Welcome back to “Archipreneur Insights”, our interview series where we talk to founders and entrepreneurs within the architectural and design community. Here, we ask them about how they started their businesses and the struggles they had to overcome, as well as the kinds of services and products they create and how they envision the future of the building industry. We want to learn from each other and share our knowledge here at archipreneur.com.
This week’s interview is with Volker Eich and Elke Anna Mehner, who founded Strategiekreis Architekten Business Design (Strategy circle for architects). Through their consulting program, they help architects who have their own practices to improve on them, fortifying their business ideas and developing suitable strategies for them.
Volker Eich has also written a book, Das Strategiebuch für Architekten (The Strategy Book for Architects, currently only available in German), which is essential reading for any prospective archipreneur.
Both Eich and Mehner worked as architects for years before Eich founded the Strategy Circles, so they are insiders to the industry and know precisely how architects tick. As both had external interests in addition to architecture, they were keen to combine their passion for architecture with these interests, from art to drama, and build a business on the values that they found complemented the architecture industry. What resulted was their business addressing a very interesting niche in the architectural industry: business design.
Let’s hear what both have to say about the architecture industry, as well as how an archipreneur can develop a strategy for his/her practice and business design.
What made you decide to become strategy coaches for architects after having worked for some time as architects yourselves?
Volker: Before I decided to become an architect, I had wanted to be an artist. But I didn’t have the guts for it. I didn’t know any artists then and I hardly knew anything about the arts. I was aware of my calling but in my family the artist’s profession was not considered suitable and so I was expected to choose a more secure career for myself. In the end I studied architecture, which was an acceptable compromise!
When I graduated from university I first started out as an employee in an architect’s office, which was quite convenient because it meant that I had regular income. But I really wanted to have my own office. In order to prepare for that, I applied for a teaching job at the Technical University Berlin, and I participated in numerous competitions for architects. But I failed in this approach. After 5 years, the teaching job was over and I had not won any of the competitions to which I had submitted my work. At that point I realized that I had never really wanted to be an architect. So I decided to find a job as a freelancer and confront the question that would end up changing everything: “What is my mission in life?”
I wanted to find out if there really were any “golden rules” for success.
Elke Anna: When I first met Volker, I knew immediately that I wanted to join the Strategiekreis Architekten (Strategy Circle for Architects) as a member. I had previously worked very hard for a career in architecture but in spite of my efforts, my attempted architectural business wasn’t profitable. I felt like I was trying to navigate a stormy sea while sitting in a nutshell! If I had continued, my business would have been doomed, and what’s worse, my family would have had to pay the price.
I had previously worked very hard for a career in architecture but in spite of my efforts, my attempted architectural business wasn’t profitable. I felt like I was trying to navigate a stormy sea while sitting in a nutshell!
While working with the members of the Circle, something completely unexpected happened. I recalled a childhood dream of mine. When I was a little girl, I wanted to become an actress and spent hundreds of hours in front of the mirror, watching all the characters that appeared in my play. That mirror was my secret audience. Supported by the Circle, I began to ask myself what had happened to these childhood dreams of mine. The Strategy Circle encouraged me to question my self-image as an architect. That was the decisive step that helped to put me back on the right career path. Despite my enthusiasm for architecture, I realized that I wasn’t in the right place. But in the Strategy Circle, I was at least with the right people.
The Circle shared problems that were all quite familiar to me, particularly the gap between being an artist and the desire to be an entrepreneur. That was a recurring drive for members of the Circle. In the two years that followed, I completed my coaching training and finally ended my career as an architect. In those years, I had found out what truly moved me, deep down. My concern is now to be able to relate with other people and to help them find out who they are and where they want to be in their careers.
What was the main reason that sealed your decision to become a strategy coach?
Volker: I sealed my decision while on the island of Lanzarote. One day, I was sitting on a beach, talking with two new friends whom I had met on the island. Our conversation there revealed all the elements that were missing in my job at the time – we were talking about the sorts of things people don’t normally discuss.
