The best advice for starting your own boutique architecture firm
When you start your own architecture firm, you’re in for the ride of your life.
In fact, when Idan Naor left Rogers Marvel Architects to start his own venture, owner Rob Rogers left him with a memorable analogy during his exit interview.
He noted that starting a business was like riding a bike around New York City.
At first it’s stressful. Sometimes you get lost. But eventually, you know the streets by heart.
Idan Naor learned the truth of the analogy through trial and error when he started Idan Naor Workshop.
Now, he’s ready to pass on some advice of his own.
Let employees excel
Over the years, Idan has recognized that business success all comes down to how you deploy your forces.
Whether they are full-time employees or contractors, you need to make great hires and empower them to be efficient.
“There's a certain acrobatics that every firm owner has to go through. You don't really appreciate or even understand it unless you've witnessed it firsthand,” Idan said.
“I always knew, oh, staffing must be challenging. How do you actually wrap your mind around getting 60 people to actually be efficient in different life cycles of a project?”
Important decisions include things like:
- Do you hire internally?
- Do you collaborate with someone who has their own practice?
- Do you hire an independent contractor?
- Do you outsource portions of your workflow?
Today, Idan sees his job as orchestrating the team to maximize their potential. That doesn’t mean micro-managing - in fact, it means the opposite.
Whether you are a small firm or a Fortune 500 company, the true secret to unleashing each employee's potential lies in setting them free to do what they’re best at.
“Everyone has inherent interests and inherent potential,” Idan said. “The worst thing you can do is try and control people, or try and force people to do something they're not great at.”
One of the most pivotal things about running your own practice, or just being a great designer, is being a great observer and a great listener.
Be selective with projects
Idan used to think of himself as the quintessential “yes man.” Time and experience taught him the importance of saying no.
“I really like maintaining a tight ship, and not growing for the sake of growth,” Idan said.
“There have been a lot of projects at large scales that could have meant really fast growth and onboarding a lot of people in terms of fees, and in terms of project duration. But the client and the interest was just below my threshold.”
Being a business owner means coming to terms with is realizing that saying no is a skill. If you do say yes to everything, you’ll learn this lesson in due time.
Sometimes your sixth sense kicks in and tells you not to pursue a project. When this happens, listen to your instincts and don’t feel pressured to take on all prospects.
Idan described a time when this happened:
“They reached out and they were like, I have this big tract of land, and I want to do this stuff that seemed amazing on paper. Then we met, it just didn't feel right. It turned out that they had hired this architect, gone through a community board approval process and then fired this architect. It just sounded like a disaster in terms of how they approached the architect. That was a huge red flag,” he said.
When clients clearly value cost and approvals over design, or have unrealistic expectations, chances are you won’t benefit from working with them.
The best clients are interesting and offer an opportunity for mutual growth.
Consider the client, the interest, and the fee
Part of Idan’s analysis for deciding what projects to say yes to involves considering three key elements:
- The client
- The interest
- The fee
You won’t always get a project that is perfect on all fronts, but be aware that each element impacts the likelihood of project success.
“You have to balance those three forces,” Idan said.
“If the client is someone who is really interesting for whatever reason, it could be that they are just a great person to work with. And we all know that it takes two to tango. To get a really good project, you need that good client.”
In terms of project interest, this depends on your personal tastes. Are you interested in variety, or a specific specialty? Takes your cues from the type of projects you find most fulfilling.
“If someone comes to me with a new building type and they're willing to have a deep conversation about it, we start to have that part of the Venn diagram take more precedence. Then the fee, that works its way in it's pretty straightforward. Will it be profitable?” Idan said.
You may not have the luxury of being choosy when you first start out, but as you hit your stride you can work to find the sweet spot between creative and technical work.
Just keep in mind that the bigger your firm gets, the harder it can be to remain nimble and creative.
Set up client onboarding
Part of being efficient and creating a great client experience starts with onboarding.
Now that Idan’s firm has worked on many different projects, he can sort new clients into different categories.
For each of those buckets, he’s started creating onboarding materials to match.
Those materials are things like videos, PDFs, and educational materials for clients.
“We have a little PDF package that walks you through the process. They're tailored too, because we happen to deal with developers and residential clients that are very different, and commercial office space tenants,” Idan said.
“We have a different packet for each one to show them what the process is typically like, things to watch out for, important milestones, and just how to think about it.”
Depending on the project, he'll bring a set of construction drawings or other artifacts to show them. Depending on their experience level with the design process, he’ll point them to additional resources.
Idan recognized that there is untapped potential for similar tools. In the modern world, the possibilities are endless.
Prepare for booms and busts
Business will inevitably have peaks and valleys. The key is to save money for a rainy day so you’re not caught unawares during a slow period.
“Sooner or later, you're going to go through a business cycle. Or you're going to go through a project cycle. You learn very quickly that you need a war chest. You need to squirrel away money when revenues relative to your flow are up. Then when they're down, you need to live off that,” Idan said.
In addition to cash, you also need to prepare your business by building a healthy client ecosystem.
“We really nurture our network of clients. We try and always stay in close touch with them. Then when times are slower, we can reach out and say, hey, this thing we've been talking about for a while, is that something you want to pick up? This is a great time for us right now,” said Idan.
These projects may never appear in your public portfolio, but they will serve an important purpose in tiding over your business.
“We've done more work than I'd like to admit that we'd never have a picture of. But it's just part of keeping things rolling,” Idan said.
One of the best parts of running your own business? You can choose your values and how you operate at an essential level.
While most firms chase cheap talent and charge high prices, Idan is committed to focusing on a business model that focuses on leadership.
In the modern world, many paths are possible.
Join us on Thursday, Febrary 11th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Idan Naor, AIA. Idan is the founder and principal-in-charge of his eponymous workshop. He is a Registered Architect in New York State and NCARB certified for licensing in other states, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and also a licensed real estate agent in NYS. Idan gained professional experience at Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP, Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC, Rogers Marvel Architects PLLC, and Rogers Partners Architects PLLC. Idan holds a B.A. with double majors in Economics and History from Brown University and a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University, where upon graduation he was awarded the Lucille Smyser Lowenfish Memorial Prize and the Honor Award for Excellence in Design.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Idan about managing a small architecture practice.
- How to manage client relationships?
- What has he learned about negotiations?
- and More!
About Idan Naor Workshop
Idan Naor Workshop is an ward-winning design practice located in Brooklyn NY.
Driven by a passion for the built environment, they work tirelessly to create beautiful spaces that move people and age gracefully. They chose to be a boutique practice because this allows them to remain agile and selective about taking on new projects, to focus on their craft, and to ensure that each client and partner they work with receives the time, thought, and attention they deserve.