004: Architect Unveiled, Tales of Starting an Architecture Firm: Lee Calisti AIA

In this episode, Lee Calisti, AIA shares what it took for him to leave full-time employment and start his own architecture firm as a sole practitioner in 2003. Lee Calisti is the principal architect and owner of Lee Calisti, Architecture + Design, located 1 hour south-east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Lee is also an adjunct faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University where he teaches architecture. In addition to his architectural practice, Lee writes about his life as an architect on his popular blog, ThinkArchitect.Wordpress.com. In this episode, Lee explores the reasons why he left full-time employment to sail the uncharted and often stormy waters of sole proprietorship. And the reason isn’t what you may think. He tells us how long it took to replace the salary he left while working for another firm, his most successful marketing channels, and more. Tell us what you think about our conversation in the comments below.

This interview, and others, is available as an iTunes podcast or video below. If you like this video interview, please share with your friends and colleagues with the email or tweet links on the left!

Audio:

Show Notes:

  1. To see Lee’s work, visit Lee Calisti Architecture + Design.
  2. Read Lee’s blog at Think Architect.

Transcript (scroll past transcript to leave a comment):

Enoch: I want to welcome everyone today for the Business of Architecture. Today, we have the honor of having Lee Calisti with us. Lee Calisti started his architecture firm in 2003.

The words that Lee used to describe his practice are collaborative, sensitive, and distinguished. Like many of Architects who watch these interviews, he practices in a small town and deals with challenges that go along with that. He practices one hour South-East of Pittsburgh, and he also writes popular blog ThinkArchitect which can be viewed on thinkarchitect.wordpress.com . So, welcome Lee.

Lee: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Enoch: You bet. Thank you for your time. First off, I thought we start off by asking you why you decided to go solo because you are a sole practitioner and a solo architect. Tell me why you decided to start your own architecture firm.

Lee: I wish there was one single quick reason to give to everybody, but I would probably say that there was a dynamic going on with my life at that time. Probably the number one reason is that in 2002, my son was born. Leaving for work each day, living him behind, having a long day and being away from him is something that I just do not want to do. I just want to be there for him all the time. So there were several things that were going on with the firm I was at. The drive, for the first time in my life started to bother me. It had never bothered me before. So I considered it for a while and thought about the ramifications.

I have been teaching part time for probably six months (one semester), and I started into the second semester teaching part time. My wife had a stable teaching job, so I knew that I have a bit of a safety blanket. I had run numbers. I knew what our budget was. We live very carefully and very frugally. I knew that if I made this change, we were going to do it financially. We just have to be careful and continue to do what we are doing. We had to talk about it. I did not tell her what day exactly I was going to quit my job, but I thought it through. So after New Year’s Day in early January of 2003, I gave notice. I needed to work for several weeks at that job because I had a pretty responsible position and I thought it was the proper way to go. I had total support from the firm I left. I did not have any particular leads. I was not stealing work from them. I was completely being ethical and I was not going to another firm. So the partner of the firm understood my situation and was extremely supportive. He wished me well and he remains very different to this date. In fact, the other partner that I worked with is also very different. He left the firm few months before I had. So I left on good grounds. I never looked back because in the past 10 years, every day I woken up with my son. We have breakfast together. Now I take him to school and I have time in his life that I would never have had. So to me it was totally worth it. I never looked back.

Enoch: Would it be fair to say that the primary motivation of starting your own architecture firm was the flexible schedule of running your own practice?

Lee: I think the fair answer is flexibility over financial stability. The flexibility is there. It was really great to be able to decide where I was going, when I was going to be there, and what I was going to do and other perks, having more say in the design process, having more say in the projects selected, not having to commute. Those are the things that aided in that decision. I think everything that was going on in my life at that time brought me to that point. But if you ask me prior would you like to have your own firm, the answer would have been I have no interest. I enjoyed being an architect. I enjoyed doing the job that I was doing. But the issues of practice that I have to do in a day to day basis, chasing clients, financial concerns, doing the books, and all those types of thing, worrying about where work is going to come from, it just something that did not interest me at the time. I was very much in love with being an architect and building buildings. But they say everything changes. That did change.

Enoch: What kind of work did you find yourself loving or fulfilling when you were working with that firm? Would you say that you were satisfied with the work that you are doing? What aspect of architecture gave you that sense of satisfaction that you enjoy?

