Tags: modativestart a firmsuccessful firm
Episode 052

The Secrets to a Successful Architecture Firm

Enoch SearsApr 4, 2014

Go behind the scenes with the principles of successful architecture firm Modative. Modative was founded in 2006 and has grown over the past few years. Today we discuss their goals and the principles behind their firm's success.

In today's episode we discuss:

  • Figuring out the why: your design philosophy
  • Collaboration vs. ego-driven architecture
  • The importance of building a business network
  • The one necessary ingredient for running a successful architecture firm (hint – it doesn't involve architecture)
  • The value of a having a good business sense in running a design firm

Show Notes

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Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]
Enoch: : Today is the second half of my interview with the firm Principals at Modative – a modern Los Angeles architecture firm. They launched their firm in 2006. And late last year I dropped in and visited their office, so this is actually the first time I have an on-location shoot. I encourage you to hop on over to my YouTube channel or the Business of Architecture show page on BusinessofArchitecture.com, and check out the incredible high-definition video we got on there. There's also a little tour of Modative's office that they moved in to last year that you might want to check out.

So, in this interview I get the inside story of how they built a successful, modern architecture practice that continues to grow year after year.

Here's the show.

Enoch: : Then, how many of your leads now come from your website and web presence?

Derek: : Still a bunch. I would say most of them. I mean, we’re starting to get to the point where there are some projects being built, so people know us that way or they’ve just heard about us tied to small lot subdivision. But, I mean, there are still multiples per week that are just raw, straight off the web.

Enoch: : Awesome.

Derek: : Yeah.

Enoch: : Well, I guess, one last question for each of you. I’d just like to know about your favorite project since you guys have been together?

Christian: : I would say that my favorite project so far actually isn’t an architectural project. I would say it’s a community outreach we’ve found ourselves doing lately. I never thought we’d start a firm and, sort of, become sort of a lobbyist.

With doing small lot subdivision now, we’ve taken a proactive approach including all the way down to our staff. Going to local neighborhood councils, community councils, even some of our guys go to other cities to talk about the benefits of small lot subdivisions in general. That’s been almost a design project in itself – organizing that, trying to figure out how to change people’s perspective on things, get them to think about innovative housing. To me, that has a greater impact than any one project can.

Derek: : For me it’s also hard to pinpoint one project. I don’t feel very… It’s odd, but I don’t feel very sentimental about them when they’re done. I feel like we do our job and then hand them off to future home people that live in them. In our case we don’t know those people. They come and they buy it after it’s built for the most part.

So, for me, I always say that my most exciting project is the next project, so the next one that comes in the office. I think I’m most excited about this idea which we’re starting to get to now. We’re explaining earlier how we’ve expanded a lot in the last year.

I like coming in and starting to have an idea where our staff is managing the project and we’re just, kind of, dabbling in it. We come in for design reviews, we’re in the major meetings, but that’s actually what excites the most: That the projects are happening and we have our hands in them, but the less we have our hands in them and that our young staff is actually bringing the projects along.

I like to see the excitement that they have in getting those opportunities to manage projects at a young age because I feel like I was given those opportunities too. It’s really nice to see. I’m almost most excited to see one of their projects that they’re managing make it all the way through and built, and just to see that reaction or what it brings to them and what it could fulfill in their life.

Enoch: : That’s great. You guys are really leaving a legacy. [Inaudible] from you two and that is awesome.

Since we have you guys here, I also want to ask you to tell me about your design philosophy because we’re not just talking about business of architecture here. You guys have a very distinctive design philosophy. Who would like to speak on that?

Derek, you have the mic. Go ahead.

Derek: : I’ve been losing my voice in the last few days, so I’m trying to save it. Actually it’s better today than yesterday.

That’s a really tough question to answer.

Enoch: : What drives your design? I think Michael touched on it a little bit.

Derek: : I think for us what people always tend to ask is: Are you getting bored of this small lot subdivision because you’re very focused on this one project type? To me the answer is clearly no. Because I think for us the design philosophy comes from what do we and what do our friends, and what does maybe our generation want in L.A.? That is a cool, relatively attainable place to live that doesn’t cost you a lot, where you can bike to work, or walk to work, or walk to a restaurant, walk to a bar and not have to sit on the freeway or live out in the boonies and commute in.

I think it’s driven more at a really personal level. That’s, sort of, how we got in to this product type was what can we do from an architecture and now construction side to better the city? So, it’s less about style, it’s less about those things. It’s more about that kind of goal.

For us, I think, what makes it interesting is even though they’re mostly in the city of L.A., every neighborhood which I didn’t even known growing up – I lived on the west side – every neighborhood is so unique in Los Angeles.

The other day, Christian and I drove out to a new job site. We’ve been on this major street with restaurants, and I’m like “I’ve never been in my life and I lived in L.A. my entire life.” So, I think the neighborhoods drive a lot for us, like seeing the neighborhood and how can we conform our modern aesthetic to that neighborhood. Then, also, every client brings a new, interesting challenge. What are their goals? What do they think is interesting?

So, I think those are the two things – the site context, and then the client and their personalities, and bringing those things together along with our desire to really better the city and make it a good place.

Enoch: : Awesome. You know, it would be great to look back in ten years at this conversation and see where you guys are at. So, tell me, where do you think you’ll be in ten years? In ten years I’ll send you an email and give you a call, and we’ll say “Hey, man [Inaudible]” So, tell me, where do you think you’ll be in ten years or where would you like to be?

Derek: : Hopefully like a beach in [Cabo]

Enoch: : I like that. [Inaudible]

Derek: : And just call in once a week.

Enoch: : It is Friday.

