Investing in the future: John Meyer

May 18, 2020

Founder of edg (New York, NY), a technology-driven firm that leverages the power of software and equipment to deliver higher quality projects in less time.

By Liisa Andreassen Correspondent

edg is an award-winning collective of designers, architects, engineers, and makers, all dedicated to changing the future of the built environment. Since 2004, the firm has completed a staggering 2,850 projects – a testament to edg’s expertise in the design, renovation, and restoration of buildings. John Meyer, the company’s founder, is at the forefront of technology innovation for the design and construction industry. He has extensive experience in architectural design and structural engineering. He’s founded several other companies, including Mosaic, a project and business management software startup, to help firms focus on design.

“I can speak from experience that having the right system in place allows great people to do great work, and I don’t think you can have one without the other,” Meyer says.

A conversation with John Meyer.

The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?

John Meyer: We’ve had some experience working remotely and managing outside consultants, but as a policy, we’ve only allowed remote working for short time periods. Our entire company has been fully remote since mid-March, and we are fortunate in that we’ve already been using digital systems to handle almost everything for years. This pandemic has gotten our entire staff well trained to handle remote work, which will permit us to expand our telecommuting policy once things get going again. Ultimately, it will offer our staff more flexibility and potentially allow us to hire remote workers for some roles.

Our work is largely visual though, so while much of the work can be done remotely, certain things are still much easier to convey in the same room. Our drafting tools will be made more collaborative in the next year, easing some of those limitations making remote collaboration significantly easier.

TZL: How far into the future are you able to reliably predict your workload and cashflow?

JM: We can now see all the way through to the end of all of our proposed or planned work. The level of detail and data we can easily access has been eye-opening. The software is fluid and flexible, and takes only five to 10 minutes a week for an associate to staff their teams. It’s been a really seismic shift, and has given us clarity on the work we can take on, who will be free to work on it given their predicted workloads, who can focus on R&D projects and when we will need to hire to fill the anticipated need. We’ve found that planning the workload keeps everyone productive, which not only increases our efficiency and utilization of team members, but drives up our profitability by magnitudes.

TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?

JM: We’ve been using AI on the architectural design side to help us iterate through a range of design options. We’ve even created a program that allows us to create buildings with customized facades that can have a different surface pattern design on every square foot if desired. It’s called Synthesis, and we were proud that we received the Architecture Masterprize last year for it.

We use an algorithmic approach to structural design, utilizing Grasshopper scripts to create parametric analysis models with extensive load cases and structural layouts to optimize the design in ways never before possible. This process places material precisely where it is needed, and removes it where it is not, to create cost-effective systems that are stronger, lighter, and safer.

TZL: You founded edg in 2004. What was your greatest challenge in getting the business up and running? How did you overcome it?

JM: When I began the company, I was only four years out from graduating with my undergraduate degree, so I faced tremendous challenges. Just the work involved in hiring and creating systems to run the office was probably the most significant hurdle initially, and all these years later, they remain the two most important factors to doing our best work. I can speak from experience that having the right system in place allows great people to do great work, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Since our founding, I’ve spent an incredible amount of time, energy, and resources to create a system that handles everything we need it to do. I was surprised by how fragmented the existing solutions were, each covering specific aspects of the business or all-in-ones for general use, but none encompassing the entirety of what we needed. Recognizing the potentially profound impact such a solution could have on our day-to-day work, I began designing software to handle everything in one place. Over the years, it’s been continuously tweaked and refined, adding things, removing others, as well as getting a ton of feedback from outside architects and engineers, until we had something that worked seamlessly.

TZL: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?

JM: It’s a new challenge with work routines being altered so dramatically. We’ve used this downtime to invest in our staff’s education, and to upgrade new systems we couldn’t find the time to, including our CRM and field forms. We’ve been using a project and business management program to handle operations called Mosaic, from a software company that I founded. It was designed for digital communication and collaboration, which of course becomes a necessity with everyone working remotely. With this tool, edg’s leadership team can easily get an overview of what everyone is working on, and the team can track projects and communicate what needs to be done. These features have always been powerful, but during this crisis, with everything changing from one day to the next and trying to keep everyone busy, they have proved invaluable.

