Archability aims to put back to work some of the unemployed architects who have been suffering ever since the real estate bubble burst in 2008. In today’s interview, Livingstone talks about how he went from being an unemployed architect himself to pitching Archability the Demo Silicon valley technology conference. Livingstone’s story is inspiring for any architect who has an entreprenuerial spirit and wants to apply design training to a parallel field.
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Enoch: Have you ever wished you could delegate some of the tasks that keep you busy as a small practitioner? Maybe you’ve wished that you could find someone you could pull into part time when times are busy. Today’s guest is Livingstone Mukasa, CEO and founder of Archability.com, the only online marketplace exclusively devoted to connecting those who want architectural design services with those who offer them, like us. Livingstone studied architecture at Rensselaer, New York Institute of Technology and later with Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In this interview we discuss how Livingstone used lessons that he learned early in his career when he was laid off from one of his first jobs to launch what is Archability.com, the only online marketplace for architectural and design services. Without further ado, here’s our guest.
Well, I want to welcome everyone out today. Welcome to Business of Architecture. Today I have the honor and pleasure of having Livingstone Mukasa with us today. He’s the founder of Archability.com and we’re going to talk a little bit more about that today. So without further ado, welcome Mukasa Livingstone.
Livingstone: Thank you, Enoch. Pleasure to be here.
Enoch: I want to start out just asking if you could give everyone a little bit about your background. You have a very, very interesting background from school and then working for some traditional architecture firms and then pivoting and going into real estate development. Could you talk a little bit about your early history and then we’ll jump into Archability.
Livingstone: Sure. My professional background begun in architecture, I went to New York Institute of Technology. I had always wanted to be an architect from my earliest recollection. This is mostly because of family influences. I had an uncle who was in the profession. I had a number of cousins who also went into the line and I was always artistic, enjoyed being creative. So architecture always seemed to be the best fit for me. The other thing I have to tell you is nobody really warned me also. So I went in with guns blazing.
Enoch: No one warned you?
Livingstone: No. So got my architecture degree and it took a while to find conventional employment. I finally landed my first job. It was with a firm in Albany, New York. Very excited by it, stayed with them for a while until I was shown the door so to speak, I was laid off and it was my first taste of what people go through in this profession. I’m certainly not the only one who has been laid off from an architectural firm but back then, oh, you too?
Enoch: Yeah, me too. I’m glad it happened.
Livingstone: But back then being my very first job it was a huge blow. It really, really crushed my spirit, my ego. I thought I had done everything right and now all of a sudden I’m being told that I’m not required and being walked out like, well it felt like a criminal almost. So that first experience with being out of work, with being a professional that was out of work planted a seed in me. I had the skills that I could offer people, but back then didn’t really have a way to market them and to make them available to people who needed them and that’s a seed that would come in handy years later. Moved on, worked with other firms along the way. The more involved I became in architectural production and the industry, the more interested I became in the larger picture, in land use, in real estate development and urban design. So while working I started to pursue these interests on my own with additional certifications, conference attendance, networking and I came across an opportunity to be part of a team to do an adaptive reuse project in Los Angeles. It was a condo conversion and being able to be a part of that was very exciting to me.
I was given a chance to be involved in the conception, creation and delivery of the project, rather than just being a service provider in the lifespan of the project. So I jumped onto that bandwagon very quickly, quit my job and found myself waist deep in real estate development. So that’s more or less how the pivot happened and I rode that wave for as long as I could.
Enoch: Thanks Livingstone. And there came a point when you decided to launch Archability?
Livingstone: Archability? Yes.
Enoch: Archability. And could you describe how that came about and go ahead and jump into Archability, tell us what it is.
Livingstone: The point at which I decided to create Archability was when I found myself increasingly in need of projects to sustain myself. I was now on my own. I had been smitten by the entrepreneurial bug and I needed to find avenues of finding clients, finding work. At the same time previously I had been in representation, being able to outsource work to people. I saw my own projects were larger than my ability to deliver them, so I needed to find people to partner with, find people to hand off certain tasks to.
So I was part of this dual need and I couldn’t find a single source out there online that brought those two needs together and that’s when the light bulb went off and because I couldn’t find that specific photo, I decided to try my best at creating it. It was a three year journey from when the idea –when the decision was made to take up this task to the point of launching.
Enoch: Sure. So it was a three year process. Does that measure the time up until the launch or what does that three years include?
Livingstone: That measures the time up until the launch.
