Business Knowledge for Architects: What They Don’t Teach You in School
Entrepreneur and business coach Ray Brown partnered with strategist Bec Kempster to found Archibiz — An expert business coaching services for architects. By starting a coaching service specifically tailored to the business knowledge needs of architects, they leveraged existing know-how to provide a specialized service that addresses the business knowledge gap prevalent throughout the architectural industry.
Bec and Ray describe how doing good architecture does not automatically translate into doing good business. They believe it’s key for architects to understand the difference between being a technician and being a leader, which require completely different skillsets. Creating a clearly defined corporate structure is one step towards having a stable and sustainable architectural business foundation, primed for growth.
Could you please tell us about your background?
Ray: I was an entrepreneur in Scotland. I ran a variety of businesses and then decided to relocate with my family to Australia in 2005. I became a business coach and I’ve since built a business coaching practice in Melbourne. About 50% of my clients today are architects, which encouraged me to move into Archibiz, with Bec’s assistance.
Bec: My background is mainly in brand and digital strategy, both with agencies, on the client side and more recently consulting. I also run the Churchill Club which promotes emerging technologies for the advancement of industry in wider society.
How did you become business coaches for architects?
Ray: We were looking for a business, particularly in a niche that suited our offering and realized the answer was very close to home, in terms of the clients we were already working with. I had five architectural clients in Melbourne. It became obvious very quickly that there was a need, and also a propensity for architects to start their own business. Typically, architects were also nice, intelligent, easy-to-work with people who were receptive. With Bec’s encouragement, we decided to focus on architects and build an online business that leverages what we’ve learned from the architects we’ve been working with face-to-face.
Bec: It really came out of working together. Ray had vast knowledge and experience coaching and mentoring business leaders who needed help along the journey of business growth. We were writing a book to share all all of Ray’s knowledge on a wider scale.
What services do you offer and how can you help architects to create better businesses?
Ray: The needs of architects are really the same as many other tech-based businesses that are being run by technicians who typically don’t have substantial business knowledge. I help CEOs who have said, “I feel like a well-meaning amateur, and I feel like I don’t even know what I don’t know.” That’s a horrible feeling for people running a business. The business may be quite successful, but it can still be very stressful.
We found that the one-on-one operation is just not scalable, and we want make a bigger impact. We also want to encourage architects to learn from one another. Architecture is a very collegiate type of profession and we think that the best format could be group coaching, groups of 10 architects who will speak about a range of topics. There will be a bit of learning from one another in workshop form too. The coaching will teach the basics of business knowledge, sales, marketing, finance, operations. That’s the initial product. We will also provide some specialist self-study courses for topics like finance, and standalone products for marketing, since Bec is very good at marketing.
Traditionally architectural education is focusing mainly on design. Do you think that there’s a business knowledge gap in architecture education?
Ray: There’s absolutely a huge gap, and architects acknowledge this. Business knowledge is lacking in architectural training, in an almost inverse relationship to the quality of the design education: design education is good, business is bad, architecture is good, money is bad.
I think a lot of it is self-inflicted, because the industry doesn’t help architects to become solid business people. The model should be strong business first, and to do architecture on the back of that, rather than assuming good architecture will automatically lead to good business. I just don’t think that happens.
What is your opinion on the value proposition of architects? How should they communicate it and what marketing instruments could they use?
Ray: What is the value of architecture? This is fundamental. I haven’t been able to answer that question satisfactorily yet.
Bec: The industry needs to do a lot of work collectively on that. Here in Australia, for example, we have the Institute, and they need to be pushing more focus on this. We have things like Good Design Week, but there needs to be a lot more conversation about it and in the universities. Particularly when you look at the rise of the designer/builder, which is really eating into the architect’s bread and butter. It’s important to be clear, not only about the value of architecture, but also about the value of what I bring to architecture, or what my practice brings to architecture.
For example, Ray has a client that focuses on car parks; that’s their core area of specialty. They look at trends in that space. You shouldn’t be ashamed to specialize in an area, which comes back to that core marketing ideal that you can’t be everything to everyone, and you shouldn’t try to be. What is it that you’re good at and that you like doing? Focus on that. If you’re good at what you’re doing, and you’re good at communicating what you do, there are certainly enough clients.
Architects also need to build a client list. Who have you worked with in the past? Who have you met at marketing events or networking events? Who have you met at awards? Who are your neighbors? Who are those people in your personal network as well? You never know who knows someone else. Who are you sitting next to at dinner? Build that list and communicate with them at least quarterly. If they’re a previous client, you probably spent at least a year working with them designing and executing their vision. You should at least touch base with them. Also, people want to know what you’re doing as well. If you’ve won an award, let them know. Shout out to the rooftops– people will be really happy for you. You never know what referrals that will trigger down the track as well. Learn to leverage that opportunity to get referrals.
