001: Starting an Architecture Firm, Marketing for Architects and Finding a Niche: Interview with Architect Oscia Wilson of Boiled Architecture

Have you ever wanted to start your own architecture firm? When I tried (and failed) to successfully launch my own architecture firm 5 years ago, I wish I would have known what Oscia Wilson, owner of Boiled Architecture, shares in this interview: the big myth about starting your own firm, what it takes to get clients from scratch, the creative strategy she used to hire the right architects, marketing for architects, and what it took to launch her firm. All this and much more, available as an iTunes podcast or video below. This is our inaugural episode – check back here every other week to catch new episodes of Buisness of Architecture TV!

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Show Notes Mentioned in the Interview

  1. In addition to her firm, Oscia Wilson is the founder of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Retreat which will take place May 24-26, 2013 on beautiful Monterey Bay. This will be an amazing opportunity to connect with other motivated and talented women. I can’t recommend this enough. The speakers Oscia has lined up are amazing, and you will have to opportunity to get mentoring and walk away with a network of committed friends. To find out more, click here.
  2. Oscia Wilson is the owner of the firm Boiled Architecture. Go here to visit her firm’s web page, find out more about what the firm does, or contact Oscia. Also, subscribe to her blog to follow her journey. You don’t want to miss this. Click here. P.S. If you do reach out to Oscia, let her know you found her through Business of Architecture!
  3. The book Oscia recommends in the show is Financial Management for Design Professionals by Steve Wintner and Michael Tardif. You can purchase this book from Amazon here:
  4. And last but not least, scroll to the bottom of this page to leave your comment about this episode. What do you think about what Oscia shares?

The Interview:

Enoch: So I’d like to welcome everybody out here today. This is Business of Architecture blog webcast and today we have the honor of having Oscia Wilson with us. She is the owner of Boiled Architecture and Oscia has been doing some very, very cool things that I’ve been watching for a while now and she was gracious enough to let us have some time and talk a little bit about what she does at her firm.

Oscia: My pleasure.

Enoch: So Oscia the first question I had for you was what question should I be asking you?

Oscia: Well, I’m sure that you can think of all the right questions to ask me, but I get a lot of questions about how did you do it with that sort of open, I don’t even know where to start kind of question from a lot of architects, especially the young ones and I’d like to say that I don’t have a magic formula. I did it because I had a lot of help and I worked really hard and here’s what I did. So I lay out the basic formula. (A) I have a husband and he paid all the bills for the first year. So I like to be really frank about that because I’ll be completely transparent about how much money it really takes to start a firm because if you don’t know that going in, you’re just going to fail.
So I don’t think it does anybody any good to pretend like so I sort of like made this out of nowhere. It makes money to do it. So the second thing I did was I started taking business classes for nine months before I ever launched the firm every weekend. So I had money. I had some knowledge, of course not nearly enough money. I took all my savings and took out loans to do it. I got business knowledge. The third thing I did which I don’t see a lot of other architects who go around doing is that I hired the most experienced people that I could find immediately.
So I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t something I could do on my own, that I had to have partners and since I couldn’t find founding partners who were on the same wavelength and ready to quit their jobs, I had to get those partners through hiring. So the first two hires that I made were gentlemen in their 60s and the reason why is that they had connections, they had experience , nothing was going to faze them. So that was absolutely the best decision that I made. So when I get that kind of blind question like how did you do it, those are the three things I tell people.

Enoch: Awesome. So that really is a lot of information there and can you share with us, you said you don’t mind sharing how much money it takes to launch an architecture firm. Obviously it would vary from firm to firm, but how much money realistically, if you can give us a ballpark figure, does it take to do what you did?

Oscia: That’s a good question and I wish I had sat down and added it up before I got to you, but let’s see. So I put $20,000 in cash right in, right away and then I worked for free for the first year. So you can add in whatever you think your wages are worth for that period of time and then I also took out loans of about $40,000 and put that in, basically paying for my employees. That’s what that went for. So roughly $60,000 plus your own wages as an owner for the first nearly a year I was in.

Enoch: Okay and now $40,000 for two experienced architects. That sounds a little bit on the low side. Was that sort of a part-time arrangement? How did you accomplish that?

Oscia: Yeah, absolutely. I could only afford to hire them part-time. So I would say they worked 20 hours a week starting out and then because I chose people who were a walking asset we were able to start getting a little bit of income coming in the second or third month right away and then after that it was not a problem paying them. It was a problem paying me, but it was not a problem paying them.

Enoch: Awesome. How did you find these gentlemen? I know that with the job market right now it seems to me that I’ve seen a lot of very experienced architects out there who are just like you said. It sounds like you hooked up with some great guys that have done some great things and they’re looking for opportunities. How hard was it to find those gentlemen?

