For the first four years, Fivecat Studio could be found at a basement studio in our little cottage in the woods of Chappaqua, New York. The space was just large enough for one Dell workstation, a couple of bookshelves, a desk chair, a telephone, five cats and me.
Each morning I would eat breakfast, kiss Annmarie good-bye and “commute” down 12 steps to Fivecat Studio World Headquarters.
We were 29 years old and life was good.
Annmarie’s studio was in another room on the main level of the house. That is one of the many secrets we’ve learned to stay married all these years (we celebrated 20 years this past July). Separate responsibilities. Separate offices.
(This past week on the podcast, I spoke with another pair of architects about how succeed as a married couple in architecture. Check it out here.)
From that original small studio, we built our reputation for highly detailed residential architecture and our “personal touch” customer service. We had few expenses and our revenues were growing healthier each year.
In 2001 our first son was born and, other than feeding schedules and naps, not much changed.
Then, as James grew and life with a child became a reality, we realized that we were going to need a change. We were two young professionals and worked hard to overcome the perception that we lacked the experience to provide services equal to those of our well-rooted competitors. The illusion of an “established architecture firm” gave way to our reality each time a calling prospect heard the the crying baby in the background.
We learned to accommodate our new “partner” and established routines to allow us to keep the firm and our family as separate as they could be within 900 square feet. With several small commercial projects complete and our first major residential project well underway, the business was beginning to grow.
It was time to take the firm to the next level.
We started looking for an office outside the house. Our plan was to find a small space, around 1000 square feet; enough to start hiring a staff and establish ourselves in the local business community. We looked in our village as well as other adjacent towns. We wanted to stay close to home, and Annmarie and I knew Pleasantville very well. We lived in an apartment in Pleasantville’s “old village” for a year before we moved to our home in Chappaqua.
There we found a perfect space in an old brick office building, which once housed the police department and Village Hall. It met all our requirements; a unique building close to home, 1000 square feet and located in a bustling business district central to all our potential clients.
During the negotiations, the landlord offered us the adjacent office for a rent that we could not refuse. It was well above our budget, but we were optimistic about our future and knew we would quickly fill the much larger space. We took the deal and got to work building out the new Fivecat Studio.
We designed the office to have a welcoming reception area with a custom built-in desk, a light-filled conference room, a private office, two toilet rooms, a storage room, a data closet and 1000 square feet of loft-like open studio with 11 foot ceilings. We pulled from our personal savings to add additional custom moldings in the public spaces and fit the toilet rooms with upgraded tile floors. We had big plans and we knew that we would recover the investment very quickly, as clients would soon start knocking on our new front door.
I moved into the private “corner office” and worked there, alone… for almost three years.
We tried hiring and had a few under-qualified entry-level employees come and go. The reception area never once received a guest and we rarely used the conference room for more than an occasional playgroup meeting for James and his infant friends. We kept the open studio lights off and the HVAC turned down in order to keep the utility bills to a minimum. Each month the bills would be delivered and rent would be due. Luckily business was booming. We kept everyone paid and happy without much problem.
As business grew, so did our staff and eventually the studio was filled with an office manager and three architectural project managers. I had educated myself on business fundamentals and in 2008 we were on our way to our first seven figure year.
Then, the world’s financial markets began to collapse and our economy crumbled.
Our rent increased each year, our business expenses grew and we were responsible for a pretty heavy payroll every two weeks. We obtained a line of credit from a local bank to help “manage our cash flow problem” and each month our credit card balances grew.
When Annmarie and I first saw the storm heading our way, we were optimistic. We expected it to be a temporary downturn and carried on with business as usual. We dipped into the line of credit on the months where receivables were low and the credit card balances continued to increase.
We were transparent with our staff about the tough times we were experiencing. We promised that if they worked with us, we would work with them. We called it Survival Mode. We would not reduce staff, if they were willing to reduce their pay. Surely this was a temporary situation and our clients would be back soon. We’d re-establish salaries, refund the line of credit and pay down the credit card as soon as things got better.
Years later, things didn’t get better. Our office manager and two of our project managers chose to move on.
We survived, but survival comes with a price.
The line of credit was exhausted, the credit card was maxed out and our original investment spent on the office upgrades was still pending reimbursement years later.