Lee: We were doing, for the small part, what would be considered small projects. There was tremendous variety in the works that we did. It was rare that we did two projects that were the same. The work was mostly commercial but there were some residential that we did on that practice. But it was very design intensive and very design focus. I really enjoyed that. A lot of complex issues that we get to work with so even though the project was small, they were complex and challenging. You have to work them out and make things happen. The relationships that I developed because of those projects were very rewarding and exciting. I had that opportunity to spend much time with the client, to spend that much time with contractors and engineers, and other people that were part of the process. I just liked the variety. Every year, every day, every month was different. We have to start all over. It was a lot of fun for me.

Enoch: So if I can just rephrase to make sure that I understood you okay, it was a combination of the interfacing with clients, other team members, and the ability to involve in the design, face complex problems.

Lee: Yes. That is a fair assessment. It was just fit for me. I was the kind of person who only worked in small firms but it fit my personality to have that involvement in a project and all the things you just said. It fit me really well. That prepared me.

Enoch: When you are doing the same type of project, how well the projects that you did on that firm prepare you for the kind of jobs that you did when you started your own firm?

Lee: I think it was the awareness of the issue that the project brings. In a small firm, you wear many hats and someone has to solve of those problems. When there are only two or three on a project and you are the one in charge in most part, you are the project architect; it is your responsibility that the project happens. You have to rise to the challenge of figuring out who is going to do this task and how is he going to do this task. I really found that I was able to do that and I was very excited to do that. As supposed to being on a project for a long time, maybe several years and only being privileged to work on a small portion of it which is my notion, maybe inaccurate, but working on a larger firm on a really large projects.

Enoch: One thing I think about too when you said flexibility, were you worried that having your own firm was going to take you more time than your job did? I know a lot of sole practitioner at the end of the day working enormous hours at the firms. How many hours did you work in your early years? And maybe you can just compare that from how many hours since you have your business today.

Lee: When I was with my previous firm, my last firm, I was a senior associate so I have a high level of responsibility and I was probably averaging 45 to 50 hours a week. There were occasions when I exceeded that but very rarely I do 60 hours a week. It was not a firm’s philosophy. We were focused on getting things being done and not just for the sake of being there. Working that number of hours a week was not anything new to me. The only thing that changed was what part of the day you started to work for those hours. So when you work for yourself and you have a studio in your home, then now you can choose which of these 24 hours you work. To be honest, once my son and wife went to bed, it was very common for me to go back to work. You have to find new bit of energy to do that, but there are certain task that you can do at night. The phone was not ringing. You can be very focused and organized on the things that you wanted to do at that time or day, whether it is early in the morning or late at night. You can get those hours in and you can get those tasks done. You can be successful in doing it. That was just part of the flexibility that comes with it. You have to be willing to do that. You have to be willing to get the things done. One way or the other, they have to get done.

Enoch: Do you have any idea how many hours it takes you now to keep your head above water?

Lee: I am probably working the same number of hours. My schedule changed a little bit this year. All of us are getting up a little bit earlier. I do intend to start earlier than I have in the past two years. There were a few less nights, but if I have to look at my time sheets and just try to estimate how many hours I work a week, I am probably somewhere around 50 to 52 hours a week. It is sort of a 6-day-a-week job. I do put time in on Saturdays. Not the entire day, but I try to work early in the morning before my family gets up. Then occasionally, an hour here on Sunday and an hour there on Sunday, but I try not to work on Sunday. You do have to be very task-oriented. You have to think about what are the tasks that need to get done more so than the number of hours you are working to get those tasks done. When you are getting tasks done then you are being successful, as far as I am concern.

Enoch: It sounds like it does take a lot of discipline to keep it to that number of hours. You are really focused and really made sure you get done what needs to be done. You would have to prioritize, I would imagine.

Lee: You have to prioritize. Every month when there are books to do and closing of the month and all those types of things then maybe, there are more hours spent on that week than in previous weeks. Some days you are spending more time. Again, I try to limit my time on weekends but sometimes you just have to do that. Case in point today, I had a rare meeting that I have to go to this morning but I met my family for lunch. So again it is that flexibility that you have to figure out how to do that. You have to keep a good tight schedule.

Enoch: Nice! Well I can see that while it is still bright and early over here in California and over there in Pennsylvania, it is beginning to be darker. You still look fine; just to let you know, unless you turn on the light. We can still see perfectly fine so there is no need to turn on the light. If you do you want to turn on, you can actually face it away towards the wall or ceiling because sometimes that helps add a little bit of light and but it does not make garish.