Oscia: It is hard to find the right fit and you’re right that there are a lot of people who are unemployed and so when I did advertize, I advertized on Craigslist to the IA and just through my friends networks and I got a lot, a lot of applications each time that I’ve hired. But the problem is that because I’m running a startup, it is a very non-traditional role for an architect. So I find very few people who are well suited to the role and what I mean by that is that when you’re running a three person firm or a four person firm, an architect is not just an architect. They have to do project management, design, construction documents. They even have to do business development. They have to be comfortable with all of those roles and I find it very difficult to find architects who are outgoing enough to want to meet people and follow up with those relationships and do the kinds of things it takes to be part of a startup.

Enoch: Very interesting and I mean, that’s – just hearing it from my side, that’s a big package. You’re talking about someone who’s outgoing. A lot of architects that are really great at their craft prefer to be inside of a room. They’re not really the people person I’ve noticed. Out of those qualities, which one would you say is the most important? Is the outgoing side the most important technical competence?

Oscia: I would say open communication is the most important. So willing to talk about one’s own mistakes and willing to ask uncomfortable questions. Those are the two most important things because you’re an architect which means you’re running a team. You have a whole team, especially in my firm where we’re doing forms of integrated project delivery where in addition to having our engineers that we are collaborating with and the owner, we also have [property] builders. So you’ve got all these people in the room all of whom have really different cultural backgrounds that they’re coming from and you have to be brave enough to say ‘I don’t get this. What does this mean? Maybe it’s just me but that sounded wrong.’ It’s tough to find architects who are able to do that effectively.

Enoch: You bet because when we say we did something wrong, we’re always afraid there’s going to be a lawsuit coming down the pipes, right?

Oscia: Yeah.

Enoch: Now and how do you discern that in the interview? How did you vet these candidates? Because I could see how that would be difficult to find that quality through an interview process, or how did you find that?

Oscia: Okay. You’re going to think this is weird, but I actually held my interviews in group format. So I had I think 12 people come to interview all at one time in one big room for one position and I had a series of questions that I asked and we run around the table and each person answered the question. So it was by design a slightly stressful environment where they were having to answer questions knowing that they’re being evaluated and judged by their very competitors and mostly I did that because it was an efficient use of my time, but I realized as a nice side effect it was also going to assess out people who were able to hold their own in a difficult situation and actually two people declined to apply because of that situation and I thought, that’s a good way of weeding out people who are not going to be able to cut it.

Enoch: Yeah, you bet. Absolutely and that blows my mind as something ultra creative. Is that an idea that you came up with on your own? Did you find that idea through some business courses that you took?

Oscia: I know that that’s pretty common in retail environments and so I spend a lot of time thinking about things I can steal from other industries and apply to architecture because if you take it from another industry, you don’t have the lens of prejudice to look through of what everybody has told you is supposed to be the right way to do something. So I had heard of that and it just seemed to make a lot of sense to me. So I didn’t even think twice about using it for architecture.

Enoch: Awesome. One thing I noticed that looking at your LinkedIn profile is that you’re also doing an MBA currently. Is that right?

Oscia: Yeah, that’s right. So when I started taking business classes on Saturdays, I was actually enrolled in an MBA program. Still am, a part-time program at University of California Berkeley designed for working people. So I’ve been taking classes on Saturdays for nearly three years now. I’m almost done. Yeah, so I did that specifically because I didn’t want to be an architect. I wanted to be a CEO. So I am an architect and that helps me run an architecture firm, but the reason I think that most architects struggle when they go out on their own is because they think of themselves as architects and I think you need to absolutely dispel that myth.
When you go out and you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a CEO, period. You’re not an architect any more. So, you need to spend 90% of your time thinking about how you run an organization, how you structure it, how you get clients, how you’re going to build them, how you’re going to pay people, how you’re going to make an employee manual. That’s what you spend your time on. If you think you can do both, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong. So if you do any back of envelope math, basic round numbers, how much do you think you can get an hour as an architect? Let’s say you’re in San Francisco let’s say 120. If you’re in any other city, it would be smaller. At 120 an hour, how many hours you really think you can work on billable hours, let’s say maximum you’re 80% utilization?
So that doesn’t come out to very much money, right? So and that assumes you have all the work that you can get, but in reality it’s a fulltime job just to get the work. So how do you really think you’re going to be able to bring in that many clients on that extra 20% of your time, like one day a week doing business development? It literally doesn’t work out, like it’s just not reality. So I did that back on the envelope math before I started. What I saw was that it didn’t seem like I can make a living unless I had a team of at least three to four people minimum. So I saw that right away because I knew that it takes a fulltime job to get the work and at least one fulltime job to do the work and then that ratio, one non-billable percent to one billable percent, it just does not work out.
You need a few billable people to support 1% who’s not billable. So I know I just used a lot of like big words and sometimes it’s confusing, but none of those concepts are difficult. I guarantee anybody who’s smart enough to be an architect is smart enough to learn them. So there is one book that I can recommend that covers all of these terms and some basic calculations.

Enoch: Please.

Oscia: Gosh, I thought I had it on my desk, but it’s called Financial Management for Design Professionals. So I recommend that.

Enoch: Okay. Is that by Steve Winter, Wintner?

Oscia: I can actually grab it. I don’t know if you have a way of editing this video so that you like take out the time it takes me to run…

Enoch: We do it all live so let’s just skip over that. We’ll add this to the show notes. We can put a little link on there to the book that you’re talking about.

