Distilling Wisdom of Successful Entrepreneurs


I’ve made a career out of understanding business owners. Why they do it, how they do it and what makes them rise to the top. I’m curious about where they came from and how that invariably influenced their journey. I want to understand their educational experience – be it on the job, community college or Ivy League. How did they first get clients and who provided seed capital? I inquire about staffing strategies, about marketing strategies and exit strategies. I’m curious to know if they take on partners or go it alone. Do they diversify into various markets and services, or do they keep specialized with one core focus?

I speak to entrepreneurs of all stripes: bankers, ice cream makers, jewelry designers, technology gurus, dog walkers, vintners and non-profit directors are just a few examples. In 2009 I began a book about architects. For this project, I traveled across California and talked to notable, arguably successful architects who had either founded their own firm or taken charge of an established large practice. I sought those at small (1-6 person), mid sized (25-35) and large (160+) firms with a range of specialties, including residential, justice, shopping centers, gas stations, sports arenas, high rises and banks, as well as interiors and public spaces. I reached out to practitioners in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angles, Orange County and San Diego.  I asked them the aforementioned questions and compiled Success by Design: Revealing Profiles of California Architects, which was released in January 2011.

While the subjects of the book are architects, the lessons I gleaned apply to all business owners. They are about the process of growing and managing a business from the standpoint of strategy and marketing as well as handling employees, recessions and retirement. Below are impressions and excerpts from my interviews. One resounding idea I have learned through this process is that there are many paths to success and any flourishing business owner has consciously chosen their route and stayed with it. I invite you to consider the following questions and see how they apply to your business approach.

The first question I always ask is why THIS job. How did you arrive at knowing this career of yours? While a number of people acknowledge that this career was adjacent to one their parent held (in the example of architecture, that could be construction or interior design), there was an ah-ha moment that grabbed them and made the pathway clear. Top producers of architecture (or any industry) eat, sleep and breathe their chosen profession. It gives them meaning and they find the day-to-day work stimulating.

“It’s a life pursuit. Curiosity will sustain you forever.” – Craig Hodgetts

Within architecture, there are firms known more for design and those known for providing exceptional service. It’s hard to be both, so most pick a side. The design firms are adamant about their signature style and their aesthetic approach while the service firms are laser focused on pleasing the client. I’ve also heard the sentiment that jobs can be two of three things: fast, cheap or good. One of the three will always drop away as projects benefit from the other two. Those who are earlier in their career will often encounter budget-minded clients who want cheap, but those farther along echo the need to do things right and deliver a high quality product or service and expect the associated fees.

“I’d rather be second in the pool than first. I have a responsibility to spend my client’s money wisely, and every project doesn’t have to be a ‘look at me,’ as sometimes that’s not appropriate.”  – Art Gensler

While all my subjects were leaders, many of them were not necessarily designers. Architecture is structured as a three-legged stool with new hires tracking into the following areas: technical, design or management. All parts are necessary to run a successful project, and the majority of those trained as architects are doing something besides the coveted design role. This infrastructure applies to most businesses in that one person cannot do every job. Ideally, those trained in the core business do various tasks to make the whole. That includes business development, financial management, marketing and product development. It’s nearly impossible for one person to successfully wear all those hats. Leaders often determine their core skill and find strong employees or partners to tackle the rest.

“Many architects try to be a jack-of-all-trades and end up being a master of none. It’s important to know your strengths and hire people for other key roles.” – Elisa Garcia

There was a quite a range of opinion about where business should happen. Many leaders network in their communities, which results in steady work. Others insist that the world is small and seeking clients in other cities and even other countries is vital both because they operate on staggered economic cycles (and therefore don’t slow all at once) and because they provide more and varied opportunities than the local fare. Relationships were neck-and-neck with media coverage as drivers for business, and those relationships are sometimes easier to make face-to-face, but not necessarily always. Several of the CEOs I spoke to insisted that they were driven to market to clients based on fitting projects, regardless of location.

“The world is very small, so if you want to practice good design, venture beyond your own backyard.” – Lauren Rottet

When asked what markers indicate a successful architect, Michael Patrick Porter gave me one of the best quotes, “…focus, attention to detail and knowing how to maneuver through a cocktail party.” With a humorous tone, he touches on three crucial areas: the willingness to stay focused on a chosen career; the ability to pay attention (to trends, to client needs, to a changing economy, to employee culture, etc) and the interest in somehow relating to others. If a business has customers, then SOMEONE needs to be interfacing with them and letting them know why they need you to solve their problem or fill their need.

Steven Ehrlich along with several others intimated that success can’t be measured five or even ten years into a business when he said, “Architects have a slow gestation. Most don’t hit their full stride until their 50s.” While there are the technology wizard exceptions, I would echo that sentiment that perfection takes practice and that only comes through time and experience.

So what’s your raison d’etre, your approach to hiring, delegation, client relations and to retirement? And do you measure yourself with a fair yardstick? Drop me a line with thoughts and comments by going to my dot429 profile.

Jenn Kennedy is a writer and photographer. She contributes profiles and lifestyle content to a range of publications, including Los Angeles Confidential, Las Vegas Magazine, Montecito Journal, Sierra, The Advocate and Fit Yoga. Kennedy also profiles business leaders in a weekly column on Noozhawk.com. Her new book, Success by Design: Revealing Profiles of California Architects, is available in stores and online on her blog.

About The Author

I began my career as a publicist and later returned to school for photography. Today I use all these skills as I move back and forth between writing, interviewing and shooting. My clients include: The Advocate, Jane, LA Confidential, Gotham and Fit Yoga Magazines, as well as advertising for Citibank, Maytag, MTV, Yahoo and Women’s Entertainment Network. I write profiles, travel stories and product reviews for SheWired, Huffington Post and Echelon Magazines. I also pen and shoot a weekly column in Noozhawk.com, featuring interesting Santa Barbara locals. I recently finished a book called Success by Design: Revealing Profiles of California Architects. I photographed and interviewed 25 successful architects about the rise of their career.

Send this to friend