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Starting Your Own Firm (and Succeeding)

A veteran church-focused architect shares tips for starting your own firm and specializing in the project type(s) what you love.

By Jerry L. Halcomb, FAIA   •  April 21, 2016 2:33 pm EDT

Tags: architectural design, business, collaboration, faith-base design, networking,

One of the best things I ever did was to “start my own architectural practice.” Now after 41 years as president and CEO of my firm and about four years of consulting with faith-based organizations, looking back I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again. It was exciting, sometimes frightening—so much fun!

Background experience is important: I came to Dallas in 1965 from Oklahoma State University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in architecture. Quickly realizing I had much to learn, I chose a large firm (George Dahl Architects) known for “teaching” young interns. After a year, I joined Harwood K. Smith Architects (HKS), a 50-person firm, and became a licensed architect. After three years in their design studio, I joined Jarvis Putty Jarvis (JPJ) to get balanced experience of design and production.

Start young with time to build a client base: After three enjoyable years, a fellow employee and I had a desire to start our own firm. Even though it is possible to work your way up in a firm and eventually become a principal or owner, we chose to borrow $8,000 (a lot of money for us), rent an 800-square-foot lease space and “set up shop” with no clients, prospects or furniture. God surely was in it, and a general contractor gave us furniture and two small “design/build” projects, a church and a hospital-remodeling project that gave us time to consider what type of projects we wanted to pursue.

JPJ had concentrated in school and city work, so we began to pursue those markets. Quickly we learned how hard it was to get school projects, so we then pursued municipal projects, starting with parks and recreation projects, from park toilets, footbridges, pavilions, tennis centers, recreation centers, and swimming pools to libraries, fire stations, and city center projects.

Our firm’s first major church project was for First Baptist Dallas, one of the largest churches in Dallas located in the heart of downtown. Our project was to remodel/update a building and also find more usable space in the “totally maxed-out” 1920s, seven-story educational building. This was a turning point in our practice—when we determined there was a major need for good master planning and design for churches.

Specialize in a market type you enjoy and are passionate about: It is said, “Work on projects you enjoy and you will never work a day in your life.” If you do specialize in a particular type of work, in most cases, your firm will have more experience in that type of project, and your firm’s name will quickly come into the client’s mind, and you can demonstrate your experience better than most others. After seeing the need for good church master planning, I also realized this was my passion.

Don’t go it alone: Even though you could start a firm by yourself, it is good to have someone [so you can] bounce ideas off each other and have support; and when you get sick, it is better to have a partner. As soon as possible, get a good feel for what your strengths are, whether design or technical, remembering that firms require each of these strengths. Also, every firm must have a rainmaker—[someone] who can locate projects and know how to close the deal.

Keep control: I would recommend you always have a minimum of 51% ownership to ensure that the firm doesn’t make decisions you wouldn’t agree with. Also, be sure to have a comprehensive “buy/sell” agreement.

Always think excellence: Educate your clients and market your experience and the value you bring to the table, noting that the value of experience with the project type can avoid mistakes that others may make not having this particular experience. Give the client what he needs and always be fair.

Think relationships: Get out in the community with opportunities in volunteer work, church involvement, Boy Scouts, Rotary, as well as being active in professional organizations such as AIA and CSI. Brand your firm and network, building relationships in lieu of projects; stay in touch with your contacts; speak as an expert whenever possible (like WFX), etc. Remember that loyalty is hard to find these days; but with a specialty, it will help counter the “go with the lowest price” selection. Have a system of tracking your leads, and work hard to follow up on those leads. Don’t take no for an answer. Be persistent and don’t give up.

Hire the best staff and consultants: Hire employees that are better than you —the best at what they do in each area and reward them accordingly. Keep salaries low and see how you do each year and then use a bonus, as you are able. Invoice regularly and contact the client if they pay late or aren’t paying. Track the costs of producing projects to help in setting your fees. Build relationships with your attorney, accountant, liability insurance agent, material reps/venders, and consultants.

Work hard and do whatever it takes: Strike a balance between work and family. Keep a positive mental attitude about your work and life in general. One of my professors in college always told us, “It’s not all babes and sports cars.” Be enthusiastic. Think “long term.” Have fun!

Proverbs 3: 5 & 6 tells us: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.”

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