Start Your Engines

What does it really take to launch your own design firm?

By Kevan Klosterwill

What does it really take to launch your own design firm? Writer Kevan Williams spent a long time answering this question for “Start Your Engines”—about a year and half all told. With so much reporting, what got left out was nearly as interesting as what made it in. We sent out questionnaires to about two dozen firms and got some very provocative (and moving) responses back. Though we could only use an extract in the print version, there’s always room for more online.

Deb Myers, ASLA, Principal

Deborah Myers Landscape Architecture, Boston
Est. 2015
Urban Development, Mixed Use, Institutional, and Public Parks

Deborah Myers, ASLA. Photo by Jake Michener.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

I had been working for 18 years at both small and large multidisciplinary firms.

What was the deciding factor?

What drove me to start my firm was a strong belief that I could create a business that allows people to grow professionally, meet the needs of clients, and execute projects to the highest standards.

Finding a healthy life–work balance was a strong underlying goal.

DMLA’s culture is rooted in the understanding that people are able to do their best work when they have the time and flexibility to meet the needs in their personal lives, allowing one’s self the space to maintain enthusiasm and engender creativity.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

The most important thing is to pay attention, be open to learning, and find the joy in what you do. The best employees are ones who can anticipate your requests, think creatively, and always look at where they can add value even in the simplest tasks.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

The best piece of advice I received when I started my firm was to outsource everything, allowing us to focus on what we do best. On week one, I hired a tax accountant, a payroll/bookkeeper, and I called my insurance broker.

Hiring and maintaining quality and driven staff will be my largest hurdle, and one which I love. I surveyed many firms and other industries to see if I could be creative with my benefits package in order to compete with more well-established practices. I want my employees to feel a sense of ownership and pride in building a successful firm. I’m continually working on processes that help them achieve this.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

I would say no to projects that are not in my wheelhouse. When you start a new business your instinct is to say yes to everything that comes across your desk. You can easily get distracted by taking on projects that you don’t enjoy or that don’t play to your strengths. Know yourself and be authentic to your brand.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

That it is incredibly liberating! It’s like riding the crest of a wave.

Anything else you want to tell your fellow landscape architects?

Take risks, forget about perfect, and choose joy!

Matt Whitaker, ASLA, Principal

W. M. Whitaker & Associates Landscape Architects, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Est. 2013
Public, Commercial, and Residential

Matt Whitaker, ASLA. Photo by W. M. Whitaker & Associates Landscape Architects.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

I had been working almost 12 years in three different firms since finishing grad school in 2001. I spent three years before grad school working at a small research and production lab making new drug delivery polymers. By the time I left that and went back to grad school at UGA, I was managing all production for pharmaceutical grade material. That experience has been a lasting benefit to me despite the differing field. It, like landscape architecture, was mostly creative problem solving.

What was the deciding factor?

My friend Tom Burford, the apple and fruit expert in Lynchburg, Virginia, told me to do it; and you listen to Tom when he gives advice. Seriously, Tom was a major influence. Also the economic winds of recovery made me think that being an experienced professional but much less expensive than my big firm rate would be attractive to clients who were ready to go but still cautious about spending.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

How the office works at all levels, specifically proposals and marketing. Many people have little or no exposure to that while working for others, but it is critical running your own firm. How much should a master plan cost? How often do you bill? How do you account for time spent inefficiently on an hourly project?

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

I have an analytical brain, so these were not as intimidating. Key for me was a friend in D.C., a few years into his own firm, and his “most important advice”: Do what you do best and hire experts to do what they do best. I hired an attorney for incorporation, called a friend in the corporate insurance field to sort that out, and found an accountant to do my taxes. The cost for an accountant to do payroll was pretty high, so I researched and found that Intuit offers a small business payroll service for a minimal monthly fee and gave them a try. That has been a great option. I manage it online but all the heavy lifting is done by them with a few clicks. In terms of benefits, I wanted to be progressive. Sometimes I think we may have overdone that in terms of leave and holidays, but in this profession your employees are your most important resource. In part this idea is a reaction to the way I felt this was missed by some previous employers and in recalling the generosity of my employer at the pharmaceutical lab. One month into my second employee’s tenure I gave him paid paternity leave.

