Photo credit: Loco Steve
Startup architecture firm marketing is a daunting task by almost any measure. If you are in this boat, I commend you for embarking on the search that brought you here. You have undoubtedly overcome quite a few challenges to get to this point.
Good for you.
Now all you have left to do is to figure out how to gain a reputation from scratch, develop a following, snag the exclusive RFP invites that will increase your chances of landing that dream project before you run into a cash flow wall.
Unlike some other fields where startups can range all over, it can be very difficult to break into the space and get attention. Making the choice to bid outside your local area may also be made difficult due to notoriously high E & O premiums and the potential restrictions from your insurance company.
So where does that leave you? Hopefully, in prime position to pull off an upset.
Sometime ago, I read an article in Design Intelligence about how
Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck of Des Moines Iowa - a small firm of less than
50 at the time - won the 2001 AIA Firm of the Year award.
How did a company very few people had ever heard of manage to beat out better known favorites from much more prestigious "design" locales to win this award?
That's the question many people asked. In answering that question, you will find some marketing lessons for your upstart architecture firm.
In 1909, the first principles of practice adopted by the American Institute of Architects actually forbade marketing by architects. The legacy of that decision is incredibly still with us today. A startup architect firm today has to understand that in a world of category multiplication and channel explosion, that old attitude would be fatal. I suspect that you already realize that marketing your skills, concepts and design philosophies is job number one, or you would not be reading this right now.
In an interview, the founder of the award-winning firm cited above talked illustrated their commitment to multichannel marketing – including regularly publishing in the local design publications, and maintaining close relationships with local business leaders.
Beyond changing your mind about the place of marketing in your architectural practice, you need to consider leading in new approaches. Trends like sustainability, green building (LEEDS), smart buildings, livability and BIM (building information modeling), offer even startup architects a profound opportunity to gain attention faster through public thought leadership.
Develop an idea around the solutions that building owners, project and public leaders are thinking about, talking about, and clamoring for. Any one of the movements I mentioned above can provide you with enough frontiers to develop a differentiating value proposition around which to hang your design shingle.
Use a systematic ideation process to generate ideas at the intersection of the customer's needs, larger marketplace currents (i.e. sustainability, BIM, etc), and your project preferences. Strategically plan your practice around where marketplace trends are moving, not around what won the big boys their awards last year.
One of the legacies of the AIA’s love-hate history with marketing is that architecture schools still spend little to no time on communicating the idea that the relationship with clients is part of the value of the design.
Without relationship, there’s no communication, and no design commission. Relationships make the designs in your head viable and usable in the world. Think from the perspective of what clients and other stakeholders need, and you'll find innovative ideas and solutions.
Kurt Blunck, another principal who was interviewed at the time, mentioned more than once the importance of keeping an eye on expenditures and profits. This award-winning firm got there by destroying the largely imaginary trade-off between design and profitability. By insisting that quality design is possible without destroying a budget, they were able to consistently produce world-class work.
As an independent architect or founder of a startup architecture firm, you should be obsessed with keeping a tight lid on your financial overhead and burden. One of the ways to do that is to leverage assets you already have from your prior work experience, social and professional networks, and your thought leadership.
Gogo Erekosima, is the Lead strategist at Idea Age Consulting - a small business consulting and marketing firm that helps solo, small and mid-sized businesses nationwide to grow using assets already hidden within the business itself.