November 18, 2004

Ready to go national with your design firm?

  • Here's how a medium-size Seattle firm did it
    Emick Howard & Seibert


    For local architectural and design firm Emick Howard & Seibert, growing our business nationally wasn't a huge leap, but a series of small, strategic steps.

    Our firm was targeting markets outside of Seattle long before the local economy suffered a downturn. Our goal from the beginning was to service business from our home base, believing that opening offices outside Seattle is both costly and unnecessary. Technology allows us to virtually be in any market at any time. And partnering with local resources, such as real estate agents and contractors, gives us a market presence by providing local intelligence and execution.

    ‘Technology allows us to virtually be in any market at any time.’

    With 60 to 80 percent of our work out-of-state, we have been able to not only survive Seattle's economic downturn, but thrive as other markets continued to grow. We also learned a few things along the way:

    1) Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. In a new and unknown market, your weaknesses will hurt you more than your strengths will benefit you. Weaknesses tend to be amplified 10 times over, while your strengths must be obvious and far outweigh those of the market competition.

    2) Identify markets in which your expertise can be maximized. Our research showed opportunity for financial industry work in the Southwest, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard. Rather than open new offices, we acquired expertise in these markets. Today, we have active projects in a variety of industry sectors from coast-to-coast, including Hawaii.

    3) Leverage expertise in a particular niche to expand into related niches. Once we became known for our financial branch design, we were able to transfer that expertise to retail. By showing retailers what we were able to accomplish for our financial clients and how that expertise could apply to their industry, we were able to acquire national retail store rollouts by leveraging our newly acquired expertise in branch prototyping.

    4) Provide services the market is not currently delivering. Over time, we noticed that there was a need for office relocation services, but realized that no one was offering that service. To fill this niche and offer value-added service that would also help grow our business, we launched Relocation Planning & Management. As a result, we were able to fill a pressing need for our clients while expanding into new markets across the country.

    5) Be discriminating about the work you choose. As the saying goes — do the work you love and the money will follow. When you love the work, the passion binds your team together, you attract top-level talent and become a firm with whom clients want to work. Besides having a passion for the work, make sure it is the right fit for your firm's expertise. Avoid the temptation to jump at any opportunity that comes your way from out-of-state. Take work that will have a good outcome, as your firm will be judged by that first project.

    6) Do your homework when entering new markets or industries. The only way to grow and succeed in a new market is to research that market by learning what drives trends and how they differ from region to region so you can be viewed as an authority. When we saw opportunity in the legal industry for our services, we decided to knock on doors across the country. We walked through law offices and asked a lot of questions. By the end of our research, we understood what motivated law firms nationally, and equally important, how they differed from market to market. In the end, The National Law Journal covered our findings and we became advisors to the Office Design department of the publication. As a result, we received national work that continues to grow our reputation in the legal industry.

    As with many professional services firms, medium-size architecture and design firms feel pressure from the shear numbers of small firms and the huge resources of large firms. Squeezed between the two, medium-size firms need to work smart, attract top talent, and seek out niche and geographic opportunities. As I often say, it's easy to stay in the box that you've created for yourself. It's hard, but rewarding, to break out of it.

    Jack Emick is a principal of Seattle-based architectural and design firm Emick Howard & Seibert.

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