How do you cultivate clients? How does that relate to the projects you aspire to work on in the future?

We have been very fortunate and have gotten most of our projects through word of mouth. That’s a benefit of being in a midsized city. The rest have come out of RFP responses. When I meet people I’m passionate about the profession and what we (LAs) bring to projects, and this enthusiasm is great marketing. Once we have a project, we dedicate ourselves to giving the client more than they expected and doing design that does not settle when at all possible. This has helped gain fans who speak well of us to their friends and colleagues. In the first few years we did not turn down a lot of work. I didn’t feel like we had that option and I have a hard time saying no when I think I can bring a positive result to a client. After almost three years we’re at a point where we are saying no to things that don’t fit and going after RFPs for projects in areas we want to be recognized for. We definitely like having a diversity of clients and projects. I can’t say we don’t question the difficult ones at times, but in the end they keep us on our toes.

What are the biggest challenges you have had around getting and running projects, and how do these challenges relate to your office strengths and weaknesses?

The biggest challenge has been getting medium to large public projects because of our size and short history. You can have all the experience of working for other firms you want, but that time was spent under the guidance of the principals there, no matter how strong your role. You were never running anything without their oversight as you do when you start your own firm. In terms of running projects the challenge is definitely finding the right employees when you need them. Being in a midsized city is great for name recognition but not so great for attracting top talent. Chattanooga’s growing recognition as a fantastic place to live is helping. As far as addressing getting those larger public projects, we have chipped away with adding small projects and doing great work. And we also have been active in the community, offering our time and input for free when we can. Otherwise, we have to wait while we build a record that clients can see.

What is your business structure?

We are a single member LLC. I’m the sole owner currently but do want to share ownership. You need to give people an interest in the business if you expect them to stay around for the long term and put in 100 percent. I also don’t want the firm to be centered around me for all decisions and responsibility forever. We have a pretty open culture now. I discuss direction of the firm, how we want to grow, monthly billing, and yearly profits with my employees. People need to understand what is happening to feel comfortable. A lot of this was inspired by Shane Coen’s and Michelle Delk’s presentation in Chicago last year.

How do you think about the possibility of a fluctuating economy? Are you prepared for the next recession?

This is always a concern. I don’t know how much you can prepare, but one of the firm’s goals currently is to build up six months of operating expenses so we have a buffer. We talk openly about what it costs on a monthly basis to operate and how we need to keep an eye toward marketing and diversification in terms of projects, clients, and locations. Diversity equals strength.

How far out do you have work on the books?

Currently six-plus months, but that’s dependent on so many factors. Will the new commercial mixed-use building go forward at the projected schedule? How many projects from a recent master plan will grow into real projects? Will the not-for-profit organic farm find grant funding for its projects? Just phase 1 or more? Will we get one of the current RFPs we submitted? Will we make an good impression and get more state projects?

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

At this point not much, but we are young and there is a lot of room for mistakes given how fast we have grown. Ask me in three more years.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

How damn much you will come to appreciate what your former principals complained about. There was not much sympathy at times for what seemed like the easy place to be: “the boss.” If I had a dime for every time I have thought, “Now I know what he felt like,” I would be well on my way to that six months of operating expenses.

Matt Donham, ASLA, Principal

RAFT Landscape Architecture DPC, Brooklyn, New York
Est. 2012
Campus and civic spaces

Matt Donham, ASLA. Photo by R. A. McBride.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

It was a two-step process. I had been practicing for nine years when I decided to leave my prior position in order to determine a next chapter for my career. The decision to launch RAFT developed after landing a large enough project to warrant investing in basic office infrastructure.

What was the deciding factor?

