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 five: gregory a. kearley, aia
inscape studio
washington, d.c.

staff: 7 (two principals, three associates, two intern architects)
years in business:
projected revenue for 2003: $450,000
projects on the boards: 18
completed projects: 36
project types: residential, community-service buildings
awards: Award for Academic Excellence, AIA; two Presidential Citations for Sustainable Design, AIA D.C. Chapter
experience: Ellerbe Becket, Washington, D.C.; Travis Price Architects, Takoma Park, Md.
education: Loyola Marymount University, B.A. in English 1985, MBA International Finance 1991; The Catholic University of America, M.Arch. 1995
affiliations: AIA

Greg Kearley is amazed by how much has happened since he struck out on his own five years ago. It's a true rags-to-reasonable-solvency story, culminating in January of this year when his five-member firm, Inscape Architects, merged with Rick Schneider's Istudio to form Inscape Studio. It's the third name change in five years, and it's the first time Kearley, 40, is paying himself a proper salary. He's also thinking seriously about rediscovering the concept of vacation time. "In the beginning it was just about survival," he says. "When I see the types of projects that we're working on now, I stop and say, wow, I can't believe the cool stuff we're doing."

It was not always so. "I should have been more selective about the projects I took on," he says of those early days. "It's a balancing act between the work you really want to do and what you are doing. But in the end, the work you do defines you as an architect." Without other resources to draw upon, he had no choice but to grab the work in front of him. And sometimes even those undesirable jobs were scarce. At one cash-starved point, he actually gave up the struggle and took a job with the D.C. office of Gensler, the international architecture and interior design firm. That lasted four days, until he nabbed a kitchen/dining room addition. With the pressure of another employee to feed, he struggled with mediocre commissions for another two years. But he vowed to learn at least one thing from every project, and tried to educate each client about some aspect of architecture.

Although he holds degrees in English, international finance, and architecture, nothing in his extensive education truly prepared Kearley for running a complicated business all by himself. "It can be overwhelming, but you can't be paralyzed by all of the things you don't know," he says. Fortunately he left previous employers Ellerbe Becket and Travis Price Architects on good terms, which bolstered his existing network of advisers. "I have a collective of friends, schoolmates, and colleagues I respect who are great resources for input or feedback," he explains. This collective, along with his pro bono work for local community organizations, also yielded his initial client base. After the first rocky years, things began to fall into place.

The turning point came with a whole-house commission in Northern Neck, Va. The commission allowed him to move his office out of his apartment and into space above a Greek restaurant. Other work followed and he added two associates, moved to larger offices, and began subleasing space to a like-minded graphic and Web design team. Greg Kearley Design became Inscape Architecture. "I wanted a studio where everyone felt vested in the work and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy," he says. "I wanted to create a working environment that would facilitate open dialogue on architecture and design. Having my name out front contradicted that approach."

After merging with Istudio, Kearley redubbed the firm Inscape Studio to express and reinforce the group's design philosophy. The word inscape was coined in the late 1800s by poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, who used it to describe the distinctive inner landscape of an object, or the characteristics that give it form and beauty. "My dad suggested the name," he says. "It gives the office focus. It's in the back of our minds when we work." It's also a satisfying reminder that he's reached an enviable point in his career: He now declines the projects that don't please the poet in him.

verbatim: gregory a. kearley Why did you start your own firm?

I was leaning toward starting my own firm even in grad school. I wanted to create a firm that was different from anything I had experienced, an environment where there exists a collective approach to architecture. I wanted it to have a strong direction, but to maintain an open dialogue with interesting people who are on the same page as I am.

Was it a good decision?

Yes. I can't imagine doing anything different. It has been painful in a lot of ways--financially and otherwise--but given where we are right now and what we're doing, it was well worth the time and effort.

What was hardest about the transition?

I went from working for Ellerbe Becket with more than 100 people in the office to being on my own. I missed the dialogue with co-workers, and social interaction. Working in my apartment was like being in a vacuum. Talking about ideas and having people critique your work is part of your education as an architect. There's also a competition when there are others around. When you're on your own, you don't have anyone else to push you and guide you.

What did you do right?

Eventually I was able to hire a group of individuals who are able to complement what I wanted to do and to complement what each of them does. I think I did a good job of bringing a team together with enough different ideas that there's always an interesting dialogue. But we all work well together.

What's the biggest mistake you made?

I undervalued the work I did by cutting fees so low that it was difficult to make a profit, and I took commissions just to survive. If you undervalue your work as an architect, the clients will undervalue what you do, too. I didn't pay myself a salary, so there was a lot of financial struggle going on. Once I had employees I had to make payroll and I never missed a payday for them, but I missed a lot for myself.

What's the best thing about being on your own?

Being able to have certain control over the direction of the design. You never have complete control because the clients have final say, but we have a strong influence over where the design grows. It has been a very interesting process that has continued my education as an architect. I've surrounded myself with people who have contributed to my growth.

What are your fears?

I'm not sure I have any fears regarding my work or Inscape Studio. There are always concerns regarding money for a small firm, but I try to focus on the positive and control what I can.

What are your hopes?

I try to approach every project with the hope that we will create the best possible design within the given parameters. I expect that Inscape will succeed and that our clients will occupy spaces that inspire.

What do you like about residential design work?

I think that the scale of the work is incredibly interesting. The design of a new home allows you to experiment with form, space, light, volume, and materials at a very manageable level. That relationship with the client and with design on such a human level is fulfilling to me as an architect.

What does a young firm have to offer clients that a more established firm might not?

We don't have all of these preconceived ideas, so we really listen to a client and try to work out a creative solution. We bring a fresh and enthusiastic approach to each design and really think about an answer that's not just cookie-cutter.

What inspires you?

The process of design--the dialogue that transpires in our studio during the creative process. I draw from the built and natural environment. Art, theater, literature, and music inspire me and can weave their way into the design process. An inspired client is a vital part of that process.