Today we speak with a UK architect who understands that to market successfully, an architect must have multiple marketing channels. Our guest is architect James Butterworth of Studio J Architects. A few years ago James was let go from his corporate architecture job. Sitting at home in his flat, he considered his options. What was he to do next?
Over the next several months he developed a plan to start his own firm. The first jobs he got were from friends and family contacts, but then he put into place a marketing plan that started to bring in a steady flow of work.
In this episode you'll hear:
- The valuable advice that James' father gave him about running a good business
- James' advice on what to set up when starting a new firm (office standards, CAD software, bookkeeping, etc.)
- How James was able to find free office space for his young practice
- The differences between working with clients on large projects vs. small projects.
- Vist the Studio J Architects website
- Connect with James Butterworth on Facebook
- Connect with James Butterworth on Twitter
- Connect with James Butterworth on Google+
This interview is on iTunes. Subscribe above, and be a hero! If you know another architect who would benefit from watching this video, share away using the social share buttons.
Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:
Enoch: Welcome back, Architect Nation. This is your host Enoch Bartlett Sears, and this is the Business of Architecture show where we talk about two words that don’t often go together: “Money” and “Architecture.”
Yes, we talk about what a lot of architects don’t like talking about: how to make enough money as an architect to pursue the kind of projects you want to work on. Here on the show we believe that making good money facilitates making good architecture, and we want to inspire you to live a full life that isn’t hampered by the stress of paying bills or finding the jobs.
In this episode, James Butterworth, an architect from the U.K. takes us on a journey through the economic crash, getting laid off from his corporate architecture job, to fully booking his architecture practice, and looking to hire more people.
Now, James figured out how to market and get more clients for his firm. He appreciates that, as architects, we need various marketing channels to work simultaneously if we want to have real clients.
So, without further ado, here is the show.
Welcome back, Agile Architects to the Business of Architecture. Today, we’re joined by James Butterworth. He is the Principal and owner of Studio J. Architect in Leeds, United Kingdom.
So, James, first of all, welcome to the show.
James: Hello, Enoch. Thank you for having me.
Enoch: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you, definitely. James, we were just talking and you told me that you’ve been in business now as a sole-proprietor for a little bit over four years. Is that correct?
James: Yeah, that’s correct. Yes.
Enoch: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about your firm. First of all, give us an idea of what your firm does, your focus, so people can get an idea of who you are.
James: Sure. Well, I focus primarily on private clients, so whether that’s individual houses or extensions predominantly in the residential sector. I also work with small businesses like a cafe owner or things like that, but not the larger chains, so it’s the small, independent, and that kind of personal service through the one-to-one with the clients that I work with rather than a large group of clients.
Enoch: Excellent. With your previous firm that you were working with, what kind of work did you do there?
James: That was completely the opposite. I was in a very large commercial practice. We spent a lot of time working on education buildings for universities and colleges, also on leisure facilities, and civic center clients, and large developers, basically the complete opposite end of the scale.
Enoch: Well, those are definitely very different markets. What are the differences between working with those larger clients versus the kind of work you do now?
James: It’s very different. The things that you can take over I learned through the commercial marketplace, but it’s mainly the client that you’re working with. If you’re working with a developer, their end goal is for them to make money because that’s their job, which is fine for them to do that.
When you’re working with a private client, whether it’s their own house or it’s a small business, it’s a more personal thing that they’re looking for. They’re looking to improve their own lifestyle whether it’s getting a bigger house or a new house, or creating a work environment for themselves in a small group of people. It’s something that they inhabit at the end of the process. It’s not something that they’re building and then selling on for somebody else to use.
Enoch: So, how does that affect that client’s mentality in terms of the different viewpoints?
James: They very much want to be more involved, but more involved not necessarily to save money. They obviously have a budget, and we have to keep to that, and respect that. It’s getting the right end product for them, and getting it working for them and how they live.
So, they need to have that kind of control and understanding, but also they want the ideas and they want to work with you. Rather than saying, “Give me fifty flats in this block of lot and we have to get so many square feet to make the money back.” If they only have 50sqm or 45sqm, their end results for their profits doesn’t really impact whether it works for them as a family or a business – that’s the key thing.
