Houzz Pro membership

Social media, Houzz, Database, Photos, Logo
Houzz, pronounced /howz/

In August last year, Erica and I signed Mihaly Slocombe up to the Houzz Pro membership programme. This placed our sponsored project photos into the organic search streams of local audiences, increasing the visibility of our business in and around Melbourne.

We were required to commit to the programme for twelve months, a huge financial leap for us considering our marketing budget had previously been $0. When our membership expired recently, we took the opportunity to ask ourselves whether it has been worth our while. Has it increased the number of leads coming into our studio? Have the leads been qualified? Have they resulted in any commissions? Ultimately, we needed to work out whether we should opt in for another twelve months.

The Houzz platform is one I’ve discussed before, though I’ve not explored the membership programme, nor analysed the benefits and challenges it has brought to Mihaly Slocombe. The following discusses our history with the platform, our reasons for joining the paid programme, and the results we’ve seen from our investment.

Let me start at the beginning.

Houzz, Mihaly Slocombe, Homepage, Profile, Houses, Residential design, Architecture, Photos

The beginning

I created a Houzz profile for Mihaly Slocombe in October 2013. It had been three years since we formed our studio and I was eager to increase our presence online. Even then, Houzz had a database of photos well into the millions. I had the feeling that we were hitching our wagon to the Amazon of residential architecture and figured it was better to be flying along with them than left behind in their dust.

At that stage, Houzz was based only in the US. It would be another year until the launch of a dedicated .com.au site, so the majority of our early traffic came from overseas – the US primarily, but plenty of European countries too.[1]

During this period, our profile developed some very strong organic traction. Amongst our two dozen or so project photos, it was the Basser House walk-in-wardrobe that attracted the most attention. To date, a whopping 18,000 people have added it to an ideabook (the Houzz equivalent of an Instagram like). It has also led to us winning the Houzz design award three years in a row.

The popularity of this and other photos earned us a constant presence. Like Google, the Houzz search algorithms reward popularity with more of the same. Despite the youth of our studio and small collection of photos, we were beginning to pop up everywhere.

Houzz; Melbourne; Launch; Party; Architects

Houzz in Australia

In August 2014, Houzz spread its wings and officially launched its Australian domain. I attended the Melbourne launch party, and watched during the presentations (with some pride) as the Houzz staff used our profile as a case study.

During the drinks and canapés that followed, I met an architect whom I knew was enjoying just us much organic traffic as we were. I was curious to discover how she was going with her profile, and whether she’d won any projects through it.

Up until this point, our popularity on Houzz had not converted into any paid work. I had dedicated countless hours to answering technical questions from Houzz users, and even fielded a modest number of project enquiries that went nowhere, but I was just spending a lot of time selling our services to people who weren’t really buying.

I assumed my new friend would have had a similar experience, but discovered instead that she’d won sizeable projects with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. I was amazed. What was she doing that we weren’t? And what was it about our profile that attracted people with unreasonable expectations about the architectural process? We discussed this divergence for most of the night, but I left without any real understanding of why her success was translating into fee-earning commissions and ours was not.

Houzz project, West Brunswick, Renovation, House

If at first you don’t succeed…

In May 2015, we received our first commission through Houzz. An Italian couple were returning to Melbourne after many years living abroad and wanted to renovate their family home in Brunswick West. It struck me when they got in contact that this was one of the marvels of Houzz: a couple flicking through pictures on their laptop in Rome could discover us on the other side of the planet, and then commission us for a project located just around the corner from our studio.

Still, it was tough going. By this point we had racked up a total of 14 enquiries through Houzz (including a couple of exciting calls from interstate), but only one commission. Not a good success rate. I realised then that the risk of the Houzz platform was that it replaced our relationship-based marketing approach with one more akin to internet shopping: high volume, low conversion.

So we were still spending a lot of time on our Houzz enquiries without much to show for it. In 2015, Houzz accounted for 43% of our enquiries, but only 14% of our commissions. It was the age-old business conundrum: we were spending the majority of our time on the minority of our clients. Something needed to change.

Houzz, Melbourne, Map

The programme

In August 2015, we received a call from Houzz. With the dedicated .com.au website now a year old, the Houzz Pro programme was being introduced to Australia. The call didn’t surprise me. I had wondered a number of times when Houzz would monetise its platform. With over 35 million unique visitors each month, professional users were getting access to an enormous audience for free.[2]

The deal was intriguing and came at just the right time for us. We were enjoying great organic traffic to our profile, but in contrast to my launch friend, the vast majority of it was international and of no real value to our business. Our photos were appearing on someone’s screen around 300,000 times every month, but only getting clicked around 90 times. A lot of people were seeing our work, but a tiny .03% were engaging with it.