Oscia: Great.

Enoch: Now, if it’s the book I’m thinking about, that’s a hefty tone.

Oscia: It’s a small book, the one I’m talking about. It’s only half an inch thick. I guarantee you can do it.

Enoch: Nice. So Oscia, the other thing I’m thinking about when I hear about what you’re saying is I think you have a keenly entrepreneurial mind, the way that you’ve attacked this and the way that you’ve analyzed architecture. So was there ever a moment or how did you decide to go through with architecture? Because in my mind, from my perspective there’s lots of entrepreneurial pursuits out there and arguably some of them would be better suited to your talents and your capabilities and might provide more of a payoff. How did you justify staying in the field of architecture?

Oscia: So I started out as an architect. I never considered doing anything else since I was 12. I wanted to do that because it combined art and science and I was good at both. So I thought it’s going to be a great thing to do. I also had the strange thought that it would be great for a woman who was going to have kids because I thought I can do that from home someday which is true. But I laugh because unless you’re working on your own, chances are you’re stuck in a firm that expects 50 hours a week which is really not conducive for raising kids. But that’s a whole other story.
Once I got into architecture I found that I liked it, I was very good at it and it wasn’t really – I didn’t really get into entrepreneurship or the business side of it until I started researching integrated project delivery. So the way that this happened was I was researching integrated project delivery and in so doing I had to learn a lot about contracts and delivery methods. I had to learn what was the difference between design, then build and design build and integrated project delivery and preconstruction services and seeing that risk and those were things that I really had never thought about before and they’re all about management structures.
It’s very little to do with how do you design buildings and it’s everything to do with how do you manage teams and how do you get those teams to design a building efficiently. So when I started learning about these things, I thought wow, I’m really good, I like this, like I could do this, like I can be a project manager. That was the next mental leap for me. I took project management civil architecture. Well, then I had started reading about the contracts themselves and learning about the liability risks because I was leading a research committee on IPD and so I needed to understand the legal risks.
So I started vetting the contract language very carefully with several lawyers and in doing that, I found I had real interest and aptitude for understanding the legal side of architecture and because so few architects are interested at all in that, I thought well maybe that’s a good niche for me. Maybe that’s what I should do with my career. So I started talking and writing about the legal and the business side of architecture and how it works and found that the place where I worked was pretty traditional and not interested in changing any of those things to be doing [inaudible] project delivery. So I realized that if I wanted to work at a place that did IPD, I might have to actually create that place myself because there was such a direct connection between a culture of a company and the way that it operates its projects.
So when I made that mental leap, like oh, it might actually be easier to create a brand new culture than to try to change an existing culture, that’s when I started to think, maybe I could be an entrepreneur. Maybe I can be the one owning the business and then after that that’s when I got into the MBA program to see if I liked it and at that time I still was considering maybe I climb the corporate ladder instead of creating my own corporate ladder. But the economy means that people are not retiring and I found that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to move up the corporate ladder at the pace that I was capable of. So that’s when I decided all right, I’m going out on my own.

Enoch: Wow. So that’s a good segue to ask I guess what’s your primary motivation to do it on your own? Was the company culture the major thing?

Oscia: Yeah. The company culture was the major thing for me because I think that that is the key to high quality deliverables. I think that’s the key to happiness in general. So I find that I get unbelievable performance out of my employees, not because I pay them better, not because they’re smarter than other employees, but because I do this strange thing called train them and trust them. Train them to do what they’re supposed to do and then I trust them to do it on their own schedule in a way that they want to do it and then we talk about it openly and lo and behold, great things happen and all that is, is just company culture. It’s just running a company well.

Enoch: Absolutely and you have – I’m going to read something off your website here that sort of ties into that that I thought was very interesting. It’s you talking about being transparent on projects and if I may it says “I want my team to be transparent on projects. So internally we are 100% transparent with other financial information, strategic goals, even salaries.” And that’s something almost in the architecture industry it’s almost like a taboo in terms of discussing salaries. So I find that an interesting reflection on your transparency. How do you – what’s the advantage of having that transparency? Is it just a philosophical preference? Maybe it may tap your employees? Talk about that.

Oscia: This comes directly from integrated project delivery. One of the main tenets of integrated project delivery is that people will not collaborate unless they trust each other and people cannot trust each other unless everything is transparent. So there’s one shared file storage for everybody. Everybody is open books, all of that because they’ve tied their profits together and so they need to feel comfortable that they can trust each other. So I took that as an inspiration. I said well, if I want my company to be good at IPD, we should operate the same way internally.
So we are 100% transparent with our financials. So I keep my books on – I use [inaudible]. That’s the program I use and all my employees have the same level of admin rights that I do. So they can see all of the profit and loss statements, the bank balance and all of that and our salaries, we set as – we have – the first discussion that we had when we set our pay, it went like this, “Hey guys, what should we pay ourselves? Like here’s how much money we’re bringing in. Here’s how much I think we can afford. Should we pay ourselves different rates according to our levels of experience? Should we pay ourselves different rates according to how important we are?”
So we had these conversations and ultimately decided that there was one base rate of pay for all the architects. So not only are transparent, but we are actually equal in pay for all of the architects who are sort of more or less in the same range of experience and every time we hired a new employee we went through that same discussion. We would discuss with the employee at the table “Well, what do we think that we should pay this new employee and why and do you agree with our methodology?”

