If you are thinking about the dream that a lot of architects have – which is going out on your own and starting your own office – or maybe you’ve grown in your current position where you have new responsibilities, there are some skills you are going to need to develop if you want to hedge your chances at success. First and foremost is your ability to attract clients, not to mention, work that you actually want to do. Welcome to Episode 102: Business Development
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Today, we are discussing the concepts around business development, which is something that, with almost 99% certainty no architect was ever taught in school. It’s doubtful that it was even mentioned in any architecture school. Also, it is not really talked about during your early career or something that comes up in most conversations with typical architects. It may be a conversation among firm owners or upper-level management, but it is something that you will want to know if you are about to start your own form or if you already are operating one. So we invited our long-time friend, who has dedicated himself to improving the business aspects of small firms across the country, to join us in this conversation.
Mark R. LePage, AIA, NCARB is an architect based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the founder of EntreArchitect, the global community for small firm entrepreneur architects, and EntreArchitect.com, the online platform launched in 2012 to provide information, resources, and training for architect business owners and small firm leaders. Celebrating his 10th year hosting EntreArchitect Podcast, Mark has published more than 450 episodes and has contributed to the community through more than 3 million total downloads.
Mark is also the President and CEO of Gābl Media, Inc. a multimedia network that empowers global leaders in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. Gābl Media creates and distributes industry-leading podcast series, including EntreArchitect Podcast and eleven other AEC podcasts along with three video channels. The mission at Gābl Media is to create content that informs and entertains an audience dedicated to building a better world. To visit Mark’s digital community check out Gablmedia.com and also Entrearchitect.com
Defining Business Development for Architecture jump to 4:32
So before we start talking about business development, let’s settle on what business development actually is – and what it is not. Business development is NOT Marketing. Marketing is an aspect of business development, but not its entirety. Think of it this way – BD creates the target areas (or areas of focus and emphasis) and marketing makes sure the message is on point for that target audience. Marketing can and should change to meet the firm’s Business Development goals.
Forbes defines Business development as the following: Business Development is the creation of long-term value for an organization from customers, markets, and relationships.
Others define business development in the following ways …
Business development (BD) is essentially any activity or idea that aims to make a business better over time. This means making use of customers, implementing strategic partnerships, using your markets, and building your company’s reputation
Business development includes various activities and processes to build and implement growth opportunities to create a sustainable and profitable business.
This past example definition seems to be closest to our own definitions of Architectural Firm business development. While Andrew had a slightly different idea about it, both Bob and Mark agreed the key component was about getting work and getting your name in front of potential clients in the correct or desired market sector. There are a TON of articles on the internet about business development and what that means for generic industries or even more sales and product-type businesses. But as we all know, architecture is different. It is a service industry and therefore some of the standard notions may not work all that well. While some of these can be applied to business development in an architecture firm, they don’t all apply unilaterally.
Basic Strategies/Steps for Business Development
There are certain strategies, activities, and tasks that can be called Business Development. But the main steps that seem to resonate the most with a services firm like architecture or design seem to go something like the list we have laid out below. One thing we also all agreed on during this conversation was that while this list looks easy; and we make it sound easy in our discussion of the items, it is certainly not easy. One of the most difficult lessons to learn when working on business development is to accept the fact that it takes time. Lots of time. So do not expect to get instant results as soon as you complete the following steps. It just does not work that way. For almost every architect or firm, it just takes one lucky break to set that larger wheel in motion, but then you have to keep the strategies going. So, please keep that in mind …
1. DEFINE YOUR DESIRED CLIENT, PROJECT TYPE, or WORK jump to 14:32
One of the first tasks you need to tackle is to identify what you want to do. It sounds simple but really needs some thought and clarity. You might even try to work backward to find ideal clients or project types. But knowing the kind of work you want to pursue and the type of people that need services for that is crucial. One of the things about this process is that sometimes you have to say “yes” to almost everything to determine what that ideal situation looks like. If you have never had any clients, you cannot truly imagine the perfect one for you. So in the beginning you are really learning about the situation or types of work you desire.
Mark believes that this should also start with some financial planning to estimate your financial needs before you begin to pursue work. You need to know how much before you look for ways to fulfill that goal. Mark has always placed a strong emphasis on the financial aspect of practice. We agree that it could help in the process, but you also need to have some other “firm” goals established as well. Because this financial model looks different if you want to grow large, stay small, or have some other growth goal for your firm. Definitely keep the financials in mind when looking at determining your ideal client. Yet we all recognize that sometimes you have to take the work to pay the bills. So we cannot just avoid that idea altogether. The goal is to eventually work towards that ideal client and place most of your efforts on pursuing them.
Some things to consider when getting started … Can you name the targets that are key to your success? … Do you know/understand the core concerns or issues of your targets? … Do you have clear solutions or answers to these core concerns?
2. PRESENT AS KNOWLEDGEABLE for TARGET CLIENTS & FOCUS AREAS jump to 24:08
This one is always present these days when reading anything about business development, and that is because it’s almost always true. This idea involves building authority and influence by sharing and establishing your expertise on the target client’s subject matter. This can happen in multiple ways. You can express your knowledge by writing for publications, speaking at events, creating a blog, or of course on social media platforms. The critical point here is to set yourself up as the resident expert on the subject matter. At times, this can be a very specific area. This may be the place to establish your niche. You need to be a resource of knowledge and support for that target audience. Also, you can take the approach of being a resource for the trends in that target market. Being that resource that knows “what’s happening” and “what’s coming” can be invaluable. We all agree the key here is to be as honest and straightforward as you can and share your knowledge openly. This often involves “giving away” some of that knowledge to prove your expertise. This is most likely inevitable, but being genuine and helping others can go a long way. Another avenue here that we did not really discuss, but it’s that you can hire people as needed to increase your ability to provide that expertise.
