“‘If you Build it, They will Come’ – This is a Passive and Risky Road to Success”, In Conversation with Business of Architecture Founder Enoch Sears

Despite the emergence of collective and interdisciplinary practices, architectural entrepreneurship remains a vague discipline. As academic institutes focus on cultivating students’ hard skills during their undergraduate years, their soft skills are often overlooked, left to be acquired or strengthened during their work experience. Stepping into the “real world”, fresh graduates who decide to venture into their professional journey as freelancers or in start-ups, often find themselves overwhelmed with questions; ‘How do I convince the client? Am I communicating my concept properly to the contractors? Am I charging the client enough? Why is the project not being executed like I designed it? Why is this project taking a lot more time than I intended it to? How can I run a successful business if I’ve never taken a business course in architecture school?’

Novita Communications NYC HQ designed by the Turett Collaborative. Image © Eric Laignel© Garrett Rowland and Amy YoungCourtesy of Business of ArchitectureRefurbishment Oñati Campus / nimba studio + KREAN. Image © Biderbost_photo+ 7

In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Enoch Bartlett Sears, Founder of Business of Architecture, explains how he developed the SMART PRACTICE™ Method, the do’s and don’ts of architectural entrepreneurship, and how architects can structure their firm to power their creative success.

Dima Stouhi: What is the Business of Architecture and how did you come up with it?

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Enoch Sears: I may be architecture’s biggest failure. Eight years ago I had an architecture firm. It was a constant headache and balancing act between putting out fires and being the best architect I could be. The firm lasted less than a year before I decided to shut it down. It was discouraging – I went to a great architect school, served my time working at several great firms, but none of that prepared me to have success as a firm owner. About this time I started the Business of Architecture podcast to interview successful firm owners to discover what I did wrong.

I consulted EVERYBODY that I knew who was successful at running a firm and read everything available on the subject of running a successful practice and then added my own personal experiences to develop what is now the SMART Practice Method, a framework which we teach new and experienced firm owners at Business of Architecture. I didn’t know then what I did wrong – but I do know now, and I’ve made it my life’s work to help other firm owners avoid the same trap.

Courtesy of Business of Architecture
Courtesy of Business of Architecture

DS: Tell us a bit more about the SMART Practice Method program.

ES: Running a successful architecture firm today is harder than ever. Many firm owners face the following challenges:   

  • They spend 80% of their time doing admin work instead of design. It’s frustrating when the running of the business gets in the way of enjoying the practice of architecture.
  • They’re spread thin working on many small projects instead of larger, long-term projects that provide greater sustainability and consistency.
  • They’re under-utilized – it’s frustrating to have the capability to do larger or different projects, but being stuck doing small projects.
  • And let’s not forget fees – caught between a rock and a hard place – barely managing with the fees they get, but afraid that if they raise their fees, they’ll lose the project.
  • They want to deliver a high quality service, but struggle to find clients who want this level of this service, so they overdeliver and put in more work and effort than they are being paid for.
  • As a result, cash and project flow is inconsistent, causing additional stress and anxiety.

DS: As per your description, T he SMART Practice Method is a framework for building a practice and a life around the 3 F’s – Fulfillment, Freedom and Finances. Can you elaborate more on these three keywords?

ES: We define “fulfillment” as having a business that allows you to do the work that aligns with your ethos. In other words, you get great satisfaction and feel luck to work on the projects you’re working on. We define “freedom” in this context as the power to chart one’s own destiny, whether that is what kind of projects and clients you take on, how often you take vacation, or your personal schedule. The last “F” is “Finances” – we believe that every architect and design profession can (and should) be handsomely rewarded for their creative effort.

 We’re on a mission to end architectural poverty.

Courtesy of Business of Architecture
Courtesy of Business of Architecture

DS: What is a “solid business foundation”?

ES: The SMART Practice Method is made of 3 primary pillars of practice: people, process and psychology. If you’re missing one of these pillars you may struggle unnecessarily. For a free firm owner video training on how to structure a firm with a solid business foundation, go to SmartPracticeMethod.com.

