Architects and Business

Jun 27, 1994

From time to time, architects and other design professionals all come under fire from the business types for not being sufficiently “business-minded.” And, the standard line of defense from those under attack is “I didn’t go to school to be a business person. I went to school because I wanted to be an architect.” (Or “an engineer.”) The point is well-taken. However, my experience is that if you want to continue being an architect or engineer, you’d better run your business properly. And many architects, perhaps because of the artistic nature of their profession, seem to need this kind of reminding more often than some other types of professionals. My wife and I recently went to a friend (and client’s) house for a dinner. He is an architect here— a guy with more than 20 years in the business— who only recently started his own firm. By all indications, they’ve been successful so far. In their first year, they have already grown to a staff size of five, have nice offices, a fully-paid-for CADD terminal in every work station, and lots of work. After a great “al fresco” dinner of grilled shrimp and chicken, along with several varieties of artfully crafted salads, the last of the wine was poured and the subject of conversation came around to “the business” and to the problem of collecting money. My friend proclaimed that he did not have any collection problems— that just about all of their clients paid shortly after getting their invoices. All but one, that is— some sort of egomaniacal businessman with an oceanfront house they are renovating. I had heard something about this particular client a few months back and the first words out of my mouth, almost reflexively were, “You’re not still working for this guy, are you?” fully expecting to hear that they had cut him off and the relationship was over. But to my surprise, he replied, “We are, but it’s almost over.” He told us in a solemn voice that his client was, in addition to being a “very bad, ruthless” sort of guy, represented by one of the most prominent law firms in Boston. “So what?” I said. He then went on to say that he was afraid to stop work even though this guy hadn’t paid him in seven months, because he “didn’t want those people on his back.” “Give me a break,” I thought to myself. Then I didn’t waste the opportunity to fall into what my wife refers to as a “Mark Zweig & Associates” lecture (she has used that expression before when I’m trying to tell her how to do something around the house more efficiently). I told this friend of mine that he was crazy, that if someone doesn’t pay his bill, he should be cut off, and that I wouldn’t waste any time on a bad client. “Turn ‘em over in 90 days,” I went on, while this guy’s poor wife listened. What’s right is right. If a bad client won’t pay his bills and it costs more than it’s worth to go after him, so be it— you don’t have to sue him. But if there is a way to get paid, even if the fee has to be sacrificed to get the money, I think that’s a small price to pay for the satisfaction that could come out of it. I’m more fearful that my client will keep working for the crook and get deeper in the hole than I am worried he won’t get paid for what he’s already done so far. Dealing with people who try to push you around is bad for your psyche. You simply cannot feel good about yourself and have the confidence that it takes to be successful (in the architectural business or any business, for that matter) when you allow other people to rip you off— the old self-image just can’t take it. It is precisely this kind of thinking that is holding all of the design professions back. No one should have to do work and not get paid for it. If you have agreed to do some scope of work and a client has agreed to pay you, then you should get paid. There’s not one thing wrong with that. That’s the way our system works. There is, however, something very wrong when a criminal pushes you around, rips you off, and you line up for more. That’s crazy! Originally published6/27/1994

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.