The Houzz Pro programme proposed to change this model. It would guarantee our appearance on the first page of photo and profile searches for any user within the Melbourne CBD and immediately surrounding suburbs, and thus push us in front of many more local eyes.

Our hope was that more local connections would be the ingredient we were missing, the thing that would convert all my effort engaging with the Houzz community into paying projects. We still thought long and hard about it though – as I said, it was a big commitment for us. In the end, we figured a year of membership fees wouldn’t kill us, and our business needed to take a risk to continue to grow. We set a KPI for ourselves: an acceptable payoff would be one substantial commission, or two smaller ones.

We were the first architecture studio in Melbourne to sign on.

Houzz; Houzz Pro; Advertising

Our decision to join

Residential clients are notoriously difficult to connect with, particularly for younger practices without the reputation and bag of awards enjoyed by established studios. If our portfolio were centred around restaurant fitouts, we could probably work out ways to connect with restaurateurs. But houses are hard. Our clients are everyone and no one.

Houzz provides this connection. Better yet, the Houzz Pro programme provides a local connection, one that is based on images of our design work. In late 2015, our organic traffic was already excellent, but unproductive. The programme promised to top up our organic international audience with a far more engaged Melbourne one.

We also felt that Houzz was a safer bet than Google or Facebook advertising. Houzz users are a subset of the general population, a pool of people already interested in residential architecture. In marketing terms, this meant the leads we hoped to get through Houzz would be more likely qualified.

Finally, we sensed that Houzz is an unstoppable train rolling out across the planet. The Internet is hardly growing less connected to our daily lives: Houzz is a part of this trend, a huge marketplace we’d be foolish to ignore.

Bangkok; Chatuchak; night market; market; colour; night

What happened next?

In August 2015, we paid for our first month of membership to the Houzz Pro programme. The good news was that we didn’t have to wait long for leads to come knocking: we received 3 enquiries that month. The bad news was that none of them turned into a project. And neither did the next 10. It wasn’t until March 2016, and our 14th Houzz enquiry since joining the programme, that a lead converted.

Five more leads rolled in without result, but in July our 20th enquiry came good too. Exactly as we’d hoped, both projects are sizeable, with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. We’re working on sketch design for them as I write.

When our membership came up for renewal in August, we did so without hesitation. We had expected the slow start, had even been warned about it by our Houzz account manager, but it seemed now that we had gathered a bit of momentum.

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Some data please

Since our renewal three month ago, the enquiries have continued to arrive. Two more have converted into commissions in just the last couple of weeks.

Examining the 14 months of our Houzz Pro membership, I calculate that 50% of all enquiries, and 20% of all new projects, have come through Houzz. These figures are both improvements on our pre-membership results, particularly the gross number of enquiries. Pre-membership, we received one enquiry through Houzz every 55 days. Post-membership, we’ve received one every 12 days.[3]

The main downer is that Houzz leads continue to convert less often than our other marketing activities. 20% of projects from 50% of enquiries is much better than it was previously, but still not great.

I think there are two reasons for this: first is the varied nature of the leads we receive – many have unrealistic budgets and come from people curiously not that interested in good design. We’ve realised that we can’t do much to stop these enquiries, but have at least worked out how to politely decline poorly matched commissions. Second, there’s the issue of trust, or more pointedly, the lack of trust. While a potential client recommended by a mutual friend tends to inherently trust our expertise and creativity, someone contacting us via Houzz can’t tell us apart from a bar of soap. The Internet makes it too easy to get in contact, and thus too easy to never return a phone call. Building trust with a stranger takes time, something we don’t typically have when we’re trying to win a project.

That said, the projects we’re now winning through Houzz are very exciting. Exactly as we had hoped, they’re for clients interested in design, with decent scopes and realistic budgets. Qualitatively, the projects have the same spread as those that arrive through other means: they vary in size and budget, in geography, client and design ambition. For me, they prove that Houzz offers a viable model for lead procurement.

Has the number of leads coming into our studio increased? Yes
Have the leads been qualified? Yes (well, at least more often than before)
Have they resulted in any commissions? Yes.

