Starting an architectural firm is far easier than sustaining one long-term. Yet, it is still not a simple task to break out on your own. Many people dream of ditching their jobs, hanging their shingle, and being an entrepreneur. Once you finally become licensed, you can call yourself an Architect and accept projects. But how do you land that first project, or, more importantly, enough projects, to be able to leave your full-time job and start your own practice? That is the million-dollar question.
Projects come via the people you know. Start nurturing personal friendships and professional relationships as soon as possible. Get involved in organizations and activities that allow you to meet people. Do this in college and in your very first job, and keep doing it. If you’re not an extrovert, you may not feel comfortable joining the Rotary Club or Toastmasters. If this is the case, join groups that you have real interest in, say, a city basketball league, a book or hiking club.
Keep in touch with people you’ve worked with and have met over the years. When you’re ready to take on projects of your own, let those people know. Contact everyone you know, both personally and professionally. Then keep reminding them on a regular basis that you’re looking to land projects. Friends might see you not as an architect, but as their buddy they watch sports with or their fellow church-goer, and when one of their acquaintances asks them if they know an architect, they may not necessarily think of you. You have to keep reminding people. However, while you’re still at your full-time job, you’ll need to be careful about how and where you market yourself. Your employer will, most likely, not be pleased if you’re marketing your own firm and not theirs.
Continually be on the lookout for project opportunities. If you see an opportunity, jump at it, and if you can land the project, accept it, assuming the fees and contract is acceptable. If you don’t know how to write a client agreement or estimate fees, ask a colleague (or me) for help. Project opportunities don’t come around that often, so don’t try to wait until the timing is perfect. This could be your one and only chance to launch your practice. And chances are that the first project will lead to others.
Once you start the first project, you may want to work on it after hours and stick with your full-time job until you know if more projects will come your way. If it’s a large project that will consume too much of your time, you might consider taking a leave of absence from your job. If you’re good at what you do, your company will likely grant you a leave in lieu of losing you. This will reduce your risk as you’ll have a job to go back to if the project dies or does not lead to more jobs right away. If the project is small enough, then you probably want to work on it while continuing to work at your full-time job. It’s probably best to be honest with your employer about what you’re doing, and hopefully, they’ll support your goals. If you’re not honest, you could damage your integrity. Yet if you are open, be aware that there could be significant career consequences with your existing employer, even termination.
When you land so much work that you can no longer do a good job for your own clients as well as for your employer, you’ll need to take that leap of faith, and either ask for the leave of absence or quit your job. This takes courage. But if you don’t do a good job on your new projects, they won’t lead to other projects, and you could expose yourself to a lawsuit as well. Once you leave your job, you can start doing some real marketing such as blogging, joining a “BNI” or “Leads” referral-focused group, and targeting clients in specific niches and industries such as schools, banks, or law firms. This will result in more projects. Then the real work begins…..managing a company. Landing projects is only the first step. This short article cannot begin to cover the many next steps that are necessary. Even as a sole proprietor with only a few projects, there is a lot involved in having a practice. Do some research to find out in advance if it is an endeavor you really want to pursue.
Elisa Garcia, RA