The future of architecture for small firms is the remote team. Using technology and online tools to acquire new clients, manage projects, and work with a team of top professionals distributed around the world, the virtual studio along with a remote team will allow you the flexiblity, freedom, prosperity and success that many of us are seeking as small firm architects.
This week on EntreArchitect Podcast, How to Build a Million Dollar Small Firm Using a Remote Team with Winn Wittman of SelfBuiltArchitect.com.
Winn Wittman is a contemporary residential architect based in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in various publications including Architectural Record, Architectural Digest, The Rob Report, Green Building & Design, Hinge, The Discovery Network, and HGTV. He has a BA from Tufts and a Master of Architecture from the University of Texas in Austin. He’s received numerous awards, including best green innovation for his Wittman Panel Designs.
He’s also the founder of Self Built Architect, an online community and educational program where Winn shares his knowledge about leveraging technology and using online tools to create personal freedom, prosperity, professional excellence and more.
Winn’s love for architecture started in his mother’s basement where he woodworked as a kid. From that came a love of art and architecture. As a liberal arts major, he bounced around before discovering art history and falling in love with architecture. A professor suggested that he go to Austin, Texas.
Several years later, the recession happened. Winn began to buy homes and fix them up when he discovered an old office building. Him and his ragtag team ran wires, ran equipment, and finished the building. A luxury jet designer then bought the building from him, earning him his first million dollars.
After that, going to work for a firm was unappealing. He began developing and building unusual homes that realtors would tell him he had no chance of selling. Surprisingly, he always found a buyer.
When the next recession hit, Winn had a trendy office and a bunch of employees. He noticed his expenses were eating up all of his profits. By 2010, all of his work had dried up, he had to let people go and get rid of his office.
It was time to do things in a different way.
As he began to realize the tools that had recently become available allowing people to work anywhere with an internet connection, he started to do his research. Slowly but surely, he began to build a virtual firm. He had a reputation for high end residential work and needed to figure out how to maintain the same high touch approach to architecture that he had before. He didn’t want the client experience to suffer at all as a result of his remote work.
How did you start your remote firm?
First, Winn realized he needed a luxury conference room to meet clients in. He rented an apartment in a luxury high rise that a resident could reserve a conference room in. He also sought out other conference rooms he could utilize in a pinch. Now, there are plenty of places that have conference rooms for rent.
Many of his tools were the same, but he found them through different channels. Both the internet and GoToMeeting helped him become a laptop architect. When he wasn’t meeting clients, he could work completely remotely. He prepared his clients to know that he was not only very busy, but that he worked in different states. With the technology today, he still has a robust practice with a high degree of client services.
His day is now freed up to work on whatever he wants instead of managing a business and office.
Have you ever experienced pushback from clients?
Only when Winn hasn’t properly prepared them. One client came with him on the transition, and wasn’t prepared for the new expectations.
Do you think this is a model that someone can come at from scratch without having established a business before?
If anything, there’s less expectation if you’re starting a new business. Young architects and their clients are so receptive to using new technology. The next generation realizes that life is more important than work, and technology is just another part of life.
When you have a potential new client, how do they first interact with you?
First, they get a live human being answering the phone instead of a voicemail. It sounds just the same as calling an architect’s office. The service Winn uses texts him right away so that he can connect with them to set up an appointment. Until you sign up a client, the purpose of every meeting is to have another meeting. Winn doesn’t send proposals and doesn’t charge for an initial visit.
Winn then meets them at their property or a conference room and gathers information. After the initial meeting, he sets a second appointment on the road to figuring out what their dream is and if/how Winn can help them achieve that dream.
How do you qualify leads?
Winn gets between 2-10 inquires per day from new potential clients. Once they get to his website, they see the vision blueprint which allows them to answer key questions so he knows right away where they are in the process and what their dreams are. If it doesn’t seem like a good fit right off the bat, Winn refers them to someone who may be a better fit for them.
Who answers the phone?
Winn uses a company called Ruby Receptionist that screens calls and patches them through to the right person. They know everything about the business and function as an in-person front door for his firm.
How do you manage each project?
Winn starts by sketching on his iPad, snapping a picture, and texting it to a subcontractor for SketchUp. He only works with people who are extremely proficient at SketchUp. They hop on a video call to review.
Then, he sets up meetings in person at least every two weeks and on the alternate weeks, he meets with them online.
Why are your employees’ proficiency so important?
The world is your oyster when you work remotely, so there’s no reason not to find the most proficient person in the industry when your pool is so big.
What’s your role in the process and how to you structure things?
There’s not a fixed way of doing things, it depends on the task and the project. It’s important to know where your skills lie and to delegate to other areas where it doesn’t to capable, highly compensated people.
Winn doesn’t charge or pay for hours, he charges and pays for outcomes.
What are your favorite tools for remote work?
More than anything, Winn likes to keep it simple. They use cloud based document sharing to keep track of where they are with each project and what the next step is, potential clients, and financials.
Instead of chasing clients for payment, he sets up expectations clearly by making payment due by the next meeting.
Do you have any systems in place that help you with creative collaboration?
In remote working sessions, they often discover serendipitous things because of the process. Collaborative work is a conscious process. Remote work allows this to happen outside of the office; schedule brunch, find a time to connect over a weekend or a trip, etc.
What is the one thing that small firm architects can do today to build a better business tomorrow?
“Start going to places where you’ll meet people of influence who may want to build the types of homes that you want to design. There’s only two things that can change your life: meeting a new person and gaining a new piece of information. Be receptive to meeting new people.” – Winn Wittman
For EntreArchitect listeners exclusively, check it Winn’s free gift at SelfBuiltArchitect.com/Entre.
If you’re interested in exploring the idea of 1:1 coaching, Winn has some packages available on SelfBuiltArchitect.com.
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