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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  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. Thanks mdoerneman! Appreciate the feedback and comment. Also appreciate your "thumbs up" on this video!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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