Willard F. Hurd, A.I.A is the owner of Footprint Architecture and Design, a firm located in Newark, Delaware. Hurd aims to be “your personal architect,” specializing in sustainable residential architecture and providing services to his clients from consultation to overseeing construction to project completion.
Hurd’s taken a unique path to entrepreneurship in the architecture world, including work as a computer programmer and as a stay-at-home dad. His marketing approach is even more unique, channeling Lucy from the “Peanuts” comics with an architectural advice booth set up at local farmer’s markets. Hurd recently shared with us how his personalized approach to client work helps him stand out in his field.
How did you start your business?
My first degree was in systems engineering from Boston University. I started out working as a programmer for Computer Sciences Corporation. I worked there for about five years when I started realizing that I kept bumping up against architectural things and finding the idea of design and construction sort of interesting.
I went back to school to Drexel University, which has an evening program. I was able to go to school at night and still work as a programmer during the day. That lit me up. The whole architectural design way was fabulous for me. It took me eight years to finish Drexel. About halfway through, I quit my job as a programmer and stayed home with my son who had just been born while my wife continued her career path.
I reentered the marketplace as an intern architect/draftsman. I worked until 2008 as a draftsman, project designer, assistant project manager, and all those various office roles. Then, as the economy was tanking, I was laid off. About six months after that, I completed my licensing exam. Then I became a registered architect, but the economy was still bad. That was the point where I said, “I want to stay with architecture, I want to stay with designing, I want to stay with that kind of company. But nobody’s hiring. I’m going to start my own company.” That was in 2009.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
I had a credit card that I dedicated to the business. That carried me for the first couple years. Now I’m aggressively working to pay off the credit card from my revenue.
Having emergency cash on hand can be your key to managing cash flow.
I had the advantage that my wife was working at a job that essentially covered our expenses. I was a stay-at-home parent, and then I was a part-time architect running my own business. So, there wasn’t that pressure to make the company bigger to bring in more revenue because I didn’t have to replace a salary. I just sort of had to keep things afloat.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I read a bunch of stuff. I went to one or two seminars on running a small business. There is a local thing called The Delaware Financial Literacy Institute that runs a number of courses for people on things like starting a small business, which I went to. They gave an overview of business plans and incorporation formats and income and revenue and expenses and such.
There were a couple of books I read specifically about starting design firms. Another book that was really useful was called, “The Accidental Entrepreneur.” It is focused on people who were doing the thing that they do as a sideline and then it grows into a business without them meaning for it to. Like, “Oh, wait! People are paying me!” It is nice because it says “So, since you’re already doing it, this is how to do it better,” instead of telling you how to start a company. It is more about, “You have some sense of how to do the work, let’s talk about the financial side of it.”
Who was your first customer?
My first customers were some friends of mine who wanted to renovate their kitchen. They didn’t want to just throw a builder on it, they wanted to put some thoughtfulness into it.
That job helped me recognize that the thing I really enjoy is sitting with the client and solving their problems. That is partly what made me go, “OK, I can’t go back and work in an office. Someone else will be doing this part of the job because I will be lower in seniority. I want to continue to be the person who talks to and works with the client, so I have to get my own work.” That was one of the pushes that told me, “Start your own firm. Be self-employed.”
Having my first customer was great because it meant that I was getting paid directly from the client for my work. The power of doing the work for money – the process of exchanging goods and services – was really powerful. It told me I had a value.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
I don’t think I made any. I didn’t take any loans, I didn’t rent an office, I didn’t buy lots of equipment. I tried to make that first year work with what I already had. For the most part, I tried to keep it pretty lean. I don’t feel that I did anything that put me in a bad spot.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
When I was envisioning my company and envisioning the kind of work that I’d do, I said, “OK, sustainable design has always been of interest to me, so I want to make that the foundation of all my work.” I thought, “Where would those clients be? They would be at the local farmer’s market!”
