How can small firms compete?

March 2012 » Columns » LEADERSHIP
Ed Friedrichs

Feeling resource deprived? Just leave an interview where your deep-bench competitor was a firm many times your size and wonder if the client even noticed you? I hear these concerns frequently under the general rubric of "large firm envy."

Ever wonder what the large firms are saying? "Sure wish we could be as responsive as that small firm that was in here before us – seems like we're trying to turn a super-tanker in tight quarters whenever a client asks us to do something that doesn't fit our processes. Besides, we showed up with 10 people and the client expresses some skepticism about whether he is actually going to see any of us once the project is underway." As confident as large firms always seem, there's a bit of "small firm envy" going on out there as well.

But, let's focus on how a small firm musters the resources to compete effectively with the 400-pound gorilla. First, never forget to stress (and live and breathe) the personal involvement of the team you present and your ability (and, hopefully, willingness) to be hyper-responsive. Clients value these qualities highly. And be flexible and responsive to shaping your services to meet your clients' needs and goals in a uniquely tailored and cost-effective way. These are your natural advantages (large firms take note).

But what about those pesky resources that you say you can't afford? Below are a few that are becoming imperatives in today's knowledge-intensive world.

These are just a few thoughts that leverage a simple idea: Design and construction should be a deeply collaborative process. Use the depth and strength of the relationships you form with your colleagues and stakeholders to enable you to perform at the same level as firms many times your size. The consistency and sincerity with which you nurture these relationships can set you up to compete with any firm of any size.

BIM
You can elect to do only projects that do not require nor are particularly enhanced by a single database, but as time goes by and building information modeling (BIM) is more widely adopted by your competitors and the construction trades, you're going to severely limit the range of your practice. The price of the software keeps coming down and most young architects and engineers are being trained to use it in school. It's the middle age demographic of our professions (who are not as computer fluent as their younger counterparts) who have to bite the bullet and spend some personal time learning this technology. Take your staff on an adventure to attend a community college course or some other offering that will make your team BIM capable. These are highly effective methods of learning and adapting that are not very expensive. And it's wonderful fun to have a broad representation of age and experience when you do this sort of thing along with the support that a whole group provides to one another.

Contractor/vendor relationships
It always seems contractors and suppliers favor large firms. Let's face it; they depend on them for referrals and specifications. But often, large firms can be arrogant and are known to treat these people with less than a high level of respect. You can set yourself apart by engaging these folks as true partners, getting to know them personally, helping them with the issues they confront as a real friend would do. Their recommendations to clients are worth gold and their help when something goes sideways on a project can literally save your bacon.

Deep-bench resources
How do you address fluctuation in workload that will give a client confidence that you have the ability to sustain your practice during slow times and staff-up when the heat is on? When I ran a small startup office in Los Angeles, we made partnering relationships with a couple of competing firms; very nice people, really. They stopped being competitors in a combative sense and became colleagues. We worked out the pricing details to borrow and lend staff to each other and traded staff frequently as workloads shifted over the years, much to our mutual benefit. We also developed a wonderful network of fellow professionals who helped us in many other ways – like trading notes on how to deal with a tricky contract clause or checking a reference on a prospective hire (or a client).

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweigwhite.com.

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