Architect Interview: Starting a firm with Oscia Wilson on Business of Architecture TV P1
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Architect Interview: Starting a firm with Oscia Wilson on Business of Architecture TV P1

Intro: This is The Business of Architecture. Helping architects conquer the world. And
here is your host Enoch Sears.>>So I’d like to welcome everybody out
here today. This is Business of Architecture blog webcast and today we have the honor of
having Oscia Wilson with us. She is the owner of Boiled Architecture and
Oscia has been doing some very, very cool things that I’ve been watching for a while
now and she was gracious enough to let us have some time and talk a little bit about
what she does at her firm.>>My pleasure.>>So Oscia the first question I had for you
was what question should I be asking you?>>Well, I’m sure that you can think of
all the right questions to ask me, but I get a lot of questions about how did you do it
with that sort of open, I don’t even know where to start kind of question from a lot
of architects, especially the young ones and I’d like to say that I don’t have a magic
formula. I did it because I had a lot of help and I worked really hard and here’s what
I did. So I lay out the basic formula. (A) I have a husband and he paid all the bills
for the first year. So I like to be really frank about that because I’ll be completely
transparent about how much money it really takes to start a firm because if you don’t
know that going in, you’re just going to fail. So I don’t think it does anybody any good
to pretend like so I sort of like made this out of nowhere. It makes money to do it. So
the second thing I did was I started taking business classes for nine months before I
ever launched the firm every weekend. So I had money. I had some knowledge, of course
not nearly enough money. I took all my savings and took out loans to do it. I got business
knowledge. The third thing I did which I don’t see a lot of other architects who go around
doing is that I hired the most experienced people that I could find immediately. So I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t
something I could do on my own, that I had to have partners and since I couldn’t find
founding partners who were on the same wavelength and ready to quit their jobs, I had to get
those partners through hiring. So the first two hires that I made were gentlemen in their
60s and the reason why is that they had connections, they had experience , nothing was going to
faze them. So that was absolutely the best decision that I made. So when I get that kind
of blind question like how did you do it, those are the three things I tell people.>>Awesome. So that really is a lot of information
there and can you share with us, you said you don’t mind sharing how much money it
takes to launch an architecture firm. Obviously it would vary from firm to firm, but how much
money realistically, if you can give us a ballpark figure, does it take to do what you
did?>>That’s a good question and I wish I had
sat down and added it up before I got to you, but let’s see. So I put $20,000 in cash
right in, right away and then I worked for free for the first year. So you can add in
whatever you think your wages are worth for that period of time and then I also took out
loans of about $40,000 and put that in, basically paying for my employees. That’s what that
went for. So roughly $60,000 plus your own wages as an owner for the first nearly a year
I was in.>>Okay and now $40,000 for two experienced
architects. That sounds a little bit on the low side. Was that sort of a part-time arrangement?
How did you accomplish that?>>Yeah, absolutely. I could only afford to
hire them part-time. So I would say they worked 20 hours a week starting out and then because
I chose people who were a walking asset we were able to start getting a little bit of
income coming in the second or third month right away and then after that it was not
a problem paying them. It was a problem paying me, but it was not a problem paying them.>>Awesome. How did you find these gentlemen?
I know that with the job market right now it seems to me that I’ve seen a lot of very
experienced architects out there who are just like you said. It sounds like you hooked up
with some great guys that have done some great things and they’re looking for opportunities.
How hard was it to find those gentlemen?>>It is hard to find the right fit and you’re
right that there are a lot of people who are unemployed and so when I did advertise, I
advertised on Craigslist to the IA and just through my friends networks and I got a lot,
a lot of applications each time that I’ve hired. But the problem is that because I’m
running a start-up, it is a very non-traditional role for an architect. So I find very few
people who are well suited to the role and what I mean by that is that when you’re
running a three person firm or a four person firm, an architect is not just an architect.
They have to do project management, design, construction documents. They even have to
do business development. They have to be comfortable with all of those roles and I find it very
difficult to find architects who are outgoing enough to want to meet people and follow up
with those relationships and do the kinds of things it takes to be part of a start-up.>>Very interesting and I mean, that’s – just
hearing it from my side, that’s a big package. You’re talking about someone who’s outgoing.