Bottom line… we held some major debt.
How To Build a Successful Architecture Firm With No Debt
When asked for my best advice to emerging professionals and architects considering the launch of a new firm, I say, “Build a Debt Zero Business.”
Debt makes you a prisoner to your lenders. It increases your stress and increases the chances of a fatal failure in your business. Debt magnifies your mistakes.
When Annmarie and I realized that a fancy new reception area and a conference room was unnecessary, the money we borrowed from our personal savings made that mistake much worse than if we waited and used retained earnings from the business to pay for the upgrades. Odds are that we probably would have realized that those spaces were unnecessary and could have saved that money for other more important things… like paying our future employees.
Our nation’s banks have worked hard to convince us that we can not live without debt. Our American culture is based on “investing” by borrowing. We are told that we can’t run our businesses without a credit card and a line of credit.
It’s not true.
4 Myths About Small Business Debt
Dave Ramsey, in his best selling book EntreLeadership, shares 4 myths about debt;
Myth #1: You can’t start or expand a business without debt.
That is simply not true. If we plan, save and wait until we have the money to move to the next level, we spend our money more wisely and make better decisions. It may take longer to get to where we want to go, but when we get there, we will be free from the burdens of paying back the bank.
Myth #2: You need a line of credit to cover cash flow problems.
This was one of my biggest business mistakes. Within one year of obtaining a line of credit, we had the account maxed out. Business never improved from the convenience of withdrawing borrowed money. If I had retained earnings when business was booming, I would have had reserves to cover the slow periods. In residential architecture, the cycle of business is easily predicted. Our phones stop ringing in August and January… every year. We should have money saved to cover those slow times, so a line of credit is unnecessary.
Myth #3: A credit card is a simple way to finance your business.
Dave says, “You can’t earn your way out of stupidity.” I learned that lesson well during the recent recession. Every time I used the credit cards and could not pay off the balance, I would convince myself that next month would be better. It wasn’t… and my credit card quickly reached its limit.
Myth #4: Large purchases require debt.
Most large purchases are not items urgently needed. Pay cash by saving for the item each month. Open a separate account for the item and pay into the account as if it were an expense. If the item is urgently required, rent it and continue to save until you can pay cash. If you can’t save the required amount each month, you can not afford the loan payments either.
The Count Down to Debt Zero
So, how can we build a successful architecture firm with no debt? Here are 4 step to make it happen.
4. Destroy your credit cards.
I cut up my business credit card years ago. Instead, I ordered a business debit card, which allows me to pay for items with money that is deducted directly from my business checking account. Not only has this stopped increasing my credit card balances, but it has forced me to be much more focused on how much I spend each month. Credit card money just doesn’t feel as real as money in your bank account.
3. Drop your personal income to a minimum required living wage (if the economy hasn’t already done that for you).
Your primary focus is to eliminate your debt. That requires sacrifice and determination. Dave Ramsey says in another best selling book, The Total Money Makeover, that we should “live today like no one else, so tomorrow… we can live like no one else.”
2. Pay a percentage of your net profit to pay off debt each month.
Determine a specific amount, maybe 10%, of your net profit that you will use to pay off your debt. Pay it each month as if it were a business expense. It’s not optional. It gets paid every month.
1. Save a percentage of your net profit to a retained earnings account.
The goal for your retained earnings account is to save 6 months of operating costs. Retained earnings are used for emergencies, business development and for investing in opportunities.
A Debt Zero Business is a strong business. It gives you the freedom to grow and take advantage of opportunities immediately when they become available.
Debt Zero allows you to be generous. With no debt you will have more cash. You can be more generous to your employees and pay them higher salaries.
You can be more generous to your clients and make those small annoying “problems”, which occur during construction, simply go away. This will improve your customer satisfaction, reinforce relationships and lead to more referrals.
You can also be more generous to your community and contribute to local events and fund raisers. Generous businesses are rewarded with a reputation of support and caring for our communities, which leads to positive word-of-mouth and ultimately more business.
Question: What are your thoughts on debt and borrowing money for your business?
Do you think it is necessary for a growing business? Do you have a Debt Zero Business? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / tlegend