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The coach: ‘I like being my own boss, but maybe I need to collaborate’

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AJ careers expert Matthew Turner advises a sole practitioner who thinks joining forces could help boost earnings

I run my own practice as a sole practitioner, and generally there are lots of things I would not want to change. The issue is that my earnings are so low. My costs keep going up and, since I separated two years ago, my outgoings are higher for child maintenance. I also feel isolated not working with others, but I know I enjoy being my own boss. Maybe I should reach out? I know some other architects who I would like to work with, and I regularly work with one contractor, which might work well. Should I approach these people to see whether we could engage in some kind of collaboration?

Matthew turner

Matthew turner

A collaboration sounds a great idea, but you need to be sharply focused on why, as negotiating the details can be complex, even if you were to form a loose grouping rather than an integrated company.

I am sorry you are not earning sufficiently. Perhaps this illustrates that the business model for many architects is not necessarily a profitable one. Commanding a fixed fee for an uncertain and normally unique process such as developing a project to planning application is fraught with the potential to cost you way more than you expected. 

It would be a mistake to dream up the perfect team where there is little market demand

It appears your main motivation is to earn more, so before you embark on this move, I would explore how a collaboration could make money. I say this as it would be a mistake to dream up the perfect team where there is little market demand. Say, for example, you and your collaborators concocted an end-to-end design and build service for delivering sustainable, new build, one-off houses. That may be interesting work, but if there were already competition in your area for this, or little demand, then you will not have achieved your objective. Sometimes architects are wont to develop a business based on what they think people should want, rather than what people will pay for. 

There are two things you could do before you develop the idea. First, cast a cold eye over you, and what you offer. As a sole trader you have to be a jack of all trades, but few of us possess the skills and character to excel at everything. From business manager to credit controller, designer, draftsman, site architect, investor, relationship manager, business planner, and salesman, the advantage of working for yourself is that you will have tried all of these things at some point. Think through which activities you really excel at, and how these could be of use in a collaboration. 

The second area to explore is the market. What itch would this collaboration scratch? Pulling together a group of like-minded architects may be wonderful, but what would it offer a client above any other firm with access to an in-house team (other than likely costing more, as you are all senior)?

Assuming you want to remain near the kind of work you have experience of, your past clients can provide great detailed market research. How about asking what they value, what would they pay for? Be entrepreneurial and, who knows, you may find people need a service for relocation during construction works, or matchmaking with subcontractors, and these needs could easily lead to viable business models. 

In sum, you need to focus on who will employ you if you are to make the energy put into any potential collaboration pay off. There are lots of opportunities – the construction process has much scope for leveraging earnings beyond design fees and your potential collaborators might be better placed to see that.

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

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