The opening of the National 9/11 Memorial prompted me to reflect on what I wanted to do with all that I had learned from the design and construction process. My mother died that same year after a long illness. I realized that I wanted to exert more influence over my life and work.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

It’s important to nurture a sense of yourself, your voice, and your specific professional path while working in service to your employer.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

I sought professional help from an attorney and an accountant to ensure that I set up the business properly. The many inexpensive and easy-to-use online services for time-tracking, bookkeeping, website hosting, and HR have streamlined administration.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

I would have focused more on relationship building in my prior position.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

The prevalence of narcissism in firm leadership makes much more sense to me now that I’m in it. I feel a constant imperative to perform—as the creative visionary in a competitive field, as the competent professional in the face of doubting clients, as the knowing project director despite the novel challenges of each site, as the confident firm leader unfazed by the always uncertain income stream. It’s a challenge to maintain self-awareness and compassion while pushing yourself to succeed in all of these roles.

Anything else you want to tell your fellow landscape architects?

Build up a financial cushion before launching so that you can survive the fluctuating income stream that comes with ownership. You will need it to keep calm and remain selective about the projects you take on.

Jeff Cutler, Principal

Space2place, Vancouver, British Columbia
Est. 2001
Public Realm, Infrastructure, and Urban Design

Jeff Cutler. Photo by Rachel Bedet.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

I was working professionally for seven years prior to starting my own firm.

What was the deciding factor?

I was young and naive (which helps). I saw an opportunity to practice a more contemporary form of landscape architecture. There hadn’t been a new firm in almost 15 years in Vancouver, and I saw that there was a place for a fresh perspective in our region. Additionally, there were many senior staff above me at the firm where I was employed. It wasn’t clear to me that there was a path to a position at the firm that matched my ambition.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

If you are looking to start your own practice it is important to get experience at as many aspects of the job as possible. This provides you with an opportunity to learn and understand every part of how a project comes together. Gain as broad of an experience as you can. That way when you do start your own practice you are more self sufficient and don’t have to hire as many people to fill in your experience gaps.

I didn’t have experience with the business side of the practice or landing jobs. That would have been helpful, but I learned that part on my own.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

From the beginning I had a part-time bookeeper and an accountant to keep track of the financial side of the business. This position has transitioned to a full-time office manager as the firm grew. For the first four years it was just me, so it was relatively straightforward. As I added staff I have added payroll services, and I work with a broker for our benefits and insurance. This led me to one of my most fortuitous decisions. I purchased critical illness insurance to cover business operating expenses in the event of a critical illness. A few years later (nine years into business) I was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo an almost year-long period of treatment. The insurance provided me with a valuable safety net that has enabled the business to endure. While we were operating throughout my ordeal it was a tough year, and the insurance likely saved the business. (By the way, I am in full remission—six years—and the business is doing great.)

How do you cultivate clients? How does that relate to the projects you aspire to work on in the future?

While we have a few repeat clients, this is a small part of our work. The majority of our projects are won through RFPs. It is important for proposals to establish a strong identity for the firm and to give the client a reason to select you (apart from fees). Our reputation is very important, and we work hard to maintain the integrity of our projects and our working relationships with our clients (who are often valuable references).

Throughout the life of the practice we have leveraged our current projects to expand into new project types. For example, our early public projects were skateboard parks. We used this experience to win a project to develop a playscape integrated within an existing park. The success of this project has enabled us to win large park master planning projects, which have led to some large park designs. Our experience with children’s play has enabled us to be distinct from other firms and helped us expand our portfolio. As a result of this approach, our practice is always evolving and leading us in new directions.

Following my close call with cancer I had a realization. The most valuable thing we have to offer our clients is our time and attention. I made the decision to take on larger projects, but fewer projects, with a focus on the design of public places.

Many firms take on project types from a wide variety of client types and have a hard time turning away projects. The problem with this is that different client types (i.e., developer, municipal, private individual, etc.) require a shift in mind-set. It can be difficult for the staff to balance this mind-set when working on multiple projects with varied client types. This often results in divided focus or attention when applied to these projects. I am of the belief that by focusing our area of practice we are able to perform or work better, which helps to attract similar projects or new challenges.

What are the biggest challenges you have had around getting and running projects, and how do these challenges relate to your office strengths and weaknesses? How are you addressing this?