3. CREATE AND CULTIVATE NETWORKS jump to 31:38
Networking is such a nebulous term. Yet it is also one of the foundations of business development. You have to grow and nurture your network constantly. That also includes many in the network that you may never get work directly from, but they can possibly refer you to another. We all know what networking is and that it can take some effort. The one thing that still seems to ring true as Mark points out is that old saying “People work with people they know, like, and trust.” The big takeaway here is that sometimes you never know exactly where a network connection can lead. Yet you cannot ever forget those that have helped you get to where you are so current and past clients are just as important to maintaining your network as reaching out to build new connections. For many firms, referrals are the number one method of new business. So you cannot forget those who for you have already completed services. Almost all business is grounded in relationships to some extent. So you have to make certain you are seeking, building, and maintaining all the crucial relationships possible to help your business succeed.
4. MARKET CORRECTLY jump to 39:15
It seems simple to say. YOU need to speak to the correct audience when you are marketing. This one refers back to the first point of determining your ideal client. In order to find them and retain them, you have to market to the places they are with the correct messages. Again here you need to maintain a high level of authenticity to help you succeed. Communicate with the proper audience to meet your goals. Establish your brand (whether personal or business) as one that is genuine and cares about that client or market. Also, this is where you can set yourself apart from the competition and create your advantage by highlighting your unique characteristics. This could be your purpose, promise, position, or personality; but you need to define why you are THE person or firm to work with for that potential client. Here is also where you need to ensure that you craft an architecture portfolio that matches your goals and speaks to that target. This is most likely your website, but there are some other possibilities. The main emphasis here is to ensure that all of the messaging works for your desired targets and puts you in a visible location. Lastly, marketing needs to be adaptive and flexible to change right along with your changing markets or firm goals. This may happen over time as the firm evolves or adapts to the economic conditions. This leads us right into our last point.
5. BE ABLE TO ADAPT jump to 48:44
It is almost inevitable that at some point you will need to adapt your targets. You may need to grow into new markets to secure financial stability or you need to meet the needs of a growing office. You may also hire someone who can place the firm in new markets with some level of expertise. Adaptation is part of the business. You need to be able to make those changes and manage to shift priorities, targets, goals, and possibly that ideal client to make the business successful. If the pandemic has proved one thing it’s that we all need to be flexible in our businesses. So you may have to seek new market opportunities by force or you may change your desired targets. As we discussed, in some instances, you may shift due to economic conditions only to discover that even once the economy recovers that you now have new goals and markets that fit better with your firm or at a minimum can help support you in your efforts to chase those ideal clients of the past. The one truth that we all agree upon is that adaptation is necessary for business growth and for the sustainability of any firm or business. Change is part of life and definitely part of business.
What’s the Rank jump to 61:19
This is still a new end-of-the-show segment for us and it seems to be working out for us and creating some bit of discussion around the responses. So to that end, we think this one will last for a while as a segment. This week we make a simple Top 3 Rank. This one is biased to the U.S. due to its nature, but I am certain these types of days are somewhat similar around the globe. So the question of ranking for this week is …
What are your Top 3 Holidays?
This one seemed to revolve around partly the memories we have of the specific holidays. Some were related to our childhood, our younger years, or related to our roles as parents. It was interesting that we shared some answers to this question. We actually only had two different answers of the possible six total. So you can see where we landed …
Bob’s Top 3 Holidays: #1=Thanksgiving #2=Christmas #3=4th of July
Andrew’s Top 3 Holidays: #1=Thanksgiving #2=4th of July / #3=St Patrick’s Day
It was actually hard for Bob to come up with three. He wanted to make Thanksgiving his number one through six. He enjoys the holiday that much! We agree it is also typically a very drama free holiday. Maybe because everyone is too full to argue. But it seems to be a more relaxed holiday with family. Andrew hangs onto St. Pat’s day mainly due to his enjoyment of people-watching. We also both loved the events of July 4th (U.S. Independence Day). The outdoor activities, the cooking, grilling, BBQ-ing, eating, and fireworks all add up to an outstanding day in the middle of the summer. We also both conceded that there are a few others that might be list-worthy. Andrew struggled with the inclusion of Halloween but admitted that as he has gotten older, the holiday has lost some luster. Bob agrees that it may be one on the list for some of our community. Andrew also noted that New Year’s Eve may also be one. But the inclusion of that holiday may be 50/50 based on memories of great NYE’s and bad NYE’s. So please let us know what your Top 3 holidays to celebrate are.
EP 102: Business Development
The concepts of Business Development hold different meanings to many within the AEC industry, but they can also be the most mysterious. While there is no perfect step-by-step system to create success, we hope this episode offered some insight into the possible considerations of this critical element to any architectural firm. This is a valuable discussion that needs to be had more often within our community and shared among all of us. (the notion of rising tides comes to mind here) While we may not have completely agreed on the meaning of business development, we all know it is an important element that takes some planning, dedication, and focus. The process is often slow to produce results in the beginning, but you cannot keep your firm alive without it. Hopefully, we provided some food for thought as you reevaluate or even start to plan your firm’s business development strategies.
We would like to once again thank Mark R. LePage for joining us in this discussion today. It was great to catch up and discuss this with our long-time friend.