Now Lee take us back into time where you handed in your resignation at your previous architecture firm and you stepped out that door and suddenly it is “Okay, I got to do some work and I have to bill something to pay my bills.” Did you have any projects lined up? What was that initial time frame in terms of finding work?

Lee: I have to say honestly I have no projects, no leads. I have a very strong sense of ethics toward my previous firm. I did not try take work away from them nor sneak behind their backs and talked to people I consider my clients. They were the people who reported to me, talked to me. I have client contact with them. I wrote the proposals and letters. I was not going to do that so the first few months I probably did not do any project work. I really had to sit down and ask myself, “Okay, if I am to start this business, what would I have to do?” So it was just like any other design project.

As an architect, you define the project and ask how to get there. It is a process however you do that and I went through the list. I was very organized and I wanted to establish quickly a sense of credibility that I was a freelancer and I have an established architecture firm. So I had to do all the things and put them in place that I have a legitimate architecture firm. So letterheads, business cards, websites, private telephone, private checking account, private credit card. Basically creating a business that is independent of me and my family. It took sometime to get those in placed but in the process of doing that, I started to network to people. I started shaking trees and asking myself—

Enoch: What kind of people were you meeting with and taking lunch?

Lee: To be honest with you, I started with contractors, who are the excellent source of work, especially contractors who I have worked with in the past. I also started meeting with community groups. I had done quite a bit work with community groups in Pittsburgh and they were good source of projects, so I started figuring out who were my local community groups. I met a few people who are involved in community groups or something similar to that in my area. I started to announce to everybody, here I am, I have a new architecture firm and before long, few things started to happen. I was registered with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) so people can find me through the AIA’s database. Oddly enough, probably the thing that got me started was a previous client sought me with no previous solicitation on my part. They interviewed me and my past employer for project. We went through a traditional process and they hired me for a project which was very similar to what I had done with my previous firm. That was very fortunate. That was the project that launched my business. I had a few small residential single family projects that had happened upon me by serendipity I could say. That was keeping things going. But between those small residential projects that tend to find you when you are a sole practitioner and this larger housing project with this community group, it gave me stability to start my own firm.

Enoch: Good. So I want to dig in to community group because when you say community group, what exactly are you talking about? Give me an example of who these community groups would be. And if I live here in California, what possible community groups can I go and knock on?

Lee: Sure. In the Pittsburgh area, there are groups they call CBOs or community based organizations. Basically, they are neighborhood groups that are non-profit organizations that established them because they are interested in the quality of life and built environment in their community. They take on a variety forms and looks but often times they have the word “Your Community Development Company or Your Neighborhood Community Development Company” and things like that. Sometimes those community groups hire organization to run their projects, or they may hire third party to be their eyes and ears for them. So I sought them out as well. I also sought out developers. I was not afraid to go to big developers and throw my hat in the ring and say that I am an architect, and I am familiar in doing with this kind of work. Then I ask, “What can I do to help you?” There were a few of them out there either real estate companies that are trying to grow into a big developers or other people who are trying to do projects by getting into development. Sometimes that took on the form of a general contractor.

Enoch: Okay. With these developers and community groups, for instance, the real estate companies trying to grow into developers, how would you approach the developers? How would you go around finding the developer and how would you approach them if you have met them before?

Lee: I have to admit that there was some cold calling that went into play, and I do not find that to be inefficient marketing plan. Most people know that nowadays. So I cannot say that that method gave me a lot of leads. But a name recognition started to happen more than actual work coming into play. Even 10 years ago I was starting to put into place that here I am, I am an architect. I have my own practice and I am out here looking for work. I just had to invest in the process much like investing in a garden that you if you are going to have a successful garden, there are certain things that you do to get that garden to work. But if you are in a hurry and you are impatient, you probably not going to be successful at it. So building relationships were something I did from day one. I just went to lunch with people. I called people up on the phone. “Do you have an hour to meet with me?” And all we did was talk and get to know one another. We had coffee. I did not necessarily ask for work per se. I just wanted to get to know them and as that was happening, work from that avenue was not that specifically coming in immediately. But I was again fortunate that small single family projects started to come in the door, and I was working on them part time, and I was looking for more work part time.

Enoch: So those kinda fill in the holes while waiting for the bigger break.