So, we had to wait patiently in the beginning for our membership to reap a reward, and both then and now must spend a lot of time fielding tyre-kickers. But I am in no doubt that the Houzz Pro membership has helped our business grow. For the success we’re seeing thus far, it’s worth it.


Footnotes:

  1. I know this because occasionally we receive a comment like this: “Die fensterläden sind ein echoer hingucker!”
  2. Houzz Facts; Houzz; 2015
  3. It’s important to note that this success isn’t just due to upgrading to the Houzz Pro programme. We put constant work into our profile, uploading new projects, managing photo metadata, answering user questions, contributing to discussions etc. The programme puts us in front of more eyes, but we’ve made sure what they see is worthwhile

Image sources:

  1. Houzz logo; copyright Houzz
  2. Mihaly Slocombe Houzz profile; copyright Houzz and Mihaly Slocombe
  3. Houzz Melbourne launch at Meizai; August 2014; copyright Sushii Photo
  4. View from street of Mihaly Slocombe’s first real commission sourced through Houzz; author’s own image
  5. Houzz Pro programme, Melbourne CBD coverage; copyright Houzz
  6. Houzz Pro programme; copyright Houzz
  7. Chatuchak night market in Bangkok; sourced from Shop JJ; author unknown
  8. Project leads through Houzz; author’s own image
  9. Projects through Houzz; author’s own image

LinkedIn for students

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

This is the 5th of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Social media

LinkedIn
Warwick Mihaly
Connections: 382
Joined: April 2011
Total users: 100 million[1]

Purpose: LinkedIn is a virtual resume and professional networking tool. It also functions a little like Facebook, with a rolling feed of content posted by your network.

Community: As a business owner, I don’t get much value out of LinkedIn. I’m unlikely to be on the lookout for a new job opportunity in the near (or distant) future, and my welfare is not supported by an employer. I’m connected to many individuals within my network on other social media outlets also, however LinkedIn is not my preferred portal in which to engage with them.

These days, most of my new connection requests are from building industry suppliers who I imagine want me to specify their products. I have to confess I resent these, but am always happy to connect with the odd architecture student or graduate who sends a request.

Posting: As with Facebook, I rarely post directly to LinkedIn. Panfilocastaldi does so automatically, I occasionally make comments, and I’ve had a few direct messaging conversations. I see my LinkedIn network primarily as another audience for my blog activity, and an intermittent source of news.

Profile: When I first started using LinkedIn, I put in a lot of effort to fill out my profile: education history, past jobs, current projects etc. I think this dedication sprung from an obsessive compulsive desire to complete things, but my profile has become less current as I’ve lost interest in the platform.

For students: Though LinkedIn is best suited to the highly mobile, corporatised tech and finance industries, the same goal of professional networking still applies to architecture.[2] Use it as a companion to your traditional resumé, and connect with architecture studios where you might like to work. As with other social media sites, being active is the most important aim.

As an aside, LinkedIn doesn’t permit stalking in the way Facebook does, as it pops up alerts on your page whenever someone visits. Perhaps you can use this function to get noticed.

Good examples:

  • Petar Petrov. Graduate architect at Bates Smart (also a past student of mine)
  • Luke Bonham. Graduate architect at Metier 3 (also a past student of mine)
  • Kurt Ballener. Architecture student at Melbourne University (also a past student of mine), and always up to something interesting

Importance:
2 / 10 for me
7 / 10 for you


Footnotes:

  1. Leading social networks worldwide as of January 2016Statista; January 2016
  2. Between them, tech and finance represent around 20% of LinkedIn users. By comparison, the entire construction sector only represents 3%, of which I imagine architecture is an even smaller minority. Source: State of LinkedInVincos; 2011.

Image:

  1. LinkedIn, logo copyright LinkedIn. Composition by author.

Facebook for students

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

This is the 4th of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Social media

Facebook
Mihaly Slocombe
Likes: 182
Joined: March 2012
Total users: 1.5 billion[1]

Purpose: Like the rest of the planet, I have a personal Facebook page littered with the occasional embarrassing photo from nights out on the town. I also maintain our professional Facebook page, whose primary purpose is to act as a virtual declaration of existence.

Community: Identifying my Facebook community is harder to do than on Twitter and Instagram. The likes I’ve received arrive from all over the world, which is intriguing, but then the engagement usually falls silent. More valuable is the backlink that pushes my professional posts onto my personal page. This means my friends (most of whom come from other walks of life) see my posts, hopefully creating a slow burn that might one day lead to a commission.