Enoch: So from inception of idea where you said, you woke up and said I’m going to do this thing, three years and then you hit the launch?
Enoch: And what is the launch? Tell me what the launch was?
Livingstone: The launch was at a conference in Santa Clara, California. It’s a conference that’s organized by DEMO which is a biannual conference for 70 entrepreneurs to launch their products. There’s an invitation process that you go through, an invitation application and once selected you are given six minutes onstage in front of angel investors, the media, other tech enthusiasts and filmed and given an opportunity to describe your product, introduce it to the world, show it off and get feedback. It’s a three day conference during which you also have a booth where you can physically show your product to anybody who’s interested.
Enoch: Okay. So let me just rephrase for our viewers to make sure that I understood this correctly. So at the DEMO conference which is held in Santa Clara, Silicon Valley, California, you’re able to go there and if you have an idea, you pitch that idea to investors?
Enoch: And it’s basically you’re raising capital for your business?
Livingstone: At that point, you’re not exactly raising capital. You’re more of pitching who you are and how you’re relevant. Now, the search for capital comes in much later on when you meet face to face with some of these investors or venture capitalists if they’re interested in your product.
Enoch: Okay. So going into DEMO, there’s no guarantee that investors will look at funding you or is there some sort of guarantee that you’ll get in front of a certain amount of people in terms of investors?
Livingstone: Well, there’s a guarantee that you’ll be in front of a certain amount of people, mostly tech enthusiasts, tech industry people, entrepreneurs like yourself and investors. Whether that will amount to you leaving the conference with a deal is entirely up to you and whether you happen to engage with face to face after your demo. Now, there was also a competition during that process where the viewers had to select a viewer favorite of all the demonstrations and that person was awarded $1 million. Unfortunately it wasn’t me, but that’s fine.
Enoch: And these connections, does – I’m trying to get at the benefits of a conference like DEMO. Do they facilitate these introductions or do you personally need to show up to a mixer and just start meeting people? How easy do they make it to access these investors and entrepreneurs and tech enthusiasts?
Livingstone: It’s quite easy. There are receptions during those three days. You also have a booth that everybody comes to. All people registered for this conference can go and physically test out each product, talk the people behind it and get more familiar with it. There are also tons of journalists who cruise the aisles looking for something to write about. So while it’s hard to look at somebody and know that this is an investor, the opportunities are there. You just have to drive some of the traffic to yourself using creative names or do a lot of networking, introduce yourself to people and hopefully find a match.
Enoch: Okay. And so if one of our viewers has an idea that they think would be well suited for a conference like DEMO, could you give them a rough estimate of how much capital it requires both to enter the competition, maybe travel and maybe just with that, how much does it cost to go to something like DEMO and do this?
Livingstone: It’s approximately $10,000, $8,000 of which is to register for the conference. The video feed that they — materials that they give you, the prepping that they give you, unfortunately you have to pay for and the balance then is an approximation of travel, accommodation costs as well.
Enoch: Okay. And how fully developed would you say a product needs to be to pitch at this kind of event?
Livingstone: Well, I would say 80, a minimum of 80%.
Enoch: Do you need to have a working model or can it be a slide deck?
Livingstone: No. You physically need a working model. You cannot show a slide deck or a PowerPoint presentation. You physically have to demo the actual product. Because you have a booth that’s connected to the internet, whoever stops at your booth should be able to test it out for themselves. So there are certain things that if you are not absolutely prepared for you could stray them away from any details of your product that might only be intimately aware, that you’re intimately aware of, but otherwise you do need around 85% completion.
Enoch: Okay. So just going back into history a little bit from what you said before, you had a time period where I think you said it was three or four years where you were doing real estate consulting and pairing up with developers and you found a need to outsource work, say for instance a rendering or a graphical plan showing some developmental ideas. That’s something that I think we can all understand is a lot of those things are time intensive and sometimes we may have the skills to do it, but we don’t have the time to do it or sometimes we may not even have the skills to do it.
Enoch: So it sounds like Archability is an answer to your own problem that you had.
Livingstone: It certainly was. I found myself on both sides of that fence and so there’s first hand experience with both needs.
Enoch: Okay. So can you go ahead and give me the pitch I guess and modify it as you want, but pitch us on Archability. Tell us what it is, tell us why we should use it and how it’s going to help the architectural profession or designers in general.
