How 5 Architecture Firm Owners Built Their Freedom Firm (Case Studies)

Why do many architecture firms owners feel overwhelmed and swamped?

It's no secret that running an architecture firm can be an all-consuming pastime.

However, it doesn't have to be this way.

The Secret To Reducing Architecture Firm Overwhelm and Frustration

In his book The E-Myth, best-selling author Michael Gerber identifies why most small businesses don't work, and what to do about it.

Gerber observes that the small business owners who fail share similar characteristics, while those who succeed do so not by luck, brains, or skill, but by taking a different approach.

Because most small businesses are started by “technicians” (people who are good at their craft or profession and venture out on their own) they often focus on their craft to the exclusion of the other aspects of running a successful enterprise.

Without clear goals and quantifiable benchmarks, these small firm owners end up overworked, underpaid, and incredibly stressed out.

“Where is the freedom I want and need so desperately?” they wonder.

Unfortunately, many have given up on reducing the overwhelm and just assume “this must be the way it has to be…”.

However, as Gerber shows in his book, the stress and overwhelm can be largely eliminated with the proper company culture, processes and systems.

…the stress and overwhelm can be largely eliminated with the proper company culture, processes and systems.

This is why business systems coach Scott Beebe and I recently took 9 architecture firms through the DREAM Practice Accelerator.

In this program, these firms created the strategic foundation for killing overwhelm, improving quality and client service, and reducing the stress and frustration that is all too common as an architecture firm owner.

You Be the Judge

Read on, and be inspired by the stories of these firm owners who made the investment of time and money to work ON their business, not just IN their business.

As you read these stories, you'll notice that each firm owner had unique insights and value they got from actually applying this process, instead of just reading about it.

– Entry 1 –

“Time to stop practicing – and start profiting!”

By Robert (Bob) Murphy, A. Robert Murphy Architect

Architect Robert "Bob" Murphy Flying His 1940 de Havilland Tiger Moth
Architect Robert “Bob” Murphy Flying His 1940 de Havilland Tiger Moth

Before I discovered the DREAM Practice Accelerator, I was shy and retiring.

My firm was scrawny, a real business weakling, and all the other architects kicked sand in my face.

They also dated all the cool, sexy clients – and I couldn’t get a referral to save my life. But now, since having my eyes opened to the savvy ways of having a Freedom Firm, all my dreams have come true – architecturally speaking.

While surfing YouTube, trying to escape the pain of my pitiful daily grind, I came across the sonorous stylings of marketing guru, Enoch Sears. His mellifluous urgings to better myself and my business prompted me to return again and again, and to eventually seek him out in other forums as well.

Accustomed to the disappointment of buyer’s remorse, I was leery of prophets preaching profits and doubly doubtful that the beleaguered Canadian dollar would make this promised pilgrimage to improved practice any more palatable. Thankfully, I was wrong.

What made me join? Fish or cut bait? Sink or swim? A leap of faith? Take your pick. I went for it.

Not every recommended tactic has been adopted – yet.

With a firm of only 4, including one recent hire, regular meetings seem forced.

In our small, open office there are no secrets and few surprises. However, we have taken to regular lunch dates outside the office to allow us to focus on specific issues and to foster esprit. We will strive to get the meetings formalized in time.

The Vision/ Mission /Values came together quickly and well and I feel it is an authentic representation of what we stand for as a firm. We have added our Core Values to the company letterhead and that has led to some interesting questions by both existing and potential clients – always a good thing.

We had a chance to “walk the walk” in a recent RFP where we had the courage to tell the prospect that their budget was unrealistic. Although we were unsuccessful on that job, we were awarded two other much larger jobs by the same client on the strength of our “Imagination + Commitment + Drive”.

The biggest single benefit of applying what we've learned in the DREAM Practice Accelerator has been the switch in my mind set from an ad hoc, lifestyle centered business to a more purposeful one, capable of running without my direct daily input.

Such a business can support a future succession or sale, providing me with an exit strategy I was totally unaware of before taking the course.

Messrs. Enoch and Scott provide an ever informative and entertaining dialogue that reflects both their extensive business wisdom and unique personal insights.

Their constant coaching, coaxing and cajoling to stick to it and perform has been a welcome and necessary benefit throughout the program.

Implement – or die.

Within the first few weeks of the program we had locked in our Vision, Mission and Core Values which in turn gave us a much needed business compass from which to objectively evaluate our options moving forward across a broad spectrum of issues.

The DISC profile for myself was eerily accurate and I will be getting the rest of the staff done in the near future to assist me in making better use of their latent talents and aptitudes.

The Delegation Road-map has been crucial to my efforts to transition the firm from one that revolves around my own personal experience and network of contacts to one that is gradually being recognized for its own collective identity, skills and culture.

With a new conception of the firm, I have begun to consciously cull my existing clientele – to weed out the ones whose values and business practices are at odds with our own.

We are raising prices in a methodical manner to ensure that our considerable expertise is both appreciated and well compensated.

We have begun a disciplined program of outreach to market our services to a much broader clientele to whom we know our vast experience will be both welcome and valuable.

To help us do this quickly, we are harnessing our network of industry contacts as referral generators – a role they seem very happy to play. Who knew?