We shared problems and fears. We talked about the things we loved and the things we were hoping for in life. We stopped pretending to be someone; all three of us tried to unveil who we really were, inside. It was a risk, but it ended up being my epiphany. I thought that this was exactly what I wanted to experience in my work: being connected, and sharing the thoughts and feelings that really matter.
All of a sudden, I heard this strange numinous voice say, “Are you willing to take this seriously?” My answer was “YES!” and, four weeks later, I ended my career as an architect. This “beach scene” brought about the Strategy Circle. I began to understand that, for me, the ultimate art form was found in the relationships we forge as human beings. My business model was beginning to take shape, along with an understanding of what kind of artist I would be.
Elke Anna: In order to recognize who you are, you need another person to be your mirror. When I decided to become a strategy coach, I inverted my childhood dream and became the mirror we are all in need of, rather than the girl sitting in front of it. Three years after joining the Circle, Volker asked me to become his business partner.
What types of clients do you typically help with your coaching offer?
Volker: Our service is only available to individuals. We don’t work for companies or organizations; we consider ourselves as dialogue partners for architects who are self-employed. Some of our clients are interior designers, landscape architects, urban designers and structural engineers. Some of them have very small offices, while others have up to 50 or 60 employees. Most of our clients are based in Germany but we also have clients in Austria, Switzerland and the United States of America.
Elke Anna: There are a few things all our clients have in common: they all suffer from their daily workload. Many of them don’t have the clients they want. They would love to get more recognition and make more money. They all want to change something in their practice.
How does business design for architects work?
Volker: When you decide to design your business model with us, we will ask you a number of questions. We want to understand, first, who you are and what kind of change you want to bring to the world. We want to learn about your mission – What story are you telling your audience? Who belongs in your community? Who would be the coolest people / companies / organizations to become your future clients? Why do your clients love your business? Who would be the coolest people to work for your company? How will your business change the world? Which innovations make your business unique? How have you been making sure that your company will outlive you?
How will your business change the world?
Elke Anna: By answering these questions and many others, you design a dynamic model of your business. By writing down your answers, you create a manual that lays out all the necessary elements and procedures you need in order to fulfill your business’ mission. With your company manual, you possess a powerful quality management system that helps you to increase the level of organization in your company. Once you have completed the first stage of your business design, you can change, improve and redesign your business as often as you want. Or, you might choose to sell the model.
How do you help architects to develop their practice?
Volker: We provide two formats: you can choose between our Mentor Program or the Strategy Circle.
In our Super Mentor Program, you get a series of one-to-ones with your personal mentor. These conversations are carried out through personal meetings, email and Skype. The end result of these conversations is a workable business model. With our support, designing your complete company model usually takes between 18-24 months. A corporate manual for your company is produced from a series of question/answer responses that have been gathered over the months of our support.
We also offer a Mini Mentor program, which concentrates on just one aspect of your business model. It might be rounding out your mission, a better understanding of how to become an entrepreneur, creating a thriving community, designing your dream innovation, hiring the best staff, and so on.
Elke Anna: The Strategy Circle comprises a community of self-employed architects who support each other. Circle members get together for three days biannually. Every meeting is moderated by two mentors, which makes all the difference because they make it very easy for architects to talk about things they would normally not share with other architects, such as: How can I become an archipreneur? How can I build up a community of clients who love my work? How can I turn my architectural office into a brand? In the Strategy Circle, your competitors become your allies.
We all dream of a better world but when it comes to turning the dream into a reality, we are often guilty of getting in our own way. If we want our own future to develop in a way we want, we must make sure to behave in an appropriate way. Just as you need a mirror in order to see yourself, you also need someone to give you feedback and thus become aware of how others see you and your business. In the business world, you will hardly find anyone willing to give you that kind of feedback.
The outstanding value of the Strategy Circle derives from the feedback you get from its other members; and our policy is that Circle members are always honest, respectful and supportive of each other. The Circle is a laboratory in which you can make your business relationships work. And the better they work within the Circle the better they will work outside.
Why do you think it is necessary for architects to develop a business strategy?
Volker: Strategy is a key component of your business model because when you work as an architect today you have to deal with an increasing number of competitors. So you might want to find out what makes your company unique and special. For us, the art of strategy is all about creating relationships. As an entrepreneur, your goal is to create a relationship between your company and your community, your clients and your staff.