Posting: I rarely post directly to Facebook anymore. My blog posts do so automatically, which represents around three quarters of my Facebook activity. I also push a lot of my Instagram photos to Facebook, and the occasional business announcement. While Twitter and even Instagram can handle repetitive posts, a Facebook community is unlikely to tolerate this. As a result, I keep my posts more stretched out.

Groups: I belong to one professional group only, not out of austerity, just lack of conviction. I think it’s important that we be on Facebook, but have found Twitter and Instagram better tools to connect with my desired communities. I should aim to be more active however. As my Facebook network mostly comprises non-architects, it can be a useful soapbox from which to preach the value of good design.

Procrastination: Facebook offers an endless supply of procrastination-worthy entertainment, but I’ve rarely found it to be professionally enriching.

For students: Perhaps the most useful characteristic of Facebook is the way it authenticates your identity. Like LinkedIn, it’s a way of proving that you exist and that you’ve done things. It’s also positioning itself more and more as a gateway service to the rest of the internet, making it almost necessary to belong. Professionally however, I’m not interested in knowing what you got up to on your 21st.

Good examples

Importance
5 / 10


Footnote:

  1. Leading social networks worldwide as of January 2016Statista; January 2016

Image:

  1. Facebook, logo copyright Facebook. Composition by author.

Social media for students

Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Houzz, WordPress

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

Architects, however, love social media. We’re suckers for it.

Most practitioners I know are active Twitter and Instagram users at the very least. My own professional network is smeared liberally across both the physical and digital realms. We enrich existing connections and make new ones. We share news, discuss current issues, and report on work in progress. Instagram is even gaining traction as a place to advertise job openings.

Given the prevalence of social media activity amongst professionals, why aren’t students better engaged? Sensis data reveals that Australians aged between 18 and 29 use social media sites than any other age bracket.[1] They are also the country’s most active users of Facebook (97%), Instagram (54%) and Snapchat (38%).[2] So more pertinently, why aren’t architecture students leading the way?

My suspicion is there are two main reasons keeping students offline professionally.

First is disinterest in the world beyond university, or perhaps a wilful dissociation from it. Tertiary studies demand an extraordinary focus, for which the messiness of practice can be an unwanted distraction.

Second is skepticism about the value of social media for architecture. Twitter, for example, is only good for telling the world what you had for breakfast. Instagram is the playground of Taylor Swift and Victoria’s Secret models. And blogs are those self-indulgent rants of conspiracy theorists and Star Wars geeks. Certainly, my casual surveys confirmed both, with many students just shrugging off social media as outside their field of interest.

Well, all this is a missed opportunity. Consider the numbers for a moment: 68% of Australians use social media, and 49% do so everyday.[3] It’s a surging wave of technology use against which we can either fight (and lose), or from which we can gain strength. Besides, I consider social media to be a great development for architecture. It has extended the reach of our work to a broader audience, and enhanced the communication channels within the profession. Students can and should be a part of it – the earlier the uptake of any new technology, the more likely our profession is to carve benefits from it.

Over coming days, I will publish a series of eight articles providing insight into the characteristics of the major social media outlets. I’ll discuss how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students of architecture.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.


Footnotes:

  1. Sensis Social Media Report; Sensis; Melbourne; May 2015; p. 14
  2. Ibid., p. 19
  3. Up from 62% total and 30% everyday in 2011. Ibid., p. 13

Image:

  1. Social media, logos copyright Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Houzz, WordPress. Composition by author

The mystery of marketing

Marketing is a constant source of intrigue for the architecture profession. We don’t understand it very well, so regard it with reverential awe. Marketing, we think, is the magic lamp that will make us rich. So we talk about it all the time, we ask our colleagues in hushed whispers for the secrets of their success, we even pay good money to gain insight into its hidden truths.

I’m under no illusions about my mastery of this dark art. But after all the lectures, seminars, forums and blogs I’ve attended or read, I at least understand why there’s so much fuss:

The outcome of good marketing
=
More clients

In other words, we get more clients because more of the right people come knocking on our studio doors. And by right people, I mean people who want what we do and have the money to spend on our services. The marketing industry has a term for these wonderful people. It calls them qualified prospects.

The job of marketing then is to elevate prospects from the more generic group of suspects, that is, anyone thinking of engaging an architect.