TZL: Are you using the R&D tax credit? If so, how is it working for your firm? If not, why not?

JM: Yes, we have a very strong R&D department working on some cutting-edge construction products using the credit, and it works as intended. It allows one to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the firm, investing in the future of the company, while non-billable/non-project time is used effectively. I recommend it to all firms.

TZL: Are you seeking some kind of financial assistance during the COVID-19? If so, what type?

JM: We are currently seeking several sources of funding, most of which come through various arms of the Small Business Administration. Like most businesses, we have applied for the Payroll Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and the NYC Small Business Continuity Loan Fund, but, as of yet, have not received any funds. We’ve been informed that the initial round of funds for the PPP loans ran out, so while we wait for additional funding for the program, we have drawn down on our line of credit to strengthen our balance sheet and ensure we can weather this crisis. We are doing everything we can to keep the entire team together during this time.

TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?

JM: We’re continually assessing the work we do to make sure it’s aligned with our overall mission and vision for the company, and we will pass on work that is not a fit. Given the length of time it takes to complete a project, you can’t get too far ahead with hiring, or you may be forced to accept work you wouldn’t otherwise, just to keep the lights on. It’s always a delicate balance and needs to be thoughtfully evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Some projects won’t be profitable, but will likely lead to more profitable work; some are complex and we like the challenge, and some we just enjoy working on. The decision-making process involves discussing the benefits and negatives of each project type fully so that the answer ultimately becomes clear.

TZL: What measures are you taking to protect your employees during the COVID-19 crisis?

JM: Our office is located in midtown Manhattan, so we began working remotely mid-March, which we will continue to do until the city lifts the quarantine. We advised our staff to wear gloves and a mask from the very first days of the quarantine. We hold frequent safety calls and checks to ensure that people are staying safe, especially in earliest days when some were still visiting project sites.

During this time, we have been 3D printing face shields for healthcare workers, so we’ve had to work out a system of going to the office and coordinating delivery for those, but otherwise, we’ve been able to stay fully operational and productive from home while keeping everyone safe.

TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?

JM: There have been so many expensive lessons along the way. Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is to hire the right person for the job. Our hiring process is now extensive and costly, but worth every penny. Positions can take months to fill, but finding the right fit provides a quick return on investment.

TZL: How are you staying in touch with your clients during this pandemic?

JM: Beyond the normal email communication with clients, we are relying more heavily on screen sharing for plan reviews, and VR walkthroughs using Enscape and IrisVR. With construction projects completely shut down here in NYC, we are using the time to check in on our clients, and see how they are holding up with everything going on. As you can imagine, everyone is very eager to get back to work.

TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?

JM: We adhere to the philosophy that if a PM is constantly behind, there’s a bigger problem. With extensive senior management training, we’ve managed to alleviate the issue of overworked PMs by staying focused on what’s important, and working far enough ahead on deadlines, which the entire team sees daily, so there are no surprises.

We also keep an eye on our workload to make sure that we get out ahead of any hiring needs and don’t take on anything we can’t handle. Our PMs also use software tools that structure proper communication, documentation, and transparency, which naturally handle the core of good project management.

TZL: You’ve founded companies that had to do with software development. How do they fit in with architecture and engineering and why? Was it a natural transition?

JM: Software is a branch of engineering, and I think the transition was very natural because the thought process and approaches are the same in that you are designing and building solutions to complex problems. For me, sometimes the problem is software related, and other times, it’s in the built environment. I think that as we see more software used in architecture, engineering, and design, we’re recognizing the inherent synergies, which we are continually exploring.

I would also say that in architecture and engineering, our work is, quite literally, built-in stone. There is absolutely no margin for error, particularly in the arena of structural engineering. Working on software, by comparison, is far less stressful.

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