A career in architecture can have many trajectories, but one common arc is starting your own practice. As an aspiration, it seems reasonably straightforward. But realistically, there are many practical and ideological questions to ask before striking out on your own. Here’s a guide to making the big call.
Are you experienced?
You may have designed everything from stairwells to skyscrapers, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to run a business. (To be sure, an architecture firm is very much a business.) To transition from B.Arch. to CEO, you'll need a broad understanding of how the business of architecture works—from marketing the firm to wooing clients to sales and strategy. "Those aren’t things that the leaders of firms typically invite lower level architects to be involved with," says Mark R. LePage, AIA, who runs the website Entrepreneur Architect. "But if you show interest in those things, I think that many firm leaders would welcome you to learn those parts of the business."
Is now the right time?
Knowing when to start your own firm is just as important as wanting to. You need to pick the right time to stop working for other people. The path to partner can be straight and swift for some, especially those with the talent and business acumen that makes them well-suited for leadership roles. If you want to set out on your own, it's best to do it before you become too valuable to the firm you're at, before you get sucked in to a partnership track, or before you end up bailing on a firm that's come to rely on you. Timing will differ for everyone, according to Rena M. Klein, FAIA, an architecture business adviser and principal of RM Klein Consulting, but most of her clients tend to launch their own firms after about 10 years in the field.
Do you have the right personality?
Arrogance may be too strong of a word, but any successful entrepreneur should be supremely self-confident. For architect-entrepreneurs, that self-confidence is often tied to creativity. "One of the basic reasons to go out on my own was because I had very clear visions of how I saw architecture and how I saw design, and it was easier for me to not have to ask permission to pursue those than it was to work for someone else," says Brad Tomecek, AIA. He started a firm with a partner in 2005 and recently split off and started his own Denver-based practice, Tomecek Studio. "If you're young, sometimes it takes a little bit of naivety to be unaware of what you don’t know and then to jump and take that step." But ultimately, starting a business is a risky proposition, says Klein, and some people are better suited to it than others. "It's important to understand your own level of risk tolerance," she says.
Do you have the contacts and potential clients?
To run a business, you're going to need clients. You don't necessarily need them all lined up before your launch, but you should at least know where to look. "The best form of marketing is relationship marketing," says Klein, who advises asking yourself who you know that could be a direct or indirect source of work. Tomecek agrees. "We've always tried to talk to as many people as we can," he says. "Tell people what you're doing and find out what other people are doing. Keep putting yourself out there."
Does the market need what you have to offer?
Before you launch your own postmodern experimental atelier, ask yourself a serious, important question: Does anybody want this stuff? Knowing what the market wants—and doesn't want—is an important question to ask early in the decision-making process. And even if what you have to offer is more on the practical end of the spectrum, it's still crucial to know whether you'll be able to compete and survive in an overcrowded market or if there's a niche you can easily fill. The Internet abounds with sources for such market research, so do your homework.
Do you have enough money?
Not to start the firm, but to keep it alive. "There will always be downtimes. It's always a cycle," says LePage of the tumultuous nature of the development market. He advises those starting new firms to have money saved up in case the climate turns inhospitable. "If you stay debt free, you can weather those storms much easier," he says. He suggests saving up six to eight months' worth of expenses before launching a business. Klein suggests a slightly more manageable three to six months' worth. Either way, it's best to have an umbrella.
Can you ask the right questions?
You may want to run the show, but you'll need to find the humility to admit when you need help. "You're never going to know it all," says Tomecek. "Know what the resources are that you'll need and ask good questions." If you're even thinking about starting a firm in the distant future, this is a learning process that should start now. Ask your higher ups about the parts of the business you're unfamiliar with, request more responsibility in meeting with clients, find a mentor. Tomecek even advises that those starting firms should enlist a business coach: "You need to have that balance of a business-savvy person." And LePage underlines the most important reality of starting an architecture firm: "It's a business and it needs to be run like a business. It's critical to understand business fundamentals."
Want more advice to help you start and run your firm? Check out all of the stories in this Up and Running series of articles here.