Enoch: Excellent. How did you end up going from the commercial side to doing the residential-focused practice?
James: Well, back in 2009, which were when I was working with the practice in the beginning of 2009 – I presume it was quite similar in America. There was obviously a big financial crisis in the U.K. It hit the construction industry very, very badly. In some practices, pretty much about half of the staff was made redundant like me. I was one of those people.
The projects I was working on at the time was for some college buildings, some nice college buildings. All the funding was pulled from that, so none have been built. The company didn’t have any projects and, obviously, myself and several other people were made redundant.
Going forward from that, I was fully aware of the current climate. I’m thinking, well, there isn’t the ability for me to go to another practice because all the practices in the area were doing exactly the same thing. No one was hiring. They were all losing large portions of their staff. Obviously, the buildings in the commercial sector, very few were being built. So, for me to set up and try and build those commercial buildings would have been very difficult because there was a very, very small marketplace there.
What was happening was the residential market. Even though it was very difficult for a lot of people and people were very worried about their jobs, their stability in all sectors of the country whether they’re in finance, or in education, or in whatever, it was a very tough time for a lot of people, but they were still being employed, and they were still having families, and they were still needing extra space.
So, I saw that as an opportunity to, kind of, look at getting in to the residential market and looking at the extensions of people who are in their current home. They couldn’t afford to move because the cost of moving in this country is quite large. So, instead of using that money to move to a bigger house, they were looking at how they could extend and remodel their current house to suit their ongoing needs. So, that was the niche market which I, kind of, focused on to begin with because that’s where the work was and enabled me to keep practicing as an architect.
Enoch: Is there one of those industries that you prefer working in the commercial versus the residential that you actually enjoy more than the other?
James: Sure. Initially, obviously, when I worked for commercial practice for nine years, I enjoyed what I did, and I worked on some fantastic projects. Since I’ve gone to do the residential work, and the private, and the smallest scale commercial stuff, I much prefer that work.
The clients that you work with are a lot more amenable. You have a nice working environment. I don’t know if you have the phrase in America, but you don’t have the “designed by a committee,” which basically if you go in to a company you’ve got ten people around the table, and they’ve all got ten different opinions, and you’ve got to satisfy all of them. You also often have a husband and wife in residential who might have different view points, but it’s a lot easier to manage the desires and expectations for that and working with them; also, seeing the end results, and how happy they are, and how much it has genuinely improved their life.
Enoch: Excellent. So, currently you practice alone. Do you have a long-term plan for the firm? If so, what is it?
James: Sure. Over the last four and a half years I’ve been predominantly by myself. There have been periods where I’ve been a bit busier and I’ve employed another architect to work with me on short-term contracts.
As we go forward in the next, hopefully, this year and in the next couple of years, I plan to take on more staff, but no more than one or two people. I don’t want to grow to a large, commercial practice. I don’t want to end up just managing jobs and not doing any design work. I want to be an architect and design the buildings, work with the clients, and have that creativeness, but there are aspects of slightly larger projects where I needed a second or third pair of hands which will enable me to work better for the client and get them slightly more interest in their projects.
Enoch: Okay. What part of the business now that – you’ve been doing this for a while on your own and you’ve had to manage all aspects of the business – what part do you least enjoy doing?
James: I generally enjoy it all. I do. When I was with the previous practice, I worked on all the different aspects of architecture from the initial feasibility drawing, through the planning, and detailed construction drawings, and overseeing our site. So, I’ve got a good, kind of, foundation (excuse the pun) of all the different aspects of architecture.
Since then, I’m still doing all that. I’m still working from the designs from start to beginning, but I’ve learned about how to do accounts, I’ve learned about marketing, and all of the things like that which you need to be able to run a business, and I’ve enjoyed learning those things. It means coming in to the office every day is a different day every day. I’m not constantly churning out the same construction details or always looking at the same planning drawings and things like that. It’s a really wide variety of tasks that I get to do and I really enjoy that variety.
Enoch: How many hours a week would you say, just to estimate, do you spend running your business, the practice?
James: Running it or doing the architecture?
Enoch: I guess everything. I just want to get an idea of…
Enoch: For people out there who are listening and thinking about going out on their own, what’s the time investment for an architect to run their own firm?
