staff: 5 (two principals, three intern architects)
years in business: 3
projected revenue for 2003: $430,000
projects on the boards: 18
completed projects: 15
project types: residential
experience: RSP Architects, TEA2 Architects, Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, Sarah Nettleton Architects, all in Minneapolis (Albertsson). BWBR Architects, St. Paul, Minn.; TEA2 Architects, Minneapolis; YA Architecture, Minneapolis (Hansen)
education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A. 1987, M.Arch. 1990 (Albertsson). Hampshire College, B.A. 1987; University of Pennsylvania, M.Arch. 1991 (Hansen)
Some architects who start firms do so because they've always dreamed of it. Others set up shop so they can specialize in a certain job type, or because they want to make more money. But for Christine Albertsson, AIA, and Todd Hansen, AIA, it was a simple quality-of-life decision. The two architects, who met in graduate school, had married and become parents, and their jobs at established Minneapolis firms weren't allowing them to spend as much time as they wanted with their baby daughter, Eva. So Albertsson went off on her own in 2000, with Hansen joining her two years later. "I always tell people it was really my daughter who started the firm," says Albertsson, 38.
For the first couple of years, she operated her business--then called Christine Albertsson Architecture--out of the home office Hansen had built in the couple's basement. Albertsson had a few clients she'd worked with at her previous firms and quickly built on that base with referrals from other architects. She leased computers and software, outsourced bookkeeping and plotter printing, and hired an intern when she had too much work to handle alone. Through an economic downturn that devastated many businesses, the firm hummed along with small-scale residential projects, including several remodels and vacation cabins. "With interest rates so low, people have been putting money into real estate," she says.
Hansen, meanwhile, felt ready to be a partner at the firm where he was working, YA Architecture. "I was bringing in a third of the clients," he says. But a partnership never materialized. He decided to make the leap and join his wife, bringing his clients with him. He became Albertsson's partner in July 2002, two months after she'd moved the practice into an office above a coffee and ice-cream shop in Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood.
Being business partners who are also married has meant some adjustments for Albertsson and Hansen. They haven't been able to take a vacation together, since they're not yet ready to leave their five-person office unsupervised for a week or more. "One of our goals is to continue to develop our employees so they can take on more responsibility," says Hansen, 39. "Our employers were great mentors, and we want to be, too." The couple tries not to discuss business issues at home. They work on separate projects, deciding who does what based on each person's particular skills, personality, and schedule. And one of them leaves the office at 3 p.m. every day to pick up Eva, now 5, from school.
As their firm has grown, Albertsson and Hansen have realized the importance of creating a consistent brand identity. They hired a graphic designer to create a logo and letterhead whose look--Scandinavian-influenced, traditional but with a Modern edge--echoes their architectural style. They redesigned their Web site with staff member Sonya Carel and officially changed the firm's name to Albertsson Hansen Architecture. "We're in a transition mode from getting started to figuring out where we want this to go," says Albertsson. "Now we're not stewarding just our projects, but also the firm itself."
verbatim: christine albertsson and todd hansen
What was hardest about starting your own firm?
TH It was an easier transition for me because the infrastructure was in place. For Christine, it was a bigger change. My old firm had a dedicated office manager and receptionist, and now we have to do a lot of that work ourselves. I was also used to working with more senior people. Now I'm learning how to be a boss for young interns, which has been a challenge. It's fun, but hard.
Did architecture school prepare you for running a business?
CA I didn't learn anything in architecture school that helped in that capacity. We have no business plan, no mission statement, no five-year plan. My dad is an entrepreneur--I grew up watching him launch businesses. I'm a numbers person.
What was the biggest capital investment you made?
CA We leased computer equipment. Having an excellent credit rating helped. We're really unwilling to borrow, to get ourselves into a situation where we owe everybody money. I had no guarantee that the business was going to work out.
How do you divide the work load?
TH Christine handles more of the administrative stuff and I handle more projects at a time.
CA We do the interviewing together, but we each shepherd our own projects through. We bring different sensitivities to an interview setting--if one of us isn't 'getting it,' the other one is.
Do you outsource any services?
TH We outsource plotter printing--we do our early work in an 11-by-17 format and later digitally send it to a reprographic place in town. We have a bookkeeper, a former student who comes in one afternoon a week and does payroll.
How many hours a week do you work?
TH We never work more than 40-hour weeks. One of the reasons Christine wanted to start the
firm was to have more control of her life. When you do residential work, you have to have some time to enjoy life so you know what it's like.
Do you have trouble getting paid? What contract do you use?
TH We use a letter of agreement and proposal. Later in the process, we use a B-151, the abbreviated AIA contract. We ask for a retainer at the beginning. For the most part, the clients who end up choosing us are supportive of us as a small business.
Are you making a good living?
TH It's definitely more money than we were making before. We specifically quit teaching when we had a daughter because it didn't pay enough, and now we're too busy for it.
What kinds of projects have you done?
CA All residential so far--we haven't considered branching out at this point. I've developed a broad client base in the vacation-cabin category--it might be interesting to see what nonresidential variations we could do on that theme. David Salmela has done a lot of that.
What advice would you give other would-be start-ups?
CA People who are considering doing their own firms really need to think about what they'll be doing. If you don't have an attention to detail, it might not be the best thing. Setting up phones, an Internet connection, e-mail accounts--I hate spending time on these things.
What did you do right?
CA We've selected really high-quality people to work here. Also, having Todd join the firm! It really does come down to the people. We work with a financial adviser who has repeatedly commended us for being willing to hire good consultants, like our accountant and our bookkeeper.
What's your biggest fear?
CA The classic ones: Our clients hating us! Financial ruin! But we have to have faith that everything is going to work out.