As an entrepreneur, your goal is to create a relationship between your company and your community, your clients and your staff.
Elke Anna: The most important relationship, though, is the one you have with yourself. A good strategy must match who you are as a person. The better you know your character and ambitions, the easier you will find clients and staff who love you and your work.
When we learn how to create better relationships, we also learn how to be successful. The truth is that our uniqueness only reveals itself once it has been subjected to a process of self-awareness. Just as we need a mirror to recognize our physical image we also need a peer to recognize our own uniqueness. The moment we realize what makes us unique is the moment we can start to develop a strategy that leads us to the right decisions, the right people and the right business that support our mission. Only by following the path of a dynamic strategy that has your mission in mind will archipreneurs be able to turn their ideas into real companies.
In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major business opportunities for up and coming architects?
Volker: I have a funny feeling about the distinction you make between traditional practice and – what? An architect will always do what architects have been doing: design buildings. But the market now demands that you also design new business models. That is the real challenge for today’s architects. I would, however, advise against solely looking for opportunities that appear to be the most profitable. First and foremost, you have to find a business model that fits with who you are as a person.
Elke Anna: We believe that there are as many business opportunities as there are people in the world. When we meet a new client, the first thing we do is ask that person to tell us their life story. We believe that everyone’s story is a good one and that they each contain a personal challenge that the hero of the story (the narrator) has to master or overcome. Those who are ready to engage with that challenge may expect to find treasure. We all need to discover the golden thread in our own story – the thing that weaves together our dreams and ambitions. When you find out what moves you, you will know where to go and what to do.
Volker: When you graduate from architecture school and begin your career as an architect, you usually either begin as a freelancer or an employee. But it is not easy to find a good employer because most architects already in the industry don’t have a strategy for themselves. Many don’t have a business model, either. Their business, instead, is highly dependent on the contemporaneous situation of the building industry. They may have a number of great projects today, but they may just as well be left without any work at all four weeks later. Architectural offices hire and fire, and are often unable to offer long-term perspectives for their hopeful employees.
As an architect, you are dealing with building design. As an entrepreneur, you are dealing with business design. As an archipreneur, you are dealing with both.
Therefore, many newcomers to the industry find themselves very keen to start up a business of their own but in architecture school nobody told them how to run an office, create a business model, attract a community of people who love their work, and so on. In other words, there is always the danger of repeating the mistakes of the generation that went before. It is a vicious circle, and the only chance to free yourself from that dynamic is to tailor your own role in the industry and become an archipreneur. As an architect, you are dealing with building design. As an entrepreneur, you are dealing with business design. As an archipreneur, you are dealing with both.
Do you have any advice for “archipreneurs” who are interested in creating a strategy for their business?
Elke Anna: Yes, (laughing) if you are able to read German, read Volker’s DAS STRATEGIEBUCH FÜR ARCHITEKTEN. Find out about the deeper purpose behind your efforts, beyond all the selfish stuff like making money and becoming famous. I know it’s not easy, doing it alone. So find your ‘mirror’. Find a mentor who best reflects who you are and who accompanies you through the experience of becoming an archipreneur.
Volker: Let me quote Steve Jobs: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works!” So my advice is not only to concentrate on designing beautiful buildings, cities or landscapes but also to focus on designing your own company! Design a beautiful business! Get in touch with the people who love you and your work! Your creativity contains hidden treasure. Go find that treasure! Find the entrepreneur within yourself! And let me tell you a secret: being an entrepreneur is so much fun!
About Volker Eich & Elke Anna Mehner
Volker Eich worked as an architect for 16 years. He taught design at the Technische Universität Berlin. In 2006 he founded Strategiekreis Architekten. In 2013 he self-published DAS STRATEGIEBUCH FÜR ARCHITEKTEN.
Elke Anna Mehner worked as an architect for 17 years. She’s an expert of business design. In 2011 she joined the team; in 2013 she became a partner.
STRATEGIEKREIS ARCHITEKTEN BUSINESS DESIGN is based in Leipzig, Germany.