Incubating the Future

Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson + Partners is coming to the end of his time as RIBA Ambassador for Business Skills, a role that has seen him engage in debates around the country and gather together invaluable business guidance on his Architect Skills  website. Here he looks on RIBA London Region’s very successful Incubator, where he has been mentoring new practices as they start up their businesses in the cut-throat world of overheads, business development, and resource planning.

Incubating the future

We at Weston Williamson have always married design excellence with a business focus, but that is rare in our profession. Architects’ training barely touches on the business skillset and so we learn on the job, acquiring it by trial and error. In my role as Ambassador for Business Skills I’ve argued that this is a mistake.

It’s no wonder that when the RIBA Incubator was launched I was keen to be involved. Incubatees can stay a maximum of two years. As the first cohort passes its sell-by date, we decided to see how three practices – Hoos, Dan Marks Studio, and O25 – are faring. What we found is impressive.

Freshly hatched from their two-year stint, Chris Bradley, one half of architecture start-up Hoos, is clear that they are part of ‘a wider culture shift’ evolving away from traditional ways of working. He and business partner Tom Cole are successfully following a trajectory plotted over a beer in Borough Market nearly three years ago.

Their hop-fuelled manifesto pledged to stay small and agile, and they have done that. Peaks in work are resourced through a tech-enabled network of trusted millennial collaborators, and any hit on profit is more than compensated by light-footed demands on their cash flow.

This is unconventional approach just one symptom of a global effect. Technology is dissolving boundaries between professions and the supply chain, fundamentally reconfiguring the industry. As a result, the context for practising architecture in today’s Britain is a slow-motion head-on car crash. While the established traditional body of the profession is only just feeling the tug of their seatbelts, others – chiefly new start-ups like Hoos and all the others in the RIBA Incubator – are adapting to avoid shearing metal of competition in the crumple zone of paradigm change.

While undoubtedly nerve-wracking, starting up in this atmosphere is also exhilarating. Another incubatee, Dan Marks, is a case in point. Although his studio is structured along more traditional lines than Hoos, starting up appears, paradoxically, to have been a greater step into the unknown. “Looking back, it was a bit mad. I didn’t have any plan for a steady stream of work.” Even today, he says, he is constantly ‘on a knife edge’ despite an impressive, growing body of work.

Chryssanthi Perpatidou decided to leave her steady job as a project architect to set up O25 in the Incubator with her brother Antonis Perpatidis (who runs a separate practice in Greece).  With an excellent CV including a spell at Zaha Hadid Architects, she nonetheless acknowledges the steep learning curve. Judging how to speak to clients, creating work out of conversations, eliciting recommendations, and networking were all new to her. The fact that she enjoys it, she says, has come as a welcome surprise – and is very personally rewarding.

The hardest part is how to avoid being stretched too thin. Whereas Hoos flex to their network, O25 wanted to keep it in-house by taking on staff. Having hired help when their forward workload looked unusually healthy, Chryssanthi Perpatidou had to end it abruptly. “For whatever reasons only one of our four or five projects went to site. Handling the fallout was very stressful.”

She now strictly regulates the number of projects on site at any one time to stay on top of the workload, and has her eyes set on larger, longer-lasting, more steady projects to underwrite hiring-in help.

Dan Marks has had more luck. He brought in a talented friend, Taylan Tahir, on the basis that he could get involved in all aspects of running the business, gaining exposure that junior architects just can’t get in larger practices. “Part of the strength of working for small practices is that you’re in on the ground floor and have a direct influence on their success.” The quid pro quo, though, is total transparency. Taylan Tahir sees everything. Dan Marks has since hired in a third team member – Alice Thompson.

All three practices are now settling into a steady but still uncertain rhythm of regular and even that holiest of grails, repeat work. Back in the early days, though, it was about survival, every gift horse of a commission snatched gratefully out of their private domestic clients’ hands without so much as a glance in the mouth. These days, Chryssanthi Perpatidou in particular has learnt to be choosier, advising other start-ups only to work with ‘nice people’.

Dan Marks, now nearing the end of his time in the Incubator, is honest enough to acknowledge that many of his earliest projects were unintended loss-leaders. “I’m against doing work for free, but you have to be prepared to take a long view to get exposed,” he says. It’s worked for him: several jobs have led to profitable repeat work.

The incubatees are agreed that the Incubator has helped them business-wise. The subsidized rent, although stepped up in year 2, is the most obvious crutch. Beyond that, the swanky London address certainly impresses developer or commercial clients.  With access to mentors like me and others, free CPD events, chance encounters with all kinds of experts in the RIBA forum, to say nothing of engagement with the Institute’s staff, the Incubator has had many hidden benefits. Chryssanthi Perpatidou likens it to working in a bigger practice, with lots of people on hand to ask or give advice or just to chat to.

As the first practice in and the first to fledge, Hoos’ experience is perhaps most telling. “Being required to become a chartered practice forced us to turn our manifesto into a business plan,” says Tom Cole. “This was critical, giving us a business-like structure from day one.”

The fact that they were all ‘chancing their arms’, as Chris Bradley puts it, was strangely reassuring. The potential for professional jealousy – they are all chasing the same kinds of clients after all – never materialised.

Should their university education have prepared them better for business? Dan Marks and Chryssanthi Perpatidou think not. Learning business skills can and perhaps should give way to giving free reign to explore your creative potential. There are opportunities to pursue business skills at university if you want, but it will be at the expense of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to design pure architecture free of clients, planners, and contractors.

And it hasn’t done any of them any harm. If anything, the unshackled problem-solving mind-set is just the ticket. They all seem more than up to the challenge of business. Chris Bradley is irrepressibly optimistic: “We’re having fun. Opportunities will pop up along the way. It just about having the imagination to grab them.” Dan Marks agrees: “You’ll make mistakes. What matters is how you learn from them.”