When growing your small practice can become lopsided

Is this a practice or do you mean business?

Is this just a practice or do you mean business?

I’m always interested to see how architectural and design firms describe themselves on their website. Whether it is a studio, a collective, a practice or a business – each has different implied values and benefits (or explicit ones if you pay attention to Nikita Morell’s great advice on website copywriting), to attract their ‘ideal clients’ and projects.

Whether you are an emerging small firm or a veteran owner, you need to address two key questions.

Firstly, are you creating a business or simply a job for yourself? If you just want a job, stop taking the commercial risks of failure, and go to work for someone else whose running a business.

The second key question is, if you are creating a business, would you seek help to simplify and improve your business or do you feel that no-one else could really understand your practice.

Is yours just a practice or do you mean business?

A “practice” is a commercial establishment that delivers a service based on the professional expertise of the principal or partners of the firm. While a practice can employ others, they work in a supportive role and do not perform the services offered by the principal, which can become a primary block to successful growth.

In the book ‘The Thought Leaders Practice’, author Matt Church states, “A successful business can operate separately from its founder or owner and, if it’s set up right, can be sold. It is essentially about leveraging something other than the owner to make money.” This leverage might be technology, staff’s time and skills. With the right systems in place, a business can endure, with roles and responsibilities for each of the business’s fundamental functions (if you are Hands Solo, then it’s your name on each role, until you grow and delegate).

One is open-ended and can scale, the other may be self-limiting, depending on your mindset. Is yours just a practice or do you mean business?

Don’t confuse creativity with a mindset, they are different but not mutually exclusive.

You (should) apply design thinking to optimise your creativity on projects, yet the same processes and rigour are not applied to how the practice is managed, and your mindset is critical to addressing it.

fixed mindset, proposed by Stanford professor Carol Dweck in her book ‘Mindset’, describes people who feel talent is enough to lead to success, and effort to improve these talents isn’t required, they are either good or bad at something based on their inherent nature. 

If you have a fixed mindset, the rest of this article is pointless for you.

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset, where they believe their skills and intelligence can be improved with effort and persistence. They embrace challenges, persist through obstacles, learn from criticism (and falls), and seek out inspiration in others’ success. Working on one’s flaws, where the process—not the outcome—are the most important components because you can always create work-arounds with problem solving, but it doesn’t address the cause which maybe recurring.

People with a growth mindset may also be capable of extending themselves into an agile mindset, responding to change in uncertain and turbulent environments. It’s about thinking through how you can understand what’s going on in your environment, identify what uncertainty you’re facing and figure out how to adapt as you go along.

In a practice, the focus is on your current project and you invest the time necessary to deliver the best possible service – and that makes it much harder to scale up. Many with a small practice are happy not to scale up. They get by on referrals and their finite personal network, but they are exposed to the risk of a glitch if the referrals slow or stop.

Small firms can be graphed on two axes – size and maturity.

Based on size, management demands and approach can be loosely categorise as follows;

Hands Solo – 1 (or 2) principals doing it all themselves with limited access to support, so they tend to be very idiosyncratic and ‘hands-on’ doing everything the way they want to. They are their brand which they rely on for dependence on referrals.

Movers – 2-5 people, on the move with 1 (or 2) principals and 1 or more support staff, often with more junior roles, who are required to come to grips with the idiosyncratic operations and find their place to fit in. Organic development of processes is ad hoc and lacks integration which can be come chaotic and overwhelming.

Shakers: 6 – 10 people, moved on and shaking things up with one or more directors/principals with senior staff and shared support teams with more clearly defined.

Rock’n’Rollers: 11 – 20+ pax, now on a roll with one or more directors/principals responsible for increased management responsibilities, reduced project work, and more diversified projects supported by individuals and teams with more defined roles and responsibilities.

The next step up to medium and large firms, exist because they have addressed these management demands.

The second axis of the graph is maturity.

If taken literally, it can be the number of years they have been practicing as an architect/designer. But it also needs to incorporate their willingness to embrace their evolution and transitioning to their next level. It’s about their mindset, which will permeate through their approach to every activity, working both in and on the business.

Where most small practices stagnate (and where Bryon McCartney believes small practices most often plateau ) is when a practice needs to become a business. I don’t mean in the sense of a legal entity (a company can have one director and no other employees, from its establishment to its closure), I mean when the principals realise they should be paid what they’d have to pay someone else to do their job, with all its responsibilities and liabilities and then –  make a respectable profit on top of that.

Our purpose is to simplify and improve the ON-business fundamentals of small architectural and design firms, to make them more successful and resilient.

So you can step-up to Your Next Level and transform their striving practice into a thriving business.


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