How do small firms ensure business resilience in challenging times? Three young practices describe their strategies, from researching new market trends to investing in management courses, forming mutually-beneficial alliances and embracing social media
Gbolade Design Studio
Typical headcount: 4-6
It’s been a busy fifth anniversary year for Gbolade Design Studio, which has participated in the Venice Biennale and staged a London exhibition in addition to its project work, which includes a 100-unit housing scheme in Lewisham.
Directors Tara Gbolade and Lanre Gbolade are also writing a book for RIBA Publishing on business sustainability and the future of practice.
‘It’s been a very interesting first five years. There have been so many challenges I hadn’t experienced in all my previous practice,’ says Tara, referring to growing the practice through Covid, and coping with the sudden death of a key client and champion of the practice.
Along the way the directors have at times worked with a business coach and are currently taking part in a 12-week business course. The practice has a business plan, which it shares with the team as a ‘living document’. It has also introduced a decision-making framework to help it control time spent on bidding, a result of the ‘experience of over-committing’, explains Tara.
‘We are more business-minded than when we started – understandably. There was the naiveté, unfettered by reality, that propels a start-up forward, and for us this translated to prioritising architectural design above all else. As we’ve evolved as a business, we are shifting to the more strategic aspects of business-running: refining our value proposition to prioritise efficiency in delivering high-quality design, while being growth-minded for our people, planet and profitability,’ she says.
The practice has seven projects on the go at various stages, with a 3-6 month pipeline of work – the goal is for this to be a year. To navigate the peaks and troughs of traditional practice, its strategy has always been for a balance of private and public sector work, and of policy and design work.
‘What Covid has taught us is that the market can change so quickly. We have to be able to pivot quite rapidly so it’s important to have experience in different sectors that influence us,’ she says.
Through research, the practice ensures it is well-informed on societal factors affecting potential work, and is keen to use technology to improve efficiency and help it respond where appropriate.
For example, realising that domestic clients were increasingly interested in retrofits to reduce energy costs rather than just extensions, GDS ensures staff train in the ArchiCAD Energy Evaluation tool so they can model operational and embodied carbon at an early project stage with certainty. This also enables better collaboration with energy consultants.
‘That’s been an evolution for us,’ she says, adding that practice is now moving further and looking at regenerative design.
‘We need to adapt to be able to ensure that the practice moves on this journey so we can deliver better for our clients.’
As a start-up practice without industry connections, an early strategy was to learn from others they admired who were further along in their development. GDS has also been proactive in building its own networks and developing a strong public profile.
Lanre has served as a RIBA councillor and was awarded Offsite Pioneer of the Year 2022 for his work promoting design standardisation and offsite construction methods. Passivhaus-certified Tara is a Mayor of London Design Advocate and contributed to the LETI Climate Emergency Retrofit Guide, and was recently made a trustee of the UK Green Building Council. The practice’s new business efforts are also served well by a natural openness and curiosity.
‘We absolutely network. We enjoy meeting new people and getting under the skin of what they’re doing. We’re curious. We try to be teachable in every circumstance,’ she says.
Typical headcount: 1
It’s testimony to the success of Martyn Clark’s practice that he has been too busy, thanks to repeat clients and effective social media, to set up a website more than four years after establishing himself as a sole practitioner. Averaging around five projects on the go at any one time, he generally has a pipeline of three months’ work, focusing on the residential sector. And while this timescale might at first sound a bit worrying, ‘in reality you keep rolling and work keeps coming in’.
Nor does he have a formal business plan, preferring a more fluid approach. So how does he maintain this workflow? The answer is a combination of word of mouth recommendation in tandem with sensible strategies to boost new business and stability.
‘I’m always soft networking,’ he says. ‘When you are an architect specialising in residential work everyone is a potential client.’
Personal recommendations, after building up a good client relationship, have paid dividends, with one-off projects leading to further work for clients’ friends and family. ‘From what was a small loft extension, I’ve got four or five larger projects,’ he says.
