Entrepreneurship in Architecture – The Early Years
As promised I am following up my initial post on Entrepreneurship in Architecture. The full presentation was made to a group of Washington University students in early October, but for this venue I felt it best to divide the presentation to a few sections…The first section of the presentation dealt with my thoughts that preceded the forming of the business. This section focused on the overall “business conditions” in St Louis in 1978, the country in general and the first series of challenges that we encountered.
In 1978 contract interior planning and design projects (our first and only area of activity) were supported by either Furniture Dealerships or Architectural Firms. I felt that neither category was serving the market particularly well. Looking back, that was a somewhat arrogant and naive perspective, but it is what I thought and it gave rise to the idea of starting a business. In any event, I approached my employer and suggested that we form a consultancy and they would serve as the new firm’s financial backer. My idea was well received and the organization (Interior Consultants, Inc) was formed. They owned 88% and I “owned” 12%. During this first year we managed to just survive. However, in that year I made the initial contact with Emerson Electric. I could have never have known that Emerson would grow to become our most important relationship. I tell people frequently that today the Emerson relationship is a defining characteristic of the firm.
It was probably that connection with Emerson that gave me the “confidence” or audacity to approach my 88% “partners” and say “I want to buy you out and go it alone”. But I did, and they told me fine, but you have a non-compete contract with us and you will have to settle that before we will “sell” you the other 88%. The price, $25,000! To me it was simple extortion, I told my “partners” that I was the only employee and there is no firm to purchase without me. They held firm, I thought, OK, if I am going to go into business for myself this is the way it’s going to happen.
I signed a promissory note for $25,000 and I was sole owner of ICI. At first, the firm continued to do well enough and I felt – this is easy, I should have done this long before. But in 1981 the economy turned south and work became scarce. The seeds of doubt began to grow and the challenges were multiplying…more later.