Derek: : Something like that. I don’t know. I think more of a… We talked about this earlier… More of a total turnkey solution, I think, for getting projects like this built whether that’s through clients coming through us or sort of our next jump is developing them ourselves and taking that to a new level.

But, I always like to say that in this office I feel like there aren’t a lot of egos. There’s a collective ego, a Modative ego, but I don’t think there’s a Christian, Derek, Michael ego in this office. We don’t care where the ideas come from as long as the whole group gets credit is what’s most important.

So, as the firm grows, it doesn’t really matter who’s designing it, who has what role as long as, I think, there’s a group success and a group accomplishment for the whole team.

Christian: : The only thing that I want to add to that is we have the great joy of creating this interesting housing all over Los Angeles. At the end of the day, one of the hardest things is always to turn that over to the developer, the new owner, and they get to move in and the staff moves on.

I’d say, for the most part, 99% of our staff rents. They never have the opportunity to live in what they designed and I think that’s a lot for most in this design world, in this field of architecture. You rarely get to live in the product that you’re designing for other people.

We have a personal goal to figure out a way to get everyone of our staff members in a project that they’ve designed or that they’ve developed on their own so that they can get the idea of what it’s like to experience it. So, in ten years I’d like to look back and see that everybody is living in one of these themselves.

Enoch: : Yeah, great. That’s amazing. One thing that I’m glad that you guys took the time to sit down with me and have this conversation is that there’s a lot of other up and coming young architects like here within your office but also obviously out there in the internet who see you guys and what you guys are doing. So, you guys have become and are becoming a sort of a figurehead for them. They look at you and say, “Man, I’d really like to do what they’re doing.”

So, Christian since you have the mic, what would you say to a young architect out there that wants to start his or her own firm? What piece of advice would you give them to help them achieve that and get to where you guys are at?

Christian: : I would say, most people immerse themselves in the world of Architecture as much as possible. Probably 100% of their time is in the world of Architecture. I would say, take a step back from that. Get out of the world of Architecture and understand what everybody else is doing in other types of business.

I would say that most of what we’ve experienced and advice we’ve gotten to become successful hasn’t been in the Architecture world, it’s been with other entrepreneurs that have started their own businesses and even failed – lawyers, other business people, MBAs. Number one, I would say, go get an MBA instead of going to graduate school in Architecture. Go to get your Master’s of Business in school.

Everything is in this world revolves around business. If you don’t have a good, strong core understanding of that, it’s going to be hard for you to sell your great ideas and do the design work to the people that are ultimately paying for it, which are people that are really schooled in the world of business, not architecture.

Enoch: : Yeah. Shameless plug for Business of Architecture – If you want to find out more about business, feel free to visit the Business of Architecture.

In addition to getting an MBA, what other ways, what other examples or concrete steps would you recommend that someone do or follow to get to…

>> [Inaudible]

Enoch: : [Inaudible] to get the business experience, like you said, to get that business education? You also mentioned learning from other entrepreneurs. I’d like to dig in to that just a little bit more and figure out how they can…

Christian: : You know, I would say, in the school level, join clubs in school; networking groups that are outside of the architecture school itself whether that means you’re joining a fraternity or sorority, or a business group.

Once you get out of school, it’s a very similar process whether you’re dealing with the ULI, young real estate development groups. There are a lot of things out there outside the world of architecture that people are doing. Networking is key. I don’t think any of us would be in the situation we’re in today if it wasn’t for the leveraging of relationships that we had fresh out of school.

I think that’s key is building up that network because ultimately architects don’t hire other architects to do work, it’s the other people out there. So, spreading that network and growing it is key.

Enoch: : Okay. So, you mentioned the Urban Land Institute or ULI. Is there a favorite networking niche or resource that you would just say, “Hey, if you don’t have something to do tomorrow, go step out and join this club or this organization.”

Christian: : I think, for us, the ULI was a big one. It allowed us to meet other people that are tied in to this field that aren’t necessarily designers, or architects, or engineers. But, at the end of the day, I think it’s anything that you’re ultimately passionate about. You could be really in to sports, you could be really in to – you know, whatever it is. There is some kind of group out there and somewhere within those groups is going to want good design. If you could latch on to those people and their opportunities, and sort of ride that wave, it can open up doors for you.

Enoch: : Awesome. Any other words of advice for other young, up and coming designers because hopefully they’ll find this, and…

Derek: : I only say it because I was just on that topic that Christian was just saying… I often tell people when I tell our, kind of, story of how we started that if you’re planning on starting an architecture firm, specially if you’re in your twenties like we did – late twenties?

Christian: : Yeah.

Derek: : Yeah, late twenties. The only people that are going to hire you are family and friends because nobody really trusts an architect that doesn’t have anything built under their name when in their late twenties, so what Christian said is completely valid. Strangers are probably not going to hire you. They’re not going to look at your website and come in, and see a face with no wrinkles and no grey hair, and say, “I’m hiring that person.”

So, finding those friends, and those connections, and finding people that trust you is important because when they’re buying architecture, they’re spending more money than they’re going to spend on anything. It makes a car look like peanuts as a purchase. So, you have to have an ultimate trust with people. Strangers don’t tend to trust architects in their late twenties or even early to mid-thirties. So, you have to have that.

For us, that was partially that and then partially focusing on something where we feel like we knew it as well as anyone else – and that was a small lot subdivision ordinance.

Enoch: : Gentlemen, thank you for sitting down with us. Is there an opportunity for us to go around and meet the people in the office or maybe just get a tour of the office and see the people that make this machine run?

Christian: : Yeah.

Enoch: : Okay. Let’s do it.


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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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