Early in the life of the studio I found hiring a challenge. I wasn’t sure what skill set I was looking for. I figured that I would hire the best candidate I could find and cover for them in the areas where they were weak (this is not necessarily a good strategy). Over time I have been able to improve my hiring and evaluation skills paired with a clearer sense of purpose for our firm. As a result when I am hiring I have a clear idea of the skill set I am looking for and seek a person in alignment with those qualities.

Recently I have encountered another challenge. We have taken the strategy to pursue fewer but bigger projects. The challenge with this approach is managing the workload in the office. We are big enough to lead multiple large complex projects. However, when you have completed a project there isn’t always another project available to take its place in a timely manner. The result is there are periods where projects overlap, putting stress on the office, and there are sometimes gaps where we are well under capacity. I am currently searching for a solution to these peaks and valleys.

As our reputation as a firm has grown we have expanded our geographic reach to work across western Canada. This has opened up new markets to us and helped provide more opportunities, which helps balance our work flow. Additionally, we may need to grow the size of our firm to increase the capacity of our office to enable us to take on more projects simultaneously (hopefully at different stages in the design process).

What is your business structure?

I am the only owner and the company is incorporated. As our company is growing it makes sense that sharing ownership is the next step in our evolution. This is at a very preliminary stage.

How do you think about the possibility of a fluctuating economy? Are you prepared for the next recession?

The majority of our work is for public sector clients. We have also been expanding our portfolio of infrastructure projects. During the last recession this was one of the more reliable sectors for work. Additionally, our projects typically have a long duration, which provides some time to evaluate the economic climate and make informed decisions about the future of the firm. We were able to withstand the last downturn without any downsizing.

How far out do you have work on the books?

Currently we are on the verge of some new projects, which will keep our current capacity occupied for the next year.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

I initially started the firm with a business partner. It seemed like a good pairing, we were looking to establish a design/build practice with my focus on the design and his focus on construction. However, it became clear over time that our differences were working against us more than working for us. If I was to start again it would likely be with a business partner with a shared vision. I think that it is more important to have a partner that you have an alignment with rather than complementing skill sets. If you can find both—great. But that is hard to find.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

There is not a lot of down time. Your time is occupied doing the work or, when not busy, finding work. In the early years of a firm I was always hopeful that things would change in the future. I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be like when I “arrived.” But I always thought it would be better than the present.   While this seems kind of obvious, the level of work and responsibility keeps ramping up as the scope of projects increases. Once you land that great project, now you have to deliver! Plus you need to keep pushing for the next one.

We were working with a nationally prominent American architect…someone you would attribute as being very successful and well respected within the profession. I thought that I worked hard, but it was eye-opening to me to see how hard he worked.

Lisa Giersbach, ASLA, and Gigi Saltonstall, ASLA, Principals

G2 Collaborative, Waltham, Massachusetts
Est. 2013
Small Institutional, Urban Housing and Streetscape, Residential Design

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

Gigi Saltonstall, ASLA, and Lisa Giersbach, ASLA. Photo by Raj Das.

We had both been working professionally as landscape architects for between 12 and 15 years before we decided to go it on our own. We went out individually and established our own studios before deciding quickly to join forces and form a partnership. Design and running a business is a much more enjoyable endeavor as a team where partners can bring different talents to the table.

What was the deciding factor?

While both of us had different reasons for moving on and launching our own firm, the common thread was about having a work situation where we could determine a strong work/life balance.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

I am not sure we understand this question. In terms of potentially going out on your own someday, it is good to really learn what it is that makes that employer successful and less successful. Every situation is a learning situation no matter how long you have been practicing. Sometimes it is not the obvious stuff you need to pay attention to, but more subtle things like building relationships with clients and colleagues. Good mentors can teach you a lot about relationship building and serving clients well.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

We had both come from a small firm where our responsibilities included understanding human resources, hiring and benefits, contract writing, and therefore professional liability and other protections. For the new stuff like taxes and payroll, the easiest thing we found was going to the professionals and getting a good bookkeeper and tax consultant. There are only so many hats one wants to wear, and as they say, “it takes a village.”