James: [Inaudible 00:11:04] a standard week when I was in practice. I start a little early and finish a little early because where my office is I try to avoid the busy traffic. Because there’s nobody telling me what time to start up or go home, I choose to come in a bit early and finish early.
So, I work a normal week. Occasionally, I work to suit clients on evenings or weekends. If that suits them because of their busy working life, like tomorrow Saturday morning I’m going to see a client because they work away during the week and it’s the only time that they’re available. But, most weeks it’s Monday to Friday, seven hours a day, always giving myself a lunch break and things like that. I don’t push myself eighty hours a week or anything like that.
Enoch: Good. Well, that’s good to know that it doesn’t need to rule your whole life – work, you know, eighty, ninety, a hundred hours just to survive.
James: No. You don’t. It’s about working smart not working extra hours. If you know what the end result is, what you have to get, whether it’s designing the building or doing your accounts, it’s getting the end-result at the quickest and most manner while still getting it done correctly.
Enoch: It sounds like you must manage your time well to be able to keep your hours to that set amount per week. Do you have any tips or strategies for your time management and how you’re able to focus on what’s important?
James: Not really. I mean, just by my own personal nature I’m actually good at waking up in the morning. So, I don’t set my alarm clock and I haven’t for several years. I actually wake up and I’m happy to get up and come in to work.
A lot of people, kind of, fear Monday mornings and they’re looking forward to Friday afternoon. I don’t mind it because I enjoy what I do. If you enjoy it, you just go and do it. You don’t distract yourself by doing other things and putting things off, which is why things might take longer to do.
Enoch: I love it. James, you talked about at the beginning you have to do a lot of learning in terms of the financial bookkeeping, the accounting, probably taxes, everything that goes in to running your own business. Was there something that stood out as being particularly a surprise to you or a little bit of a challenge in terms of figuring it out?
James: Generally, I found it pretty, not easy, but I managed it perfectly fine until I became a limited company. I don’t know how the [Inaudible 00:13:44] work in America, but going from a sole-trader to a limited company, when you’re limited you have to get an accountant to fill out certain forms.
So, at that point I have to employ an accountant and take a bit of a back seat and allow him to do that, which is a little bit frustrating on my part because I quite enjoyed it. I still do as much as I can because it means I don’t have to pay the accountant as much. But, from that step of being a sole-trader to being a limited company, it means I have to give control to somebody else.
Enoch: What were the other options available to you in addition to a limited company over there in the U.K. that you could have gotten and why did you go with the L.C.?
James: There’s probably about half a dozen different types of company structures. I’m not an expert on these. I looked in to them to a certain extent, with other people. That’s always the best thing. Speak to your friends and family who have done something similar.
I went from a sole-trader to a limited company because the company income was growing. I wanted to separate my personal finances from the company finances. That’s the reason why I changed and it was the most sensible option through the advice that I was given.
So, you know, I was trusting other people. They gave me the various pros and cons of different things. In the long term it was definitely the best route.
Enoch: Wow. I guess we have less to choose from, fortunately, here in the States. I think there are about, maybe at the most, three different company structures that I would ever consider for an architecture firm.
James: There are a lot of variations on the same thing. There’s a partnership, or a limited partnership, limited liability – they’re all slightly different variations depending on where the liability is if you get sued, basically, things like that, but the most standard is a limited company.
Enoch: Sure. I can imagine that the structures are probably pretty similar in terms of the legal and the way they actually function. That makes a lot of sense.
So, James, I’d like to hear a little bit of the story of those days you found out that you were redundant and the economy was not doing well. Tell me what was going through your head. Was there any fear or doubt? I would love to hear what it’s really like to be in that position?
James: Sure. Yeah, there’s no getting away from it. It’s an awful position to be in because you not only lost your job which is bad enough, but the realization that there are no other jobs for you to go to. Previously if you left one job, there was another company that would employ you, but everybody was, in the architecture and construction industry, were all in the same boat. Even people who kept the job had big percentage reductions from their salaries.
So, the realization of well, you know, I’ve trained a long time to be an architect and I enjoy my job. I don’t want to do anything different. This is my career and this is how I want to spend my working life. So, to get that realization of, well, there’s nobody who’s going to be able to employ you, if you want to carry on, you have to go and find the work yourself.
