“Why Are You in Business”

Sep 25, 2006

For years, we told principals of architecture, engineering, and planning firms that they should have a mission defining what their firms were all about. The question of “why are you in business?” is fundamental, we thought. Clients need to know it in order to determine if your firm is designed to help organizations like theirs. Employees need to know it so they can decide whether they want to join the company or keep working for it. And you need to know it so you can stay on course and not get so distracted that you forget why you are in business. Some good missions we developed and some not-so-good. The good ones were succinct, to the point, and clearly set a course to follow. The bad ones were verbose, convoluted, and difficult to make any sense out of. But after doing this stuff for 26 years now, I’ve come to the realization that the REAL reason any of us is in the A/E/P or environmental business (or any other business, for that matter), is to do these three things: One, make some money. Two, have some fun. And, three, do some good. When you hear the phrase “make some money,” it always begs the follow-up question: “How much?” There is no one answer as to how much money one needs to make. It varies greatly based on where you live, how you were raised, and what your expectations are for yourself. Most principals of firms in this business in a decent firm earn between $150 and $200K per year. That’s a pretty good living by most standards. On the other hand, there are still some principals of firms making substantially less than that, and some that make much more— as much as a million dollars a year, or more. All told, our professions do provide a real opportunity for those who reach ownership positions to do pretty well in the “make some money” department. When you think about “having fun,” what comes to mind? Some of you may say going to your kid’s baseball game, or taking a vacation to Cancun with your old high school pals. But if you think about it a little more, my guess is that you may actually admit that work is— or at least can be— fun. I got a call a couple days ago from one of my old pals who runs a 400- or 500-person international firm. After we talked about a variety of personal stuff, he told me a story of a recent trip he went on where they met with a developer who had a 1,000-acre project. After spending a little time with the client, he had him convinced he needed to buy all of his abutters’ property as well as redo the roads leading from his property to the airport 10 miles away. My friend, a planner in the truest sense of the word, clearly has fun on trips like this where he gets people to see the real possibilities of what they can do. The truth is, this business CAN be fun when you don’t allow yourself to get sucked into negative thinking and you stay involved with projects and clients, doing what you went to school for and what your passion is all about. “Doing some good” is another one of those statements that can conjure different images, depending on who is hearing it. Many think “work is work,” but doing good is something else. “Work is about money and doing good is about giving it away.” I vehemently disagree with this idea. I think you can do good for others through the work you do and you cannot separate the two. In fact, I think if you do separate the two, chances are you might be doing more bad than you are good. You can do good by giving someone more than they’re paying you for. You can do good by making sure the public’s best interest is being protected. You can do good by helping create a facility that surpasses the client’s expectations for beauty and functionality. You can do good by hiring someone that no one else would give a chance to. You can do good by helping a sick employee’s family out even though you don’t have a short-term disability plan. There are so many ways you can do good through doing the work itself and operating your business that there’s no way I could list them all. Making some money, having some fun, and doing some good. It’s all possible in this fantastic A/E/P and environmental business we are all a part of. Isn’t it time we got back to the basics of why we’re really in business? Originally published 9/25/2006

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.