The website is probably the other key area in marketing. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of showing a whole bunch of pretty pictures of what you’ve designed, with industry-centric terminology that isn’t really relevant for clients. Instead, it’s important to tell us who you are. Who are the people in your team? What else do you like doing outside of the practice? What’s your process? How are you going take me as a client along the journey? At the end of the day, it’s just about creating trust.
Do you guys feel architects could and should improve their websites and online presence to better build their brands?
Ray: Yeah, I think my impression of that is the standard architect website is buildings, buildings, buildings, photographs of buildings, interior of buildings, exterior of buildings. And the one thing I say to my clients is, “Where are the smiling faces?” People resonate with a smiling face because that’s the feeling they want to have. The building on its own is not enough, the words on their own are not enough. Photographs of buildings will appeal to other architects, and I think this is the big issue, that architects want to impress their peers and forget the clients.
For me, a website should quickly describe the things we do that are different from the competition. “Here are the things that we do that shows we understand how you’re feeling.” Show that you understand the beginning of the process, not just the end of the process, where people are worried about cost, or worried about budget blow outs and time. The fact that you can build a nice building is really just the ticket to the game in the beginning.
Architects very much underestimate the power and importance of the face-to-face meeting with the client. I have clients who say to me, “But, Ray, I can’t get the second meeting with the client.” And really, that’s ridiculous when you think that these people might be selling what is effectively a $150,000 product or service, and you can’t get the second meeting. Well, that there’s something wrong in your process, that you can’t create enough value to get a second meeting.
Bec: I think it’s really important for architects to understand that people buy people, people don’t buy businesses. They’re buying into you not into the name on the wall.
What main mistakes do architects make when it comes to managing their practice?
Ray: Thinking that good design is enough to create a sustainable business, that would be top of my list. A good business is much more than that. A poor ability to articulate the value and the process. There’s an assumption on the architects’ part that, “Well, people know what an architect does.” And I don’t think that’s true. You need to articulate that value and you need to explain the process. Explain the hours that go into coming up with a set of drawings and an idea for a building.
Also, I have clients that have said to me, “But, Ray, we only have another six months work and then we’ve got no more work.” I tell them, “If you ran a retail shop, you wouldn’t know who was coming into the shop tomorrow. You’re very lucky to have six months work in the pipeline signed up, ready to go. What you lack is a reliable and sustainable sales and marketing pipeline that’s going to work effectively during that six months to give you the next batch of work.”
What steps should an owner of an architecture business take in order to transform her/his practice?
Ray: After admitting they need help, architects, should firstly stop comparing themselves with other architects as a template for their business. They should be looking outside architecture at how other businesses operate for inspiration and ideas. I think technology is helping, sales and marketing, social media, all of that stuff. Ideally, they should not only look at other architectural firms for those ideas.
And then, think about the business as a business rather than a practice, which is a huge mindset shift. A lot of architecture practices tend to become one architect or two architects with some helpers, and that’s not really a good business structure. It’s not efficient and can become quite stressful for the leaders of the business. The best businesses that I know adopt a corporate structure, with a clear leader of the business and a board appointed by the shareholder, or owners. That board may only be two or three people, or it may be the partners of the business. For the businesses we work with, I usually sit on the board as an independent outsider. This forms a proper corporate structure.
Do you help architecture offices of all sizes with Archibiz? Or do you focus on small firm architects?
Ray: The work that we currently do face-to-face with clients, which is quite a long-term, is typically quite an expensive service. The Archibiz offering will be different. We’re running a pilot initially for six weeks, but the plan is to have a 3-month program, which I think will appeal to a wide range of architects, whether they’re working for a firm or first thinking about setting up on their own. This would be a really good foundation for the starter, right through to the person who has 6 or 10 employees and is feeling a lack of business knowledge to take their business to the next level.
Bec, you are also working with the Churchill Club, which is promoting the use of technology. How could that be translated to architecture? What kind of tools or technology do you see the built environment lacking in a way?
Bec: You can approach this on many levels. If you look first at practice management, there are a lot of software tools for architects to better manage their processes. There are tools for project management, collaboration, time tracking, sharing project information with clients, and more. There is a lot being done with VR now as well, which is a huge tool for architects. VR helps to sell the vision to clients and ensure that you there isn’t a gulf in the expectations between what’s on paper and the final result.
