How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Architects are not known to be good businessmen.  In fact, designers primarily differentiate themselves because they use a creative side of the brain, far from the analytic processes that coincide with business acumen.  But when I decided to start my own business, I kept it extremely simple and followed a few basic principles.

Most of these principles were developed through doing business with other people.  Every bad experience, every bad website, and every bad personal interaction that I had with a local business went into my effort to right that wrong.  I was appalled at how difficult it was to get something done in Rochester at times.  I wanted to shake a person by their collar and say, "I WOULD LIKE TO PAY YOU, PLEASE DO SOMETHING FOR ME AND I WILL GIVE YOU MONEY!"  

So the following are tidbits, insights, and advice for anyone who may consider starting a business but think that they don't know enough about business to make it happen.  I argue that you have plenty of "experience" in business, and you just need to discover how to leverage that into your job.

[NOTE: this is very much geared toward service industries.  Architecture is a service industry, we get paid for a service.  I am also in a creative field, so this may translate to other design disciplines, but likely will not be an easy logical leap to boutique habidashery or auto repair...but I think it is all related.]


If you tell someone that you are going to do something for them (be it a drawing, or a proposal, or an email), do it.  Don't make excuses, just do it.  When you make a promise, you start a hidden clock in the other person's head.  And the longer that clock ticks, the louder it gets.  This tell-tale heart will keep pounding until that person gets frustrated to the point of contacting you and saying, "hey, what gives?" or more forcefully, "WTF?"

Part of the delivery is making sure that you can in fact deliver on the promise that you make.  Don't promise more than you can accomplish.  This is a difficult balance when you are just starting out because you want to please everyone and you don't want to deliver bad news.  But people appreciate honesty.  They appreciate it MUCH more than they appreciate being disappointed.  


By and large, people value time and money; however, they rarely value them each equally.  If you can discern which your potential client or actual client values more, then you can structure a fee more accurately.  If they were extremely disappointed with a previous consultant and they need you to save the day--yesterday--go above and beyond to get it done quickly, but charge a fee that is commensurate with that extra effort.  They will feel well taken care of and think, "I wish I had just contact this person in the first place."  

If a client is not looking to spend a lot of money, or has most of their money tied up into another part of a project, offer a reasonable rate but be clear that it may take longer.  This is because you will have to massage that work in and around existing work.  Your project is not the highest priority.  That client will be appreciative that they have paid a fair value (of what they can afford) and get a high quality product.  It may just take a little longer than average.  You CANNOT have time, quality, and cost all together.  You can have two of the three, one always has to slip.


Being generous is a state of mind.  You can be generous and offer to do something for free, or you can be generous and deliver over and above what you had promised.  But the minute that you point out your generosity to a person--in a super passive-aggressive way so as to make them feel that they owe you something in return--you have lost the meaning.  Part of generosity is that it is given freely.  It is not because you expect something in return, or that you want the person to be appreciative.

I will never forget an experience I had on my study abroad in Scotland.  In my first few weeks there, I went into a shop to buy some pizza for dinner.  I ordered a small pizza, the shop owner told me it would take 15 minutes.  I patiently waited and looked at other items.  When he came out he was holding a large pizza.  I told him that I had only ordered a small.  He had two choices: 1) he could have asked me to pay for a large pizza since that is what he made, or 2) give me the large pizza and charge me for the small because that is what I said.  He never asked me, "are you sure?" or "well I made a large, so..." 

He gave me the pizza, and charged me for a small.  And as a result, I went back to that shop several times a week to buy food.  If he had made a stink out of it, I would have probably shopped elsewhere.  


Architecture, and the design/artistic professions, need to value themselves higher.  We have a collective uphill battle.  We are not lawyers or doctors (even though we are also licensed professionals).  Most people wouldn't be surprised that a lawyer would charge them upwards of $150 / hour just to have a phone conversation and give advice.  But if an architect were to do that same thing?  They would be laughed off the phone.  In our profession, it is not just the product that is valuable, but the process...and more importantly the time invested in that process.  Too often architecture is commoditized into the product that is delivered.  In reality it is the design process that you are paying for, a systematic process of testing, brainstorming, revising, and editing that produces a more intentional outcome. 

If you just give it away for free, you are reinforcing the concept that it has little value.  There is a fine line here, I often work pro bono for clients who cannot afford to pay, but that is because I believe in the community benefit of performing that work.  That is my choice, and I am clear up front that it is a special circumstance.  The same is true of pro bono lawyers, or doctors in the public health field.  That doesn't diminish their value the same way promising free work does.


This is another tough one for people to understand.  In Minnesota, Rochester in particular, I have never experienced so many times the business that charges more than they initially promised, without ever informing me that it was coming.  In the construction industry, a significant portion of the business is done based on a proposal or bid.  That bid is your honor.  And if you make a mistake on that bid, well that is something you have to absorb.  But not hear as much.  People have no problem asking for more money for stuff they forgot.  Or they are quick to point out that small changes will require additional money.  

I decided when I started the business that I was not going to nickel and dime clients.  If they up and decided to change things mid-stream and throw out existing work, that is different.  But if they had a few additional requests, or if they needed one more option to test an idea, I was more than happy to accommodate them.  To me I was going above and beyond, and people appreciate that.  Maybe I didn't make as much money because I wasted more time.  Oh well.  What I also did is make someone very happy to the point that they felt they got value out of the transaction...this in turn makes them more apt to use me again, or refer a friend, or tout their pleasant experience.  On balance, it makes for more business.  Don't let a dime hold up a dollar.


My final principle, which could easily be the first, is just be nice.  If I had a dollar for every gruff gentleman I got on the phone asking if they could do something for me...or someone who talked down to me because I wasn't worth their time...

When you answer the phone, be nice.  When you see a client on the street, be nice.  Send a thank you note, or a card at Christmas time.  Send a letter to express your gratitude.  People in this on-demand world have myriad choices to do business with people.  THEY WORKED WITH YOU, AND YOU SHOULD BE APPRECIATIVE.  

You don't want to be the "mechanic."  By that I mean the mechanic is the prototypical bad situation.  You can feel stupid, or disrespected, or that you are being taken advantage of.  Nobody likes that feeling.  So I try to never make a client or potential client feel that way.  Maybe I go and visit their building or house and we talk for an hour and I actually recommend that they talk to someone else or don't hire me.  That is being nice, and thoughtful, and generous.  Are you sensing a theme here.

I don't have it all figured out, and I am far from perfect.  But I have made some people happy because I stand firmly on these principles (and a few others).  We live in a society, and we are all trying to put food on the table and live happy lives.  Don't let work, or business, or money be the plague that diminishes that goal.  Business is really not that hard, if you try to be a good person first.