If you’re a sole-practitioner architect, you’ve probably already thought long and hard about the pros and cons of working solo, and don’t feel the burning desire to work in a bustling office environment with large-scale projects and constant collaboration.
There are plenty of upsides to running your own practice. “I have it pretty good as a sole practitioner,” says Portland, Oregon architect Celeste Lewis. “I love the flexibility it provides with having a child, parents who are ill, and my passion for being involved in the community.”
But along with the benefits come challenges. One of the biggest is proving you’re worth your salt in a competitive marketplace alongside larger, bigger-reputation firms.
Here are eight tips to help sole practitioners—who make up nearly 25 percent of AIA-member firms—build credibility.
1. Decide Who You Are. Sole practitioners can’t do everything for everyone because of their limited resources. A key to success as a sole practitioner is to “decide who you are, what makes you happy, and figure out what it is you want to do on a daily basis,” says Kevin Harris, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana–based architect. “I didn’t like the projects other firms were doing, which is why I started my own practice.” Harris does a variety of residential work, but as a sole proprietor, you may be happiest focusing on a specialization.
And while it may seem obvious, don’t forget your bandwidth. “It’s imperative to come up with a sweet spot for the amount of work you can take on as a sole practitioner and do a good job,” Lewis says.
2. Do Pro Bono Work. Whether you need to build your portfolio or just have a heart of gold, doing pro bono work is a great way to build your reputation. “Pro bono work was fun and gave me tremendous publicity,” Harris says. “My pro bono work would get published in the paper, I was referred to as the architect, and that gave me a lot of credibility.” Pro bono work may not pay you in dollars, but it can yield new contacts, expand your network, show people what you’re capable of, and thus clinch your next paying client.
3. Get Involved in Your Local Community. Harris says that an architect’s training prepares you to serve as a valuable board member of many organizations, and to be of help to your community in various other ways. “I joined the YMCA board, the Rotary Club, and made presentations as often as I could about things I thought were good for the city,” Harris says. Having high visibility in your community, and volunteering your time with organizations, puts you in front of potential clients and gives them an opportunity to get to know you before doing business.
4. Plug Into a Professional Network. “When you’re a sole practitioner, you have to work hard to maintain a network of peers to help your thinking along,” Lewis says. “I relish going out to meet other people, professionals and peers.”
Jane Frederick, an at-large director on the AIA board and partner at Frederick + Frederick Architects, suggests that sole practitioners join AIA knowledge communities to stay abreast of what’s going on in the industry and to get advice and ideas. “The Small Firm Round Table and the Small Project Practitioners knowledge communities are great ways for sole practitioners to get out of their bubble and plug into a larger sphere,” she says. “And it’s a perfect support mechanism because the other members are not direct competitors, as they are spread across different cities in the U.S.”
5. Establish Yourself as the Expert, and Get Published. If you have some downtime in your schedule, one way to bolster your income and reputation is to teach. Before Harris started his own practice, he taught for 10 years at the Louisiana State University School of Architecture. “I always chose projects for my students that benefitted the community, and the projects often got noticed by the community,” he says.
Another way to boost your credibility is to get published. Harris has written architecture-related articles in various publications, and he reinforced his expertise in his book The Forever Home: How to Work With an Architect to Design the Home of Your Dreams. Recently, he posted these flood-claim tips in response to his hometown’s historic flooding last month.
6. Win Awards and Get Write-Ups. A surefire way to gain credibility is to persuade others to make the case that you are the best architect for the job through architecture awards or write-ups in industry magazines. So submit your work for consideration. “A lot of people don’t know if an architect is good or not, so distinguish yourself from the outset,” Frederick says. “When you win an award or your project gets published, it gives clients a trusted third-party’s approval and praise of your work.”
7. Boost Your Professionalism. Even when your firm is just you, it’s important to present yourself professionally. Frederick advises to “get comfortable with public speaking for when you have to make presentations to clients or groups, and be very intentional about everything that goes out of your office, including letters, drawings, emails, and any kind of communications.”
In terms of online presence, “it’s important to keep your website fresh and updated,” Frederick says. “This is critical for the residential market.” She suggests that a sole practitioner’s website should “show your personality, show what you’re working on, and broadcast a message that says, ‘Hire me because it’s going to be fun to work with me.’”
8. Have Good Systems in Place, and Hire Help. Part of the challenge of being a sole practitioner is that you have to do it all to keep the firm going, including designing, architecture marketing, and billing. Without a good project-management tool (such as Asana or Trello), sole practitioners are prone to making mistakes, letting things slip through the cracks, and not getting to everything they need to get to—thus undermining their credibility with clients.
“Sole practitioners have to wear 15 different hats,” Frederick says, “so it’s important to have systems in place and to hire other professionals, like accountants or marketing consultants, to take off some of the burden.”