There’s also a real opportunity for architects to tap into smart cities/ smart buildings data to understand how are people behaving. Design that’s informed by data and how people are behaving can be incredibly valuable, and there’s an opportunity to start leveraging that.
Design is also being done in new ways. Particularly around prefab and modular design, 3D printing is huge. I think Dubai wants to have 25% of all new buildings 3D printed by 2030. That’s a big benchmark they are setting, so I know we’ll see a lot of changes in the way design is approached.
That will start to filter back through into how practices need to run their own processes as well. If you’re 3D printing a building or components of a building, or it’s more modular and prefab, that will shorten the life of the project dramatically, which will impact how projects are run, how many projects you can do in a year, how you bid for those projects or that sort of thing.
What are your top 3 tools/business knowledge tips to implement for running a successful architecture business?
1. Standard financial budgeting and reporting. Architects are no different from other business people in that they tend to leave a lot to their accountant and they lack a basic understanding of how to use financial reporting as a management and predictive tool rather than a historical, “haven’t we done well?” view. Everything’s is looking back, and I think there’s an opportunity to improve that thinking.
2. Clarity of roles and getting everybody’s levels of authority and work scope really clear in a business. This traditional architecture business of being really busy and spreading the work and saying, “We’ve just got to get through this week, and then we’ll just get through next week” is holding architecture back. Structure and the definition of the role is not sufficient to create the efficiency that they need, but it’s a start.
3. Make websites a lot more personal, with more smiling faces and people rather than predominantly buildings. This doesn’t have to mean redesigning the website. It can be as simple as swap out some of those photos on there for photos of buildings with the people in them, put your team on there and tell us why you do what you do. People’s faces and how they’re dressed and how they’re photographed tell clients a lot about the business, where the buildings might not. A group photo might tell a that you take a team approach, for example. We pick up cues.
Do you have any tips for Archipreneurs who are interested in starting their own company in the built environment?
Ray: Get some basic business knowledge, and that’s not a plug for our business. I think that’s one of the main differentiating factors for a successful business. It doesn’t matter how good of an architect you are; you need to have a sustainable, well-structured and profitable business as the foundation for your success.
Network with non-architects. One of my clients invited all the architects in the area for a Christmas party, and provided sandwiches, beer and wine to 63 other architects. It blows my mind that they would think that was a good thing to do, but it wouldn’t happen to many other industries.
Learn how to sell. I think there’s a sales process and the sales techniques. Somebody’s got a problem and you’ve got a solution, right? It doesn’t matter what business you’re in: sales is the bridge between their problem and your solution, so you might as well learn how to build a decent bridge.
Lastly, understand the difference between being a technician and being a leader. This is business knowledge 101. There’s a technician mindset that afflicts quite a lot of architects, accountants, lawyers. Being a leader is completely different to the skills that you need as a technician. One is not an extension of the other.
What are your thoughts on the future of the built environment? How can it improve, and what continues to inspire you?
Bec: There are two key themes driving the future of the built environment, the first being technology, which I’ve spoken to already. I think we’ll see real changes in 3D, the speed to market, speed of construction, particularly when you look at growth in China and how quickly they’re building. We’re going to be more than nine billion people by 2050, I think it is. Things have got to change. We can’t keep behaving the way we’re behaving and building the way we’re building.
The second key theme is around sustainability and that’s where we’re going to see real change. We can’t keep using limited natural resources, we need to look at other ways to build. There will be a shift in building materials. The building approach needs to be a sustainable approach.
Energy efficiency is a huge part of the sustainability piece too. In Australia, the conversation about using less energy tends to be price-driven, rather than sustainability-driven. We should be focusing on sustainable building approaches, looking at some of the Northern European house building with a high level of energy efficiency, Passive house, and so on. This needs to be driven by architects and by the property industry. We can’t wait for the regulators to say, “Now you must have double glazing”. This is where the real value of architects comes in. Set the benchmark and tell us, why should we be doing this?
Architects can really be a shining light and guide the way forward in shifting broader public sentiment around how we get, how we change, how we live and how we move towards more middle-density living. Instead of building McMansions, buying a plot of land and building a single house to the boundary and filling it with stuff, architects can lead the conversation about how can we build smarter, live in less space and learn to live with each other.
Ray: The only thing I’d like to add is Neighbourlytics. For example, there are two girls are doing a social media scraping to get better views of their neighborhood as part of feasibility study, to provide to councils and to developers. They’ve raised a lot of money for their business, and they’re getting a huge amount of interest from really all over the world, and I think that’s due to community having a much closer involvement in what the end product looks like. That completes the loop in a way: the architect can be clever in isolation, but the architect needs to be clever with the community. —
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