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You Survived: Part 3: Operations, Management, Business Development, Practice: Turn off the auto-pilot and engage

Ideas and tips to foster a thriving practice in 2012.

By Michael S. Bernard, AIA, and Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA
March 13, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the third in an exclusive series of essentials to carry your firm through the recession, and on into a productive and successful future.


With the months of January and February behind us, 2012 is well underway. So let’s take a moment to look at the close of 2011: at the very same time that some firms enjoyed their best year ever, other firms have closed their doors or merged with other companies. Why have some survived and succeeded while others have withered away? Here is why:


Five things to consider to assure your firm’s survival and success in 2012:


·        Understand your value in the current market

o       Pay very close attention to what your clients come to you for. This is likely to be your highest valued service in today’s market. Sometimes what people see as our value is not what we like to do but what we are good at. Know which is which.

§         Different firms are known as the experts or the “go-to” people for different things. If you are out pitching services or projects out of synch with whom your community/market thinks you are, you are inhibiting your success.

§         Take a quick survey of the work you have done in recent years, through both good times and lean times, especially the work in which you have excelled. What was really profitable? If so, why was it profitable? What did you enjoy?

§         This does not mean you should abandon your “wish list” of services and the types of work you want to do. Rather be aware that it is a balance and you must include the things that allow you to keep the lights on.


·        Understand what clients need now and how you can help them move their projects forward

o       This understanding is linked to your own understanding of the value and relevance of your services.

§         We must constantly be mindful that we are in a service business. As such, how can we best meet our clients’ needs? If we are truly delivering value, they will be tightly connected to us.

§         Globally and specifically, what are our clients really struggling with? Can we work in a way that assures clients that we understand their needs in the present tense? Can we devise strategies or alliances that enable the client to move forward?

§         CHALLENGE: You have an unpredictable workflow. You are reluctant to hire permanent staff to take on projects. To compound the dilemma of whether or not to pull the staffing trigger, you occasionally receive inquiries for small renovation projects, mostly kitchens and bathrooms. The projects are fast and short, with modest budgets. The flow of inquiries is not predictable enough to warrant hiring new staff. POSSIBLE SOLUTION: Align your firm’s services with those of a skilled design-build general contractor/cabinetmaker who has the capability of producing a set of permit documents. By doing so, you may accomplish several goals: you take on work you might otherwise turn down; you improve the cash flow of the practice; and you remain in charge of your design vision. You’ve managed to grasp and respond to the present-tense needs of your prospective clients. You can temporarily defer the question of whether or not to hire additional staff until workflow stabilizes.


·        Recognize that your valuable network hides in plain sight

o       Analyze your network to discern opportunities and trends. Make the best connections you can and nurture your network consistently.

§         Any/All of us can benefit from regularly checking in with the folks we already know. If the thought of networking amongst a group of strangers makes you queasy, why not start by checking in with the people you really like, with whom you haven’t spoken in a while.

§         Often, your next project will come from one of these unexpected but already warm connections. Call the folks on your list: interior designers, real estate agents and brokers in your market sectors, graphic designers, builders, sub-consultants, former clients, friends. Organize contacts into these groups and prioritize the ones most likely to lead you to prospective projects. Beat the bushes!


·        Build or contribute to a peer network to share knowledge

o       You cannot do all of what must be done all by yourself anymore. This may mean high-level, principal-to-principal strategy-building or collaboration, or sharing staff, or some other approach entirely. How do we even out the workload?

o       Peer Networks pro-actively use social media effectively and frequently. For example, the Small Business Committee of the San Francisco chapter of the AIA maintains an on-line forum with nearly 100 members and has done so for nearly 10 years. Discussions and recommendations cover a wide range of issues relevant to local and regional practice: contracts; code interpretation; building products; project approval processes and strategies; awards programs; consultant advice; the value of social media - to name but a few topics. By adding a Drop-Box function, the group contributes to a General Conditions and specifications database. Such forums are easy to organize and maintain and often are free-of-charge. Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn, and other web-based resources are available for interactive knowledge sharing. Many knowledge groups already exist. Find them, join them, follow them, and contribute to them.


·        Think carefully about when to pull the trigger with respect to hiring staff

o       Diligently review the fees and schedules for each prospective project. Armed with this information, you will have a clearer idea of when to pull the trigger to hire full-time staff. This is purely a business decision and bears very directly on success. If you can’t figure it out, don’t be shy. Discuss your needs with a colleague. Seek the advice of a consultant. Don’t guess – develop a strategy.

o       The opportunity exists to re-populate your firm with new staff whose skill sets match the needs of your current client roster. To get the process started, gather data on the needs of your firm and the needs of the aggregate of your projects. Commit to a level of risk that allows you to hire.




Look in the mirror, but don’t become mesmerized by what you were prior to the downturn. Seize the opportunity to audit your current skill set, your adaptability to real-time market needs, your ability to track leads, and to attract new staff. This is not a one-time strategy, but is a process requiring refinement and adaptation to an ever-more competitive marketplace.


See also:


You Survived: Introduction: Your Firm Survived the Recession - Now Foster a Thriving a Practice.


You Survived: Part 1: Regaining Profitability - and Moving Ahead
Take control of the financial life of your business, uncover hidden revenue streams and new service offerings while charting a more stable course for the future.


You Survived: Part 2: Mapping the Path to your Next Project and a More Predictable Workload
It is essential to establish a specific, easy, and brief Go/No Go decision process, allowing you to quickly determine where to invest limited marketing resources.


About the authors:


Michael S. Bernard, AIA, Principal, Virtual Practice Consulting, serves as strategic adviser to design and construction firms. Since founding his consultancy in 2006, Michael has collaborated with firm owners to address the range of vital functions, including: development of revenue and growth models appropriate to the size of the firm; strategic business development and marketing; and mentoring of key staff to foster their development as effective project leaders. His clients also include landscape architects, interior designers, lighting designers and general contractors. Michael is adjunct professor in the Architecture Department at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. He recently completed his term as a Director on the Board of the AIA California Council, where he continues to act as Architect-Adviser to the Academy for Emerging Professionals.


Nancy Kleppel, Assoc. AIA, Principal, Nancy Kleppel Consulting, has pursued a career in architecture for more than 25 years. Beginning in the office of William Rawn Associates, she went on to a professional architectural education at Harvard University’s GSD and spent several years in practice. For the past 15 years Nancy has been directly engaged in the essential issues that drive firm growth and success, including marketing, business development, and firm organization and management. In 2003, she founded a consulting practice, providing integrated strategic marketing, business development, and communications services to a broad mix of clients in design, architecture, engineering, and the arts.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

David R. Tribble