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If I Could Talk to a Younger Me

burns@bqe.com'

I was recently asked the epistemological conundrum: “If you knew then what you know now, what would  you do differently?” In order to properly respond to this question without critically spraining my brain, I decided to turn it around and say: “If I could talk to a younger me, I would offer the following advice.”

Mind you, this can’t be one of those general advice deals. You know the kind where they make a pretty poster depicting a sunset hovering above witty quotes like “Set aside time to think deeply.” Or a picture of a clown taking a whipped cream-pie to the face with the caption “Have a sense of humor.”

Fortunately, for me the writer and you the reader, this question was asked in the context of business. So I am spared from having to think back on all those horrible teenage years, and you should be especially grateful for not having to read that sorry saga. Anyway, you’ve all been there and you know as well as I do that there is nothing to be gained from reflecting on that stupid thing you did in 11th grade.

But when it comes to the post-college life, where I am supposed to be an adult and smart enough to make well-reasoned decisions regarding the professional chapter of my life, this could actually be a fun and instructive exercise. So let’s get started.

I didn’t start my professional life until after graduate school. I received my Masters in Architecture degree at the ripe old age of 28 and had to decide where I would want to settle down. Should I stay in Boston where I attended grad school or move to Chicago where my doting sister and her husband lived? Since my ex-girlfriend was still living in Boston, I packed my bags and headed to Chicago. Here’s the advice I’d give to a younger me just starting out on that journey.

Stand Out

Sure, that’s easy to say but what do you have to do to get noticed? Firstly, my resume was black ink printed on glossy black paper. OK so this was back in the day when you really had to send a piece of paper and not a PDF. But there was no denying that reading black on black (holding the paper at an angle) made my resume memorable regardless of the content. It also didn’t hurt that my portfolio wasn’t just a documentation of projects I designed while in school; the creation of the portfolio was a project unto itself. This demonstrated that I valued my work. I took pride in what I did. So many other candidates simply photocopied their work and put it in a store-bought portfolio, you know, the kind with plastic sleeves for you to insert your artwork. Yawn. People need to remember you. You need to stand out. After looking at a dozen portfolios in a single day, each filled with interesting projects, how will they remember yours? In today’s world, this generally means building a website that represents you and—better yet—is one that people will share with others because it’s so damn good, funny, memorable and smart.

As an employer myself, I was often looking at work from young prospects seeking employment in my firm. Regardless of the nascent design skills, which were often academic and not really applicable in a real practice, I learned more about the candidate from how they treated their portfolio than what was contained within.

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Only Seek Employment at Places You Admire

Undoubtedly, the interviewer will ask where else you are looking for a job and if you provide them with names of firms that don’t meet their standard, forget about being considered. Don’t just send your resume out to anyone. Be selective. Have some self-respect, man.

My first job lasted seven years before I decided to start my own firm. It was with one of the largest and most renowned architectural firms in the world. I was merely one of about 1,500 employees in the Chicago office attempting to scramble the corporate ladder.

So far I’m two for two. First good decision was moving to a world-class city. No sense having a great job in a town where having fun after work means sneaking on to farmer Jack’s back forty to tip over a few sleeping heifers after dark. Secondly, working for a great company. Don’t get me wrong; it doesn’t have to be a huge company. It can even be a startup. But working for a company that knows what it’s doing and where it’s going; a place where you can find a mentor is essential to getting your career off to a good start. When you wake up in the morning, you should look forward to returning to work. The projects and people make the adventure worthwhile.

This leads me to my next point.

Get a Mentor

This is tricky since you can’t go up to someone you admire and say, “Hey, I really respect you. Will you be my mentor?” Okay, you can do this if you want to, but it might not really yield the results you want. The best thing is to get that person to identify you and take you under their wing: to mentor you.

Again we return to “Stand Out”. There’s a Japanese adage to the effect that you should be at work before your boss arrives and stay until after he leaves. This demonstrates your dedication to the company and perhaps even your love of the work. I made sure to always be the guy turning on the lights in the morning and turning them off at night. There’s one other benefit that I should point out. Working long hours means you save a lot of money since you don’t go clubbing with the gang after work. Of course, the downside is that you don’t go clubbing with the gang after work.

