Driving Business to Your Firm: Q&A With Jeff Needles, AIA

Jeff Needles, AIA, has been a director of vision building at Sixthriver Architects in Austin since 2005, specializing in master planning, site planning, parking lot planning, architectural design, and how a building integrates into its site.On February 9th, while the Chapter Associate Directors of Texas met for the Emerging Professionals Roundtable, Jeff stopped by to discuss a crucial topic that often isn’t covered in schools of architecture: how to bring work into your firm. We’ve highlighted Jeff’s answers to five of their most important questions.

What are the fundamentals to bringing in work?

There are lots of ways to start looking for new work, but before you do, you need to ask: What do you want to do? And who’s paying for that kind of work?

Another question to ask yourself is what financial driver appeals to you. Is it profit per project? Profit per client? Profit per work hour? For example, if on the one hand you have a prospective client who has one big project, and this project will eliminate the need for new projects in your area, and on the other hand, you have another prospective client who has a small project but the prospect of many small to medium projects over time, which would you choose?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start your search. A lot of cities have a Book of Lists where you can find the top 20 developers in your area. Find developers who are doing the sort of work you want to do, and start thinking about ways to make connections with them. You can look to a lot of associations to make these connections: in Austin, you could use the Real Estate Council of Austin, Commercial Real Estate Women, the Urban Land Institute, or even the Society of Marketing Professional Services. Think of this as fishing with a big net.

Another resource is LinkedIn. If you know who it is you’d like to work with but aren’t sure how to make that connection, you can type their name into LinkedIn and see if you share a connection through someone you already know. From there, it’s just a matter of asking that connection if they could set up a lunch with the person or people you’d like to work with.

And you can work with your friends, too. I had friends among civil engineers, and I pitched my own capabilities to them — the things I could do that they couldn’t, such as renderings. It helped me get involved in a project earlier. And you always have to have the mindset of, “How can I help other people? How can working with me advance their revenue?” For example, referring a civil engineer or a contractor to a developer is something that can help you as well as them. If you spend your time just thinking, “Where can I get work?” it can give you an air of desperation.

When you finally have that meeting, it’s important to remember to be genuine. Know what you’re good at and prepare yourself to talk about it enthusiastically. And while I’m not a fan of the hard sell, you can’t be afraid to ask for work.

One last thing to remember is: no one ever died from being told “No.” Just move on to the next opportunity.

Last updated: February 27, 2013

How do you tell the principals at your firm that you want to bring in work, and how do you balance your duties at your firm with your search for new work?

It’s good to have a mentor at the office you can run ideas past. Remember that they probably aren’t going to be upset with you for having ambition, for wanting to bring in more revenue for the firm, or for wanting to be more valuable to the firm. But it’s really important to listen in the office so you know what’s a priority and what isn’t.

As far as balancing your firm duties and your search for new work, there’s no easy answer. It varies from firm to firm. If you’ve already got a marketing department, it can make it hard to justify spending a lot of time networking on your own. Most of it has to be done on your own time, at evening events or during the weekend. But so long as no deadlines are suffering and you’re actually bringing in more work, it’s unlikely your superiors will have any issue with what you’re doing, as long as you’re up front with them.

What do you do if you have someone interested, but haven’t completely brought them in yet?

Like I said, it’s best to be genuine — and this means you have to be honest about what it is you do and don’t do. Know your limitations, and when your limitations are keeping you from bringing in that job, don’t be afraid to look for help. For example, if you’re not an interiors person, and there’s a big interiors aspect to the potential project, ask interiors people for help.

Don’t say you can do something when you can’t — because either the potential client will figure out you’re untruthful and walk away, or you’ll get in over your head on a project, which can have long-term consequences. Sharing responsibility with your teammates is better than losing the project or getting in over your head.

Like a lot of architects, Jeff, you’ve mentioned that you’re an introvert. How would you advise architects evolve into the network-building extroverts they’d need to be?

I actually like networking now. At first, it was really frightening, but then it became an adventure, because it pushed me outside my comfort zone and into doing things I wasn't sure I could do. At first I went to networking events just to say I’d gone, but eventually I started to talk to other people — people who were different from me. A lot of young people, when they go to a networking event, will congregate with only other young people they know. You need to challenge yourself. Remember that everyone at a networking event is there to meet someone they don’t know. Most people are going to be receptive. It’s easier than the club scene.

Any DOs or DON'Ts?

Like I said, always be as genuine as you can be. People see through fake right away. If you’re having lunch with a specific client, and they ask you about something you don’t do, be honest about it. You might not get that project, but they’ll know you’re honest — and they may ask you to do something you specialize in down the line.