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

Actually, we have no regrets about how and when we decided to launch our own firm. It was rewarding to have both independently taken on the challenge of starting our own firms, which made coming together a seamless process.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

While autonomy of design and flexibility of schedule are what one looks to as the exciting parts of owning your own firm, it has startled us how much time it takes to actually run a practice. It often feels like 75 percent of our time is spent on administrative tasks. Perhaps as the firm grows we can look forward to more of those tasks being outsourced.

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Kimberly Garza, ASLA, Founder and Director

ATLAS Lab, Sacramento, California
Est. 2011 (Incorporated 2017)
Urban Design, Social Impact Design, Public Art

Kimberly Garza, ASLA. Photo by Daniel Stanush.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your own firm? 

10 years.

What was the deciding factor?

Over time, I developed a more nuanced point of view regarding the types of design projects I wanted to focus on.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

– Mentorship

– Exposure to various aspects of the design profession at all experience levels

– Office culture (work–life balance)

– Understanding the path to professional growth within the firm

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

I was fortunate to have mentors to teach me the basics on how to set up a business and share contact recommendations for attorneys, accountants, insurance agents, etc. I also had colleagues who started their own practices that were able to advise me on the general costs associated with starting a business.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

Network! I wish I had begun networking earlier in my career and participated in more local/national organizations, both inside and outside the field of landscape architecture.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

There is a preconception that starting a firm is stressful and hectic—and it definitely is, but it’s also so exciting and rewarding. I think that people tend to focus on the risk associated with stepping into something new, but it is also so invigorating to build something unique to your vision.

Anything else you want to tell your fellow landscape architects?

Market yourself! Promote and share your work with the world outside the field of landscape architecture. The field of landscape architecture is widely underrepresented and misunderstood. Allied professionals and nondesigners often do not understand what landscape architecture is or how landscape architects can contribute to a project. Common misconceptions include that landscape architects are “gardeners” or landscape architects only do planting and irrigation design. Taking notes from my entrepreneurial friends (outside the field of design), I observed that they often promote themselves and their skills sets more freely and openly. I encourage my fellow landscape architects to actively engage their communities about landscape architecture through lectures, publications, or workshops, and to share their work using social media.

Jason Justice, ASLA, CFO, and Leigh Justice, CEO

Land Design Group Inc., Gainesville, Georgia
Est. 2007
Large-Scale Development, Commercial Design, Planning, Arboriculture

Jason Justice, ASLA. Photo by Jason Justice, ASLA, and Leigh Justice.

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

Jason had worked seven years in the field of landscape architecture and Leigh had worked two years when the business was started in 2007.

What was the deciding factor?

We wanted the freedom to collaborate with other professionals on a variety and range of design projects. We had come to the point personally and in our geographical area that it was more promising to invest in our skills and abilities in a company that we could guide and seek opportunity with.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

We have both been honored to work for excellent employers who allowed us that ability to stretch and refine our skills within this field. As an employee working on any scope of project for any employer, you quickly realize that you are often working to marry the ideas and investments of the natural environment, owners or municipality, as well as uphold the names and values of all parties.

Leigh Justice. Photo by Jason Justice, ASLA, and Leigh Justice.

It’s a fine and challenging area to work within. As landscape architects we are called to be stewards of the Earth and, at the same time, are responsible for enhancing the capacity of human society to survive and improve. Everyone has a different version of that balance and as business owners; we get to define that for our company. However, as an employee you must respect any final decisions about design and process by your employer.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

Admittedly we do wear many hats in this business. Over the years we have educated ourselves in this area of back office, but we have found it extremely helpful to have a qualified CPA to assist and help manage these areas.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

Take a little more time to plan the venture. We began without much capital or even office space. The time simply came upon us, the window opened, and we ran with it. Fortunately, every year we have grown and can look back at what may have looked like a hasty choice with confidence.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

It’s obvious that the workload will increase when you begin a new business, but finding your pace, your groove of work, will take time and patience—more time and patience than you feel able to give some days.