Do Great Work

I had a classmate in grad school that once complained to one of our studio professors regarding the way I was working on the assigned project. He was one of those “do as you’re told” students who spent his evenings polishing apples. Apparently, he didn’t like my methodology and complained. I was called into the office during this exchange and after I made my case, the prof responded to the disgruntled student that he didn’t care how weird I was as long as the project was done well. I took this as a signal that I can pursue anything I can dream up but to make sure that the work is top notch and speaks for itself. If you’re weird and your work is shabby, you’ll end up in the dustbin. If you’re weird and your work is excellent, it/you will get noticed. Do great work. Hey, you never know if you’ll die tomorrow. It would be a real shame if your swan song was off-key.

Story time. There was a young architect who sat across from me in the design studio of my first job. I had only been working for about 6 months when one morning a vase of flowers appeared on her desk. It was a birthday gift from her boyfriend (good lesson in itself). About a week later, the flowers had died and were thrown away. Sitting on her desk was this empty and sad glass vase. An empty vase is begging for attention. At lunch, I went to the Woolworth on State Street (yes, that’s how long ago this was). At that time, they had a small pet department and I purchased two goldfish that soon found their new home in that very same glass vase. It’s amazing how a couple of silly fish can make people stop by and chat. The next day I decided to make it “great” and went back to Woolworth to purchase a ten-gallon fish tank with all the fixings: colored stones, Diver Dan, an aerator and a plastic reef. And to top it off, I purchased 13 more fish (one of the goldfish didn’t survive). In total I had 14 fish in the tank with a sign on the glass reading, “Please Don’t Feed the Partners.” Yes, there were 14 partners in the firm.

The senior partner was represented by a mini freshwater shark. At that time there was a single black partner and he was represented by a little black fish. The single female partner was the goldfish and on and on. It didn’t take more than a day or two for each partner to hear about this tank and come down to meet their fish. Fortunately, they all took this in good humor. I was on a first name basis with all 14 partners within 6 months of joining the firm. The shark partner became my mentor. As they say in The Sopranos, I was a “made man.” Three for three.

I was given more exciting opportunities than I could ever have hoped for. I worked on interesting projects all over the world and even moved to London and Berlin for a few years.

Never Pass up an Opportunity to Change Your Life

With each offer, I jumped at the adventure. You broaden your horizons, meet new and interesting people, and expand your social and business network. If you are given an offer to travel—take it.

Fast-forward 6 years. One morning I woke up and realized that the firm had changed. Or was it I? Either way, I realized that the partners were not people I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. It was time to move on.

Start Your Own Company

This is scary. For me it was a family decision. Upon learning that my wife and I were expecting our first child, I realized that taking risks about one’s career would become more difficult. When you have parental responsibilities, you can’t just throw caution to the wind. Realizing that the firm I was with was no longer a place where I saw myself spending the rest of my career, I decided that there was no better time than the present to jump ship and open my own office.

So here is where the conversation morphs from advice to the individual to advice to the individual and the new firm.

There are countless books written on this topic, so I won’t even begin to touch on it. The first book I read and recommend you do as well was The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. It really helped prepare me for the journey.

Talk to Others Who Have Gone Before You

It’s amazing how generous people can be with their time and advice if you only ask. I was fortunate enough to know a number of other architects who had already left established firms to start their own, and I called them and asked for a lunch meeting. Each person was incredibly helpful in providing me with advice and even suggesting other people with whom I should meet. This was probably better than any book since it was with people I know and people who knew me.

Take a Partner

When I first decided to open my own office, I did it alone. It didn’t take me long to realize that there were essential skills which I was neither interested in nor excelled. It’s also lonely working alone; I enjoy the company of others and find a dialogue aids the design process. I ended up calling another young architect who had been working at a firm that did fantastic work. He had been there for nearly 9 years and was also probably ready for a change. I made the proposal at a lunch, and after he and his wife considered it for a week or two, we decided to create a partnership.

Get the Right Lawyer

While it’s hard to imagine spending money on an attorney when you’re hardly making any money, this is a great investment. Not all attorneys are equal and you really want one that understands your business. I was fortunate to have been given the name of a great lawyer who specialized in the field of architecture and construction. Our first meeting was free. He set up our LLC documents and gave us great advice since he had already seen countless firms start and fail, and watched partnerships dissolve. He was a great resource and teacher. Make sure all the paperwork is signed off because one day, you’ll need to use it.