Enoch: Wonderful and it sounds like this would give architects and employees in general a feeling of ownership. Is that something that you’ve seen?

Oscia: Yeah. That’s exactly the goal. Ownership and also trust. So my general rule of management is if you’re trying to hide something, then there might be something wrong with it. So the only files that we have that are not transparent to the whole company are the legal employee files because the individual employee files have to remain separate because of legal requirements. So disciplinary actions or something like that have to stay hidden for legal reasons and everything else is shared. So there’s an element of trust in I’m the only officer at the moment, but that won’t always be true and I need everybody in the whole company to trust all of the officers and how are they going to trust us if we’re hiding things?
The ownership part I find the best way to foster ownership is, well first of all you can literally offer people ownership which I do and then we don’t actually have any other owners other than me at the moment, but that will change. But in place of literal ownership, what we do is we have a period every year, so we’ve had two of them so far, where we set the strategic goals for the firm as a group and everybody working at the firm has equal say in what the goals of the firm are and that includes what kind of projects we do, how much money we want to make, how many hours we want to work, where we want to have the office, all those things and then we throughout the year measure our progress towards those goals and we cover those…

Enoch: So we left off talking about transparency.

Oscia: Yeah.

Enoch: Let me sort of segue into – let’s talk a little bit about client acquisition, but before we go into that I just want to briefly touch on having a niche market. Now there’s – I’ve heard architects in both camps, some saying generalist is where it’s at, when one industry is down you can move on to the next one. I’ve heard others say that it’s more important to focus on a niche market. What’s your take on that?

Oscia: Well, that’s a great question. I think when you first start – okay, so here are my thoughts. I think most architects when they first go out on their own they choose to practice what they’ve already been practicing because that’s the skill they have and that’s practical, right? But the part of me that has an almost MBA says that that seems like a crazy way to choose your market segment. The way that you should choose your market segment they tell us is okay, what are the potential markets, how much money is there in each potential market and how many competitors are there?
And then you kind of find the one that makes sense. Oh, that one sort of balances not having that many competitors with a fairly large and growing segment. I think I’ll go after that one and then you hire the people who have the skills to go after that segment. So that’s academically how I would tell you that you should be doing it. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of doing that. You have the luxury of hiring whoever you want to hire. So you should do that. However, it’s very difficult to find the information, the market information, the market research on which segments, how big they are, how much they’re growing and how many competitors are in those spaces.
We don’t have large sections of our companies that are just doing research on that all day and all night like Intel does. So you have to figure out how to do that on a more grassroots level. So what we did was we started out general saying well, we can do this, that and the other thing and we just started selling it and whatever people bought, that’s when we were like well maybe that starts to become our niche. So that’s a more practical way of doing – that’s the way that startups in general should be doing market research is that they go out there and try to sell something and then they get feedback and the feedback is either yeah, people are wanting to buy what you’re selling or they want something a little bit different and you have to be smart enough to listen to what the market is telling you.
So we went out and we’re still pretty much in this phase where we’re going specifically to people that we want to work for and saying here’s our set of talents. What do you think you could use us for? And then what they buy is what they buy. So interestingly we found several opportunities where what they actually wanted to buy were our BEAM skills, not our architecture skills. So we ended up augmenting another team that was already designing or had already designed a building, but were lacking in BEAM skills. So we were able to augment that in that way.
So we took those jobs of course. In other instances they were traditional architectural roles, typically [inaudible] design build structure. So that’s what I would recommend. But yeah, you need to move away from the point where you’re just shotgun approach to the point where you’re selling probably two or three niches is what I would recommend. One niche is more dangerous because like you said everything is cyclical in this industry. So you do need to spread that out into two or three niches.
The unfortunate truth is that with building, none of the niches are particularly counter cyclical, which means that when one goes down they all go down. The best that you can hope for is something that has a lag in it, like healthcare projects have a lag because the funding is generally approved quite a long ways out from when they get built. So even when a recession starts to happen those initially approved building will already go through.

Enoch: Good. All right, thank you. So if you sat down with a beginning architect or someone who was maybe struggling with their current firm, what advice could you give them for business development, how to reach out to clients, how to find people that want to hire architects?

