We sat down with one of the firm's principals, Clint Sievers, and their project manager, Gunnar Gladics, to talk about the changing landscape of the architecture industry, the shifting role of technology in their company culture, and what it’s like to build a firm from the ground up.
Coming from large architecture firm life, what made you want to start your own firm and how has the transition been?
Clint: It might be different in other parts of the country, but in our area, firms are more traditional. I’d say the average age for ownership in design firms is mid-50s and 60s, so there's a wave of people who will start to retire in the next five to seven years. Larger firms tend to be more stagnant and less willing to change processes or transition leadership, which was the clear indication for us that we needed to provide our own opportunity for change.
When we started Pivot North, we found ourselves in a pretty common situation for most architects, where you don’t really get exposure to the business side of running a firm until you become a partner, so you have to learn very quickly how to measure KPIs and handle operational details. Luckily, I think if you put in the time and effort, a group of driven people can learn the business side. Our journey hasn’t been without speed bumps, but we’re on our way.
How would you describe your team’s culture?
Gunnar: We’re still young so it’s a work in progress, but we’re trying to build a culture of mentorship and transparency.
Clint: We focus on hiring people who are talented and committed to personal and professional growth. We look for people who are better than us and then we get out of the way. We're trying to make our culture about more than just the projects – taking into account family life and everything else that people do.
We've also started to realize you can’t expect everyone to fit into the same working style. It's like education; kids don't all learn the same. And people don't all work in the same ways. So we're trying to give our staff the tools to work how they need to, whether at their desks or on the couch here or at home part-time because their child may be sick. Flexibility is important to keep a group of talented people happy.
Gunnar: The younger generation craves transparency, which is so different from how things are in traditional firm settings. From our perspective , it was totally opaque - just worry about your project and get your work done.
But there are things that people can learn by observing and participating – Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are a great example. When I started, I had no idea what those were because I never saw anybody talk about them. Now, even the youngest team member knows about KPIs because we show the data and share how we’re tracking against our goals. What's our utilization? What should it be?
Clint: That transparency teaches our team not only about profits and how the business is evolving, but it also teaches them about how our business actually works. They can see how much it costs to run a firm and what the expenses are. It gives them appreciation for all the challenges we face and how we operate our company.
Gunnar: It might mean our meetings take longer because we’re bringing younger people in to be part of it and we really want them to understand what’s going on, but it’s worth it.
What tools were you using for staff planning before 10,000ft?
Clint: About seven or eight years ago, I worked with Gary (one of the other partners here at Pivot North) to implement Deltek at our old firm and we used it as a staff planning tool for two years. It was frustrating because it wasn’t simple or easy-to-use. To compound that, we felt that in order to get what we needed out of it, we had to constantly verify the input and adjust the output to get consistent results.
Gunnar: It was difficult to answer basic questions like, was the project successful or not? Did I meet my goals of delivering this phase?
Clint: There were components I liked about it, like the reporting, although I think it was too complex overall. It’s like wielding a bazooka to kill a fly.
What made you decide to go with 10,000ft?
Clint: I like the simplicity of 10,000ft and how it helps us visualize our whole business. I mean, we design buildings and spaces for a living, so we're very visual people. The more simple and graphic things can be for us, the easier it is to understand how we’re doing.
Gunnar: For me, 10,000ft just makes a lot of sense; it's essentially a big, searchable database that creates easy-to-view graphics. One of our goals was for everybody to have access so they can get visibility and an understanding of things like KPIs. There’s a learning curve around being able to say, "How do I find that out?" and then knowing how to search and filter until we get the right answer. But once you get it, it’s immensely helpful. You just have to know how to ask the question and 10,000ft can likely provide the answer.
Clint: Our intent is for 10,000ft to be our day-to-day tool and house all of our timekeeping and project planning data. Our goal is to get the best accounting tool that can work alongside it so we can bridge the two and get a good workflow set up.
Gunnar: We need a fly swatter, not a bazooka.
Speaking of KPIs, what are some of the metrics your team looks at in 10,000ft?
Clint: I mainly look at staff utilization and project performance in 10,000ft.
Gunnar: As a Project Manager, I run a report at the end of each month to quickly check that our staff did all their time, and we look at how many hours they worked versus what we had planned. Then we output a report for all of our hourly billings, which we pull into QuickBooks Online to do invoicing. We also track total project progress and success rate. We pull monthly or quarterly reports to see marketing, admin, and overhead expenses. And we look at which types of projects we’re spending our time on – K12 schools, residential, healthcare, etc.
It seems that some architecture firms have high turnover because their teams get burned out pretty quickly. How do you not just attract, but also retain talent?
Clint: The traditional approach for bigger firms is top-down, where everybody's got to work their way up the ladder and then maybe someday you'll get to be a partner. You have all these dreams and you may never actually see it happen.
We're creating a more inclusive model where there's collective leadership and a sharing of experience. It's more team-oriented. It’s not about coming to work every day just nose-down, grinding, getting a paycheck, and then going home. It's more about our lifestyle as architects; we work hard and we have fun. We focus on getting the right group of people in here with the right mix of personalities and similar work ethic. You can always go to conferences to learn, you can be trained, you can get more education. But if you start with the right group of people who are committed to each other professionally, then the rest will happen.
Gunnar: We've been studying our mission and vision as a group, and one of many things that we've looked at is valuing team improvement. We ask our team, what do you want to learn this year? Do you want to go to this or that conference? We're looking at utilization rates a little differently to accommodate ongoing professional development.
What lessons did you learn from the recession, and are you taking any steps to insulate Pivot North against similar situations in the future?
Clint: The architecture business is difficult because you have to pay the bills and take in enough work to make sure the company sustains itself. You don't want to over-hire and have to lay people off, the way it happened during the recession. That's the typical MO – you get a big project and hire a bunch of people. Then the project's over and you have to let them go. It can feel volatile.
Our model is more focused on acquiring the appropriate amount of work our team can actually do. We care about right-sizing our company so that our team can adapt and react to a fluctuating workload, within reason. Sometimes we'll be really busy and sometimes we may not be, but it's not our intent to take absolutely everything we can take just to try and make a buck. We feel we can be more profitable if we're more selective. We really focus on providing value to our clients through a methodical and efficient process.
What's the most valuable part of 10,000ft for your firm?
Gunnar: The big picture stuff is so valuable, whether it's for a specific project or across the company. Looking at our staffing plan, I know exactly where our needs are because I can see where people are over-allocated, and I know where we are with each project. Also, the more I use the reporting piece, the more confident I am that I can find the answers I need. It gets easy to do things like pull a quick expense report by consultant, by month, and then see how they're billing.
Clint: For me, project planning in 10,000ft is so valuable because we’re able to see trends, ask questions, and then find solutions. If we have a lot of work we can ask things like, “Is this a bubble in workload or is it going to be consistent for a little while?” It enables us to have a conversation and make decisions based on the data.
We're excited to be part of Pivot North's growth and fresh approach to running an architecture firm. Learn more about their team and work at pivotnorthdesign.com.