Design a successful design business

Aug 10, 2020

What your firm becomes should be the result of a plan, of deliberate efforts. You can and should “design” your design firm.

There are many different forms that a business plan can take. There’s no one best way to do business planning. But regardless of that fact, developing a plan may be the best way to design your business – be that for a new “build” or for a significant “renovation” of an existing business. And as I have written before, there isn’t one best way to do most things you have to do in your business. Many different strategies or approaches to various issues can lead to success in the A/E business.

But the real point is, what your firm becomes should be as a result of a plan, of deliberate efforts. You can and should “design” your design firm. Here is some of my best advice if you are an owner in either a new or existing business:

  1. Be really good at doing something and market that. This is so fundamental and a lot of design firms don’t get it. Or perhaps I should say a lot of SMALL firms don’t get it. They take any work they can get and never focus on something so they can become really great at doing it. This virtually ensures they will become a firm that only gets a small percentage of the jobs they pursue, are dependent on their local market, and will have to compete based on price. In order to build that specialty you have to focus your marketing efforts on that specific market.
  2. Don’t hesitate to do something else that falls in your lap if it’s good. Just because you focus on becoming good at doing something doesn’t mean you have to say “no” to all other opportunities. If they are related to your special area of expertise or help you get into another market, you can do them if you like. But it should be a conscious decision to do so and not just a reaction to chase every single opportunity that presents itself.
  3. Love your clients. If you want loyal clients you need to be loyal to them. You have to treat them as your friends and make them feel really special. Be super-responsive. Be helpful. Treat them as a priority. Shower them with love and appreciation. Don’t nickel and dime them for the small stuff. It always costs more to get a new client than it does to keep an existing client.
  4. Be relentless self-promoters. Forget the idea that “word of mouth” is the best advertising. If no one ever works with you, they cannot say anything good about you. You need to be your own best advocate. Get involved in the client associations your clients belong to. Send out a weekly press release. Write a blogpost every week. Get your people writing blogposts. Start a podcast. Build a client and potential client database. Do marketing emails. Make calls. I have been talking about this stuff for 40 years. It works.
  5. Take less out of the business than it earns. If you ruin the business by draining all of its working capital because you can’t control your personal spending you will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. This is much more common in design firms than it should be. I can’t tell you how many discussions I have had with firm owners over the years where I have had to tell them they cannot take as much money out of the firm as they are. They always tell me about their personal “needs,” often that includes their overhead from having kids in Ivy League colleges and vacation homes. I have had to remind people they will have zero income at some point if they constantly drain their firms.
  6. Hire for character, train for skill. You cannot change someone’s character, but you can teach them how to do something. If you want to build a business that is not entirely based on what you can do personally, you will need people who are good communicators, ethical, know how to work with other people, and are conscientious. Those qualities are not the same things that you will see listed as the typical employee search criteria which are based on education, registration, and years of experience.
  7. Take really great care of the people who work for you. Show appreciation. Pay them well. Keep them informed on how the business is functioning. Solicit and listen to their concerns. Promote them to the outside world. Don’t make them feel they have to leave you to have a decent career. Give them that in YOUR firm.
  8. Be a great leader, but don’t let your ego run out of control. There’s nothing wrong with being charismatic and inspirational – unless, that is, your ego is so dominant that no one else in your shadow can shine because the spotlight is always on you. You don’t want to create a firm full only of those who are good order takers and willing to always take a back seat to your will. It’s not the way to grow something that will eventually allow you to exit because it can stand on its own.
  9. Remember every bad thing that happens to you – every setback – has a lesson for you. If you learn those lessons you will find these negative events can lead to something positive. This is so important. Bad things will happen and what determines your ability to survive and prosper after those events is how you respond to them. Do you let them crush you? Or do they make you stronger because you are learning?
  10. Don’t sweat the small stuff. You can’t let every little thing bother you. We were talking a couple weeks ago at a client business planning session about the firm the founder of our client company used to work for prior to starting his business. The guy was so wound up – such a control freak – he would lose his temper if employees used what he deemed was the wrong color paper clip on something going out to a client. If that is the way you operate, no one good will want to work with you and you will be very unhappy most of the time. Not good.

I could go on here, but hopefully the point is made that whatever you want your firm to become has to be the result of conscious planning and very specific actions. You can “design” your design firm just as you design projects for your clients. So what are you waiting for?

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

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.