Lee: It did. You have to begin to figure out. I do not necessarily know what I am supposed to do but I need to start asking questions and start figuring out what it is that I do not know and what it is that I am supposed to be doing.

Enoch: So phone call to developer might be, “Hi there! My name is Enoch, and I am an architect here. We have never met before. I am just calling around to get to know people and like to take you out for lunch.” How would that phone call go?

Lee: It could have taken the form of a letter or email. But what I started to do that was actually more successful is I started to call contractors that I had worked with in my previous firm. They were larger contractors and there were many contact people in those firms who knew me. They knew me from work and in the office. I learned early on that if you can get other people to be your referral network, that can be very very successful way of marketing because then you are getting everybody else to market for you.

Enoch: Do you get someone to be a part of your referral network?

Lee: It takes a lot of time. It does take a lot of time. Sometimes I call it luck, sometimes I call it chance. There were few occasions were a contractor would come across something and it would be in my area, so we were talking East of Pittsburgh and they would either be trying to get a project or they would be hearing somebody that was looking for a project and they need an architect. So they immediately thought, I know an architect down East. Why don’t you call Lee Calisti? Occasionally, a few of those calls came through. I spent a lot of time chasing calls and a lot of time pursuing things and the success rate is not super high. But I just believe in the process. I believe that by continually putting my name out there, by continually being in front of people, sooner and later people would know who is this guy and what can he do.

Enoch: Yeah. We did talk about the fact that your wife is a teacher and you mentioned that in this interview also that you have that salary coming in to help bolster the fact that your income was reduced. How long would you say that it took you to be able to achieve certain revenue where she was not working that you would not be able to survive? For someone who does not have spells at work.

Lee: The ugly truth of starting on your own, or even now, or 10 years later, I went back and looked some numbers because I was curious. I wanted to know myself, and I did not remember all the details but Year One, we just had to throw it away. Year Two, it started to be promising and for the first couple of years, I was close, not fully but close to replacing the salary that I left.

Now I was teaching part time and when I say my salary, I am talking my salary from teaching and my practice, but I thought that if I can go back from where I was at, before I left my previous firm, that would be a sense of stability for me and a sense of “I am doing this and I am making this.” So in Year Five, my fiscal Year Five, not only did I get back to my previous salary but I had surpassed it quite a bit and I finally felt that I was arriving. I have a steady flow work. I had an income that was more than where I left and I started to feel respected as a practitioner who was on it is own. That went well for a year or two and then there was this recession thing that came about. It hit most of us. I have to say that hurt in all of us. Still many colleagues of ours have not survived that. But I will say the good news is in Year 10 (I have completed 10 fiscal years). This past year was my best year ever and if I looked back at the salary I had before I left that previous firm and where I was at at the end of this year, probably 75% more of where I was at when I left that firm. I think that after five or six years, you can be viable on your own. That really depends on some circumstances that are in your control but probably a lot of circumstances that are not.

Enoch: So you would say just to pin down a little bit now you are focus of what you thought was viable, was it about your career where you could survive with your family frugally or was it more like Year Four?

Lee: I would probably say Year Four before we could survive solely on what I was making, we had a personal decision around family, we all had always tried to survive on one income even though we lived on two. We just tried to make these kinds of decisions, the home we live in, the kinds of decisions we made, and we found it possible, actually very possible to live on. You can say one and a half incomes to live on. My wife’s income and my teaching income. And then the practice brought to the table and gravy, if you will.

Enoch: When you say you are comparing with your previous salary at your previous firm, that was the salary alone, that was not the salary plus the teaching. You are saying is when you are forced, your salary as a practitioner plus your teaching were almost equivalent to your salary as an architect at the firm. Is that right?

Lee: That is correct. Now I can say that because I teach design studio. So it probably takes at least a third of the work week to accomplish that. It is not like it is merely been gone for an hour or two during the week. We are talking three afternoons a week, so that salary became very important because it has to replace a third of the time that you were out in the office or third of your available time that you are out of the office. So when you do take a teaching position part time like I do and you teach design studio like I do, then it is a tough decision to make because it does take a big part of your work week.

Enoch: That is a great point, very interesting because like you said, those are not available hours. One of the questions we talked about previously was a hypothetical question. If you can talk to yourself 10 years ago and by the way, we do want to mention that this is your 10th anniversary coming up next month of the launch of your architecture firm, right? Big huge congratulations.

Lee:Thank you.

Enoch: If you were to look at yourself 10 years ago, what would that kind of conversation looked like? Is there any advice you would give to your younger self?