A lot of architects that are really great at their craft prefer to be inside of a room.
They’re not really the people person I’ve noticed. Out of those qualities, which one
would you say is the most important? Is the outgoing side the most important technical
competence?>>I would say open communication is the most
important. So willing to talk about one’s own mistakes and willing to ask uncomfortable
questions. Those are the two most important things because you’re an architect which
means you’re running a team. You have a whole team, especially in my firm where we’re
doing forms of integrated project delivery where in addition to having our engineers
that we are collaborating with and the owner, we also have [property] builders. So you’ve
got all these people in the room all of whom have really different cultural backgrounds
that they’re coming from and you have to be brave enough to say ‘I don’t get this.
What does this mean? Maybe it’s just me but that sounded wrong.’ It’s tough to
find architects who are able to do that effectively.>>You bet because when we say we did something
wrong, we’re always afraid there’s going to be a lawsuit coming down the pipes, right?>>Yeah.>>Now and how do you discern that in the
interview? How did you vet these candidates? Because I could see how that would be difficult
to find that quality through an interview process, or how did you find that?>>Okay. You’re going to think this is weird,
but I actually held my interviews in group format. So I had I think 12 people come to
interview all at one time in one big room for one position and I had a series of questions
that I asked and we run around the table and each person answered the question. So it was
by design a slightly stressful environment where they were having to answer questions
knowing that they’re being evaluated and judged by their very competitors and mostly
I did that because it was an efficient use of my time, but I realized as a nice side
effect it was also going to assess out people who were able to hold their own in a difficult
situation and actually two people declined to apply because of that situation and I thought,
that’s a good way of weeding out people who are not going to be able to cut it.>>Yeah, you bet. Absolutely and that blows
my mind as something ultra creative. Is that an idea that you came up with on your own?
Did you find that idea through some business courses that you took?>>I know that that’s pretty common in retail
environments and so I spend a lot of time thinking about things I can steal from other
industries and apply to architecture because if you take it from another industry, you
don’t have the lens of prejudice to look through of what everybody has told you is
supposed to be the right way to do something. So I had heard of that and it just seemed
to make a lot of sense to me. So I didn’t even think twice about using it for architecture.>>Awesome. One thing I noticed that looking
at your LinkedIn profile is that you’re also doing an MBA currently. Is that right?>>Yeah, that’s right. So when I started
taking business classes on Saturdays, I was actually enrolled in an MBA program. Still
am, a part-time program at University of California Berkeley designed for working people. So I’ve
been taking classes on Saturdays for nearly three years now. I’m almost done. Yeah,
so I did that specifically because I didn’t want to be an architect. I wanted to be a
CEO. So I am an architect and that helps me run an architecture firm, but the reason I
think that most architects struggle when they go out on their own is because they think
of themselves as architects and I think you need to absolutely dispel that myth.
When you go out and you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a CEO, period. You’re not an architect
any more. So, you need to spend 90% of your time thinking about how you run an organization,
how you structure it, how you get clients, how you’re going to build them, how you’re
going to pay people, how you’re going to make an employee manual. That’s what you
spend your time on. If you think you can do both, you’re wrong. You’re just wrong.
So if you do any back of envelope Math, basic round numbers, how much do you think you can
get an hour as an architect? Let’s say you’re in San Francisco let’s say 120. If you’re
in any other city, it would be smaller. At 120 an hour, how many hours you really think
you can work on billable hours, let’s say maximum you’re 80% utilization?
So that doesn’t come out to very much money, right? So and that assumes you have all the
work that you can get, but in reality it’s a full-time job just to get the work. So how
do you really think you’re going to be able to bring in that many clients on that extra
20% of your time, like one day a week doing business development? It literally doesn’t
work out, like it’s just not reality. So I did that back on the envelope Math before
I started. What I saw was that it didn’t seem like I can make a living unless I had
a team of at least three to four people minimum. So I saw that right away because I knew that
it takes a full-time job to get the work and at least one full-time job to do the work
and then that ratio, one non-billable percent to one billable percent, it just does not
work out. You need a few billable people to support
1% who’s not billable. So I know I just used a lot of like big words and sometimes
it’s confusing, but none of those concepts are difficult. I guarantee anybody who’s
