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Architects and Accountants, an Interview with Mark R. LePage, AIA

Feb 4, 2015 | By Seth David | 0 Comments

Topics: Industry Insights, Architects, Bookkeepers, Accountants, Interviews

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark R. LePage, AIA and I wanted to summarize the conversation here in our blog. The questions and the answers are summarized and very much paraphrased based on what Mark said during the interview. Of course I encourage you to watch the interview as I believe you will learn as I did, a ton about building and growing ANY business.

Who are you, what do you do, and whom do you do it for?

I am an Architect and my firm is called Fivecat Studio Architecture. I work with my wife and we serve residential clients. We work on major renovations, additions, and alterations.

I am also the founder of Entrepreneur Architect – www.entrearchitect.com – The goal here is to help architects to build better businesses.

What do architects really need from their accountants? Do they need accountants who specialize in architects?

I don’t think so. Small business is small business. If you deal with small business you will be able to handle architects. They are artists, which means they need help with the numbers side of things. You’re dealing with people who are looking for your services because they don’t want to deal with it. Many architects don’t see the value in what a consultant will bring them because they’re struggling to make ends meet. This is the challenge you have to overcome.

The nature of the architect business model is that it’s very detailed in terms of the numbers so they really do need help with the numbers. Would you agree?

Yes. Absolutely.

Branding – how did you come up with the name “Five Cat?”

My wife, Ann Marie helps homeless cats and dogs – training to get them to be more adoptable. We have 5 cats, 2 dogs, guinea pigs, and three kids somewhere running around as well.

In order to shine a light on our mission of helping animals get adopted we named the firm after our mission. That’s the “Ann Marie” side of things.

We also wanted to build a “brand.” We didn’t want it to be McCarthy LePage Architects. We want to be able to pass this along to someone else.

Have you found that branding yourself in this manner has helped you build your business?

The name doesn’t tell you “architecture” but it’s memorable. If it was McCarthy LePage architects it would not be as memorable.

Entrepreneur Architect is about teaching architects about this very kind of thing correct?

Yes.

What other tips might you have for someone who is starting out in their career?

Don’t grow too fast. We started in our basement. When we moved out we took on too much space. We spent a lot of money on rent that we didn’t need to spend on rent.

In Nov of 2013 we moved back from a 2,000 Sq Ft. studio and now we work remotely. Our staff works from their own studios. All Independent contractors. This allows us to be flexible.

Don’t go into debt. When the economy turned we decided we were not going to fire anybody. We racked up close to $100,000 in debt. When we moved back home we got this paid off.

Don’t spend what you don’t have. Start a savings account and pay yourself so you can use those funds to pay for things that you might otherwise use a credit card for.

We literally cut up our credit cards. We no longer have a line of credit and we will never have another line of credit.

If you can afford the financing you can afford to save for it first and then buy it later. There’s nothing that you need so quickly and so immediately that you can’t save for it and buy it later.

10 Ways Architects Can Make More Money

http://www.entrearchitect.com/2012/12/16/10-ways-architects-can-make-more-money/

What are some of the unique challenges that architects face and where can they go for support?

From a business point of view I am not sure they’re so unique? I think they think they are unique more so than they actually are. I took a business course and every week they talked about another fundamental of business. That was the inspiration for Entrepreneur Architect. It confirmed much of what we did know as well as teach us new things.

Then we hit sales. We weren’t selling. Architects are notorious for being afraid to sell. We were one of the first in our region to have a website. I was putting out a lot of proposals, but we weren’t selling. We had no sales system. Essentially it amounted to follow ups. When we started following up we started selling. We started growing again very quickly.

Suggestions for learning resources:

  • Architects should take a business course of some kind at a local community college.
  • Entrepreneur Architect Academy. Each week we meet with about 20 architects (40 members) and we talk business. We also have a Facebook group (Entrepreneur Architect) https://www.facebook.com/EntreArchitect
  • Enoch Sears – The Business of Architecture

Where was the greatest need that lead you to start Entrepreneur Architect?

It started as a personal blog. I enjoy business, I like “the game of business.” Eventually people suggested that I turn it into something more like a magazine. On 12/12/12 I launched the podcast and re-launched the blog and made it a formal Entrepreneur Architect enterprise. That was my commitment to the architecture world that as small firms we were going to become more influential and more respected and we would be happy because we would be more successful.

That’s my mission – to teach small firm architects how to be better business people so they can be happier.

I learn and retain best by teaching others. What are some of the most significant things that stand out in your mind that you have learned as a result of teaching and helping others?

Everything. I don’t profess to know everything and I still have a lot to learn. Everything that I explore is research that I am doing in order to teach someone else. When you need to teach it to someone you need to know what you’re doing. By doing that, you learn better and you inspire others to do that. This is my calling. I get excited about it. I love helping people to get from here to there. When someone asks me for help I get excited about helping them. Even when someone would ask for directions (before there was Apple Maps) I would get excited about helping them get from here to there.