Livingstone: Archability very briefly is an online portal that connects people who need architectural design services to people who have a need for those services. So essentially we’re a matchmaker. People who have the need would post their projects. It’s 100% free and once those projects are live, they’re visible to hundreds if not thousands of skilled personnel locally, regionally, globally who if they’re interested can contact this person, get a little more detail on those needs and then post their proposal. It’s not a proposal based on price necessarily. It could be based on their experience. It could be based on what they think is the best solution for the client.
The client then reviews all the proposals and they’re able to filter them as well once they’re comfortable with somebody’s proposal, be it based on price, be it based on their portfolio, be it based on their interview interaction. They can award that project to the individual. The work is conducted and delivered online through milestones that can be set up on the website. Payment schedules can be set up on the website as well and once the client is satisfied with the deliverables they release the funds to the contractor.
So for the clients, for the consumers, it’s a place where they can find talent that wasn’t accessible to them previously and it’s a global talent base. So they really get their pick of the varying resources out there and for contractors, the market come to them. It lessens the time and effort you have to spend being out there marketing yourself, advertising yourself. You just go to a website. The projects are targeted for you. You would take a pick of what you want and hopefully build out into a relationship that will generate more work.
Enoch: Okay. What safeguards have you implemented in Archability, for instance for a client to know and feel comfortable with the fact that the person they’re hiring is reliable, is not going to scam them? What kind of safeguards are built into your platform?
Livingstone: Well, there are a few. One big concern is how do I know this individual who claims to have say an architecture degree from XYZ university, how do I know they have that? How do I know they’re licensed to practice in such and such a state? How do I know they have this certification that they claim to have? One of the things we offer is a verification process where for a fee, contractors send us their supporting documentation of their credentials that they claim to have and using third party verifications, we check out those credentials and if everything lines up, they get a little verified symbol next to that credential.
So that gives a lot of confidence to the person looking at that profile and it allows them to feel a little bit more secure with dealing with that person. The other area that helps is an escrow system for payments. If a project has an agreed budget of say $500, the client can use project milestones and divide up those payments. Each payment isn’t sent directly to the contractor. All payments are put into an escrow account for that project. That escrow account is controlled by the client.
So as work is delivered according to the milestones that are set up, the client releases the funds from the escrow fund directly to the contractor. So it enables the client to pay when they’re okay and when they’re confident that they have received what they were asking for. It also gives the contractor the confidence of knowing that the funds for their project are indeed there.
Enoch: Okay. And what safeguards the contractor from not getting stiffed by the client?
Livingstone: Well, because all funds for any given project first go into an escrow account, that lets the contractor know that the funds have been taken from the client and are now being safely held pending deliver of the work. Once the work is delivered and the client approves that work, the client releases the funds. Should the client not release those funds, then that’s where we come in. Because those funds have been safeguarded already, the client cannot withdraw them without ample or good reason. So as a third party, we will review all the contract documents that were set up by the client and the contractor and if we cannot get both to agree, then the judgment will be [inaudible].
Enoch: Okay. So that’s a formal dispute resolution process where Archability gets involved?
Enoch: Okay, very well. Now, I was wondering, what kind of projects are you seeing so far on Archability in terms of scope? Are we seeing smaller maybe graphical stuff? Are we seeing large buildings, custom homes?
Livingstone: Well, we’re still relatively new. So we haven’t had as much project traction as we hope to build. But so far it’s a bit of both. The work that tends to come quicker are the smaller scope type of projects, a rendering here or CAD drawing there. Just yesterday, actually this afternoon a project was posted and somebody wanted a residential house built along passive house standards. The description was a little vague and hopefully the person will elaborate a little more as they interact with whoever is interested in that project. So it looks like we’re beginning to see projects a little larger in scope and a little more detailed.
Enoch: Okay. Now what would you say to architects and designers that are interested design professionals, be it interior designers or renderers that want to get involved in Archability, but they’re worried that the competition will be so great they’ll be beat down on price? What would you say to that person?
Livingstone: It’s not entirely based on price. Now, unfortunately the average consumer might not be aware of that, but the average architect does have the opportunity to talk, to engage with this consumer and sell themselves. They have a portfolio. They could make their profile as polished as possible and ultimately what makes somebody comfortable in handing you their work isn’t always your price. It’s how they think of you. How you communicate with them, the comfort level that’s created.
Pretty much like any service you buy elsewhere, we all patronize certain brands for certain reasons and it’s not always because they’re the cheapest out there. So whereas people are looking for a good deal, the decision at the end of the day really comes into how well you build a relationship with this person. Yes, competition is stiff, particularly when compared to other markets where possibly it’s a little cheaper. But that doesn’t necessarily mean certain clients won’t want certain types of professionals.