So, I spent a few weeks ringing around various practices and seeing what was out there, just getting the same response and things like that, and staying with my family and friends. Then, it was a case of I was with a friend at a birthday party, just having a few drinks at the local pub. I was sat, chatting to a mutual friend of ours and he said, “Oh, I’m thinking of building an extension. Do you want to do that for me?” I said, “Yeah, I can do that.” It’s a bit of cash. It can keep me going while I find something else.
Then, a family friend that my parents were speaking with, they said, “Oh, well, we’re thinking of having some work done for our home,” this was slightly bigger home and a slightly more interesting project. So, oh, that’s two projects – and I’ve not really tried. These have just, kind of, fallen on my life. So, what if I actually made the effort to go and find this work? There is, obviously, a market out there.
Making that decision and having that realization I spent the next month or so working things like what I was going to call the company, which is a really hard thing to try and work out, making sure there’s an appropriate website address which I could use, and set up company logos, and standards, and things like that. I had everything ready for these jobs which I was working on and in the future when I was ready and waiting.
While I was doing this I was just doing it on my computer in the corner of… By that time I was living in a small flat in the center of Leeds. It was great social life, but really tiny flat. So, when you’re not working or going out, there’s not much space to spend your time in. So, I set up about thinking, “How do I get more work?” and started from there.
Enoch: Excellent. So, tell me a little bit about the timeline. When did you see the writing on the wall that the downsizings were happening in terms of how long was that before you were actually let go?
James: Well, for me, it was a really big shock because there’s myself and a couple of others working on this large project. It was for a [Inaudible 00:19:41] college. That’s for sixteen or eighteen year olds. It was to, basically, rebuild the college campus in this town.
I was talking to a colleague and we were aware of the economic downturn. We were like, “Well, yeah, it’s really bad, but we’ve got this project that’s going to be going for the next two or three years.” So, you know, we seemed to be alright. Then, we got a phone call, literally, the day before we’re going to go out [Inaudible 00:20:13] and get prices for it. They said, “The funding is gone. We’re not going to build it. That’s it. Sorry.”
So, we were a bit stunned. Then, there was a few little other projects in the company that we started working on but weren’t really involved in anything, so I kind of knew things weren’t great. Then, pretty soon after that we were all brought in to a series of meetings and they said, “Look, the company’s going to have to let a load of staff go, and we’ll talk to you all individually.”
That was probably all in the space of about three weeks from me thinking, “I’m okay here and I’m going to be able to ride out this bad economy,” to being home thinking, “What am I going to do?”
Enoch: Wow. So, that happened in the course of three weeks?
James: Less than a month, yeah.
Enoch: Wow. Then, from the time you were sitting there in your flat thinking, “Okay, here I am. What’s next?” to the point where you got that first extension and then you started to get a couple of projects. How long was that process?
James: That was probably in a month or two. It was over the summer time. I was spending that time landscaping my parents’ garden. So, I was keeping myself busy and trying not to get too upset and distracted, always trying to get going with things.
My parents needed their garden sorted out, so I, kind of, took to that. It got me out of my flat, and busy, and obviously, I was talking to my parents, and talking to them about what I should do. My dad had run his business for most of his working life. So, he gave me a few pointers of what to do, what not to do, what to watch out for, and things like that.
Yeah, it was probably about two months of, basically, having no income and not knowing what to do before going back and doing the architecture.
Enoch: Were you actively searching for a job during that time or were you just taking some time off?
James: I actively searched, certainly, immediately. I was, obviously, searching every day and looking around. There are only so many practices in the area. There are only so many practices in the country. When you’ve been to them all and they’re all saying the same thing, you soon realize how bad it was, and it was very bad. I’m sure it was very similar in the States and other countries as well.
Enoch: Yeah, I absolutely think it was. You said your dad ran his own business and he gave you a couple of pointers. Do you remember some of that early advice that he gave you?
James: Nothing in particular, but it was more a case of getting everything in place. So, don’t just start and put a website up, and then you get work, and you can’t deliver that work. You have to organize yourself, get all your standard CAD templates, and things like that, so when the work comes in, you can respond to it and do it to a high standard because those first few jobs are obviously really important. You don’t want to be giving the first few clients you’ve got a bad service whether it’s taking longer or is not as well designed and developed, or just the small things like that. So, it’s all about getting everything set in place, basically, walk before you can run.
