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The coach: I’m a sole trader, stuck in a rut with domestic jobs

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It’s tough changing a business that’s just ticking along into one with greater scope, variety and flair. How do you go about it? And how do you know if you’re presenting well? Matthew Turner has the answers

Workload replicates what I have done many times before

I am a sole practitioner and seem to be stuck in a rut of only getting domestic jobs. I feel I am growing stale. I have done some really quite big-budget projects, but always for domestic clients. I want more variety, and on a bigger scale. I find it hard to change my workload, as it is self-fulfilling – the recommendations keep coming, but they are all replicating what I have done many times before.

Being a sole trader is hard. Few of us possess the skills and character to excel at everything you need to be: from business manager, to secretary, designer, draftsman, site architect, investor, relationship manager, business planner and, crucially, salesman. It is these last two that you need to concentrate on. It is a good idea to put this in perspective and be aware that what you are trying to do is quite a transformation, so don’t despair about it being so hard. After all, a solicitor who specialises in conveyancing can’t suddenly sell themselves as a human rights lawyer. For architects, the design questions may seem similar and your skills eminently transferable, but from a client’s point of view, for better or worse, experience stands for a lot.

Networking and direct client finding is a much better focus for your efforts than a slick website

So you need to market yourself, and do this concertedly. Some may think this is basically developing a slick website but, for architects, this is arguably a minor investment of both money and time. Networking and direct client finding is a much better focus for your efforts. Your website can really be simply a picture gallery with well-written, client-facing descriptions of projects.

You need to start by firming up your existing connections and proactively targeting them. Make the most of the opportunities that allow others to make the leap of faith to employ you, despite your lack of experience in a new sector. Think laterally. Whether it is the headteacher of the school your kids go to, or your uncle who is connected to a company that is expanding in your area, make these connections clear in your mind. After all, it is rare that architects’ lucky breaks do not come through someone they know.

Then make yourself available and be prepared to work up-front to make a project happen. So, if you know the tennis club you are a member of is looking to expand, you could offer to do pro bono work to help them pull the project together, meaning you will be first in line to take that job on when it happens. Obviously you should keep a check on doing work without being paid but, with your steady supply of paying domestic work, you are in a position to cross-subsidise time spent on projects that will develop into something. Lots of canny sole practitioners have many such potential jobs on the go simultaneously, in the hope that one eventually comes to fruition.

Engineer questioned the way I presented a pitch 

We have had a series of unsuccessful presentations pitching for work recently and, after the last one, the engineer we bid with intimated that the way I presented was part of the problem. I was shocked but, when I asked him what he meant, he was really vague.

This feedback you have received is extremely valuable. I suspect the reason he didn’t expand on it is that he sensed you took offence by the comment, and so he didn’t feel comfortable continuing with his thoughts. You should swallow your pride and use this as an opportunity to develop. Frequently in interview situations the consultants can act as an observer due to the fact that architects, as lead consultants, frequently dominate. So he is in a good position to help you.

We architects tend to think we are good presenters, because of the crit system in our education. But that doesn’t prepare us for presenting to non-architects.

We architects tend to think we are good presenters, because of the crit system

Having sat on many selection panels, I have been shocked at how even very experienced architects can effectively shoot themselves in the foot because they feel more comfortable presenting in their terms, and not directly addressing the needs of who they are presenting to.

You may know your stuff but, unless you communicate it both empathetically and well, it is wasted. Informing a selection panel about how clever your plan is is rarely what most clients would consider the most important issue and if on top of this you present in a techy way, no wonder many non-architects clutch at straws, like going for someone charismatic, or reacting badly to someone who talks too much.

There may also be issues with how you present as a team, and perhaps that is what he may be observing.

Being self-aware is very helpful. So return to this colleague and ask for more feedback and also consider doing a dummy presentation to non-architects. Be open to the fact that you might not be the right person to be winning the jobs and maybe there is someone else in your practice who is better at this kind of communication.

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