You may have somebody who is very specific about who they want to hire. They may want somebody who is licensed in California for example or they may want somebody who is able to actually physically visit the project. So there might be geographic filtering there that they request. So ultimately contractors shouldn’t feel that they’re out of luck necessarily because this has been outsourced to the globe. If they have a specialty in something chances are somebody would want to use that specialty.
Enoch: Great. So I definitely see clearly the benefit for contractors, in other words design professionals or designers that want to go on their and be able to create an income stream, but I’m also seeing a benefit for especially field practitioners or smaller firms. A lot of people that visit Business of Architecture are also practitioners who have smaller firms and they have to wear so many hats that outsourcing could possibly help them out to get a rein on their schedule and focus on doing what they love. So could you give an example of a couple of projects that a sole practitioner or a small firm owner could easily outsource on Archability? What are some examples of things that they could do with that?
Livingstone: There are a few. For example technology has changed this profession significantly just in the past few years and it’s continuing to do that and the market is demanding more and more use of new technology. So a small practitioner might not be able to have the time or the resources to invest in some of the software out there or some of the add-ons that might make a rendering more flashy or might not even have the technology in-house to do an animation for example and there are people out there that specialize in this exclusively and can do it much quicker than a sole practitioner and much more cost effectively. So those are projects that a small practitioner can very easily find talent for and Archability can help them in that process.
Enoch: So would it be reasonable to or could it be possible to establish an ongoing relationship, say a sole practitioner found someone who they could hand off red lines to and have an ongoing relationship with that person. Is that something that…?
Livingstone: Absolutely. [Inaudible] to hire for the long term. It’s not always one off projects that end and both parties go their own separate ways. Once relationships are built people often want to return to the same individual based on trust or based on just the comfort and the pleasure of dealing with that person. So yes, you can find somebody to work with and build a relationship with them that enables you to consistently go back to this individual for your needs.
Enoch: Great. What would you say to, let’s focus on a little bit of what the critics might say looking at Archability. I know we’ve discussed this before. A lot of designers when they hear crowdsourcing, they fear that it’s going to be downward pressure on wages and that you’re stealing jobs and that kind of line of thinking. What’s your response to that argument?
Livingstone: Well, change is always something that a lot of people will find difficult to adapt to and crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily – with regards to these types of services, crowdsourcing isn’t really one thing that we owe. It’s not bringing on a totally new way of doing business. It’s really supplementary to the current delivery methods. So the fear of it I think is usually for people who are not as intimately familiar with it. Ultimately it’s leveling the playing field to a certain degree and whatever benefit crowdsourcing brings to a certain professional, those benefits are accessible to all professionals. So if person, we’ll call them person X, is sitting in his firm in Manhattan somewhere, he could still gain from crowdsourcing just as much as somebody sitting in Delhi, India. It’s the ability to be able to reach a wide range of people to build relationships that would have otherwise been inaccessible and also to engage with a much wider platform. We are approaching the era where things like résumés are being made obsolete by one’s digital presence and we as a profession need to adapt to some of these changes. More and more clients are now looking for an architect’s digital presence. They want to see a website. They want to see a blog. They want to see the work that you’ve done online.
So you have to be able to utilize your online presence in a manner that allows you to get the greatest reach and crowdsourcing allows you to do that. You have a profile that is permanently there, accessible to just about anybody that you could use to engage, to become an influencer with how you interact with whoever comes across that profile and it’s just an additional avenue for you to reach out to the world with who you are and what you do.
Enoch: Okay. So what would you say for a freelancer that’s going to join Archability? What can that person do to boost their profile to the top or to get the best profile they can and have the best job of procuring some work? What tips could you give to our listeners?
Livingstone: Well, take the profile very seriously. Some people sign on very quick and set it up, not too much thought behind it, not too descriptive with some of their skills and the services they provide. One piece of advice would be to very descriptive. This is a case where less is not more. A diverse portfolio taking the potential client through various types of work that you are able to deliver, and not just work that has been completed, but also work that you’re in the process of doing since it’s just important for people to know what you’re working on now, whether or not you’ll actually finish it.
How you write too makes a big difference. There are people who are real sticklers for the grammar and for the ability to communicate effectively. So if you set your profile in a manner that tells a story, a good story of why you are here and what you expect to get out of this product and what you’re able to produce and what someone Is able to gain from what you’re producing. Then that will tend to attract a good number of people.
