How to Create An Adaptable Architecture & Design Practice
For industry outsiders, architecture is known by its most iconic products — skyscrapers or luxury buildings designed by award-winning firms led by “star” architects. With the scale of work being created, one wonders: can an architect be an entrepreneur?
Dara Huang, architect and founder of Design Haus Liberty, answers this question with an empathic “Yes.” In a webinar with HP, she takes us through her journey as an “adaptable architect” and gives advice on how to start an interior design business.
Entrepreneurs: born or bred?
The true answer is: both. Startup accelerators like Founder Institute even created an “Entrepreneur DNA Assessment” which identifies personality traits favourable to entrepreneur success. Some also argue that entrepreneurs have a naturally higher risk appetite or just happen to have a specific vision that they want to realise. Most agree, however, that specific entrepreneurship skills can be learned. These include:
Drive. Call it grit, perseverance, or determination; this is a trait that can be developed. Most business founders are fiercely determined to achieve the goals they have set, even in the face of naysayers and self-doubt. They put in the hard work for years despite the very real possibility of failure.
Openness. While creative individuals tend to be positively correlated with this Big Five personality trait, it is still worth mentioning that you can train yourself to be more open to unfamiliar experiences. Huang quips: “The feeling of fear and the feeling of excitement is actually derived from the same emotion…If you’re not scared of something, you’re not going to be excited.”
Adaptability. The world of business is dynamic and fast-paced, and business owners must adapt in order to survive. Nokia, Blockbuster, and Yahoo are just a few examples of once-revered companies that lost out to more innovative competitors. Luckily, entrepreneurs have an advantage here: Being smaller and nimbler means you should be able to adapt faster to changes.
Here are some aspects of adaptability as an entrepreneur that will help you to grow any business:
Adapting to your strengths
Entrepreneurs are expected to be generalists because they must wear multiple hats, especially at the outset. As an architect working in a company, you have colleagues and superiors responsible for bringing in new business, enforcing contracts, or coordinating with vendors. However, as an entrepreneur, you have to do all these yourself — or hire someone to do them.
Thus, before you start dreaming up your own design practice, map out the roles that are needed and assess your strengths apart from design and architecture. According to Huang, running a design business is about three things: communication, talent, and operations. Communications, for one, is how the business brings in money through marketing, PR, and business development. Talent is more obvious — it is the people producing the product, service, or platform for customers. Finally, operations includes finance, legal operations, HR, and other people who keep the business running smoothly.
How many of these roles can you take on? How much capital will you need to pay for others to complement your skills gaps? Remember, no matter how smart or talented you are, you cannot do it all, especially if you want to scale up and grow your design business in the long run. “How you scale and how you make money is actually hiring what you're bad at,” says Huang.
Adapting in your profession
A good many of us get tied up in our professional identity, and it makes sense given how much we study and work to become good at what we do. Starting a business, however, may mean that we need to be flexible with our identities.
As an architect, starting your own practice may mean you need to do more design and interior projects, take on retail projects when your specialty is commercial offices, or develop different design styles according to clients’ preferences. In other words, you cannot be too picky about the work you do. Being a small and new business also means you should grab every opportunity you get. Huang shared that Design Haus got to work with large and well-known developers not by knocking on their front doors, but by starting out through the “back door” of working with agents like CBRE.
Adapting to changing market trends
Despite the scale and duration of projects in the built environment, AECs need to tweak their work and business offerings to meet changing needs. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shift to hybrid work is one such trend, with demand for commercial spaces going down while demand for larger, more tastefully designed homes has skyrocketed.
“In year 3-4 of business, the luxury residential market started to drop drastically in London…all of a sudden we were seeing a lag in the property market, so they had to be fully dressed up and stylised in order to sell,” explained Lui. “So developers who had never done that before were hiring us because we were recommended by the agents…most of our business now is actually in interiors.”
Maintaining success for your business
Once your design business is in the black, what comes next? That depends once again on your vision for your business. However, these elements must be present to maintain success at any level:
Client Trust. All business relationships are built on trust, but this is especially relevant for architecture and design practices. “You have to remember that building anything is about the most expensive thing anybody can do,” emphasized Huang. In addition, the nature of the industry means that building a portfolio takes time, and it may be years before your work can start to speak for itself.
Teamwork. Once you are no longer a one-person show and your business is growing, you will need to have the right people working together to support you. This applies equally to talent, communications, and operations. You may also need to be willing to relinquish some control
and hire senior-level talent — or even rope in investors — so that you can focus on what you do best.
An architecture or interior design business is not just about building things; at its core, it is a service that will thrive with the right people, tools, and goals. Are you ready to start and grow your own practice as an adaptable architect? Watch the full webinar today for Dara Huang’s design business advice.
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