The Architect’s Business Plan – Six Reasons To Sell Out Now

Thomas Lowing, AIA – SFx Regional Representative – June 2017 

Do award-winning projects make award-winning firms? I venture to say, “not necessarily”, especially if you look at historic examples. A couple of my favorites are Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn. The genius of their design and the their demand for execution in the work was extremely disciplined, yet I would venture to say the prosperity of their practices was not nearly as desirable. Unlike their oversight of built projects, perhaps the practices they built were “not as planned”.

Typically award-winning projects come from great design and execution. Some of these exemplary projects are the creations of smooth running practices and some are the creations of practices heating up with the friction and tension of an uncertain future. Perhaps much of this is the result of the fragmented imagination of “professional versus business” practices in combination with undisciplined execution. Imagine putting some of that passion for design and execution from the discipline of follow-through required for your best design projects into the “running” of your firm as a holistically sustainable business. That is the essence of a business plan.

If you value design, design your business. We are all busy, so let’s skip the excuses and look for solutions to our individual challenges of running our design practices as a profitable business “by design”.

A simplified start to a business plan for the small firm, or any firm with limited leader and management level resources, is to list the reasons you could identify to establish value in your firm. Imagine for a moment you were building it up to run as a business for someone else, like yourself, who could purchase and invest their life efforts in the practice over time.

Let’s start with six reasons that principals of firms must knowingly or unknowingly sell to themselves as investors to identify the value of (“and sell out to”) continuing the professional practices of the firm.

The first set of three reflective questions are:
o Who are we?
o What do we do well?
o And ultimately, why do we do what we do?

The second set of three forecasting questions are:
o Where do we want to be?
o When do we want to get there?
o And more specifically, how are we going to do it?

Let’s think positive, and pause to remember this question and answer exercise is for the full spectrum of practices. Some of us are discouraged by our initial assessment in answering these simple (but not necessarily easy) questions, some of us are at the top of our game and greatly encouraged, but many of us most often find our practices somewhere between these levels of “courage” upon further reflection.

That reflection on our answers is the discipline of assessment, and the asking of the right questions gives direction to our decision-making. I have broken the six questions into the reflective and forecasting sets for simplified methods of assessment and direction respectively. Simply doing this on a periodic basis as we run our firm, and specifically writing our answers down informally or formally, is our business plan. Think of it as a MAP (as in Make-A-Plan) to follow through as a guide for making decisions in each season of a year to get where you want and intend to be in five years. Or, as evolving data on firms suggest, to be farther than you ever imagined you’d be in ten years, if you are in the minority of those who use written business plans.

“Sell out” to doing whatever it takes to establish and use a business plan for a “designed” practice. Even if you are the smallest of firms, sit down with yourself and a “significant other” who knows your firm (perhaps even your accountant upon occasion!), and begin the process of running a business with insight by design. The insight to the customized weighting of decision-making for your practice will grow as you learn to adopt and adapt the reasoning behind these six questions to establish a baseline for your practice. Using data collected from your practice and utilizing best practices published in resources from other practices, you can establish appropriate benchmarks based on your values and vision for your firm. The AIA is continually collecting and publishing best practice data in practice surveys and Knowledge Communities, and the SFx Practice Workgroup seeks to bring focus to the data to share for establishing best practices for small firms. We are looking forward to your interest in sharing resources through our growing communication networks.