Preparing to launch: Keys to success in a new geographic market

By Jonathan M. Lusin AIA posted 05-30-2019 05:05 PM

By Jonathan Lusin, Principal, AIA, LEED AP at IKM Architecture

Jonathan Lusin, Principal at IKM Architecture, shares his lessons learned as his firm embarks on growing the firm’s first satellite office, launched earlier this year.

Knowing the signs: Reaching market limit & expanding leadership

At some point, growing firms may seize the opportunity to reach beyond their home market. No matter your size, there is a finite number of suitable projects and clients a firm can acquire and support in a given region. On top of that, architectural firm owners need the talent to produce great work. For single-office firms, this realization can prompt a great deal of introspection for leadership about where and how to grow outside of their comfort zone.

In my experience, one of the first steps a firm should take is promoting individuals to new leadership levels to create a foundation strong enough to withstand change. New leaders can take on management responsibilities aligned with their strengths, while existing leaders can focus on growth and development in new territories. This process can take several forms, but the constant is that firm ownership must be committed to fully engage in a new geographic market. To ensure a steady presence, an individual from existing leadership should be chosen as the face of the firm in developing that new market.


Targeting opportunity: Geographic expansion & market development

Researching the economic picture of a potential new market is critical to finding the right fit. Firms must determine how the current and imminent economic indicators align with the firm’s growth strategy. On top of economic viability, evaluate how your firm can take advantage of the market’s potential for new talent and consultant collaborations. Another consideration should be researching local architectural practices for possible long-term partnerships. Once there is an understanding of the business focuses and cultures of both parties, this could lead to productive outcomes in the future. Careful evaluation of the collaboration would help both organizations to consider an opportunity to join forces as one organization.      


It is up to firm leadership to determine the attitude and services the organization will take to this new market. One important decision is whether to market the firm as a generalist or a specialist. Is the firm going to put roots down or remain an “out of town” expert that will draw on knowledge from its home operations? The subject-matter experts in arm must be willing to regularly travel and engage with existing and potential clients. A large hurdle that firms face in new markets is how to hire locally to both supplement the firm’s thought leaders and enable proper servicing of new clients.  Selecting the proper individuals to be the foundation for a healthy new office demands careful data and research to inform the decision-making of firm leadership. 

Transferring culture: What stays & what goes

Each office will develop its own rhythm and culture based on the individuals who are a part of it. When expansions happen, it’s important that leadership understands the identity of the firm versus the flexible identities of its satellite offices. Ask yourself what aspects of your brand make the firm special to not only your clients, but employees as well. If maintaining a consistent culture is valued, focus on creating a program for immersing new employees into the firm. James Dudt, PE, LEED AP BD+C and Director of Karpinski Engineering’s Pittsburgh office does just that. He says, “In the most successful case, a new graduate engineer spent 18 months in Cleveland and then relocated to Pittsburgh. Orientation “Bootcamps” can also bring new hires together from the firm and creates a cohort experience filled with both social and technical training.”


Employee onboarding is only one aspect of building culture in a new market. Branding and communications is also a key part of supplementing budding relationships with digital storytelling and industry thought leadership. Nothing beats in-person interaction, so set up as many opportunities to expose potential clients to the depth and breadth of your organization with the people who make your organization great. IKM found a great angle to host a launch party at the new, trendy food hall which attracted many individuals from the AEC industry.



In it for the long haul: Plan beyond the launch party

Giving the green light is the easy part. Building a sustainable brand in a new market requires focused selling. Determining this focus will depend on the strengths of your organization. For IKM, we know that we are a regional firm with extensive background in technically complex projects. To get that message across, firm owners and marketers should prioritize constant follow up with potential clients and partners to cultivate relationships that will develop into strategic partnerships when the right project comes along.

This process involves patience and foresight; firms seeking lasting growth should initiate a multi-year plan with measurable milestones and yearly reporting on ROI. Time and energy should be spent on winning work that makes your firm thrive in the long-term. Beware the “sugar highs” of quick wins.

Last, but not least, never forget that you are entering an entirely new community and must earn a place there. Leverage your existing relationships, but also maintain high visibility at industry events. Know your audience by immersing yourself in the culture of the new market and finding ways to give back. Make your purpose clear. At IKM, we make sure people know our “why:” we strive to make a difference for every person, institution, and project we engage with. Know your “why,” and the rest will follow.


Jonathan Lusin is a Principal at IKM Architecture and strategic leader of the firm’s growing Cleveland market. Mr. Lusin specializes in workplace environments for corporate clients with additional expertise in designing for higher education and healthcare facilities. You can reach Jonathan Lusin at or (216) 678-9456.
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1 comment


05-31-2019 07:48 AM

Good insights.  I particularly focused on the culture issue.  Good luck in Cleveland.