The same thing happens when I create a blog post. When I get feedback like “what a great blog post..” it inspired me to do …

Bob Borson at www.lifeofanarchitect.com has organized a group of bloggers – architalk series. Check the #Architalks hashtag on Twitter. A group of architects post on the same subject on the same day. The last one was “Favorite Things.” I talked about hugging my wife. That blog post has lit up so many architects to be inspired and I really enjoy it. I really love doing what I am doing.

I have made so many true friends online that I would drop anything to go help them with something.

The new Entrepreneur Architect Facebook group which is different than the page. My intention here is to just have a place where we can hang out and be friends. We do that on Twitter already. There is no hashtag, we use lists. #Architalks is a hashtag that many of the core people in the twitter group use.

Seize The Moments

http://www.entrearchitect.com/2015/02/02/seize-the-moments/

In terms of training and teaching people on the job I always felt that the best manager was a teacher and not a manager at all. Tell me more about this blog post.

There are times that you can capture when a newer employee comes and asks for help. In these moments you have a choice. You can throw the answer at them and send them on their way, or you can seize the moment and use this as a learning opportunity for both of you.

This post talks about creating a system where you have a conscious, intentional reaction to these situations when someone asks for help learning on the job.

You also create a culture within the business by doing that. The person who asked for help now knows that this is how the firm works. They will in turn do likewise with others when they move up and someone comes to them. Then you retain loyal employees because they love working and learning in the environment you have created.

Project Management – How do you manage your projects?

Originally I worked for a firm where they had rows of files and flat files for drawings. When you needed information you would get up and walk over to the file cabinet and get what you needed. Or you have to go through the files that were already on your desk.

When I started my own company before all of the current technology was available I created a system of binders. One for us and a parallel one for the client. The clients loved it because I handed them an “organizer.” This was a great marketing tool.

My goal now is to go paperless. I am in the process of scanning all of my files into Evernote. We’re taking the binders and moving that process into Evernote. I am working on developing something that can still “wow” the clients when I show them our system. It may be showing them something on an iPad that demonstrates how we’re doing it.

We’re also working in Drop Box to keep files organized.

We’re scanning everything with text recognition to keep it searchable. We’re also using an app called Nozbe www.Nozbe.com for task and project management. I’m all Mac here so it integrates with iCal which is great.

Let’s say I’m an accountant and I would like to build a portfolio of Architect clients. What do architects most need from an accountant or bookkeeper?

I would say it’s difficult. Architects are difficult to sway. In today’s world probably the best way to connect with these people is online. Make that connection and then when they have the need, they will look to work with people who they know, like and trust. You can do this with a local networking group and you can do it online. The benefit now is that you can work with anyone anywhere, although you might need to know some state specific things, you can still work with most anyone anywhere.

Make the connections online and make real connections.

Not sales calls, no pitches. Just connect and the rest will fall in line.

What about helping the architect get the right financial intelligence out of their system?

I think that is critical. If architects do have that information and more importantly if they understand it, then they can make better decisions. They might actually pass on projects that don’t fit financially – even though it looks like a great project. You’re committing to a year or two’s worth of time and if you don’t make any money on it, it’s “… kind of useless.”

Let’s flip over to the other side of that camp. How does an architect find THEIR first client?

Either through their current job where they’ve built relationships with clients. Or from building a network.

Is it necessary for architects to get experience first or can they start their own firm right away?

For starters it’s required to get some experience before you can go out on your own. It’s changing now such that you can get some of that experience before you graduate.

Even with that, there is a period in our lives that is critical to our success – to be an apprentice. To learn what people do and don’t do well. When I launched Five Cat (I graduated in ’93) I had worked at a small architectural firm, and then I worked for a very large one. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur but I wanted to learn from all of these experiences. I would recommend that young architects do the same thing.

Then launch your own form when you’re ready.

How can architects make more money?

The idea is to encourage architects to think beyond the basic services they are offering. You can manage the construction. This can double your fee on a project by offering something you can easily do.

  • Reduce waste. Look at where you’re spending money that you don’t need to.
  • Spend more money and time on marketing.
  • Raise your fees.
  • When you offer more value then you don’t have to compete on rates and you can more easily raise your fees.
  • Go into prospective client meetings prepared with a list of references

When I am being paid well I actually do a better job. When you are not getting paid enough, that’s all you’re thinking about. You have to pass on the jobs that aren’t going to pay you. The client has to trust you to do the job they hired you to do. You have to have a system that can draw the information out of them about what they need. Then you can offer them the services and build that trust.

Parting words

For the architects out there.. build better businesses. “Profit then art.” Architects are so focused on the art that they forget about profit and then they can’t really enjoy what they are doing. If you are making good money then you can focus on what you love to do and really enjoy it.

For the accountants out there, if you can help architects get there – help architects understand the numbers and how much they should be charging to make more money so they can enjoy their art, you’ll make a lot of friends because then the architects you help can go create more art.

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