I’m a born entrepreneur… quite literally.
Dad’s a retired auto mechanic and he taught me entrepreneurism early. As a child, I watched how he bought old Corvettes and flipped them for a profit. When I was 13, I started doing the same. With savings from working summers at the shop, I purchased a navy blue 1972 Camaro for $1200, brought it home, cleaned it up, applied a fresh coat of wax and sold it for $2400.
I bought and sold seven or eight cars (hard to remember how many exactly) in three years. In 1986, at the age of 16, I bought a black 1969 Camaro Rally Sport; a car which I still own to this day.
I worked hard, stayed focused and move forward in incremental steps until I reached my ultimate goal. That was when I knew I would someday own my own business.
My First Job in Architecture
I graduated from Roger Williams University twenty years ago. (My reunion is scheduled for the end of this month and I can’t wait to see everyone.) The economy in 1993 looked much like it does today. The nation was recovering from recession and architects were not hiring.
I mailed out over 100 resumes and received rejection letter after rejection letter (I still have every letter to remind me of how it all started). After several months of searching, I received a call from Barry Poskanzer, AIA, an architect in Ridgewood, NJ. He needed a young starving intern to spend the rest of the summer measuring every unit of a condominium development he recently completed. The floor area calculations were being disputed by new unit owners and the developer hired Barry’s firm to document the exact floor area of each one of the 200+ units.
I was happy to take the position and spend day after day documenting the existing conditions of every unit. I needed the experience and I certainly needed the money. The complex was a former brick masonry mill building and every unit was different. Some had multiple bedrooms and others, open loft studios. All had exposed brick walls and large windows flooding the space with natural light. It was interesting work… until I completed all the mill units and moved on to the new new high-rise residential building. Each unit on a floor was a mirror image of the other and each floor plate was the same as the one below. Twelve floors later, my head was spinning.
That summer taught me many lessons. I had become an expert at measuring existing conditions; a skill that benefits me to this day. Even more importantly though, I learned that small choices lead to big progress. When I finished the task of measuring every space, Barry, impressed by my attention to detail and determination, asked me to stay on and take the full-time position of intern with his firm.
I owe much to Barry. He taught me the importance of keeping the client happy and getting the work done efficiently. I learned the basics of running a small practice and after working at the firm for about six months, Barry hired Annmarie (now my wife, business partner and mom to my kids). Barry changed my life forever.
The story of how Annmarie and I kept our relationship a secret and lived happily ever after is too long for this post. I’ll share that story another day.
The Large Corporate Firm
When I left Barry, my intention was to experience and learn what I could from a large corporate firm. For the next 9 months, I worked at URS Consultants (Currently URS Corp and one of the largest EA firms in the world). Located in my hometown of Paramus, New Jersey, I performed facility inspections at New York City schools, spent hours at the CAD station and occasionally had the opportunity to design small insignificant details for new buildings.
I knew when I took the position that I wanted nothing to do with a corporate firm for long. I just want to experience that structure and take away what I could.
Each step would lead me to my ultimate goal.
The Big Decision
While I was at URS, Annmarie had moved to Westchester County, New York and was working for a sole proprietor, designing custom residential projects. Engaged to Annmarie and with plans for a wedding, I decided to find work in Westchester too.
I found a home at Kaeyer, Garment and Davidson Architects, also known as KG&D Architects in Mount Kisco, New York and for the next three years I grew my skills to become a valued project manager for large K-12 additions and alterations projects. I moved through the ranks at KG&D and reached the point of needing to make a big decision. Should I stay with KG&D and work to become a partner, or move on to take the first steps toward my own firm?
A partnership in an established practice was not part of my plan, but with the growth I experienced and the relationships I developed, leaving such an opportunity behind was no simple decision.
The day I gave notice was not easy for me or the people with whom I worked. Choosing the path of risk and uncertainty appeared to many as career suicide. Many expected that I would soon return in failure, asking for my position back.
I left that day with all the confidence and optimism of a born entrepreneur. I would find my own way and I would succeed. I had no doubt.
With my IDP credits fulfilled, but not yet a licensed architect, I set out on my own and launched The Construction Documents Company. I consulted for local firms, preparing construction drawings and documenting existing conditions for large residential projects. The plan was to earn a steady income through consulting while preparing to launch the firm that would one day become Fivecat Studio.
Next week I will share Part 2 of How I Started My Own Architecture Firm. Annmarie and I launched the practice in our basement with no money and no clients. I will tell you how we did it.