Oscia: Okay. So first question is are they doing residential or commercial because I think that if you’re doing residential you have a lot more opportunity for web-based marketing than you do if you’re doing commercial. I think if you’re doing commercial nobody is looking at the web. Now you can correct me if I’m wrong because I know you have some expertise in this area, but if you’re doing commercial projects, like if you’re working for large organizations, if you’re working for corporations, healthcare, education, the people who are making decisions about who to hire are white men in their late 60s and they’re not going to be surfing Facebook, I’ll tell you that.
All that business development in those realms needs to happen face to face and my one recommendation is that you need to start making friends with general contractors right away and network with them because they often have very robust marketing departments and they’re really well connected and you as a startup don’t have those resources. So you need to leverage resources you have with your friendships with whoever you can get your hands on. So you need to ask for meetings.
You need to meet with people face to face and then you need to follow up with them frequently after that and it will take nine months to turn a relationship into a project, minimum. So that’s the unfortunate truth. Now, if you’re doing residential, there are a couple of tools that, one of them is new. Its’ called Houzz, H-O-U-Z-Z and that’s a website where you can post your pretty pictures and it’s very important to investing, getting pretty pictures, especially if you’re doing residential. You can post them there and people can discover you and then can contact you if you’ve got a website.
I know real people who are getting real work from that website. So I can recommend them and then Pinterest is another way that people are now researching, designers, if you’re doing residential stuff. It’s pretty – it’s used in that market. So all of the same as what you’re doing in commercial, but on top of it you can also do some web marketing for architects if you’re doing residential.

Enoch: Wonderful. Now how important would you say an MBA is to an architect who wants to run their own firm or boost their production in one they have?

Oscia: I would say that it’s not really the MBA, but it’s the business acumen. It’s the information. I think that they’re incredibly expensive. I think they’re overpriced. I’m slightly bitter over the amount of money I’ve had to pay for MBA. People tell you get an MBA instead of taking individual courses in business because it will give you access to the online network and I think that is very valuable, but not if you’re going to be an entrepreneur in architecture.
Okay, so for instance at CAL, almost everybody going there is going to be working in the tech world. So if I want to network computer companies, software companies that would be helpful. But if I don’t, then that network is not particularly valuable to me. However, the one thing about an MBA that is extremely valuable if you’re an architect is that it shifts your culture, your internal identity from being an architect or artist or engineer or whatever you think of yourself as, to being a business person and maybe you can make that attitude shift in some other way, maybe you can’t.
For me I had to actually go into the MBA program, surround myself with people who expect to be running businesses, expect to be making high salaries, who run in those circles. I had to surround myself with those people in order to reset my mental image of who I was and that’s what gave me the ability to walk into any room and network like a pro and take people’s cards and follow up and ask for work. So if you already have that, maybe don’t get an MBA and maybe take a lot of business courses and read books.

Enoch: Okay, fascinating, Oscia. Now, just to finish up here, I’d like to move over into the concept and the area of women, specifically as architects, as entrepreneurs because I know reading your blog I can see you’ve taken a bit of leadership role in reaching out to other women, mentoring other women and talking about the challenges of women in general, but also in architecture and I know being a male in architecture, that it must be difficult for females in our field because there’s a lot of challenges I guess. So could you speak to some of the challenges in architecture that you find as a woman?

Oscia: Sure. I would say that I have not encountered, with one exception, any real prejudice – sorry, two exceptions, any real prejudice against me as a woman. It’s been pretty easy for me to talk to even the most [hostile] builder and get things done because people generally respond to your level of competence and your level of confidence. Those two things go hand in hand. The reason it’s so difficult in – the reason why our licensure members are so different in architecture, I think the last I saw was roughly 70% of licensed architects are men, is because of the flexibility of the hours’ thing.
The industry is so focused on you need to be at your desk from 8:00am to 6:00 or 7:00 or 8:00, that it makes it very difficult for people who are maybe raising kids. They have to choose between the two and then we both know that it’s going to be the wife that chooses to cut back her hours because of the current situation of our society. So that’s an interesting reason why so many of the sole proprietorships are owned by women, because women flee the corporate setting in architecture at enormous paces and they start up their own firms because they need some ownership over their own schedules and that’s part of why I did it too.
So I don’t know, it’s a double edged sword because you’re taking control, but you’re also leaving a corporate world where you could have fought for a flexible work schedule to make way for the other women coming up below you. So you make your own decision in that way. Now I’ve encountered one situation where I was paid 30% less than a man who was doing the same job as me, with the same level of experience and the same degree and when I found that out I went to my boss and tried to renegotiate and he basically said, “sorry, you should have been better at negotiating,” was the answer.
So that’s another reason why I think transparency with rates of pay is extremely important because I think that that situation is way more common than you would think and if it were transparent people would know. The other situation I had was where I was at a firm, I was ready to transition from junior into a more senior role and the person who was my boss just couldn’t quite make that adjustment mentally, but I think a lot of it had to do with he was very comfortable with a woman in a junior role and not so comfortable with her in a leadership role.
So those are the only two times in my whole career where I felt like that was really obvious. The rest of the time has not been so much an issue and the issue I think mostly like I said is figuring out a flexible work schedule. The other issue though is as an entrepreneur, not so much as an architect, but as an entrepreneur, I talked a lot about it, you need to be outgoing, you need to ask the tough questions, you need to walk into a room filled with men 20 years your senior and demand work and that is hard for women. That’s hard for a lot of women.
So I highly recommend reading a book called Ask for It and Ask for It is a guide for women on how to negotiate and ask for things because we have this unique dilemma wherein if we are not assertive we don’t get want we want. If we’re too assertive we get punished for being assertive. So you have to walk this fine line again. Nice, but competent, yadi, yada. A couple of thing everybody knows. But how you overcome that is a big challenge. So Ask for It, the book talks about specific phrases to use, specific body language to not use. It’s a really good practical guide. It’s not going to fix the feminism issue, but it’s at least going to help navigate it if you’re a woman entrepreneur.
So when I first started the firm I wanted some fellowship with other females who are entrepreneurs and I couldn’t really find what I was looking for. I found a lot of women’s organizations for executives or women climbing the corporate ladder and I found a lot of stuff for entrepreneurs in general in Silicon Valley, but only a few were doing high growth venture capital funded kind of startup and I didn’t find what I wanted which was women starting normal companies. I say normal because only about 1% of companies are the kind of high growth companies that are going to upon exit which are called fundable.
So I just I wasn’t busy enough. I was like oh, I’ll just start my own retreat. So I started something called Entrepreneurship Retreat and it’s for other women entrepreneurs and we take a weekend and we go away to the seaside down in Monterey Bay and we have a series of workshops and keynote speakers on the kind of business knowledge that if you’re lucky enough to get an MBA you will get, but if you don’t have an MBA you’ll get them. So this is one place you can get that kind of business knowledge and also it’s in an all women setting. So it has a pretty different kind of vibe and it’s in a retreat setting. So you have the mental space to take in the information that you’ve just learned. So if you want on your resources we can post only to that after this.