Lee: I have often looked back and wondered how in the world did I ever do this? I feel like I do not know very much now so how could I know anything back then. Yet that is not the case. The one thing that I learned that was really important and this would probably lead to other question is, you have to be careful in selecting work and even more careful when turning down work. That is from a business stand point. When you turn down work and you turn away income, I would be very excited in those early years when someone approached me and they wanted to do work with me. I thought “I have a project. That is fantastic.” Ten years later and a little crankier, I do not really feel that it is a project until I have signed a contract and a retainer. And it is just an attitude on how you look work. So when I am marketing now and deciding how much work load I can take right now, I do not count inquiries and I do not consider projects where I met with a client a meeting or two until I get that signed contract and I know it is a real project. Then I have to basically keep marketing and dealing with inquiries until I am full. But those first formative years, I did not think that way and I made a few mistakes and I thought I had some projects that were going to fly and that was actually pretty exciting. And a few projects came in the door that were probably less exciting and I turned them down because “Oh, I have these projects over here and they are going to be wonderful projects.” Well, guess that? They did not go through. They never materialized and I thought I was going to be extremely busy and the opposite happened. So that was a mistake on my part.

Enoch: Interesting. Anything else that you tell your 10-year self aside from that awesome piece of advice?

Lee: I would say just keep being aggressive and get out more. Get out there more. Become more visible. Believe in yourself that you actually do know something and people do want to listen in what you would have to say.

Enoch: Did you find in those early years there was a little bit of confidence where you felt like there is a little bit of incompetence on how maybe people perceive you are trying to come across? You say have confidence. I am wondering was that something that you struggled with.

Lee: It was because the buck stopped with me, so to speak. I did not have anybody else around to. I did not have anybody else who could bare the blame or take the blame or anybody else who could get work to come in. I think you have to be confident yourself. I just think that so often we do not know how to deal with that as architects because we are frequently perceived as arrogant, and we do not really know where that boundary between confidence and arrogance is. And I certainly do not have the arrogance. I think it is hurting our profession but at the same time, we do need to be confidence like “Hey, I know something. I can do something and I can help you and I can help you get to where you are going to go.” And that can be portrayed in appropriate fashion if you just use your own personality and your own self and you convey that to people. People will listen eventually. They will gravitate towards you.

Enoch: Good. You said that would prompt some more questions and there was a question that I have and I want to touch on really quick. You had some great quotes on your blog that I sent you previously. I am just going to read them off here. This is a quote from Henry Richardson. “I plan anything a man wants from a cathedral to a chicken coop because that is the way that I make my living.” The second quote is from Julia Morgan and she says “Do not ever turn down a job because that is beneath you.” So how does job selection influence future projects. I just want to mention this is the flipside. Gwen Mercat said, “The compromise you make today will form and inform the quality of client you get tomorrow.”

Lee: This is going to be an ongoing debate in our profession and in the circles of people I ran with because I have dear friends and colleagues who were probably be on all sides of this issue. Some would be on extreme side of this issue. I like to explore these things on my blog. I like to ask these questions and the context behind that was a blog post where I was posting quotes from a book that I read. I thought it was germane. I thought it was interesting to think about because so many of the stars if you will, seem to be able to handpick their own work and give the impression that unless you are giving me one of these types of projects that we just do not do that. I admire anybody who can handpick their own work and to some degree I think we all do that. We handpicked our own work to some degree.

But many of our projects could have been successful for me that have been very enjoyable and had been fruitful or even lucrative. I could have never known that at the beginning. The first impression I had with those clients was actually “This person and his personality, we do not necessarily click” or “what they want is not what I want”. But I pursued those anyway and I found that the opposite was true that some of the best clients, the most lucrative projects, the most interesting design work that I was able to do came from situations where at the beginning I could have easily written those people off and thought it was not going to turn to anything.

