In 1994, architect David Hacin, AIA, was working for a large Boston firm when a family member asked him to design a house. Knowing the project could support him for a year, he quit his job to explore his own design ideas for the house. During that year, a number of smaller residential jobs came his way. And when the house project was finished, Hacin never looked back. Seven years later, he is a nationally published architect with a solid practice that supports a staff of seven.

Hacin had set aside a half-year's salary for the launch. He also consulted an accountant to set up a bookkeeping system, and an attorney to structure his business. Over the course of that first year, he formulated a five-year business plan that included the kind of work he wanted to pursue and the number of employees he would eventually have. He also committed funds to photographing his work and building a mailing list for marketing. Last, but certainly not least, he left his former firm on good terms, without taking clients or employees

Because of that, Hacin maintained close friendships with the principals, who continue to send work his way.

"You have to learn fast going on your own," the architect says. "And you make mistakes. But it's also very exciting because one of the problems of being in a larger firm is you can be pigeonholed, whether it's in a desirable position or not. I think the reason so many architects want to go out on their own is to learn all the facets of this business."

roller coaster

Luckily, Hacin's business start-up coincided with an economy that was heating up. "There was a sense of promise in the air that was very invigorating," he says. "If I were thinking of starting up now, I might consider waiting a year. Because when things get softer, you want to be more established and in a position to have some clients who will help you through a slower time."

Indeed, the latest figures from a survey of 1,700 AIA members show how ephemeral small practices are. The percentage of sole or small practitioners declined in the second half of the last decade. They grew from 30 percent of all firms surveyed in 1990 to 34 percent in 1996, but in 1999 slid to 23 percent. Pradeep Dalal, the AIA's head of economic research, attributes the decline to sole practitioners who grew their businesses along with the economy in the last part of the decade. But between 1990 and 1996, he says, some small firms dropped back to sole proprietorships because they were having a tough time.

"We've found sole practitioners are extremely vulnerable to the ups and downs of the building cycles," Dalal explains. "In good times, a higher percentage of sole practitioners are showing higher levels of profit than larger firms, but a higher percentage are showing losses as well. In a small firm, if a job does not go well, or if one or two projects do not come through, it will immediately show."

Dalal also notes that a lot of start-ups are being formed at a time when there's no real memory of a recession. "Firms established during a recession incorporated good business habits because they were forced to," he says. "Now the focus is on staffing up to do the work and getting it out the door. But it's important to develop good habits in terms of fiscal responsibility."

Consultant Philip Valence, of Blackridge Ltd., Wellesley, Mass., also puts would-be firm owners on alert: "Developing a regimen will help you later on as the firm gets bigger. If you've grown up with one, it's second nature. If you've run your business haphazardly and start to grow, you're at a disadvantage."

parting words

Developing healthy business practices starts well before an architect gives notice. All the architects interviewed for this story stressed the importance of leaving on the right note. If not, there will always be another firm--and likely one larger than you--that bears you ill will.

According to Sara O'Neil Manion, AIA, of O'Neil & Manion Architects, Bethesda, Md., employees should ideally give six months' notice and describe the kind of work they're intending to do, allowing the employer to plan for their separation. When the parting is amicable, there's a good chance the employer will help you get set up, hire you back as a consultant, or refer clients your way. When former employee Tom Gilbride left his job in 1994, it was to set up a practice an hour away from his former firm. He assured the bosses that he wasn't taking any clients with him. And after he left, he made himself available to help with several projects that were finishing up.

"There's no area you're working in that's big enough to burn a bridge," Gilbride says. "It's amazing how small the architectural community is."

Jill Neubauer, Jill Neubauer Architects, Falmouth, Mass., prepared for her solo flight by nurturing clients in the evenings and on weekends. There was no conflict of interest because she picked up small jobs her firm wouldn't have taken on, and in a different location. "It's a difficult balance to moonlight to the point where you have enough business to launch yourself," she says. "The interesting part is, it's seemingly unethical. But it's the nature of how all this has always gone on. There's no way to move on in your life without doing it, because people can't afford to go cold turkey. But be respectful of the firm's clientele."