The DREAM Practice Accelerator has given me, in an accelerated time frame the practical business knowledge never afforded me by either a B. Arch degree – or 30 years of seat-of-the-pants “practice”!

Time to stop practicing – and start profiting!

– Entry 2 –

“I feel empowered…I've designed my perfect job, the perfect clients, and the perfect firm!”

Zdenak Sarolic, ArchitectBy Zdenka Sarolic, Studio NEXAR, Croatia

Before going through the DREAM Practice Accelerator

I was struggling with the organisation of a growing firm!

All my time was consumed working in the firm, not on the firm – responding to fires, and losing sight of the bigger perspective.

The DREAM Practice Accelerator with Enoch Sears and Scott Beebe came as an answer to my questions, through the Business of Architecture site.

It took significant resources in terms of time and money, but I don’t regret it.

The enthusiasm, the clarity and improvement it provided was worth it.

It was my first experience with a business coach, and I was surprised how motivating and empowering it is – to have someone helping you to grow your business.

A year ago I tried to write down my mission and vision, but I couldn’t because I didn’t essentially understand the point of doing it, so I quit.

Again, within the DREAM Practice Accelerator I also struggled to define these, but then I had my breakthrough when it came to describing our unique core values…then came the light! After that I redesigned our database system completely (because it was a mess), and…

…then another revelation happened!

I realized I need to train and equip my project managers (that is,  my lead architects) to lead projects both in terms of architecture AND time/budget!

It was my constant nightmare seeing red lines in Harvest, knowing that we were already running out of our alloted time, with a project manager struggling with details or something else. I realized I wasn't explaining properly to them exactly how I want them to do their job, and what it means to do it successfully, so one of my first training processes for this fall is to better define the project manager role.

The third revelation came applying our core values and job roles principles to our subcontractors – why would I loosen standard for them, or not define it at all, just because they are not my employees?

Bad subcontractors (disrespectful, late, uncooperative…but we were working with them for certain reasons) were our constant pain and money loss. When I applied core values on their behavior, I decided that it is their last project with us, and we are moving forward – hiring new subcontractors whom we will love to work with!

In the last two months of the program I started implementing new principles in the firm, and I embedded our values and vision in our marketing materials, hiring processes, and meetings.

I'm amazed how happily and readily employees, and especially project managers have accepted it all and started implementing from day one!

I also had them write down some processes and checklists, and gave them new responsibilities.

After a few months I took the time to rethink and rework our values – the insight it provided me was awesome. The first time I wrote our values it was in English, so it was valuable only to me.

For deeper implementation I had to rewrite and rethink it all in Croatian (we are a Croatia-based firm).

This opened a whole new world for me…I really felt empowered, as if I've designed my perfect job, the perfect client and the perfect firm!

This all has become tangible to me, as if it already exists.

Now I know how to achieve my vision!

– Entry 3 –

“I Found the Freedom…[and] freed up the mess!”

By Susan Tusick, Tusick & Associates Architects, Inc.

Architect Susan Tusick doesn't disappoint with a creative transformation story!

Watch it here:

– Entry 4 –

“Confidence In My Commitment To Grow…”

Peter Drey, D+EBy Peter Drey, d+e=design+environment

As the financial crisis eased, the prospect of revving up my firm and charging back into the fray was intimidating. Honestly, I'm happy to be independent again after an interlude with a big national firm, and I am also well positioned to rebuild.


I remember how hellaciously tough it was building my firm the first time twenty years ago.

And, frankly, it was never very profitable.

This time I am determined to rebuild it systematically and rationally, leveraging the good will I’ve already established and focusing on profitable projects that match my skills and interests — the kind that I’ve achieved success with in the past.

My goal is to create a practice where younger professionals will want to work, grow and invest, allowing me to slowly step back from the executive role and instead contribute as an experienced architect and urban designer in a less intense capacity.

How to do it? Luckily, there are business development experts out there nowadays offering coaching to new, growing businesses — a service that wasn’t available to me last time. Scott and Enoch offer one that is a tailored to my circumstances.

I’d already been enjoying Enoch’s Business of Architecture program and podcasts, and was impressed with his content and the sheer volume of follow through.

So it was easy to get interested in a program when the right one appeared. The DREAM Practice Accelerator perfectly fit my idea of how the firm should be organized to operate and grow to achieve profitability.

As the program comes to conclusion (though I haven’t really kept up fully,)…

…our vision, mission and values are established and systems are steadily falling into place.

I’ve begun defining essential roles and delegating whatever tasks I can so that I’m free to work on the business’ bigger purpose.

My #1 concern was writing the check. This was the hardest decision. Revenues don’t cover costs right now, so spending [reinvesting in my business] really means committing to energetically working to build the firm. I’ve got to be judicious. Obviously, I regard it as a smart investment.

Biggest obstacle: getting satisfied with the Vision, Mission and Values.

Good results? Definitely, they’re here already. I’ve focused on my core market opportunity; I’ve undertaking rebranding and am recharging my website; systemizing office operations; actively pursuing opportunities; reconnecting with the marketplace.

Best result…

…confidence in making the commitment to grow (defeating the lizard brain!)

– Entry 5 –

“Our Company Has Grown Professionally and Financially”

By Ramiro Torres, TOPA Architecture

Ramiro Torres prefers speaking to writing, so he has recorded his transformation story.

Watch it here:



Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.

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