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The learning series How to Start an AE Firm was created for architects and engineers who have the desire to start, grow, and maintain their own firm. My name is Jared Perry and I am a structural engineer as well as a small business owner. The content herein and going forward is a compilation of my real life experiences from when I started an architecture and structural engineering firm at 27 years old. Since the inception of that company, my business partner and I have grown our consulting architecture and engineering business between 200% and 400% each year. It is my intent that this series will help foster the creation and growth of your businesses through bi-weekly articles tailored specifically to the architecture and engineering business environment. If you thought about starting your own firm before and didn’t know where to begin, this series will guide you. Before we dive in, I want to invite anyone who has a question, regardless of where you are in your career or business venture, to shoot me an email if you have a specific topic or question you would like answered. My email address is email@example.com. The more questions you ask, the more you and others reading this series will learn.
Part 1: The Rhombus Rule
What is your definition of a successful business owner? I ask because being realistic with yourself about answering that question is the first step in becoming a successful business owner. You, like many, probably like the idea of owning a business, but haven’t given much thought as to what your definition of success is. We’re going to fix that. The very first block of your foundation should be how you define success. Think about it. You don’t ask someone to marry you feeling indifferent as to whether they say yes or no, do you? You don’t apply for a mortgage loan feeling indifferent to whether the bank says yes or no. You go into each of those situations with hopes and expectations. You need the same in business. Define what your expectations are and then work diligently to achieve or exceed them. The greatest thing about starting your business is that it’s your business. One thing that I have learned is that every single person in this world is wired differently. People are excited, motivated, and scared by different things. Knowing that, I feel obliged to tell you that there is no one size fits all rulebook for starting your own firm. Certainly I believe what I write, but that doesn’t mean mine is the only way.
If you’re serious about starting a successful business, I urge you to have your priorities in life situated first. What I mean by that is, know what is most important to you. As I said before, everyone is different, and everyone is entitled to rank priorities in life the way they see fit. That’s what makes each business owner unique. That’s why consistency in “chain” type businesses can exist in many forms. It’s the people that make the company. It’s their priorities that set the tone. As an example, my priorities are God, family, and then work (providing for my family). It seems simple, but you would be surprised how many people answer this question in 10 minutes (like you will do very shortly) and then within a day want to change that answer. Those same people will continue to think about it and most likely change their mind again within a week. Knowing what is important to you, and thinking you know what is important to you, are two completely different things. Before you dive headfirst into business ownership, make sure your list is static. My list has been the same since I graduated college. Before that, my list was scattered. In truth, I haven’t always done the best job at keeping my list in order, which is why I am telling you now instead of 30 articles from now. The list is important. It is not some philosophical point I’m trying to make. Having a list will help steer you toward making good decisions for yourself and your family when the stress (both good and bad) of business ownership leads you astray. I tell my employees all the time that the decisions and efforts you make now affect everything in your future: the type of car you can buy, the house you can live in, the clothes your children wear, the education your children can have, and so on. It is all based on the decisions you make now. What we are talking about is accountability, who’d have thought?
So, while we’re on the subject of lists, what does yours look like? Take a minute to jot it down before we jump into the next section. I’ll wait. I’m told I’m a very patient person.
Now that you have your list and you’ve determined what your priorities are, think about why people say most businesses fail. The economy? Poor circumstances? Bad luck? A bad idea? I believe that most businesses fail because the people who start them only care about making money. More accurately, they care about making more money or making easy money. People say money is the root of all evil; it’s not. It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil. Making money should be a byproduct of what you do, not why you do it. This learning series will help tremendously with the understanding of how to start, run, and grow a business, but if you are doing it for the wrong reasons, you will have a harder time than most.
I will assume for the purpose of this article that your list is static and that your number one goal isn’t making a lot of money. With that, let’s take a look at your list. Specifically, let’s think about how you ranked it. I can understand and appreciate that your list may differ from mine, but the way in which your list is organized will ultimately be the same and will define how you carry yourself in a business environment. Setting up priorities is like setting up boundaries. When boundaries are crossed, it usually leads to problems. This is what I call the “Rhombus rule.” If your priorities are in order, then the things at the lower half of your list should support and promote the items in the upper half of your list. When you do that, you get the left half of the rhombus and life overall tends to point upward. Everything seems to fall into place. When your priorities are wrong and the things in the bottom half of your list take precedence over everything else, you get the right half of the rhombus, and your quality of life and that of those you care about tends to point downward.
I chose to open this series with the Rhombus Rule, which to my knowledge I invented, because for a while I habitually lived on the right side of the rhombus. Believe me when I say, that is no way to live life. You won’t make more money and it is not the best thing for your business. In fact, doing that increases your competition and lowers your potential earnings. For example, if 100 people decide to start their own firm without reading this series, almost all of them will say yes to working in excess and accepting any job they can get their hands on within their discipline. Those people will justify it by saying you’d be stupid not to take the work. The problem with that mindset is that it is usually pontificated by people who don’t own businesses or people who own low-to-average performing businesses. It’s the blind leading the blind. Not only are you working more, but since everyone is doing this, you will need to do it at a lower rate just to get the work. That doesn’t sound like a winning strategy. It sounds like putting all your effort into starting a business by working more hours for less money. If you’re going after a participation ribbon, there is no need to read any more of my articles. You can do that all on your own.
Before you go into business, figure out what is most important to you in life. Make a list, write it down, and keep it with you so that you never lose sight of it.
If you start a business solely for the purpose of making more money or making easy money, you will have a very hard time achieving your goals. In the words of Socrates, “He who is not content with what he has, would not be content with what he would like to have.”
As a new business owner, people will offer you their advice, either provoked or unprovoked. Take everything with a grain of salt and be sure to think about how that advice affects your list, keeping in mind that as a business owner, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
UP NEXT >> Part 2: It’s Go Time!
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