The Loneliness of Firm Ownership

I haven't practiced architecture full time in years, but if there's one thing I know about small firm ownership – it's lonely at the top.

Leaving the full-time practice of architecture has given me an amazing opportunity to see the profession and practice of architecture from the outside – instead of within.

With my experience managing and running my own firm while I was a practicing architect, I know the stress of firm ownership.

I know what it feels like to have the plan examiner or fire marshal continually return the plans with corrections even though we've gotten similar things approved in the past.

I know what it feels like when the contractor blames you for having crappy drawings – and then rides in like the knight in shining armor to save the hapless client (that you've ‘taken advantage of').

I know the disappointment of losing a project because someone else was cheaper or the client chooses another firm without telling you why.

This leaves you confused – wondering what you did wrong. And the client gives some bogus answer (they're a ‘large' firm).

Not knowing exactly why you lost the project (or how to fix it) leaves you frustrated and despondent.

The constant stress of being ‘always on' trickles down to your family life. You check emails and texts while you're on vacation.

If you don't, they'll build up and you'll spend your first two days back on shift just answering questions.

So your spouse nags you, directly or indirectly, to put away the work and enjoy yourself.

But you can't. You might miss an important email.

If you miss this email something catastrophic might happen or a client might get angry.

If the client has a bad experience, they'll tell other people and your reputation will be tarnished. If things really go downhill, they'll sue you.

Your children see you checking emails, and interpret this to mean that your work is more important than them.

This isn't the truth, but they're kids – they don't understand the complexities of adult life, or the pressure that you're under.

So they grow up with a story that you weren't around much.

No wonder you can't sleep well at night.

Living under constant stress affects your health as well.

After fighting all the fires at work, the last thing you want to do is exercise or eat something healthy.

Your body craves sugar because of the constant pressure. So you eat processed foods and snacks and end up feeling worse than before.

When you take a moment to be introspective, you wonder, “Is this all there is to life?”

And in the quiet moments, when you're alone, you feel disconnected from your God, your creator, the higher power that moves around you and through everything.

Your soul is hungry, you're searching for something more.

Contrast this to when you started the firm.

You were full of motivation and excitement for the new experience.

You looked forward to the perks of choosing your own schedule and choosing the kinds of projects you want to work on.

You looked forward to creating a firm culture better than the one you left.

You were excited about being the master of your own salary – being able to make as much as you wanted (or at least working on the fulfilling projects that compensated for a crummy salary).

This motivation kept you moving during the initial years. You love what you do, but you don't get to do what you love often.

This battle is fought in your own head, between your own two ears.

As a firm owner, you don't have anyone who understands the pressure and stress of running a firm.

Your employees don't understand – they're there because you pay them. If you didn't, they'd go somewhere else.

Your friends and family don't understand – they think you have it all figured out, that things are great – and your happy to keep them thinking that.

Other firm owners like you do understand, but you can't exactly depend on them because at the end of the day you're going after the same food.

So what's the key to getting out of this cycle? What's the key to lighting your firm on fire, freeing yourself up and loving architecture again?

There are 4 simple steps:

  1. Getting real about where things are now
  2. Creating the vision of where you want things to be
  3. Putting into place the actions to make that vision happen
  4. Testing and iterating until you find what works for you

Yes, it really is that simple. Simple, but not easy.

If you're looking for a shortcut, then I invite you to check out my DREAM Practice Accelerator.

Dozens of firm owners just like you have used the Accelerator to increase their freedom, fulfillment and finances – and the best part is – they don't feel alone any more.



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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