According to Winston Marsh, whose annual seminar sessions on marketing I’ve attended, the conversion of suspects to prospects is best achieved by letting the buying public know what we do. This is more than having a website and a business card, it’s about targeting the right suspects.

So how do we know if we’re targeting the right suspects?

Well, to quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” So earlier this year, I started tracking our project leads. I picked through our old emails and pulled out key information for every prospect who has ever called, emailed or walked through our door. It was a revealing exercise, telling me for instance that after 5 years of practice this has happened 79 times.[1] And it was surprisingly easy to do. All I logged was four simple pieces of data:

  1. When each prospect made contact
  2. How she found out about us
  3. Whether we submitted a fee proposal
  4. Whether we won the commission

Since the aim of this exercise was to be systematic in understanding how prospects discover us, I established a list of ten categories that would group them according to the various marketing exercises we undertake (or others undertake on our behalf):

  • She reads this blog
  • She is a family or friend
  • She used the AIA’s Find an Architect service
  • She discovered us via online media
  • She is a past client
  • She visited a past project
  • She discovered us via printed media
  • She discovered us via television media
  • She came across our website
  • She discovered us via word of mouth

I filled in a simple spreadsheet (remember, with just four bits of information recorded against each lead) and amazingly rich information began to pour out of it. I now know which marketing exercises generate the most number of enquiries; which sources are the best at converting into commissions; and how these numbers change from year to year.

What follows is a summary of my findings, and a bit of a guide to help other young architects gain the same insights about your practices as I have ours:

Suspect to prospect

As I’ve noted previously, a colleague of ours relates the story of Peter Maddison, director of Maddison Architects, who disappears whenever the practice grows a bit quiet. He schedules lunch after lunch after lunch, catching up with old friends and acquaintances. He asks what they’re doing and what’s happening in their lives. In so doing, he implicitly reminds them that he’s open for business. Weeks or months later, when that restaurant site is purchased or new office space leased, his lunches pay off.

Our strategy is less boozy and, I have to confess, less targeted. We go for the scattergun approach: more is more. We put ourselves and our work in as many places as possible: on our website, this blog, Twitter, Instagram, FacebookPinterestHouzz and Find an Architect. We employ marketing campaigns for individual projects in printed and online media. We remind our friends and family that we’re architects, and encourage past clients to evangelise on our behalf. We even initiated an unsolicited urban renewal project for our street, and met with all our neighbours to promote it.

But the data speaks volumes. I now know that online media generates the greatest percentage of prospects (25%), but we are extremely unsuccessful in converting them into clients (5%). In contrast, our family and friends represent the second greatest percentage of prospects (19%), and we are very successful in converting them into clients (73%). Printed media and our website, perhaps the two most traditional avenues for marketing, together represent only 2% of our prospects and 0% of our clients.

lead origins

For our young practice, it can feel it times like we’re just waiting for the phone to ring. This data puts our impatience into perspective, and makes me feel pretty good about things. Considering all ten categories, spread out over the last five years:

A prospect makes contact once every three and a half weeks.

Prospect to client

From a business-planning point of view, understanding the next step – what proportion of prospects convert to clients – is the most important insight to gain. This helps in an egocentric way to measure how successful we are at wooing our clients, but more pragmatically reveals how many projects we’re likely to win each year and, consequently, how much money we’re likely to make.

I can’t stress enough how important this is. Despite architects’ collective reputation as money-shy, the regularity of new projects coming through the door should underpin your entire financial management strategy. The key question really is: how much money do you want to earn? There’s some simple reverse-engineered math you can do here:

Salary you’d like to earn in a year = $100,000
Average fee for a project = $50,000
Average duration of a project = 2 years
Fee earned in a year from an average project = $25,000
Number of projects needed to earn salary = 4

My little spreadsheet gives us the hard numbers: we are asked to prepare fee proposals for 56% of the leads we receive, and 59% of our fee proposals convert into projects. Multiply these numbers together, and I find that 33% of our enquiries lead to commissions, or in other words:

For every new project we need the phone to ring three times.

lead conversion

If we multiply the regularity of our enquiries (once every three and a half weeks) together with our success rate in converting enquiries into projects (once every three enquiries), we discover another great bit of data:

We win a new project every ten and a half weeks.
Or
We win five new projects every year.