Enoch: That would be awesome. Now I know that this entrepreneurship retreat is open to women that aren’t just architects, women in all fields of entrepreneurship. Is this something that you could recommend as valuable? There are a lot of single proprietor women who do come to my blog. Is this something that they would find useful? Can you basically tell them what they would be getting from this retreat?

Oscia: Yeah, absolutely. So more than half of the people who attended last year were solo entrepreneurs, sole proprietors of various types and most of them were in services. So services industries are architecture, engineering, law, medicine, anything where you’re selling a service as opposed to a tangible good. So I do make an effort to gear the workshops somewhat towards those women and the thing that they’re going to get out of this workshop besides a network and support is that they’re going to walk away with a more disciplined view of their company.
So just because your company has only one employee, that’s you, does not mean that you should not be taking a disciplined view of its finances and the structure and what you’re selling to whom, why, how, for how much? All of that stuff should be addressed in the same rigor as you would if you had a larger company. So that’s one of the things you’re going to get from my weekend.

Enoch: Wonderful. Well, Oscia, thank you so much for the interview, for your time. If any of my viewers want to reach out to you and connect, what’s the best way to get a hold of you, to contact you?

Oscia: So on my website, at the bottom of every page there should be an email address and my website is www.boiledarchitecture.com.

Enoch: Okay, wonderful. Now just real quick, Boiled Architecture, tell me where the name comes from. That’s pretty unique.

Oscia: Well, yeah. So I get that question a lot. Strangely enough in California if you incorporate as an architecture firm, you’re required to name it after a founder or an owner and you’re required to have the word architects or architecture in it. So when I incorporated it I was required to name it some version of like Oscia Wilson architects. So that really bummed me out because it’s based on collaboration, I didn’t want it to be named after me. So I had to file a fictitious business name or a DBA and I was looking for a name that sounded pragmatic. Actually I was looking for a name that sounded like we’re not pretentious high in the sky architects who are going to design something you can’t afford. So I thought of that phrase, hard boiled, like [inaudible] novel, hard boiled on the streets of New York. So that’s how I came up with it.

Enoch: Nice. Well, Oscia, I’m sure we’re going to get lots of conversation about what you shared today. Once again thank you for spreading the word. It’s a tough economy out there and from me and everyone else, we really appreciate your time. So thanks again.

Oscia: You’re welcome.

Enoch: Okay, talk to you soon.

Oscia: Bye bye.

Enoch: Bye.

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
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39 Responses to 001: Starting an Architecture Firm, Marketing for Architects and Finding a Niche: Interview with Architect Oscia Wilson of Boiled Architecture

  1. Raminder Kanetkar August 3, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    This is a very useful conversation that I can relate very well to, especially since I am going through the same sort of issues with a start up practice. Thanks!

  2. Green Architect July 27, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks for the information. I like your blog.

    • Enoch Sears July 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

      Thanks Green Architect!

  3. Matt July 7, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    I might be late on this, but I’ve got to say something, maybe to save anyone else watching this. I’ve been running a practice for 5 years, and I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur AND an architect. So I am. The idea that ‘if you think you can do both, you’re just wrong’ is just wrong. If you want to be an architect and run your own firm, it is possible.

    Looking to some of the greatest architects and architecture, I would actually argue it’s necessary. When I look at the work coming out of ‘Boiled Architecture’, it would seem there isn’t much concern for the actual product, which might be what happens when the primary concern is business. I would suggest that the greatest opportunity and perhaps the greatest obligation we have as architects is to create thoughtful space and form. If you are just looking for a business opportunity, go buy a McDonalds or something, and stop messing up the environment.

