Declaring Independence

We Americans are uniquely independent-minded.  After all, our country was founded on the idea that we would govern ourselves.

In order to win our independence, before we were even a country, we had to defeat one of the superpowers of the day.  Of course, we had an entire continent of resources to back us up– both land and sea.

We also had time on our side.  We could have held out for years.

The Fountainhead?

As architects and designers, many of us at one time or another have felt that longing to be free of working for a firm, to be our own boss.  Free to pursue our own work, in our own way.

To declare our independence.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a young man eager to understand the path to self-employment.  It brought back memories of my own desire to work for myself years ago.

The reality for me, clear now in hindsight, was that I did not have the requisite resources it would have taken to succeed on my own.  I didn’t have a clue what those things were, anyway.

I probably had just assumed that a willingness to work hard, and a bit of luck, were all I needed.  These two things certainly come in handy, but they won’t get it done on their own.

One fascinating thing about successful firms of all sizes is that they recognize, value, and organize all of the many skills and traits required for successful practice.  But they come in the many shapes and sizes of the people in those firms.

What’s It Gonna Take?

It is rare for a single person to embody all of the gifts or traits needed.  While I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, experience and observation have revealed for me what the primary ingredients would be.

My top 5 list of go-it-alone resources would be:

1. Time

How long can you hold out with little or no income, until you win work, begin to invoice for that work, and then begin to collect actual cash?  Do you have other sources of income in the meantime, and if so, do they require your time and focus away from starting your new firm?  If you work for another firm now, they would probably consider working for yourself on the side to be moonlighting.

2. The Ability to Win Work

Do you already have a client lined up, willing to send work your way?  If not, how, when, and where will you begin to win work?  And if it’s not you, but a partner, who is the rainmaker, what will you bring to the partnership?  This quickly gets into the whole subject of partnership structure, which we won’t have time for here, but keep in mind that the larger the partnership, the more mouths there are to feed by whoever is winning the work.

3. The Ability to Be Alone

Independence comes at a cost.  Can you spend long hours working away on solitary projects?  Will you be self-motivated to get out and sell your new practice to prospective clients?  And to do the bookkeeping and invoicing nights and weekends?  As we’ve just said above, if you are fortunate enough to have partners to work with, that means even more work must be won, and executed.

4. A Place to Work

In today’s world of virtual officing, this may seem like an old-fashioned idea, but where will you actually do the work?  Where can you collect and spread out all the stuff that design projects generate?  Paperless is a great concept, but real architectural offices can be rather cluttered.  And where will you meet with clients?

5. Professional Services

Such things as insurance, bookkeeping, and taxes may seem like the least of your problems, but they are important from the beginning.  Where will you obtain professional liability coverage?  Who will do the bookkeeping, invoicing, collections, and tax returns?  Software tools such as QuickBooks can help with these, but they require lots of time if you do it yourself.  Who will you call for legal assistance if something goes wrong?

If you are seriously considering going it alone, or with partners, I’ll take it for granted that you feel you’ve got a real gift for some aspect or another of design practice.  Just be sure that your gift has real value in the market, and isn’t just wishful thinking.  It’s a very competitive world out there.

No Guts, No Glory

But if you do have such a gift, and have access to the other prerequisites, don’t wait forever.  The sooner you declare your independence, the sooner you can begin to master the many challenges of self-employment, and reap the rewards.

To liberty!