Sometimes work clusters in one area – a house extension in De Beauvoir Town, north London, led to one in the area, then another 50m down the road, enabling him to build familiarity with the conservation area planning context.
More intentionally, he has embraced the power of award schemes such as New London Architecture’s Don’t Move, Improve! as well as Instagram. He finds the latter useful for attracting enquiries from younger potential clients.
‘It’s been a good thing – people contact you and you have an opportunity to talk to them. Then it’s up to you.'
Clark, who worked with larger practices including Burrell Foley Fischer before setting up Envelop, has benefited from establishing an informal alliance with interior designer All & Nxthing. This has led to referrals and project collaborations and has been, he says, ‘an interesting way for a small business to build a connection to a different world’.
He is open to collaborations with other architects. Having already acted as consultant to an inexperienced practice on a build, he is considering the possibility of pairing up with larger businesses on bigger jobs, or perhaps assisting on one of their projects. Such collaborations would give the company a bit more stability, he says.
It’s important, adds Clark, to make time to reflect on the direction of the practice. ‘You get busy and that’s great, but doesn’t leave much scope to step back and look strategically. You have to be mindful of that and make time to reassess and think about what you should be doing.’
It’s also important, especially for sole practitioners, to get out and about.
‘Find excuses to get out there. Meet old contacts, new contacts, go to conferences. You can very quickly become isolated,’ he says.
Asked what advice he’d give other sole practitioners starting out, he has no hesitation. ‘Be confident. Go for it and have faith that the work will come. When it does, put your heart and soul into it and be confident that [more] work will flow from that.'
Typical headcount: 9
With 35-40 live projects on the go and a pipeline of work stretching on to 2027, Halifax practice Gagarin Studio is clearly doing something right. It’s taken time – when they set up back in 2012, directors Gayle Appleyard and Steve Gittner had already spent 10 years working in London and then, after moving back to their native South Yorkshire, working for other practices in the region.
‘We weren’t newbies. We’d developed an ethos of what we wanted to be,’ reveals Appleyard, adding that the directors were keen to avoid the ballooning and reducing they’d witnessed at practices in London. Instead, they took a really cautious approach to growth, putting the emphasis on stability.
‘We make sure the work is enjoyable and that there’s a good ethos in the office. We encourage young members of staff to grow,’ says Gittner.
Ultimately, this means staff stay, and are in time able to take on more responsibility, freeing up the directors from job-running so that they can focus more on job-winning.
‘Steve and I review the business a lot and as a team. We’re not green in that way. We’re focused on making sure the business is sustainable, ’ says Appleyard, adding that it’s important to have the confidence to put in the right fee for what they’re undertaking, even if it means losing the bid.
‘We’re in it because we love it, but also because we’re there to earn a living,’ she says.
We’re in it because we love it, but also because we’re there to earn a living
The practice has learnt to think strategically about what’s important on the project, to be efficient about their effort, and to trust their instincts on whether to take a project on after early client meetings. Establishing a reputation across the region has also been key to Gagarin’s resilience, along with diversifying the type and scope of work. The practice now has community, arts, housing and infrastructure projects in addition to the residential work that was its early mainstay, with meatier public sector work now supplementing smaller projects.
The practice achieved this diversity by employing a strategic approach to new business, and by partnering with other consultants. This led to a competition win for the Millom Iron Line recreational attraction in Cumbria.
‘We don’t [generally] do competitions. But we targeted that one as we knew it was a good fit. So we partnered with a really good team,’ explains Appleyard, adding that the key is knowing when ‘to go above and beyond to get your foot in the door’ and when to bolster the team by joining with others. This paid off when it partnered with another consultant on a bridge design project. The practice is now on its fifth bridge commission.
Even after a decade of Gagarin, the directors feel they’re just getting going. Looking ahead, they’re hoping to use their architectural expertise to act as developers on their own ventures.