    • Oscia Wilson July 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

      Thank you for being a spiritual guidepost to remind us all that just because someone says negative things doesn’t make them true. Bless you.

      Perhaps it was my own failure to articulate things well that led you to miss the point: I founded the firm because I felt so passionately that the quality of the architecture at previous firms was poor, and that the business structure was the culprit. I’m proud to say that Boiled Architecture provides an exceptional level of quality–we’ve never had a single change order arising from errors in our documents, for instance.

      And perhaps it is my own failing in designing the website that led you to miss the fact that we incorporate sustainability at every turn. Which ones did you take issue with? Was it:
      -The office space for the non-profit that is using Build It Green Oakland guidelines to create a collaborative space for them?
      -All the public transportation work to help people get out of their cars?
      -The LEED silver restaurant in a historic building that we’re preserving that is currently on the books?
      -All the Virtual Design & Construction we do to eliminate the waste from re-work?

      Have a beautiful day, and I hope you prosper.

      • Enoch Sears August 7, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

        Wow Oscia, what a great response! LOL

        And Matt, what’s the matter, woke up on the wrong side of the bed?

        • Matt August 8, 2013 at 8:05 am #

          Just because it’s criticism doesn’t make it negative. And just because it doesn’t have change orders, or it’s ‘green’ certified, doesn’t make it good design.

          I only thought it might be interesting to have a little less fawning and a little more discussion…

          • Enoch Sears August 8, 2013 at 8:54 am #

            Matt, I appreciate your input. Dialog & critique is always welcome on Business of Architecture!

  4. Isabel Barros June 4, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Really good insight into Oscia’s way of doing business. I found it very interesting.
    Congratulations for your blog.

  5. Fadia Pahlawan May 8, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    I loved the level of honesty Oscia displayed in her sharing all this valuable tips. She is an inspiration that I personally could relate to, starting my own architectural practice. Thank you Enoch for this interview, it wouldn’t be so valuable if it wasn’t for the smart questions you initiated.

    • Enoch May 8, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      Thanks Fadia! You just made my head grow about 2″ larger. :)

  6. Jamie April 25, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Thanks you so much for sharing the interview. Worth is on so many levels. I’d be interested in hearing Oscia or other women architect entrepreneurs have to say about balancing children and business. I’m not sure if Oscia has children or not but it seemed as though she had thoughts on the topic. I am one of those architects that believed the profession would lend itself well to working at home while raising children. Now that I’m experiencing it I don’t feel the same way at all. I have a 2 year old and need to figure out the best way to balance my work and home schedule. Flexibility is most certainly the key, although hard to come by. Maybe I’m kidding myself and I just have to get through these beginning years with my daughter the best I can. There must be an easier way.

  7. Francisca Alonso February 9, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such insight and valuable experience. My business partner and I just watch both of your videos and they are great! Loaded with valuable and tangible information – I love the two books you recommended…I will get them shortly…:) We have our residential design/build firm for 10 years now and have over time realized how important it is to be more business-like to grow than architect-like. This is just so hard to do but vital to stay in business an grow! Love your wisdom and style…specially as a women entrepreneur I enjoyed it even more! Francisca Alonso, CEO and co-founder of AV Architects + Builders (http://www.avarchitectsbuild.com)

    • Oscia Wilson June 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      Thank you Francisca! What a nice comment. (I just saw the comments section today–silly me.)

      • Francisca Alonso June 25, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        No worries…it’s good you are busy…:) love connecting with inspiring women in architecture!

  8. Ed January 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Great interview with Oscia Wilson. Very insightful into what it takes to start your own firm. I look forward to her recommended reading. Some of her comments I can relate to having gone out on my own 2 1/2 years ago while others were helpful in how to proceed from here.

  9. Nalleli January 17, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Thank you Enoch and Oscia for this great interview. I am convince after it that transparency and honesty are the best fundations for any business. There is any best work were you can enjoy it and feel secure. A lot of real life information that you dont learn in the classroom. Thank you again.

  10. Lisa Mullikin January 16, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    This is a great interview – Enoch and Oscia did such a good job. And Oscia is so honest about what it takes. I hardly ever hear the truth about starting and running a firm. Thank you both.

    • Enoch January 16, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      Lisa, you are right, Oscia was an excellent victim for the first episode! Thanks for the feedback.

  11. Rachel Burton January 14, 2013 at 5:24 am #

    Great interview. I learned so much, and got inspired to learn more. Thanks to Oscia for being so honest and straightforward and thanks to you for introducing her to me.

    • Enoch January 14, 2013 at 6:18 am #

      Rachel, glad to be of service, thanks for dropping by!

  12. kiernan January 6, 2013 at 5:42 am #

    You are not an Architect!

    • Enoch January 7, 2013 at 6:17 am #

      Please tell me more.

  13. Ralph January 5, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    “But the economy means that people are not retiring and I found that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to move up the corporate ladder at the pace that I was capable of. So that’s when I decided all right, I’m going out on my own.”

