Lessons Learnt From Starting My Own Firm

I am living my dream. That’s what I thought till yesterday when the light bulb went off!

A few months ago I decided to launch my own practice. It was something I wanted to do for a long time, and it was something that some of my ex-bosses thought I should do. Everybody who knew me thought I fit the personality, skills and drive. I was getting pumped from all directions. And I wanted a new adventure in my life. A lot of my friends were doing it out of necessity, loss of job, recession, and what not. I did it because I wanted to give it a shot. Try it once and see how it goes. I had no potential clients, but I jumped on the bandwagon!

Because I had been thinking about it for quite a while, I did some homework before I made my decision. I am super impulsive by nature, but I was a bit cautionary in this particular action. I attended a few sessions here and there about starting your own architecture firm. Didn’t read any books, I can’t handle the books without a storyline. I knew I needed some money in the bank to survive, so I saved a little. But I had quite a few financial surprises awaiting!

For the first time in life, I paid my dues to the associations I belong to out of my own pocket. AIA ticket was the biggest! ULI came in close second. And I decided to join SPUR because it was quite affordable. I passed on USGBC although I am passionate about Green Building. The problem is, it’s not just the dues you have to pay. But there are additional charges for attending almost every nice event you want to go to. So you have to consider those additional charges on top of the dues. These charges add up real fast. And when you aren’t making a paycheck, they can be quite painful. Forget attending conferences if you are not funded! Then there are the business expenses for initial set up. You’ll spend thousands in the first few months, getting your business registered, buying software, signing an office lease, marketing material, website, business cards… it adds up.

But I knew all this before I got myself into this. I was prepared for this. What I wasn’t prepared for was a shocker I faced in the eye yesterday.

You see… being a woman with a foreign accent, I always got the impression that I could get some certifications and go after public work. Public work is my absolute love. I have never been comfortable doing private work, maybe because I have never worked with a developer who really cared about the environment or aesthetic quality of the work. My private client experience has been driven by financial outcomes. Public entities, although they move slow, care. They have to! Money is tight, but they care. So my gameplan was to set up the business, get certified as Small Business Enterprise (SBE), Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Local Business Enterprise (LBE), Women Based Enterprise (WBE), and then go after public work. I expected the process to be long, waiting for RFQs for IDIQ lists, then going through the steps, hopefully get called for an interview, and hoping to win a commission. Long process. Turns out, all certifications require US citizenship. Totally fair! I completely understand that. However, for a person like me with no country, this is a bummer. I’ve spent the last 12 years paying taxes like every other citizen of United States, rather paid much more in tuition and what not because I’m not a citizen. But now I can’t even qualify for government work. Life would be different if I was an illegal immigrant or married to a citizen. Unfortunately the laws are more strict for people who migrate out of skills and ability than for those who take shortcuts.

I am faced with the reality of the matter now. Await a few more years before I can even qualify for any government work! In the meanwhile, I have to shift gears and find private clients. Something I never thought I’d be doing when I have my own business. It’s a complete shift in my strategy. Part-time teaching was always part of the plan, so I will continue to pursue that. And I’m working on couple design competitions. So in a way I am still living my dream… owning my business, being my own boss, running my own schedule, participating in design competitions, pursuing teaching. The shift is in my target clientele. A group that is outside of my comfort zone. But it’s something I will have to do to survive.

This brings me to the lessons learnt. I wish I had done the following before I started this journey. Too late for me, but the list might help some aspiring architects.

1. Don’t do it solo. There are things I am good at, but there are things I wish I never had to deal with. I am a social person, but within my comfort zone. If I had a partner today, I will be out and about every night building a network. But doing that solo is a huge challenge for me. I wish I had a partner today who would be willing to go through the lists of potential clients, strategize on how to target them, and keep an eye out for RFQs. I need marketing help. Of course I can’t hire one, so I’ve got to deal with it! I wish I could find a partner who was a US citizen and go after these certifications. But it’s too late for me. If you want a partner, find one while you are in school, while you are taking AREs, while you are working in a paid job.

2. Don’t do it if you don’t have a project in hand. Some people work on a family or friend’s house or store as their first project. Those people are wise. You need something to start. I have NO family in this country, so I don’t have a support network. All my friends are architects, because I spent the last many years hanging out with AIA folks in all of my free time. I have a big network, but the majority of them are architects, with couple engineers. Now I need to make new friends, and I don’t know where to begin! I am too much of an architect, and that too an AIA addict.

3. Be open to possibilities. I had put all my hopes and expectations in getting public work. And now I have to completely shift and look at the opposite end. You never know where life will take you. So be open to all possibilities. I didn’t work on a business plan, financial plan, or any plan. I still won’t be working on one. Maybe it’s a good idea to do that. Don’t take my example in this matter. I am yet to make a check. Working on non-profit work and competitions hasn’t got me a dollar, and I don’t expect it to!

