Rebecca Caldwell revisits a major turning point for her studio, when she ditched the unsustainable ‘suffering artist’ mentality for a more strategic, business-minded approach.

It has taken me a long time to become comfortable with a business that makes money. My personal background is solidly middle class with a good amount of social contract thrown in. This geared me towards feeling uncomfortable charging people for something I loved to do so much – design! Like so many in the profession, my time at university and early career further cemented the ‘suffering artist’ mentality. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it starts. But the comments, jokes and warnings all aggregate to perpetuate this one great myth – good architectural practice and making money are incompatible.

Having children was the start of a big correction for me. I came to realise I was building my client’s wealth at my own (and my family’s) cost. I was exhausted and the people around me were exhausted – drained by an unsustainable fee position that spoke to my own low value of myself.

We hit the ten-year mark last year and over this incredible (sometimes bumpy) time, I’ve learned some lessons that have changed the way I think about my work and I’d love to share them with you.

Stop calling it a practice and accept you are running a business

Five years into the business, drained of money and energy, I spoke with someone who advised me I either needed to close up shop or dive in and work incredibly hard to turn things around. I did neither. With a one year old, I had no capacity to throw myself into it. What I did instead was:

  • Let my team know to look for other work – I gave them a six-month window to find new work.
  • Drop a large developer client (sometimes 80% of our month’s billing) and determined to only do the work that sparked our joy.
  • Reset my agenda about how I would work and who I would work for.

The period of time leading up to this change was difficult for me. I had to admit defeat – I was five years into an unsustainable business model and I was unprepared to do it any longer. In weighing up this decision, what weighed on my mind heaviest – after letting go of team members I loved – was what my colleagues would think of my ‘failure’.

It was this ‘failure’ that metamorphosed my ‘practice’ into my business. Maytree became something I ran, not something I defined myself by. From there, it became far easier to frame up questions and find the answers. I love what my team and I have created at Maytree, but it is just a business. It has to work for me, my team and my clients. And if it isn’t, I am not afraid to pull the levers I need to get back into balance.

Profit creates the time and space to design well

In order to change the financial viability of Maytree, the first thing for me to unlearn was that profit was a dirty word. The fact is, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve come to love how profitability creates the atmosphere within which creativity can thrive. I call this a ‘virtuous cycle’. Being paid well for a job gives you the time to design. The time to design means you meet (or hopefully exceed) your client’s expectations. Time to design allows you to create a portfolio of work that makes you more desirable to work with.

The people I’ve found who are never uncomfortable with the idea that we would make money from the project are our clients. As a business that says we’re ‘humans first and architects second’, having a profitable business is crucial to providing an excellent and stable environment for my team and for providing excellent and consistent service for my clients.

Put value on all your skills – not just design

When you solely put your value on design skill, your ‘worth’ is reduced to how you compare with your colleagues or competitors. This leads to a severe case of imposter syndrome. The question constantly hangs over your head – what if I’m not a good enough designer?

For me, I’ve found that placing my value on all of my skills – team building, leadership, people management, project management – I’ve been able to communicate my value more confidently to my clients and recognise the areas beyond design where I can bring enormous value to their lives and projects.

One of the things clients fear is that they’ll spend all this time and money and not get something they love. But it is just one of their fears. We manage their fear of budget blowout, how to secure a good contractor, how to make a million large and small decisions, how to get a development approval. When you communicate the breadth of your role – managing budget, time, consultants, risk and  process – you deepen the value offering to your clients, and this sits far more comfortably with me!

Better systems mean better business

The complaint I’ve always heard in architecture is how can you systemise something where every site, client, brief and town plan varies? In my experience, running a smoother architectural practice business, is grounded in the quality of the experience you give your clients.

Good project and process management can be sorted with one simple question – What doesn’t my client know or feel confident about and how can I make that simpler or clearer for them? By answering that question, we make a smoother process for our clients, and streamline our workflow. Yes, the projects and clients are variable, but our process doesn’t have to be. By reducing the unknowns, creating a process that every project is stepped through and sticking to, we improve our productivity, profitability and client experience.

At Maytree, we have created 10 steps we take our clients through – from first conversation to handing over the keys. By channelling every project through the same process, we remove variables and create certainty for our clients and ourselves. By accurately forecasting and managing how long a project will take, I can accurately plan my income stream over the same time period. If I can manage budgets I can ensure my projects don’t fall over (we currently see 80% of projects that start design, get built).

Figure out what you stand for – then say it loudly

This speaks back to your value proposition for clients. A large part of what makes our day to day at Maytree so delightful is the people we are working for. By attracting people who value authenticity, sustainability and accountability, we have this amazing group of clients who value our work and make designing with and for them joyful.

It took me a while to find my voice. For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t find the happy place between offering the prestigious service that is architecture, and my personal discomfort with the elitism that sits within that.

Over time, we’ve found ways to still create and charge for lovely architectural projects, but balance that with our need to give back to the community. We do this through:

  • Being open and generous with information online so that more people can get access to design input.
  • Writing blogs such as “Design Small, Design Well” or “We’re Getting Good at Disappointing our Clients”, which helps educate our potential clients as well as draw a line in the sand about the kinds of projects we love to work on.
  • Running 90-minute design sessions over Summer and Winter (12 per season) for people who might otherwise not talk to an architect and donating 100% of proceeds to charity.
  • Advocating for responsible architecture – our clients appreciate that we will challenge them to build smaller, build more sustainably, be more intentional with spending and focus on the things that lead to authentic connection.

In summary

In the past, I used to say we took jobs on for two of three reasons – good profit, lovely people, or a great portfolio opportunity. We saw it as a triangle – you could work on a beautiful job for lovely people but you didn’t have to make money. This perpetuated the ‘suffering artist’ mentality I had picked up in uni and my early career.

These days, we won’t do any job where we aren’t being paid well for the time, love and care we know we will put into it. We have a simple tiered fee schedule to suit every budget and we curate the work we commit to in the year to ensure there is a good spread of high-end projects, which allow us to also undertake modest 500K (or less!) projects.

All being said, profit is ONE resource in a good business. For us, we don’t want money without a great work culture, and we don’t want a great work culture without the ability to create architecture we’re proud of. So the three things – profit, people and portfolio – which I used to see as competing, are now fundamental parts of how we define our success.

Rebecca Caldwell is a Director of Brisbane-based Maytree Studios, an employee-owned studio that combines ethics and social responsibility with the forward-thinking sensibilities of contemporary architecture.