The other thing that came into mind that I learned from my past employer was that it is up to us, to architects to make a project interesting. Any project that comes in the door is either interesting or not interesting. It is neither. It is nothing and it is up to us, as architect, to find what is interesting in it. Sometimes those projects have impossible budgets and they just do not have the visual things that we think we want to do as architects. But I find the challenge, the passion that I put into it is what I can put into that project that makes it something special, that makes it something unique. Maybe I turn an optimist, maybe I am just idealistic. But I think the thing that made my business successful was building relationships, and you just do not know who is going to be a good relationship and where that relationship is going to go. That relationship could lead to an amazing amount of work if you are willing to invest in it. So take a leader’s attitude as an architect. We snob our noses to somebody’s project that may in some respect help architecture in some bizarre sense. But as a business, as a profession, and as a viable job for all of us in the future, I do not think I can buy into that. I really think that we, as architects want to have a job in the future. We want to have a play in our built environment in the future. We have to be careful how we come across and what kinds of projects we turn down and find a way to inject in those projects, whether they are very humble or very modest, inject what we do best. If we are truly as good as we say we are, and truly can do the things that we say we are, then we can really turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse or whatever cliché you want to use. We really can turn that around. We just have to be a little bit patient and humble on that.

Enoch: Okay. I have two more questions that I would like to touch on. Two more topics and one of them was the fact that you built your own house and then the second one was all about your blog. But before I do that, I just want to ask you real quick. Do you do any marketing, any active marketing?

Lee: I cannot say I have a specific program in place. In some respect I am a people person. I like to talk to people. I am not really good in large crowds. I am very comfortable one on one. But I have been using the blog, social media, and my website as a common way of marketing myself. It puts me out there. I have not done with a whole lot of advertising in the traditional sense. I guess for some reasons, architects do not tend to do that. So the marketing that I have done is basically building relationships and building referral network. Ten years later, I am finding that it is beginning to work. People are referring me, a past client is referring me future clients, contractor referring me. I try to bring contractors in the project that I have and they bring me into projects that they have. It is that kind of referral network that sooner or later will work for you if you are patient.

Enoch: I think we can say that the majority of your jobs do come from referral network. And then you mentioned as good segue into your blog that you do some social media, and I know in your blog you have your own house Houzz.com. You also have a Facebook page and you have a nice, very very sleek website LeeCalisti.com. As well as ThinkArchitect.wordpress.com which is your blog. Could you touch on a little bit about what you have learned through this process of doing each one of those things? In terms of finding clients and maybe other surprises that you learned along the way.

Lee: I am kind of writing on few virtual friends I have out there who have very successful blogs. They taught me a lot but I went out of my comfort zone because I have to do some things. I have to learn some software, not really I was necessarily interested in doing, but I am finding that I have to adapt to the way practice is going, the way culture is going. I would necessarily choose to do some of those things on my own volition but now that I have done them, I am very excited about them. The blog actually was one my favorites once I finally dove in. I had cold feet about it six months then, but I had so many things I wanted to say and I found that I just needed to say them. I have thought that anybody or one person who would read this thing and listen to me that would be pretty exciting. So before I know it, I had so many things to say. I do mix it with humor, sarcasm and sometimes occasional rant but I think that is not because I am trying to complain, I think because we, as architects are passionate people. We believe in what we do. We are very excited about what we do. Sometimes it comes across as a rant but it is not intent to be complaining.

Oddly enough, I got my first project last month through the house website. Someone actually contacted me and said, “I have seen your work on house”. They have interviewed me and they interviewed a series of architects and I got my first commission firm. It is amazing how these things go. Our culture is very internet based. It is very connected to the web whether you want to be that way. I think it really does not matter anymore. The way I want the practice to go and the way I want the business to go. What I think of it is almost an important. I have to look at how it is and be realistic about it. People use social media. People use the web. It is how we get to know one another and I have to be willing to step out into that world and willing to use it to my benefit and my advantage. The amazing thing about it is what I get in return. People such as yourself and many other people like you across the country. I may not have met face to face yet I have a series of friends and colleagues. It is amazing because you never know where those relationships are going to go. It is possible that those relationships are going to go more than just social. They could be business relationships in the future. I do not know that but I am willing to throw those seeds on the ground and nurture them and allow that to happen and it takes another 10 years for that to happen, then so be it. But it has been a really great way to broadcast and in the last few months, my blog had a tremendous increase in traffic and I feel that I was just being frank and open about a few topics that I thought needed to be said. They are done to educate people. But they are done with a little bit of frustration behind it.

Enoch: I think we can go ahead and wrap it up now. If you hear that sound, it is the kids. They just got home and my wife. So you might hear some kids’ sounds in the background. We left up talking a little bit about the social media aspect in the blog. Is there anyone of those avenues that you found has been more effective for creating a profile for yourself out there in cyber space?