Growth

This is where the data starts to get really useful in terms of working out what to do next, how better to market ourselves. Back in 2010, pretty much no-one had ever heard of Mihaly Slocombe. Five years on, we’ve been published in various places and have won the odd award, so maybe we’re a little bit famous. A further five years from now, who knows where we’ll be or what we’ll be doing?

All of this means that the above information is dynamic. Some sources have grown since we started our practice, others have shrunk. Some have become better at converting enquiries into projects, others have become worse. My spreadsheet once again comes to the rescue, allowing us to track the overall growth year by year for all enquiries, for each prospect category, or for commissions relative to enquiries.

Project leads via online media is a telling example. From 2010 to 2012, we received zero leads from this source; in 2013, we received five; in 2014, fourteen; and so far this year, one. This growth has meant online media has become one of our most prominent lead generators. But conversions continue to be very poor: in 2013, the five leads converted to zero commissions; in 2014, fourteen to one; and so far this year, one to zero.

Happily, this is an isolated phenomenon for us. I think the poor conversion rate is due to the absence of trust inherent in a lead generated by online media, but this is perhaps a subject for another post.

overall growth

Overall, the picture is pretty good, very good in fact. While our successful conversion rate has always been more or less static (one in three), both our enquiries and our commissions are on an upwards trend:

More enquiries
= more commissions
= more projects each year
= more money

This means all sorts of things: maybe we need to think about taking on more staff; relocating our studio to a larger space; increasing our fees; upgrading our accounting system; engaging an office manager… All very good questions that only come about once we analyse our marketing position.

Yet despite the importance of this self-awareness, I imagine very few practices bother to gather this data.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be satisfied with intuition or reactionary tactics to ensure your practice thrives. You’ll need to base your decisions on a rational understanding of the game state of your practice. This means collecting data and analysing it. It means ensuring you have everything from accurate timesheets, to productivity forecasts, and project by project financial analysis. Importantly, it means demystifying marketing, if not the elusive secrets to marketing success, then at the very least the dynamic impact it has on your practice.

Good luck.


Footnotes:

  1. While we officially founded our practice in 2010, we received commissions for four side projects prior (while still working elsewhere). These projects have been figured into our calculations.

Image sources:

  1. Lead origins, this and subsequent images courtesy of author.
  2. Lead conversion.
  3. Overall growth.

You can’t sell an idea

money

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects

schrodinger

A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


Footnotes:

[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

Dear Sir or Madam

job application
Not a great application letter

It is a sign of the ongoing scarcity faced by the construction industry that architecture graduates are anecdotally having a lot of trouble finding work. The federal government’s stimulus package has long since dried up and the big end of town is once again executing layoffs left and right.

Though our architecture practice is small, on average we nevertheless receive one or two job applications a week. Many come from overseas and most are not very good. At the best of times, a poor application is a great way to be instantly forgotten. When the demand for jobs is as high as it is now, it takes even less for your application to find its way quickly to the bin.

Architecture graduates, if you want to find work in this highly competitive environment, you need to not only be the cream of the crop, you need to convince potential employers you are. This begins with your job application.

Here are 10 tips to help you on your way:

1. Dear Sir or Madam

In the digital age, there is no excuse for not knowing the names of the principal architects of our practice. Spend a few minutes trawling our website or even cold call us if you must. The simple gesture of addressing your application to an actual person shows you have invested thought into your application. It displays basic business savvy and in a small but significant way shows that you care where you work.

Further, an application addressed to Sir or Madam, an undisclosed recipient address and generic content are all dead giveaways that you have sent your application out en masse. Why should we bother treating you like an individual when you have not extended this same courtesy to us? It does not take much extra effort to send an email out separately and tailor it to our practice profile. At the very least, relate your application to the size of our practice and project typologies on which we work.

2. Spelling, grammar and syntax

If your aplication contains speling, grammer, and, errors syntax; we willnot give you the job.. Our logic is simple: if you do not have the ability or presence of mind to make sure you get this most basic of items right, how can you possibly be expected to tackle the more complex demands of the job you are seeking? Dictionaries, spellcheck and friends who speak the english language better than you do have all been around for a long time. Use them.

3. Skills and content

Years ago, when we were looking for student architect positions, the principal architect of one particular firm flipped rapidly through our painstakingly presented portfolio and dismissed it with the spirit-crushing words, “I want to see skills not content”.

