Starting an Architectural Firm from Nothing, Part 2 

Insights Juhee Part 2
Written by guest blogger Juhee-Lee Hartford of River Architects (Part 1 can be found here.)

I started my architectural practice with just a CAD station and an 8.5”x 11” inkjet printer. However, I don’t recommend it. It will be less stressful to start with some seed money from savings, an angel investor, or an interest-free family loan. If you have a teaching position or a loving partner/spouse who can support you while you get your practice up and running, that will work as well. Some people choose to wait to build a professional rapport with a wide network of associates by working for larger firms before they branch out on their own. But I do not recommend stealing your employer’s clients.

It’s also good to do your research. Talk to business owners, strategize, and plan before opening your own firm. However, you will never know how it feels until you experience launching a startup in “flesh and blood.” 

So, when do you make the leap? You will likely feel it in your gut. However, I highly recommend doing so after you have your resources and funding in place. Yes, there are plenty of successful people who took the plunge before everything was fully ready and they hustled to make things work. If you are inspired to be the next daredevil of business – I still recommend working with a few strategies and fallback plans.

Here’s a quote from to put things in perspective: 

“Data from the BLS shows that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more.”

But do not despair. There are plenty of businesses that you and I encounter that have surpassed the 15-year mark.

Juhee And Wie Mug 768x1024

Here are common areas of focus that are necessary to run a business.

  1. Clear Vision and Purpose
  2. Strategies
  3. People
  4. Market
  5. Operations
  6. Finances
  7. Evolve/Pivot/Innovate
  8. Regenerate

There are many ways to expand on those key words:

  1. Define your key purpose in business and do it well. (And make sure there’s a market for it.)
  2. Take the time to strategize on all fronts from big-picture goals to day-to-day tasks. 
  3. From clients to employees, focus on forming genuine, respectful relationships. 
  4. Figure out how to continuously bring in new work even when you are too busy.
  5. Create an operating system for your firm and constantly fine-tune.
  6. Keep on top of your finances. (Stay organized and audit!)
  7. Figure out how to take your firm to the next level on a regular basis.
  8. Be careful not to burn out — yourself or your employees.

I learned late that big companies invest heavily in strategies and execution. Keeping things simple is the key to success. Here is a common lifecycle of those actions:

  1. Strategize
  2. Execute
  3. Reflect
  4. Adjust
  5. Repeat

One way to keep your business simple is to aim to be a sole proprietor, providing services to larger companies who already know you and want to keep working with you. Note that once you hire that first person, running a business can get complicated — from monitoring their work to managing payroll and benefits, etc. I often find myself in a Catch-22 situation where I have a mountain of things that I need to address but I can’t get to them until I make sure that my staff have the right directions and resources to carry out their tasks first. Soon, you may realize that running a business is about bringing in exciting projects and figuring out how to delegate the work effectively to empower your team members.

You will have to juggle many different roles and distinguish between being a technician and being a business owner. You may hear along the way that you must work “on” your business, not “in” your business. When you’re running a small firm, there’s no choice but to do both. 

And you may be wondering how can one person do all of that and still be an architect or an engineer? It’s possible that some professional goals may end up on the back burner as you focus on paying the bills and keeping the company growing. With conscious effort, you can bring those goals to the forefront one small step at a time. Some people find business partners with complementary strengths in certain areas while some people swear never to depend on anyone. While there are common challenges in running a business, with a bit of persistence, hard work (and good luck), you will find your own voice, your unique way to crack the code to achieving success.