smart enough to be an architect is smart enough to learn them. So there is one book that I
can recommend that covers all of these terms and some basic calculations.>>Please.>>Gosh, I thought I had it on my desk, but
it’s called Financial Management for Design Professionals. So I recommend that.>>Okay. Is that by Steve Winter, Wintner?>>I can actually grab it. I don’t know
if you have a way of editing this video so that you like take out the time it takes me
to run…>>We do it all live so let’s just skip
over that. We’ll add this to the show notes. We can put a little link on there to the book
that you’re talking about.>>Great.>>Now, if it’s the book I’m thinking
about, that’s a hefty tone.>>It’s a small book, the one I’m talking
about. It’s only half an inch thick. I guarantee you can do it.>>Nice. So Oscia, the other thing I’m thinking
about when I hear about what you’re saying is I think you have a keenly entrepreneurial
mind, the way that you’ve attacked this and the way that you’ve analyzed architecture.
So was there ever a moment or how did you decide to go through with architecture? Because
in my mind, from my perspective there’s lots of entrepreneurial pursuits out there
and arguably some of them would be better suited to your talents and your capabilities
and might provide more of a payoff. How did you justify staying in the field of architecture?>>So I started out as an architect. I never
considered doing anything else since I was 12. I wanted to do that because it combined
art and science and I was good at both. So I thought it’s going to be a great thing
to do. I also had the strange thought that it would be great for a woman who was going
to have kids because I thought I can do that from home someday which is true. But I laugh
because unless you’re working on your own, chances are you’re stuck in a firm that
expects 50 hours a week which is really not conducive for raising kids. But that’s a
whole other story. Once I got into architecture I found that
I liked it, I was very good at it and it wasn’t really – I didn’t really get into entrepreneurship
or the business side of it until I started researching integrated project delivery. So
the way that this happened was I was researching integrated project delivery and in so doing
I had to learn a lot about contracts and delivery methods. I had to learn what was the difference
between design, then build and design build and integrated project delivery and pre-construction
services and seeing that risk and those were things that I really had never thought about
before and they’re all about management structures.
It’s very little to do with how do you design buildings and it’s everything to do with
how do you manage teams and how do you get those teams to design a building efficiently.
So when I started learning about these things, I thought wow, I’m really good, I like this,
like I could do this, like I can be a project manager. That was the next mental leap for
me. I took project management civil architecture. Well, then I had started reading about the
contracts themselves and learning about the liability risks because I was leading a research
committee on IPD and so I needed to understand the legal risks.
So I started vetting the contract language very carefully with several lawyers and in
doing that, I found I had real interest and aptitude for understanding the legal side
of architecture and because so few architects are interested at all in that, I thought well
maybe that’s a good niche for me. Maybe that’s what I should do with my career.
So I started talking and writing about the legal and the business side of architecture
and how it works and found that the place where I worked was pretty traditional and
not interested in changing any of those things to be doing [inaudible] project delivery.
So I realized that if I wanted to work at a place that did IPD, I might have to actually
create that place myself because there was such a direct connection between a culture
of a company and the way that it operates its projects.
So when I made that mental leap, like oh, it might actually be easier to create a brand
new culture than to try to change an existing culture, that’s when I started to think,
maybe I could be an entrepreneur. Maybe I can be the one owning the business and then
after that that’s when I got into the MBA program to see if I liked it and at that time
I still was considering maybe I climb the corporate ladder instead of creating my own
corporate ladder. But the economy means that people are not retiring and I found that there
wasn’t a lot of opportunity to move up the corporate ladder at the pace that I was capable
of. So that’s when I decided all right, I’m going out on my own.>>Wow. So that’s a good segue to ask I
guess what’s your primary motivation to do it on your own? Was the company culture
the major thing?>>Yeah. The company culture was the major
thing for me because I think that that is the key to high quality deliverables. I think
that’s the key to happiness in general. So I find that I get unbelievable performance
out of my employees, not because I pay them better, not because they’re smarter than
other employees, but because I do this strange thing called train them and trust them. Train
them to do what they’re supposed to do and then I trust them to do it on their own schedule
in a way that they want to do it and then we talk about it openly and lo and behold,
great things happen and all that is, is just company culture. It’s just running a company