Enoch: Are people currently making money on your site, freelancers, Livingstone? I know that you’re ramping up. What’s the current throughput of your service right now?
Livingstone: Well, we’ve only been live less than a year and being a growing service we haven’t gotten the type of traction that we hope to build. So there have been a few projects posted. The average budget tends to be under $1,000. It tends to be between $300 and $500, 10% of which Archability keeps as its commission as a service fee more or less and the contractors keep 90%. So the average project so far has earned the contractor roughly anywhere between $250 to a little under $500.
Enoch: Excellent. And how many visits are you getting from clients right now? What kind of traffic are you seeing on Archability?
Livingstone: Well, it’s still growing, but right now we generally get between 150 to 200 visits a day, which is still relatively on the very low end and there are multiple reasons for that. One, we’re still bootstrapped right now. So marketing is not as effective as it could be because this is a vertical industry, a very highly targeted industry. We’re not getting the rush of crowds that other websites tend to get. Most people who come to Archability are coming for a specific purpose. But the turnover rates have been fairly good. We have just a little under 900 total registrants right now with just a little under 3,000 total visits post launch. So almost a third of everybody who has been to the website has registered which is fairly good.
Enoch: Excellent. I see this is great. I see a lot of potential here to benefit architects in terms of them outsourcing things and also help architects find some income as a lead generation source. So really looking forward to seeing Archability grow and encourage everyone to spread the word about what you’re doing and get on Archability and set up a profile and like you said, make sure that you spend the time making a good profile so that the clients will see the value in your services. Did you have any parting words about Archability? I have one close up question I wanted to ask, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t have anything else you wanted to tell us about Archability.
Livingstone: Well, we’ve been taking all the feedback from users and doing our best to improve the user experience, doing our best to provide some of the functionalities that they want to see and there are lots of changes that are currently in the works and there will be a new site revamp soon, this spring and that will be able to give people a richer experience, both from the client and the contractor as well. So we’d like people to keep coming back to the site. There will be changes coming and whatever they want to see we’re all ears. So they shouldn’t hesitate to let us know and we’ll try our best to accommodate those needs. But ultimately it’s a portal for them. So it can only work as best as they want it to work for them and we’d like to help them make it work as effectively as possible.
Enoch: Excellent. Well Livingstone, I can guarantee you that we will keep our thumb on Archability and we look forward to seeing it grow. Now just in closing, I’d just like to ask if you could share if there’s any architects out there that have that entrepreneurial bug that maybe want to branch out into something related to architecture ,but not necessarily in the field of architecture, what tips could you give them? If you’re sitting down with at a coffee and we’re just talking about “Hey Livingstone, I have this idea I want to market, I want to get out there.” What would be your advice to them?
Livingstone: Feel the fear and do it anyway. The greatest handicap is the self-doubt. I know I felt it and I know others are feeling it. There’s always this fear of well, what if I fail or what do I tell my friends, what do I tell my family? You don’t want to look like a fool to people. But all the greatest men and women who have been on this earth have experienced some significant failure in their lives and we are no exception. So that’s the most important thing, just bite the bullet. Yes you will fall. Yes you will keep stumbling, but hey, you could stand, brush off the dust and walk again. I’ve certainly learnt a lot during this whole process. I haven’t always made the right decision, but sometimes making a decision is far, far more important than not making that decision.
So that’s the most important thing, just do it and you’ll learn as you grow. You’ll learn along the way. A lot of people wait to have all the answers available provided to them before taking the plunge without realizing that the best answers and the best learning experiences come from swimming after the plunge. So those will be my parting words. If anybody would like anything further feel free to get in touch. I’m more than happy to share in more the experiences as well as hear from others what challenges they’re going through and see how we can help each other.
Enoch: Well, it doesn’t get much better than that. That’s a very inspiring message to live on, Livingstone. We appreciate it and thank you for your example. How should people get a hold of you? What’s the best way? Twitter, I know you’re on Twitter. What’s the best way for people to reach out to you?
Livingstone: I can be found at @Archability or my personal Twitter is @LivMuk. You could also reach me at Liv(at)Archability.com.
Enoch: Okay. And that’s LIv(at)Archability.com, right?
Livingstone: Correct. It’s much less of a mouthful than Livingstone.
Enoch: Okay. Thanks Livingstone. We really appreciate it. We’ll talk to you soon.
Livingstone: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being here.
Enoch: Okay. Bye bye.
Enoch: Well, that’s it for today.