Enoch: Okay. I would love to talk a little bit more about that James in terms of the things to get ready. You mentioned CAD templates. What other things should someone starting put in to place to make sure that they can deliver quality work once the work starts coming in?
James: Sure. It’s small things like having a good working environment. I was working in the living room of my flat initially. I knew that wasn’t going to be productive for very long because it was a small flat. Luckily, I was single at the time. So, yeah, I didn’t have to work around anybody else, but it wasn’t ideal. So, I managed to find an office, rent-free, through a friend of my dad.
Enoch: Tell me about that. Did you ask around? Tell me about the rent-free office. That’s an interesting resource.
James: I was, obviously, talking to my parents and I was seeing quite a lot of them at the time. I had a lot of free time. I was, kind of, complaining and saying: I want to make a go at it, but I just can’t carry on as I am. [Inaudible 00:25:10] crazy spending all this time in this small room and not being able to talk to anybody and things like that. It’s not a good address. I can’t bring any clients back there or things like that.
He subsequently was talking to a friend of his about what he was doing. This friend went, “Oh, we’ve got a few spare desks,” because like everybody else, they’ve made some people redundant. “They’re sitting there and not doing anything. You can come in and use the address for your business address.”
It was in a nice area in Leeds and it gave me that, kind of, professionality and some people inside. I could bring clients in because they had a meeting room. It gave me that base. Also, just being able to talk to other people during the day means quite a lot if you’re a sociable person even if it’s just a “Mornin!” or “How are you doing?” over getting a cup of tea in the morning.
It’s having that interaction that helps and spurs you on to get going especially when you’re in a working environment, you’re more likely to work, whereas at home, I have the T.V. on, I have the radio on. I still have the radio on now when I’m in the office, but I like working to music. But, you know, I will be distracted by watching the T.V. or I could think, “Well, I’ll go out for a run,” or something like that.
I wasn’t in a working environment. It was hard to focus and be productive. As soon as I moved in to the office, I was there all day every day doing things – as I said, getting all those standards, all those letterheads, and things like that all organized.
Enoch: Okay. So, we have letterheads, office templates like documents, CAD templates? Any other things? What else can we put out there for things to get in place?
James: Your accounts is a key one. You don’t have to pay for any expensive programs or anything like that. I’ve always used just Excel spreadsheets, and just knowing what’s coming in and what’s going out. I do it at the end of every month. You can see how things are going, and you can also predict if you just started a job and you know, well, I’m going to get paid X amount in two or three months time. When that project finishes, you can plan for that.
So, if you’re doing a marketing campaign and it’s going to cost you a certain amount of money, you may not have that available at the time… But, if you know in three months time that you’re going to have a lump sum coming in to your account from a project that you’re working on, you think, “Well, when that comes in, I want to invest that money to gain more projects.”
So, you’re now going to work on getting all the artwork done or ready if you’re putting, for example, an advert in a magazine or doing some flyers, or anything like that. You can get that all ready and ready to go. So, when the money comes in, it’s there, and you can go send it to the publishers, or whatever, and you’re good to go on the next stage of finding more work.
Enoch: So, did you design your own collaterals in terms of marketing pieces and advertising?
James: Yeah, I’ve literally done everything myself. Well, I designed my first website myself and, to be honest, it was quite rubbish, but it did the job for then. I’ve since then did a second one again and it was a bit better, but not great.
Then, I had a third one which I paid a friend to do. Because he was an old friend of mine, he did it for a good rate for me. So, brought in a favor, I gave him some favors and other things and introduced him to other people so that he got other work. So, following that, I had another website which was nice and looked professional. Other than that, I’ve done it all myself.
I went to many, many seminars and things like that, learning about these things, and I highly recommend that. There are a lot of free ones around. You don’t have to spend a fortune for it, whether they’re online, reading books, things like that, or through your local council and things like that. There were quite a few which were going around at the time, helping people to set up businesses. I learned a lot through that.
If you go to a seminar, it may last for an hour or two and you may only learn one thing. It may only be one small thing, but when you’ve been to ten or twenty seminars, you’ve learned ten or twenty things. That becomes a lot more important and you can really put those in to practice. So, all those small gains make a big gain at the end.