Lee: I think they have all their own purpose. I think the blog allows me to educate as well as express myself. I think it has been that avenue. I do not think the blog has been great in terms of marketing, but I did get one job from it. I actually wrote a post more about building codes and someone contacted me and they said, “You seem to know a lot about this subject.” So I took the commission. It was not something I was thrilled with or found a lot of excitement with. It was something I found that I knew a lot about. The beauty of Facebook even though I am not a big fan of using it socially, I have my little complains about it. I do use it mildly, personally. But from a business standpoint, the wonderful thing about it is, I can use it as an update of what is going on in my office and I can quickly post the things that are important in the profession of architecture or things that are not in the practice of architecture but I think are really important and they are something so popular, so common. So I quickly get out there. This is what I think is important about architecture. Then people know what things are important to me.

Enoch: If you are to pick one of those avenues in addition to website, which one would that be?

Lee: I think I enjoy the blog the most. But I think something like house or Facebook is probably more effective from the business standpoint. I would probably say.

Enoch: Good. Just to close up real quick. First of all, thank you so much for your time, Lee.

Lee: Thank you.

Enoch: Pleasure is totally mine. That is the purpose of all these interviews; to hopefully disseminate this information so that other people who are looking into going to the practice of architecture can hear these stories and help pick up things that can help them with their decision. One thing that you did and a lot of architects wanted to do including myself is build your own house. I encourage people to go online because I believe you have your own house and your plans online on your website. Is that correct?

Lee: Yes, there are several links to magazines that have been published and they are there as well.

Enoch: So the follow up on that would be you bought the land, you built the house, designed the house and had a contractor build the house, correct? How important was that in terms of your career in architecture? Did that add any validity to you as an architect or more of just a personal thing where you wanted to have your own house?

Lee: Obviously, it has a lot to do with my family and providing a place for my family. We needed more space. Simply put, we built the house because we needed more space. We lived in a very very small house before. But to me, it had a lot to do with credibility as an architect. I could make this and I could live in it and I could actually do something that started to embody beliefs, philosophies and opinions about architecture. I could begin to put out there and I am willing to live in something that I think has meaning and speaks to some of the issues that are current in our housing industry. I invite you to come look it at and maybe you start to share some opinions that I have.

Enoch: Wonderful. I notice that it is a very very sleek contemporary design and I know most of us are architect world style, as you mentioned previously.

Lee: I do not like that word.

Enoch: I do not blame you. I know there are a lot of architects who, it depends on what school you attended to and the difference is my school is very design oriented, so a lot of us want to do very high design contemporary type of buildings. But then we struggle with the fact that the general public at large, a minority of them, are looking for that design kind service. So did you find that designing a contemporary house helped you at all in terms of attracting those clients to people who would let you design and helped them bring their design to a more contemporary style?

Lee: I think it has. I think along the way, early on. We have been on house for five years now but it was not that tremendous at that time. People are starting to see that and they are starting to see other work that is similar to it and they say, “Yes, that is what we want.” They may not want something as edgy as some of the other modern architecture that some of us architects like. But they find that they are not satisfied with the other styles that they find around them. The other thing I was trying to do with that was, I was trying to draw a line on the sand to some degree and say I am interested in this kind of work. I am not going to do it exclusively or I am not going to limit myself and only do this kind of work necessarily right now. But I drew a line in the sand and the house that I live in, the way that my website was design and basically everything that comes out off my hand, if you will or off my sketch book whenever I try to have a certain vision with it that says, “This is what I am interested in and this is where my strengths lie”. Now somebody may not align with that and they may choose to go with somebody else and I respect that. But then I am fortunate enough that people said, “Hey, I really like what your website is. I really like your house. I really like that project. I want one of those projects that I saw on your website.” So it is starting to work.

Enoch: Good. Lee, do you have any parting words for architects who are struggling out there because we have our picks being laid out, we have an employed architect, we have architects who are going on their own and try to find work. What would you like to tell me from your perspective?

Lee: I would say do not give up if you really want to become an architect. If you are like me, one of those odd people, I have to do this. I have absolutely have to do this. This is not me I have to do this to pay my bills. I have to do this because this is who I am. This is my personality, who I define myself. In some respect, it is not more important than my family or my faith. This is very important to me. But if you have to do something else in the mean time to support yourself and your family, then we can all respect and honor that. But do not give up on it. Come back to it. Try to stay connected to this profession somehow because the profession still needs you and we still need really good architects out there. If enough of us are going away, then what is the profession going to be in the future? So do not live the profession. Just hang in there.