    That’s the reality and biggest ongoing and future problem with the industry. Simply have to wait and wait for real job promotions, and so much of that will come down to lucky breaks. Making this profession a real risk that you’ll be happy 10-20 years out working for someone else. A had a solid 5+ year background in home building before taking my first masters in arch course, so that’s my success story with starting my own firm 11 years ago, and literally before I even graduated a work by day MArch program.

    -Ralph from Boston

    • Enoch January 5, 2013 at 8:53 am #

      Ralph, love your comment, and you touch on a very interesting subject. I have heard some express concern that the baby boomer generation has created a healthy supply of competent and experienced architects at the present moment, but when all of this generation do retire what happens? Will architects be harder to find?

      • Ralph K January 6, 2013 at 9:26 am #

        Enoch, Thank you for conducting this informative interview. There’s talk out there about demographics, also the recession limiting the experience of young architects is a current problem. I suspect licensed architects with strong resumes and 10+ years experience will be in the drivers seat over the next decade. But yes, supply vs demand, such architects will be hard to find.

  14. Jim Cascardi January 3, 2013 at 4:59 am #

    I am a retired architect in the business for 47 years and enjoyed the interview very much. There were several issues I wish had been discussed. They relate to the operation of a firm and I think important to a start up firm, they are, professional liability insurance, employee health insurance and other benefits, rent, utility cost, supplies and equipment costs. I wish there was a segment that talked about these issues and related costs. I appreciated Oscia’s decision on hiring experienced individuals to start her firm and benefit from there experience.
    I had thought of starting a firm on my own many times but the opportunity never presented itself and I went from working in architecture firms to working for corporations as a in house architect that was financially rewarding.

  15. Fatima January 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    Thank you Enoch and Oscia! Very interesting and informative, especially for a female (intern) architect, like me, just learning the ropes at a small architecture firm. I have been working on some aspects of marketing here at the firm and I found this to be helpful and inspiring.

  16. Nick M. December 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Thank you for conducting this wonderfully informative interview. It’s rare that I watch a blog video and take notes but I took several here. I especially love how transparent Oscia is about her company. I started my business 11 years ago and did much of the same things: studied extensively on running a business, ran a business without a salary for a while, came to grips with billable hours vs. chasing clients, etc. It was very difficult. I didn’t put up as much money as Oscia did nor did it take as much time to generate income but I was a bit lucky in that regard. I’ve seen many new architecture business fail after a year by charging too little, never marketing (or over-marketing) and not paying attention to legal contracts. Future architecture entrepreneurs should heed Oscia’s advice!

    • Enoch December 27, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

      Nick, so glad you enjoyed the interview, thanks for the feedback! It is hard to go wrong with a subject as wonderful as Oscia.

  17. Paul Hindes December 23, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    Great interview. I enjoyed Oscia’s business approach in being open and honest, which I believe is the new way of doing business. I also take to heart her discussion of the “numbers” in attempting to run a one-person practice. There are not enough hours nor financial rewards for this to work long-term. Thank you for sharing!

    • Enoch December 26, 2012 at 5:57 am #

      Paul, great to hear from you again and thanks for your comment. Would you agree that operating a one-man band is not feasible?

      • Paul Hindes December 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

        Enoch, a one-man band is both enjoyable and liberating. Enjoyable because of the liberation away from having to bring a certain amount of work each week to feed a larger office. Enjoyable because there is freedom in project and client choice. However, a one-man band does not bring financial riches, so on purely commercial terms, a one-man band is not feasible, is limited in growth, and limited in cash-flow. So it’s a choice between freedom and economic returns!

        • Debra Fuller January 4, 2013 at 7:55 am #

          I agree totally, Paul.

  18. Jacob Williams December 22, 2012 at 11:53 pm #

    Enoch,

    You and I operate at the same frequency. http://jacobwilliamsmodeling.com/blog

    You have yourself an avid follower. Let me know if you want to do a guest post on my blog and I yours.

    Keep bringing the great content brother. -Jacob

    • Enoch December 26, 2012 at 5:59 am #

      Jacob, how did you find Business of Architecture? Regardless, thanks for visting and thanks for the head’s up on your blog!

      • Jacob Williams December 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

        LinkedIn promoted your article. Alas I was on my iPhone at the time. The videos wouldn’t play on the iPhone because they’re flash based. (Apple!)

        We should talk some more. I just spent two entire nights overhauling my website to make it look decent on all devices. I originally had a desktop and a mobile version. However, this was causing too many problems. All the pruning just wasn’t worth it. So I scrapped them and built one unifying version. It was a pain due to margins and font sizes, but I found a happy middle ground.

        I would bet my life that most your readers are aesthetically inclined. Which make me believe the majority of them are on iPhones. That’s the kind of feedback people should leave in the comments. (hint hint)

  19. Arq. Esteban December 20, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    I really enjoy and learn from the interview. I have a 10 year old architectural firm, and keep learning in the way to do business. Thanks.

    • Enoch December 20, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

      Arq. Esteban, it is my pleasure to have you visit the blog. Thanks for the comment!

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