Enoch: Are there any books or seminars that stand out in your mind as being really pivotal in those early days?
James: I think, a key thing which I went to was learning about social media. That was something I was reluctant to at first because I don’t see the point in it. I was on Facebook just from a personal point of view. I didn’t see the point of Twitter at all, blogs. It was some things that I was well, “What was the point of that?” I went to a seminar and learned about it. Again, I wasn’t really seeing the point in it.
Then, I was talking to a friend of mine, and he was really in to Twitter and he explained it to me in a slightly different way. I said, “Alright. I’ve got nothing to lose, it’s free to use. I’ll start with it.” Learning Twitter and using it in a way that works for me rather than necessarily the way that the seminars were teaching me how to do it because we were in the room with twenty people with twenty different businesses, so how it works for one business or one person was going to be different. So, it was learning how to tailor that information for your own use rather than just a blanket, well, “Everybody else is doing it, I’ll do the same.”
But, learning Twitter and using twitter have given me links to other people which has led to projects, and given me an online presence which has led to a real world a real world presence because you meet people through it.
Enoch: Excellent. Do you remember how your friend described Twitter that intrigued you and got you interested in it?
James: Yeah. Basically, it was… I’m not sure if he called it this way or if I interpreted it this way: Basically, it’s networking but your sat in your computer.
So, instead of going in to a room full of fifty people and going around the room introducing yourself, and saying what you do, you’re doing that in your own time at the computer. So, you introduce yourself to people, talk about what you do, ask them what they do, give them some information. It’s about building relationships rather than selling.
I think it’s the same in real life networking events. You shouldn’t go up and just say, “I’m James. I do architecture. Here’s my card,” then walk on to the next person. It’s, kind of, about building that relationship, understanding the person. They may not need an architect then, they may never need an architect, but they have friends and families.
If you come across as giving a good impression, they’re likely to recommend you. It’s that kind of thing that has worked for me through Twitter, generating relationships with people, and then I’ve been recommended to other people who they know in an actual life or as a Twitter contact.
Enoch: It sounds like you had a fairly lean start up meaning that you minimized your costs. Tell me a little bit about how much money someone would need to go through the same process you did. How much money did you have saved up and how much of that was used? Can I get an idea of the financial picture to make this happen?
James: The only investment I made was getting a decent computer and setting that up. I have the various programs, AutoCAD and things like that, I already have them. If you don’t have them, you’re obviously going to need them because there are a few key ones which, well, personally, I use.
Enoch: Which ones are those?
James: AutoCAD, Photoshop, and the main ones, obviously, I use Outlook for my emails, and Windows, things like that. But, then there are a few programs like SketchUp which you can get for free and things like that. But, the key ones that I use is AutoCAD, which luckily I had a copy of it, otherwise, it’s quite expensive to buy here straight out.
Other than buying myself a computer, I’ve invested none of my personal money in to the company at all. Everything that I’ve earned in the early days I’ve put back in to it. I was lucky to have had bit of help through my parents and things like that. I lived on a shoestring. I ran the business on a shoestring. If I could do it myself, I would do it. If I didn’t know how to do it, I would ask somebody and, hopefully, they would tell me how to do it and say, “Actually, it’s not that hard. If you just learn it, it’s quite easy.” If it was beyond me, I would run out and ask their advice. You don’t need a big financial input.
Enoch: Okay. Are there any things, looking back, that you would have changed knowing what you know now? Is there anything that you would do differently?
James: I think I was, possibly, in the early days, I was more in the mindset that I was going to do these small residential projects, but as soon as I could, I would go back to doing commercial projects. I think the longer I’ve done these residential or the smaller commercial projects, the longer I realize that is the better future that I want to go down. I don’t want to go down to building these huge buildings.
In those early days I always thought, “Well, at some point, those big projects will come back and I’ll get back on them.” I was, kind of, gearing myself up too much or doing things in a slightly different direction where if I focused purely on the residential straightaway and the private firms, I possibly would have got to where I am now just a bit quicker.
Enoch: Well, James, I think that’s a good place to end the show. Thank you for joining us today on the Business of Architecture.
James: Thank you.