Jamie Csizmadia, President

OLTHIA Urban Prairie Gardens, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Est. 2011
Prairie Landscapes, Restoration

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

Jamie Csizmadia. Photo by Leigh Love Photography.

I had been working professionally for 13 years when I launched my business.

What was the deciding factor?

As an undergrad student at Texas A&M, I always knew I would start my own business eventually. I just didn’t know when. My lifelong love for the prairie plants I grew up with in my home state of Oklahoma has perpetually fueled my passion to design, create, and install native landscapes that benefit the greater good. Matched with my heartfelt desire to reconnect people with nature in educational, empowering, hands-on ways, I recognized that I would need to start my own business to fully embody this mission and manifest this vision.

When my personal life crashed in 2010, resulting from a cross-country move and the end of a long-term relationship, I became acutely aware of there being no better time than the present to launch my business—I had nothing more to lose. That’s the truth. Looking back, I can see that everything I was holding onto had to crumble first. This is still one of my favorite turning points of my life.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

In my experience as an employee, it was terribly important that I understood and aligned with the company’s motivation or purpose for doing the work. If it was a fit for me, I enjoyed my work and showed up consistently to do it. If not, I had difficulty being present and engaged.

In my experience as an employer, I value people with a nice blend of integrity and passion for their work. Whether it’s an employee, consultant, or contractor, I seek out people who are self-motivated and whose thoughts, words, and actions match up. Our projects run more smoothly and efficiently, and our clients benefit from the focused attention and emphasis on quality.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

I started out as a one-woman show, so I enrolled in local business classes and tax workshops provided by state agencies and small business organizations in order to learn the ropes. For the first two years of business, I did my own taxes, bookkeeping, payroll, and insurance documentation. Today, I have a director of operations, Tiffany Stuhr, who is responsible for these aspects of the business.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

I can honestly say, looking back, there is nothing I would do differently. At the time I started my business, it was of highest benefit to me that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. If I would’ve known too much, I would’ve delayed starting my business. My work has brought me so much enjoyment, fulfillment, lessons, freedom, and adventure…. I can’t imagine the last six years without it.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

If you feel inspired to bring new forms, creations, or structures into this world that are currently not reflected in the human collective, nor in the field of landscape architecture, we need you! As business owners, we have an opportunity for origination. We create our own unique “cultural blueprint” of what it means to do landscape architecture. We get to fully infuse our work with our personal signature and our soul’s purpose. We determine our hours of operation, our life–work ratios and overlap, the types of projects we desire to bring into this world, and the methods we employ to do so.

Nick Aceto

ACETO LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS, Basalt, Colorado, and Portland, Maine
Est. 2011
Site Planning, Visioning, Signage/Wayfinding, and Graphics

How long had you been working professionally when you decided to launch your firm?

Nick Aceto and Caitlin Aceto, ASLA. Photo by Wood Weller.

This is a little difficult to answer succinctly. I started my career in landscape somewhat unintentionally as a landscape laborer after high school. I was raised around the trades. My father was in heating and air conditioning, and my great-grandfather owned a civil construction company that employed many, mostly Italian immigrants in Portland in the early 1900s. Needless to say, construction is in my blood, so it was a natural choice to seek work in a trade after finishing high school. I worked as a laborer, then a foreman, and eventually started designing and building my own small landscape projects. I read all the books I could find on landscape design and spent a lot of my free time emulating the graphics I found on the pages. In 2004, I discovered the landscape architecture program at Colorado State University. Attending CSU opened my eyes and I excelled in the studio. Between classes and studio, I worked as an intern with EDAW in Fort Collins and Design Workshop in Denver, among other smaller local firms. When I finished at CSU in the midst of the Great Recession, I had hopes of going to work in a big city, perhaps even in a foreign country. However, with opportunities scarce I considered myself extremely fortunate to find employment with a very small firm in Northern Colorado. I gleaned a lot of information from the owner, Jim Birdsall, mainly about business, how to interact with clients, and how to engage with the community. I was with Jim for almost two years before moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, near Aspen. My wife, also a landscape architect, got a job at a firm in Aspen while I worked on contract, remotely for Jim. I began picking up more contract work as many firms remained lean coming out of the Great Recession. Contract work soon turned into more design work, and soon my own projects. I began participating in local issues, looking at virtually everything through the lens of design. I sought out design challenges and floated a lot of ideas. It wasn’t long before my wife, Caitlin, joined me as a partner and we found our own dedicated office space in a small town in the middle of the Rockies. In short, I had worked in landscape construction and design for more than 10 years by the time I found myself out on my own, but only about three years after finishing at CSU. I say “found myself” rather than “started” because the process for becoming self-employed was very organic. I never really “declared” that I was going into business. I always wanted to be in business for myself, but only because I just really wanted to do the work.