Enoch: Awesome. Lee, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it. People can contact you if they want to reach out to you. They can find you at LeeCalisti.com. I will put a link on that on the show notes and the blog. Are you open to have anyone who has an extra question to reach out and contact you?

Lee: Thank you. Please contact me. I will do my best to answer questions the best I can. If I get a lot of questions that are the same or similar, I may respond to it on a blog post or something like that or I will probably answer them all in one time. We will see how it goes.

Enoch: It has been an amazing interview. Thank you so much, Lee.

Lee: Thank you. I very much appreciate it. Bye.

Enoch: So we are going to put it off right there. I want to thank you for your time. How do you think that went, Lee? How did it go?

Lee: I felt very comfortable. Again, sometimes I do not know if people wanted to hear what I have to say but once I get all warmed up, I am very passionate about what I do so maybe that is the buzz where the buzz used to buzz anymore. I do not know. But I am honored that you are willing to include me in your interview series so quickly. I respect what you are doing and it is very very important. We are not really good business people but somebody like you can help us along the way. We all want to be there. We all want tomorrow and if we do not have work, if we do not think about the business end of it, we do not think about the relevant issues that are affecting our practice, none of us are going to be there.

Enoch: Ultimately, it is all about the environment.

Lee: I think we all have different strengths and we can all bring something on the table. But if we stop thinking about architecture as a business even if we do not like that, even if it is not interesting, in years to come, it is going to hurt us. It is already hurting us. So I appreciate what you are doing.

Enoch: Thank you, Lee. I appreciate it. So it sounds like someone is preparing dinner over there?

Lee: Unfortunately, we have a heat detector in the kitchen and occasionally it gets cranky and you have to go fan it.

Enoch: Thank you for your time. I do not want to take so much of your time with your family. Until we talk again, Lee.

Enoch Sears
I am a licensed California architect who loves researching and sharing about running a great architecture business. I founded Business of Architecture to help solo architects and small firms run a better business so they can have the peace of mind to focus on creating great architecture.
Enoch Sears

@businessofarch

Solo architect? Get the work you want. Marketing and business info for architects. Author of 'Social Media for Architects, FREE download: http://t.co/tQnt6ENDxv
Casa Playa will be a stunning $36 million oceanfront retreat in Florida via @inhabitat http://t.co/Pr3NeeVjUS - 2 hours ago

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7 Responses to 004: Architect Unveiled, Tales of Starting an Architecture Firm: Lee Calisti AIA

  1. Isabel Barros June 4, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    Great interview. I really enjoyed.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jacob Williams April 5, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    This interview was simply fantastic. Thanks for the insight on the start-up phase.

    Lee is absolutely correct on the need for outreach. I started my 3D modeling firm eight months ago. I work with both architects and contractors.

    My biggest secret:

    Call potential clients and ask if you can interview them and write an article about them or their company.

    Benefits:
    It’s a way of getting an interview with them. ;) (Got 2 big clients this way.)
    They may put a link to your article/site. ;)
    When their company is googled, your article will come up in the results. :)

    Lastly, participate and follow sites like this one. (there’s a subscribe button highlighted in blue at the bottom) Leave comments and give advice. Don’t be afraid that you’re giving away secrets. That’s small world thinking. You can only help yourself by making yourself more known. Bottom line is, if you don’t do it, someone else will. So why not have that traffic go to your site?

    http://jacobwilliamsmodeling.com
    Proficient in both Archicad and Sketchup.

    • Enoch April 8, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      Thanks JW for dropping by. Hope all is well with your business.

      • Jacob Williams April 8, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

        I love the content you’re creating. I don’t think people appreciate how much time it takes to put all this together. Someone should interview you sometime. I want to know about your journey. You could do an about me video. But I like the conversational aspect of having two people conversing and reacting to each other.

        • Enoch April 10, 2013 at 5:54 am #

          Time yes you can say that again. Thanks Jacob for you support and comment! Maybe I will do an about me video sometime. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. José da Silva February 25, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    It was a great interview. Informative, to the point and hard objective facts. The stuff that varsity should be made of. Keep interviwing.
    Thank you.

  4. Matthew Gullo February 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

    Great podcast! Informative, real, passionate, and humble. Appreciate the insight Lee and thank you for sharing your start and thoughts to help others. Enoch as always…enjoyed ur interview and questions.
    Thanks to you both.

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