Be Frugal

When starting a business, don’t whip out the credit card and start purchasing new furniture, computers, etc. There is no guaranteed paycheck and the owners are the last to get paid. We were fortunate to find a landlord willing to risk leasing a 600 sq.ft space to us. My partner and I did all the construction ourselves to save money and built our own furniture. Today, with Craigslist and so many other resources, there’s no excuse for overspending as you set up the office. Start making money before spending it.

Talk With Your Partner

Make this a weekly thing. You and your partner should sit down (perhaps at lunch) one day/week and just talk. This is a relationship, and one that doesn’t include conversation and mutual understanding is one that is doomed to failure. It’s fine if you don’t always agree, but you need to set a sacrosanct time each week to be together and not distracted by anyone or anything.

Be Selective in Everything

When starting a firm, this is especially difficult. But don’t take on clients that you don’t want to spend a few years with. It’s not easy to fire a client. Over the years I’ve had a gut feeling about certain clients, but thought the project was just too exciting to walk away from. I should have run when I had the opportunity. A good project requires a good client. You can’t have a good project with a bad client.

Hold a similar standard when selecting people to hire. There comes a time when you really need help with the work and it’s tempting to hire the first person that seems reasonable. But you’re about to invest time and money in this individual. Having them around for a long time should be expected. You don’t want someone around who is a drag to work with, constantly complaining, or any other peculiar problem that can make your going to work less desirable. It’s expensive to let people go and rehire others.

Don’t Hide Mistakes

As an architect, it is invariable that you will screw up something on a project. There are just too many things to expect them all to be done perfectly. In fact, under the advice of our attorney, our Owner-Architect contract included a 98% solution. It stipulated that we guaranteed to be 98% perfect. In other words, 2% of the project cost overruns were to be expected. For a $1 million dollar project, the first $20,000 of construction-related change orders were fully the responsibility of the owner. We never had a single client in our firm’s history that was able to pierce that clause. Of course, if you are grossly negligent, that’s a different story.

When you find that you’ve made an error, let the client know about it. They can often help with the solution. But trying to do a cover up will only make matters worse. Explain what the problem is, then discuss how you are planning to resolve it. Have a plan and let the client in on it.

There is also nothing to be gained by hiding information from your employees. In general, they will be grateful for your transparency.

Delegate

Sure, you probably can do it all – and better than anyone else but you need to learn to share your toys. If nothing else, this will give your staff something exciting to do. If you keep all the good stuff for yourself, you’re not playing nicely. Don’t micromanage. Let people make their own mistakes—just be there to help guide them out when the time comes. Your solution isn’t the only one. There’s enough time and space in the world to let others express themselves. Make them know how much you appreciate their work. Oh, and a good idea can come from anyone. Be open.

Prove Your Value

So many clients will attempt to negotiate your fees. Plan on this and become a good negotiator. One way is to be able to articulate the value you bring to their project—differentiate yourself and your firm from others and don’t apologize for expecting to be paid appropriately for that value. One of the best ways is through past clients providing referrals and testimonials. They are your greatest marketers, so treat them well. Check in on them at least annually and see how the project is holding up. Send small gifts when they allow you to bring prospective clients by to “kick the tires.”

Take Vacations

Leave the work at home. Pay attention to the family. ‘Nuff said.

I can go on and on, so I’ll just close with a few last thoughts:

  • Pay your bills on time
  • Make sure your clients pay their bills on time
  • Make your office an environment where people want to work. Make it better than their home, if possible
  • Have at least 4 months of cash on hand
  • Don’t hire the low-bidder
  • Be the peacemaker
  • Never point “the finger” at people you expect to work with in the future
  • Always be honest and ethical
  • Never demean your competition
  • Be neat, clean and organized. No one wants to hire or hang with a sloppy, dirty disorganized person
  • Do what you say. Keep a promise
  • Don’t keep junk food around. You’ll end up eating it and having regrets
  • Ride a bike to work

burns@bqe.com'
Steven Burns, FAIA

Steven Burns, FAIA, spent 14 years managing his firm Burns + Beyerl Architects. After creating ArchiOffice®, the smart office and project management solution for architectural firms, Steve brought his management expertise to BQE Software, where he is perfecting the business strategy and product development.

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