As I was saying that in my head, I remembered an article I had read in an AIA magazine about an architect in Seattle who, after being laid off a few times, set up a “Lucy” booth (like the “Psychiatric Help, 5¢” booth in the “Peanuts” comics) in a Seattle farmer’s market. People would walk by and they’d start talking about architecture, and he was getting work out of it. I stole his idea completely, but I made it a quarter instead of 5¢, because people have quarters but nobody has nickels.
I thought I was going to get more work directly, which was a bad assumption. But what it did do was make me more visible. I started to educate people on what architects do, because there’s a lot of perception about what we do and don’t do, at least by residential clients.
Sitting there and being very accessible and approachable with this cute sign, people started to come up to me and ask me all sorts of questions. We’d have a conversation and start to develop a relationship. And because the same people come back each week to the farmer’s market, I’d see them over again. And then they’d come over a month later and say, “I’ve been thinking about what we were talking about,” and we’d continue the conversation. All I had to do was sit there and people would walk by and remember me. And then the next year, people were like, “Hey, remember when we were talking about that thing? Let’s take it further.” So, conversations became projects.
Now I’ve expanded and I sit in three farmer’s markets on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for four hours. It is by far the best thing I’ve done as far as getting myself in front of the right people and having the conversations that explain what I do that allows me to sell how I work, because the only difference between me and another architect is the way I will work with a client. They only way I can show them this is to actually do it. But nobody is going to just have me over to their house and say, “Hey, I’ve got this problem,” unless they see me at the market and we start talking.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
It is that I’m in control of getting and doing the work and choosing my clients. The problem I often had in other offices was that other people determined the work, other people determined how to do it, and I had to just make it happen. Here, I have the autonomy and authority.
What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
Lately, as I’ve been getting more clients, it’s sort of started to steamroll. There are times when I have more work in front of me than I have a reasonable amount of time to handle. It starts to push up against taking care of the house and kids and whatever my wife is trying to do and evening schedules and such.
I need to figure out how to contain it better or be better at saying, “I would love to do this project, but we need to wait a month.” I’ve done that once or twice, but it’s really hard to do. That’s been the challenge: How to accept the work I’ve earned, but not have it kill me or make everything else difficult.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
I enjoy it. And I am reasonably effective at it. That’s something I wasn’t quite expecting because I hadn’t been trained in the business aspect. I had been trying to pay attention to some extent to the business stuff at the firms I’d worked in. But in most of the firms I’d been at, the business stuff was hidden from us. We didn’t see the proposals or our billing rates, we didn’t talk about overhead costs directly.
Also, it’s been surprising to see that I work in such a way that clients are willing to pay me the rate I quote to them. I hear others talk about cutting rates left and right and having clients squeeze them, but I’m not finding that as much.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most?
I met a guy the first summer I did the farmer’s market. He worked at architecture firms before going off on his own and doing marketing and branding. He’s the only person who got what I was doing immediately.
We get together and talk. He’s been helpful in that he’s a few years ahead of me in the process, and he’s very clear about what he does and how he does it, how he targets and how he builds. He’s been helpful in talking through stuff.
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
What was useful for me was being realistic about what I could achieve in the first year. There are a lot of people who think, “I’m going to open up my business and then … BOOM! All the people I need are going to be good to go, I’m going to get all these clients, I’m going to do all this social media and it’s all going to just appear.”
I think I realized early that it was going to take longer. The first year was really about getting people to know who I am and what I do. Maybe getting a few drops of business here and there, but I wasn’t expecting a house to land on my desk in the first week. That’s helped because by setting a more realistic expectation, every year that I do better than the year before, it’s good. It’s like I’m growing and moving forward rather than wondering why I haven’t reached this level that I’ve mentally set as success.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
I spent the year before I incorporated tossing it around and thinking on it. I had time to research and think and come to the decision that running my own firm was the thing that made the most sense for me. At that point, I knew about revenue, expenses and overhead costs, so there weren’t any big surprises when I got into it. I was reasonably prepared.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.