've been surprised at the rate that it's happened, especially given the economy.
Did architecture school prepare you for managing a practice?
I don't think it prepared me very well for the administrative side of the business. I think the single most helpful thing was working in Robert Gurney's office. I pattern a lot of how I manage my office based on what he's done. But at the end of the day, when you are a sole practitioner, you have to find time to do design and the best time to do it is nighttime, evenings, and weekends.
What is the best thing about being on your own?
I get a lot of satisfaction out of exceeding clients' expectations. Typically they come to me with requirements A, B, C, and I usually throw in D. I'm up-front with them about that process--how I'm always looking to push the design. In some cases, they love it and say let's keep going. In other cases, they say they're concerned about the budget.
What's the worst?
The paperwork is the most tedious part--the administrative duties and the costs of being self-employed. You don't have the benefits you had, you don't have 401K, taxes, and health covered for you. If you have a health plan, it's coming out of your pocket. The costs are substantial. One trick is to keep your overhead as low as you can, but there are things you can't get around.
Overall, are you happy you started your own firm?
It's been great. I would absolutely do it again. It seems like after I had five to eight years of experience working for other firms--especially once I started moonlighting for myself--it felt like that was what I was always supposed to do. It was important and valuable to work with other firms; it was where I cut my teeth and where I learned what to do and what not to do.
What's the biggest challenge in your first year?
It's always the time management, really giving yourself enough time to invest in the design and still having enough time to take care of some of the administrative and management issues.
What is your firm's philosophy?
I have a crusade to continue to work in the Modern language of architecture. I'm convinced that it has its place in residential--which is not a very popular thought sometimes in D.C.
Who is your favorite architect?
Locally, it would be Robert Gurney. He's one of the most gifted and humble architects I have ever met. He's at the top of his game.
What inspires you?
Seeing that there are people out there who are really excited about living in homes that challenge our preconceived notions about what's appropriate and inappropriate for residential architecture.
What does a young firm offer that a more established firm may not?
I think younger firms are less concerned about the amount of time a design takes. They are a little less concerned about the bottom line. They are committed and dedicated to making sure their earlier projects are very well developed. They naturally are going to bring to the table more nonconventional thinking. They are going to make more mistakes, but they may also uncover possibilities on a project that go beyond the obvious.