In spite of these early woes and struggles, I am hopeful. It will take some time, but I will get there. I will sign my first contract. I’m sure I’ll have something to add to the list in six months from now. This is just the beginning…

Residential Architecture

A kid’s drawing of his house

Regardless of the culture, country, vernacular, or time, a kid’s drawing of a house speaks a universal architectural language. The results of kids playing with Legos are also astoundingly similar due to the limitations of the building blocks. Some of these kids grow up to become architects and find their individuality. Some of them begin working on residential projects, whether custom homes, tract homes, or multi-family residential buildings. Yet how many architects live in a house designed by them? Only a few hold on to the dream of building their own home, and of them very few get the opportunity to do it. In the end the inevitable question of financing surfaces, which we so commonly lack even after lifetime of working in this profession. Unfortunately the lack of the dream is a bigger reason than the lack of finances for this sad reality.

The mention of residential architecture typically brings to mind the image of a custom single family home. This typology is extensively celebrated in our profession through design awards, publications, and focus groups. Makes sense, because a majority of architects work in this typology. It appears that the multi-family residential projects often get overlooked on the recognition platform. Possibly they are not being submitted, or lose the competition against higher budget commercial projects. The design discussion definitely needs to extend more to these projects. An outlook towards neighborhoods and communities in our thought process towards future development of the profession would be far more impactful than isolated cases of single family homes.

The AIA’s Architecture Billings Index shows the multi-family residential sector has the highest billing rate. The large cities are especially witnessing an upheaval of multi-family condominium or apartment buildings. California happens to be planning an entire new town next to the Salton Sea with construction slated to begin in the next three years. The developers claim that it will be one of the greenest developments with many job creation opportunities. Although the reviews are many-fold as to the absurdity of this project, it is neighborhood development nonetheless. A good or bad omen for architects? I’d let the environmental groups fight over that.

Another shameful trend is the absence of an architect in the design teams for residential projects. Due to lax laws in some States, many non-licensed professionals get away with doing major residential work and go unnoticed. Where the laws are lot more strictly abided, the law itself allows for small residential work to be done by non-licensed professionals. Some might say that this is all that is keeping some people afloat in the dire economic situation in which we find ourselves. But this trend is obviously affecting some licensed architects that have to compete with cheaper non-licensed inexperienced pseudo-architects. On top of it all, there are now a few software programs available to lay persons that let them design what they want and just hire a contractor to build it. People can now purchase home designs from a roadside stall. The need for an architect is vanishing. Is this technological advancement or ample availability of free design options for the good of our profession? What does the future hold?

As we look into how to adjust for the globalization, economic, technological, and legal trends questioning the role of an architect, we also need to dig deeper into that child within us that might have dreamt of designing his/her own home. Whether we are financially able to build our own home is a secondary issue. For the faintest of hearts and for all those suffering from the blues of economic challenges, I would suggest reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. An inspiring read about the challenges of master builders from the 12th century, it is an eye-opener for anyone who would think these are the tough times. Keep those childhood dreams alive for we might get to live in our dream homes someday.

New Girl in the City

Like others who came before me, I brought some dreams with my luggage when I came to America. With an exceptional experience at University of Michigan and a successful career at Las Vegas, those dreams came true. I still remember the day I had landed at Boston after a journey of over 24 hours from Punjab. I came from one paradise to another, but felt the differences immediately. Time flies… I’ve spent one third of my life in this country now! Punjab was my home growing up filled with pleasant memories. In just a few years, I’ve begun to feel a strange love for United States as my new home. What lies at the core of this love? My exciting job? My involvement with AIA and USGBC? My cute little house? Or my independence? What has this country and Las Vegas given me that I didn’t have in India?

The answer has been in front of me all along… I just didn’t realize it until recently.

I’ve had some great experiences in this land of opportunities. Getting the architecture license in India was a process, but it felt like an achievement here. Being able to teach LEED classes has been marvelous. Serving on the USGBC Nevada Board has been absolutely brilliant. And the few years I’ve been on the AIA Las Vegas board are an amazingly different story. But these are not the central reasons for my love for this place. When I look back at all of these milestones, I wonder if the joy of making a new home here would have been the same without the people along the way!

James Chaffers trained me, while Allen Shaffer is the one who first showed me the direction towards advancement of my green building ambitions. Garry Hoholic encouraged me to get involved with USGBC, while Lance Kirk helped make it happen. Windom Kimsey’s voice is still in my head when he first introduced me to Wade Simpson, “Watch this girl, she’ll be on the AIA board someday.” I knew then that I will prove him right. Mark Hobaica gave me the confidence to run for the President-Elect position, while Mike Del Gatto stood behind my efforts towards EPYAF. And the person who motivates me every single day is my husband, Jagan Singh. He is the most ambitious and intelligent man I’ve met and he inspires me everyday to do better. The names are endless, but their invaluable support is limitless.

When I had first come here, I had my goals straight. But now I know that the joy of achieving these goals is meaningful only when shared with others. Only now do I see that my strange love for this city is actually one with the attitude of the people and the encouragement they offer.

United States is as tough as it is beautiful. If we pause for a moment from running after our goals and think of what really matters, life will appear spectacular! I am living the life of all those who came to this country before me with big dreams and aspirations. I hope you’ll join me in reliving the moments you or your ancestors lived. Join me in living the American Dream!