So you want to make more money?

Sep 12, 2021

You may be an architect or engineer and think you aren’t really motivated by money. But money is a scorecard in the game of business, and ‘winning’ is fun!

You may be an architect or engineer and honestly think you aren’t really motivated by money. That said, nothing is cheap these days. Have you tried to buy a house or car lately, or pay for college tuition? Everything has gone up! Not to mention the fact that money is a scorecard in the game of business, and “winning” is fun!

If you had more than 40 years of opportunity to observe incredibly successful design professionals as I have, you would know there are some major differences in how they do things. Here are some of the distinguishing characteristics I have seen in the firm owners who knock the cover off the ball versus those who just do OK:

  1. They value their time. They give very little away. They figure out a way to get paid for front-end work that the other guys don’t charge for. And when they do quote fees they are less concerned about their cost to deliver and more concerned about what they think the client will be willing to pay. They know giving too much away is a slippery slope that is hard to get out of later. So they set the expectations early. This is fundamental to making money in this business.
  2. They are very selective about who they work for. They don’t just jump in their car, or get on a plane every time a new potential client reaches out to them for help. They study the situation and see how that specific client and project fits into the business they are trying to build. And if they sense anyone is going to be difficult to work with or resistant to paying a proper fee for their efforts, they drop them – fast – before wasting much time. You can’t make a lot of money if you work for just anyone.
  3. They consistently invest in PR, brand-building, and other sustainable marketing activities so they do not have to make calls to get work. When I say this, many firm owners bristle and tell me that if not for their BD efforts, they’d have little to no work. But it is precisely because they don’t invest in these other things that requires them to constantly call new and existing clients to ask them for work. Believe it or not, there are some firms in this business with principals who never have to make a sales call. The phone rings, or an email comes in, or an RFP lands, and they react (selectively!). This is how they keep fees high, quality of projects high, and can afford to hire and invest in good people.
  4. They are specialized. Specialization rules in the AEC business when it comes to making money. It doesn’t mean you can do only one thing. Obviously the larger you get, the more specializations you can have. But one thing I know is clients don’t want generalists. They want design professionals who are experienced in the type of work they need done for other client organizations similar to theirs. IF you are truly specialized, you should be better at what you do, and you should be able to do it more efficiently than another firm that is doing something different for different types of clients every day. Rarely, if ever, have I seen being a generalist pay off in terms of firm success in this business.
  5. They know how to keep their people. Everyone is talking about the upcoming “great resignation” we are supposed to soon be facing. I don’t believe that the crazy percentages of people who are supposed to quit in the next year will necessarily apply to firms in our business, but I do believe those firms that can consistently keep their turnover rates down perform better than those that don’t. It just makes sense. Low turnover looks better to clients and increases the efficiency of everything. To have low turnover, firms need a real sense of purpose. They have to pay their people well. They need to invest in the tools and training their people want and need. And especially today, they need to be flexible in terms of accommodation of varying work schedules and locations (for a wide variety of reasons). These things are essential if you want to keep your people in your employ. And low turnover makes you money in multiple ways!
  6. They are optimistic and confident. How can you teach someone to be this way? I don’t know. But I do know that those principals who have real confidence and are optimistic about their futures and the future of their firms do better than those who are negative pessimists. All you have to do to witness this firsthand is go to our ElevateAEC Conference (held on November 3-5 in Denver this year). There you will meet the kinds of people I am talking about. The financial performance of their firms reflects the optimism and confidence of their leaders.

Making money isn’t so bad. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back. As the old motivational poster many of us had more than 40 years ago said, “I have been rich, and I have been poor. Rich is better!”

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.