What was the deciding factor?

I just wanted and still want to do the work. It’s really that simple, and what drives our philosophy today. I love the craft and our medium, landscape. I love to draw and communicate ideas. I love to think and problem solve. I love doing the work on my terms and making mistakes and learning. Frankly, I think I’m a fairly headstrong person and naturally introverted, and I found that many of the larger, more prestigious firms are more interested in hiring what I would describe as personality than passion. Loving the craft so much, creating visuals, I also found myself getting pigeonholed a bit into production, graphics, and the conceptual side. I came from a construction background, so it was difficult, and still is, to see little more than a pile of beautiful drawings and graphics at the end of a project, even though I love the craft. I learn by doing, so I knew I had to break out of my comfort zone and seek out new opportunities and experiences for myself. It was uncomfortable to come out from behind the computer screen to shake hands and meet potential clients, but it is also thrilling.

What’s the most important thing to pay attention to while working for an employer?

In my experience, almost every firm has a different style because the partners or owners have different styles, and their styles are why they win certain projects. I think the one consistency between all of my previous employers is that the owners shared an enthusiasm to do the work, whatever the work, from high-end gardens and public parks to subdivision planning. They know their medium and their strengths, and they are constantly looking for means to apply their skill set in whatever community they are working in, globally or locally. In a way I think it was fortuitous that I came out of school in the midst of a recession. The necessity of the situation put me in places I may not have experienced if I were to follow a more conventional career track in a growing economy. It made me pay attention to the few opportunities that presented and understand why and how clients kept coming in, even though the rest of the world was mired in financial turmoil. After all, I thought we were selling “landscape.” It’s relatively easy, especially as an employee in a good economy, to become complacent, to assume that clients simply need what you provide and that the work will always be there. It’s easy to become alienated from all that goes into getting the work, and sometimes taking it for granted.

How did you approach the back office—understanding taxes, payroll, insurance, benefits?

Trial and error. We do basically everything ourselves. We keep our own books, do our own billing, take care of our own insurance policies, payroll, etc. Technology makes it easier than it probably was even a decade ago. However, I also actually kind of like having my finger on the pulse of our business.

What would you do differently if you could begin again?

I would probably try to be less bashful about sharing ideas, but also humble. I think I have missed a few opportunities to learn where I was so driven to contribute.

What is it that no one tells you about starting your own firm?

I work seven days a week. I work harder as a self-employed person than I ever did as an employee. I’m not sure if this is true for everyone, but I put in longer hours, and work faster and more diligently. However, I also don’t necessarily see my life and work as a combined experience as a bad thing. I recently read a quote by Dan Kiley, “The thing that’s important is not something called design; it’s how you live, it’s life itself. Design really comes from that. You cannot separate what you do from your life.” I really appreciate that quote because it suggests that you should enjoy your work so much so that life and work kind of blend together. It just becomes life. It may not always be blissful, but it’s interesting and exciting.

Anything else you want to tell your fellow landscape architects?

I am honored to be a part of such a rich and infinitely talented group of human beings. I am so humbled to find myself part of this community and look forward to getting to know as many of you as possible in the coming years.

3 thoughts on “Start Your Engines”

  1. I am planning to have my own design firm. And this article that you post made me more excited to build my own design firm sooner. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I was so intrigued reading about what goes into launching a firm! You have some incredible insights there – thanks for sharing them.

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