DS: At what stage should “gaining plenty of profit” become a priority for the architect?

ES: I have yet to meet an architect whose main goal is “gaining plenty of profit.” Let’s face it, we didn’t go into architecture because we wanted to be reach. We went into architecture because we value doing interesting and fulfilling work over money. However, many architects discover that not having money is a detriment to success. We believe that architects should be handsomely rewarded for their creative effort from the moment they hang out their shingle. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Many architects are willing to prostitute out their services (trying to get their fees as low as possible) to try and win the job. This is a destructive business practice that harms the entire industry. This must stop.

DS: How important is design thinking in entrepreneurship today? Since architects are taught design thinking early on, do you think that this gives them an upper hand in entrepreneurship?

ES: Our schools do a great job of teaching design thinking. But they do a terrible job of teaching architects how to run and manage a successful business. If design thinking isn’t paired with sound financial acumen, it will fail.

Novita Communications NYC HQ designed by the Turett Collaborative. Image © Eric Laignel
Novita Communications NYC HQ designed by the Turett Collaborative. Image © Eric Laignel

DS: What are the biggest business mistakes that fresh graduates make?

ES: My advice to young graduates is that there are no mistakes. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible. Be willing to take risks. Explore different paths. Who knows? Perhaps by fifty you may discover your purpose and calling. Take the risk before you have a mortgage, family and other obligations!

DS: What are some of the mistakes that well established architects make?

ES: Most architecture firm owners’ struggles can be boiled down to the belief that “if you build it, they will come.” This is a passive and risky road to success. It is risky because if you sit idly waiting (hoping) to be discovered, you may be waiting for a long time indeed. Additionally, many design-focused firms who do get “discovered” still struggle with financial success behind the scenes.

DS: What is one thing you wish you knew when you were an architecture student?

ES: One thing I wish I knew when I was an architecture student was that every architecture school has a different ethos – and you should find a school that is a fit for you. I graduated from Cornell University which is a fantastic institution with top level professors and resources. The curriculum is very heavy on theory and to me seemed focused on turning out the next Rem Koolhaus or Richard Meier (both of whom attended Cornell at one time). Personally, I might have done better at a program like the Rural Studio by Sam Mockbee. Understand your personality and values, and find a school that matches it. There is something out there for everyone.

© Garrett Rowland and Amy Young
© Garrett Rowland and Amy Young

DS: Do you think business courses should be given to architecture students?

ES: Architecture students generally aren’t interested in business, otherwise they would have gone to business school. Subjecting architecture students to business courses sounds like a cruel form of torture. I used my professional practice course as design sketching or nap time. Instead of teaching business courses, I think schools should teach architecture students that if they want to succeed in design and run their own firm, they must master the game of business whether they like it or not. This needs to happen after a professional education – there are too many intricacies to business that cannot be taught out of a textbook.

DS: When is the right time to start learning about the business of architecture?

ES: It depends on when you want to start earning good money or getting better projects!

DS: When is the right time to start a private business?

ES: It is never the right time to start a business, just like it is never the right time to exercise. You just have to jump in the water and do it! If you keep waiting for the perfect time, it might never happen, or you will lose valuable time.

DS: I know this is a very broad question, but what does it take to run a successful architecture business?

ES: The path to running a successful architecture practice is simple – have a steady flow of high-quality, high-paying projects, and deliver them to happy clients.

Refurbishment Oñati Campus / nimba studio + KREAN. Image © Biderbost_photo
Refurbishment Oñati Campus / nimba studio + KREAN. Image © Biderbost_photo

DS: What is considered a “big win” in architecture?

ES: A ‘big win’ in architecture is different for everyone. For me and the team at Business of Architecture, it is seeing the smiling face of a firm owner who has freedom, fulfillment and exceptional financial reward instead of struggle, overwhelm and underwhelming finances.

Enoch Bartlett Sears is the Founder of Business of Architecture, home of the SMART Practice Method™. He is also the author of two books, The Architect’s Marketing Field Guide, and Social Media for Architects.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Collective Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.