Unless working as a CAD monkey for the rest of your life appeals, when a prospective employer says something similar to you, do as we should have done: thank the person for their time, leave the office and never return.

The lasting lesson here is this: your portfolio should demonstrate both skills and content. Sure, we want to see that you know how to use AutoCAD, Rhino, Photoshop et. al. but we also want to see that you have an ability to design good buildings. A good portfolio can demonstrate both with ease: not only its content but its graphic design will speak volumes about your sense of style as well as your technical abilities.

4. Let your personality shine

Do you enjoy long-distance running? Do you speak a second language? Do you spend your winters snowboarding? Have you travelled? Have you undertaken pilgrimages to notable buildings in obscure corners of the world? Do you have a collection of modernist chess sets?

We do and we have, so why can’t you?

Your application letter is not the place for an essay on your life’s experiences, but it is the place to communicate a few of the more fascinating things that interest you. Reading and watching movies are unhelpfully generic, though translating Italian poetry and sneaking your way into Hollywood film premieres are not.

5. Keep it brief

You’re busy, we’re busy, so keep it brief.

6. International norms

Different countries have different expectations of job applicants. Some demand rigid formality, others prefer a more casual approach. Some want to know what grades you received in primary school, others are content to know that you passed your university degree.

Whether you are an Australian looking for work overseas or a foreigner looking for work here, do some research into the country where you are applying before you send out your applications. You can start by reading this article and others like it. Get a feel for what the architecture industry may expect before you inadvertently put your international foot in it.

7. Paper

Of all the applications we have received, only one arrived in the letterbox. In this day and age, it was refreshing to receive something physical to review. This is not to say that you should spend hundreds of dollars printing out full colour portfolios for the dozens of architecture practices to whom you are applying. Rather, pick a few more likely prospects, call first to see if they might be hiring and only then hit the print button.

8. Social media is the future

Your application may be on paper, but long gone is the day when you are restricted to its crisp, white confines to express yourself to potential employers. Social media has drastically altered the way in which you can connect with us: do you have an online portfolio? Do you use Twitter? Do you write a blog? Do you have a LinkedIn profile?

There is no better way to convince us you are invested in architecture and interested in the same things we’re interested in than by being able to answer yes to all of the above. What’s more, long before you start applying for work, you should use social media as an opportunity to connect with your local architecture community. If you might one day be interested in working with us, you should follow our blog, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and even connect with us on LinkedIn.

9. Be interested

Architecture is not like other professions. Many practices are small like ours and enjoy family-like working environments. Even the larger practices still pride themselves on their creative approach to the workplace. As such, it is important that you are interested in what we do, both within our practice and as part of a broader community.

Are you a member of the Australian Institute of Architects? Have you volunteered at Melbourne Open House? Have you attended a Robin Boyd Foundation open day? Or a Melbourne Architours tour? We attend the events run by these organisations, so you should too. At the very least, you will learn something from the event; you may even get the opportunity to meet us in person. When we subsequently receive your application, we will know you as an individual, not just anonymous writing on the page.

If you can communicate your passion for architecture not just by the things you say but by the things you do, you are one big step closer to relating to us as part of our world.

10. What do you want?

Finally, put some thought into where you want to work. A large firm will give you exposure to significant buildings but will restrict your day-to-day tasks to only a few aspects of a project. A smaller firm won’t give you the variety in building typologies, but is much better placed to give you experience across the full range of an architect’s responsibilities. Do you want to work on institutional projects, or houses, or commercial developments? Are you keen to work with a practice renown for its design abilities or would you prefer one that has a reputation for strong client relationships and repeat business?

We understand that it’s unlikely today that you have the luxury of choice. However, working out what you want will help you better target the right segment of the profession and will put you in a more self-aware position once you’re offered a job.

Imagine this scenario:

We are sifting through a pile of 40 applications for an advertised position. We can’t possibly interview everyone so how can we quickly and efficiently reduce the pile to a more manageable size? First, we get rid of anyone who hasn’t nailed the basics: addressing us by our names, avoiding spelling mistakes etc. There are now 30 left in the pile. Second, we ditch anyone who doesn’t seem to know anything about who we are and what we do. Now we’re down to 20. Third, we look at basic layout and graphic design. This leaves us with 10.

Only then do we start looking at content, trying to understand who you are. If we happen to recognise your name from an event we attended or via our blog’s subscriber list, even better. Every little bit will help you be one of the 3 or 4 people we’ll interview.

Good luck.