well.>>Absolutely and you have – I’m going
to read something off your website here that sort of ties into that that I thought was
very interesting. It’s you talking about being transparent on projects and if I may
it says “I want my team to be transparent on projects. So internally we are 100% transparent
with other financial information, strategic goals, even salaries.” And that’s something
almost in the architecture industry it’s almost like a taboo in terms of discussing
salaries. So I find that an interesting reflection on your transparency. How do you – what’s
the advantage of having that transparency? Is it just a philosophical preference? Maybe
it may tap your employees? Talk about that.>>This comes directly from integrated project
delivery. One of the main tenets of integrated project delivery is that people will not collaborate
unless they trust each other and people cannot trust each other unless everything is transparent.
So there’s one shared file storage for everybody. Everybody is open books, all of that because
they’ve tied their profits together and so they need to feel comfortable that they
can trust each other. So I took that as an inspiration. I said well, if I want my company
to be good at IPD, we should operate the same way internally.
So we are 100% transparent with our financials. So I keep my books on – I use [inaudible].
That’s the program I use and all my employees have the same level of admin rights that I
do. So they can see all of the profit and loss statements, the bank balance and all
of that and our salaries, we set as – we have – the first discussion that we had
when we set our pay, it went like this, “Hey guys, what should we pay ourselves? Like here’s
how much money we’re bringing in. Here’s how much I think we can afford. Should we
pay ourselves different rates according to our levels of experience? Should we pay ourselves
different rates according to how important we are?”
So we had these conversations and ultimately decided that there was one base rate of pay
for all the architects. So not only are transparent, but we are actually equal in pay for all of
the architects who are sort of more or less in the same range of experience and every
time we hired a new employee we went through that same discussion. We would discuss with
the employee at the table “Well, what do we think that we should pay this new employee
and why and do you agree with our methodology?”>>Wonderful and it sounds like this would
give architects and employees in general a feeling of ownership. Is that something that
you’ve seen?>>Yeah. That’s exactly the goal. Ownership
and also trust. So my general rule of management is if you’re trying to hide something, then
there might be something wrong with it. So the only files that we have that are not transparent
to the whole company are the legal employee files because the individual employee files
have to remain separate because of legal requirements. So disciplinary actions or something like
that have to stay hidden for legal reasons and everything else is shared. So there’s
an element of trust in I’m the only officer at the moment, but that won’t always be
true and I need everybody in the whole company to trust all of the officers and how are they
going to trust us if we’re hiding things? The ownership part I find the best way to
foster ownership is, well first of all you can literally offer people ownership which
I do and then we don’t actually have any other owners other than me at the moment,
but that will change. But in place of literal ownership, what we do is we have a period
every year, so we’ve had two of them so far, where we set the strategic goals for
the firm as a group and everybody working at the firm has equal say in what the goals
of the firm are and that includes what kind of projects we do, how much money we want
to make, how many hours we want to work, where we want to have the office, all those things
and then we throughout the year measure our progress towards those goals.

About Ralph Robinson

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9 thoughts on “Architect Interview: Starting a firm with Oscia Wilson on Business of Architecture TV P1

  1. I'm so thankful to find a happy, people-oriented, female architect – exactly the direction I see myself going. It's great to see that there's an amazing, realistic example.

  2. Thank you; It's easy to get burnt out here; and watching people like Oscia (and others) really inspires me that people are pushing to make architecture a better profession. It's wonderful to see how young people are tackling problems that are effecting our profession NOW. I love how approachable she is and how I feel like she makes a wonderful argument about the character of what an architect should be; A life changing perspective from a real life person. Thanks a ton.

  3. Wow! She has real business common sense. I'm completing my IDP hours in about 6 months and I've worked for a lot of different small firms and was always amazed by the lack of entrepreneurial know how. What a refreshing perspective! Thank you!

  4. this is awesome (:
    it motivates me more to create my own Architecture designing firm after i graduate this year (: thanks for sharing your wisdom in architecture business! (: GodSpeed!

  5. two billable person to one non billable, I really admire the brave level headed viewpoint. This is hard hitting talk for a one man band architect like me.

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