As you confront the complex design problem that is starting your own firm, how you structure your practice will help determine both the work you do and the success of your business. Here are three basic steps for how to approach that important task.

The first step in structuring your firm is to get clear about positioning, says Jean Leathers, whose firm Practice Clarity advises architects on building business. "Positioning is the crux of strategy, because everything falls from a position statement," she says. The statement should be a concise and precise description of who you are as an architectural practice, what you do, for whom you do it, and to what benefit. You should be able to encapsulate the core idea of your firm in one or two sentences.

For firms that don't have a good sense of their identity, Leathers says there's a relatively easy exercise. She suggests looking back over three to five years' of work to identify the common denominators. A common mistake her clients make, he says, is insisting they are one type of firm when most of their work is in a completely different sector. 

More firms should take the time for a little self-reflection, Leathers argues. "Not many firms have time to ask what is it that we're actually doing. What are we doing that we love, what are we doing really well, who are the clients that we're serving that treat us well, that respect us, that allow us to do our best work, that pay us on time," she says. "Positioning lets you become very selective about where you pursue work and how you build your business."

Knowing who you are and what you want will help you stay off what Leathers calls "the RFP hamster wheel." 

Set Your Standards
Knowing what you want from your firm is equally as important. When DeBartolo Architects formed as a father-son team in Phoenix in 1996, Jack DeBartolo Jr., FAIA, was getting close to the end of his career and the career of Jack DeBartolo 3, AIA, was just starting to blossom. The decision to found their firm was more out of a sense of opportunity than need. So they decided early on to be very particular. "We said, 'Let's not do any work we don't intimately care about or can't get really behind passionately. Let's do very purpose-driven architecture,' " says DeBartolo 3, now the firm's principal. 

So they began to look for cultural, spiritual, and humanitarian significance in the projects they took on. As a result, a large part of the work by the five-person firm has been in the realm of religious institutions.

The firm has also been diligent about not growing much in size. "The way we control the size of the practice is very much about keeping in this comfort zone of not creating such a large thing that we're now serving the size of the practice, versus it being the other way around," DeBartolo 3 says.

Review and Adapt
A key component of the business strategy of Kansas City–based architecture and fabrication firm El Dorado is a bi-annual internal review. The four principals sit down to ask what one of them, Dan Maginn, FAIA, calls fundamental questions about their work and operations. "At times it means that we say everything is operating according to plan and let's just keep at it, and there are other times where that process has allowed us to shift some things, either the way we talk about our firm, or the type of work we take on, or the way we do work," Maginn says.

He says the twice-a-year reflection helps the principals and the firm to reassess their goals and come to an agreement about where to go next. Often, that means identifying a simple guideline to focus the firm's work. "For us right now it's all about achieving design excellence every time," Maginn says. "Just with that one goal it triggers a lot of things with regard to how you staff projects, how you structure fees, and what your expected work product is."

But that also means recognizing new opportunities and deciding when to take measured risks. "We try to be a little proactive and smell a trend within our own orbit of influence, and that might shift the way we think about things," Maginn says. "If you're just talking about missing icebergs, that’s a problem. It should be that you're steering the boat where you want to go."