Business In Arch Viz
Business in Arch Viz. Vol. 14 - Studio Owners and Business Challenges
Welcome to the 14th installment of our new RebusFarm Business in Arch Viz series. Over the next year we will be featuring two articles every month. Each new article will discuss the business side of working in and running businesses in the visualization industry. We will feature articles from some of the top studios in the world and have in-depth answers to questions that every studio and artist in the industry should know.
The goal of this series is to provide a long-term resource for not only new artists and business owners entering the industry, but also long-time industry veterans. The topics will range from contracts and IT infrastructure to hiring and business strategy.
Studios participating in this series include: 2G Studio, ArX Solutions, Beauty and the Bit, Cityscape, DBOX, Designstor, Digit Group, Inc., Factory Fifteen, Kilograph, Luxigon, MIR, Neoscape, Public Square, Steelblue, The Neighbourhood, Transparent House, Urbansimulations and many more. Collectively these companies generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue, and have decades of experience running some of the most successful businesses in the industry.
We hope you enjoy the series!
We would like to also like to sincerely thank RebusFarm for supporting this series. Through their support they are helping better our industry and contribute significantly to future generations of visualization businesses in our field. If you are looking for one of the best rendering farm companies in the world, we highly recommend checking them out here
Image Credit: Beauty and the Bit
What led you to start a visualization/creative agency? Did you always know you would own your own business?
ArX Solutions: Our background is Architecture, so for us it was like something natural. We started a long time ago. At the beginning of the 90´s. By that time we were the first ArchViz firm in Argentina and I believe in South America doing renderings and animations for architectural firms so we had an organic growth. For us it started as a second business but at certain point it was clear that we had better opportunities in the ArchViz than the pure architecture. I remember that one of the first things that I liked it was the possibility to actively scout for clients. As an architect, that is very difficult.
Beauty and the Bit: I am an architect and worked as such during 10 years of my life. Eventually global crisis came to Spain and architecture literally went to hell. My ex boss fired me but he started another company for architecture competitions with me during one year. I knew at the mid point that it was not going really well but this gave me the opportunity to test tube a lot of things I wanted to do. I was always interested in architecture imagery so I started to see images by a lot of studios and feed my eyes with lots of stuff so I thought to myself “Damn I want to do this! I´d love to have my own company and raise it from the scratch”. I made a couple of courses but generally all I know is self-learned. My ex boss then fired me again just one month before my first son Ivan was going to be born. My wife and I were with no job so I told her “give me one year to put up a portfolio together, a website and a name. I think this can work”. It was a hard year but Beauty and The Bit was born….(honestly the hardest part came later on)
Designstor: I began my company with a completely different plan that didn’t work. Visualization was a way to make ends meet that turned into a better business plan. I always knew I wanted to own my own business so the circumstances worked perfectly.
MIR: I have had the desire to run my own company since I was 15 years old. I could have ended up working with more or less anything as long as I get to create something. From various jobs in places with destructive work environment I figured early on that if I was going to have a good life, I had to shape the world around me, and not take for granted what others presented me.
Neoscape: We started Neoscape in 1995 as a way to bring visualization services to architecture. We were all working for a large engineering firm - producing 3D visualization and animation for transportation projects - airports, high speed rail etc. We wanted to get back to our roots of architecture which we all studied together at the University of Colorado. So we talked about jumping ship to launch our own studio for about a year. Rod and Nils took a class in writing a business plan and when that was complete we launched Neoscape. In hindsight we should’ve lined up a few clients before launching but in the end it has worked out.
PixelFlakes: Matt – Me and Marvin used to talk about starting a company back when we were 16, we had no idea what type of company we would start but we knew we were going to make something! For me it’s always been in the back of my mind, my father and grandfather both started businesses so in a sense it was always there. Taking the leap didn’t seem a risk at all at the time, it was birthed from the idea of wanting to start something with a great friend and go on this journey together. Being able to combine our skill sets and interests to form a media company of some sort, which in this case happened to be a Visualisation company.
Marvin - Like Matt said we always had talked about starting a business together, so when the opportunity came it didn’t seem risky and was more natural than anything else. I’ve always been freelancing and working outside of school / university and media from a young age (14) so the concept of starting a business with someone else who you know well and has shared interests was exciting. We also complement each other's skillsets extremely well, so it was a formula for success.
Public Square: The founders are creative people. An architect (3D artist) and a Motion Graphic designer. We had to learn the rest on the fly. Yes starting a company was always on the radar mostly to be able to do more ambitious, bigger projects.
Pure: I studied architecture and was never good in construction. But I always knew how to make things look good and great. The rest was a natural process.
2G Studio: Easy money, work from home but get decent money, easy to do. Less business trick, no raw material on production (at first that what I thought hahaha). I did not always know I would have to own my own business.
Steelblue: I was creating visuals internally at an architecture firm where I was hired to design buildings. If I was not going to be at the company to design, it was not the right place for me to be a visualization artist. I decided at that point to try this life. I did not know I would or could create my own business.
Urban Simulations: It was clear for me… I started to do it in 1994, it was 3d studio 2 and it seems for me like magic, how defining vertex and polygons an image was rendered in such as a realistic way. From that point everything becomes addictive, magic world, big profits and freedom to create stories, moods and environments. It turns out that starting a company was a slow process.
Image Credit: Beauty and the Bit
What have been some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of running your own business?
ArX Solutions: Being able to provide a good life for our family and our employees families. The hardest part, by far, is creating a system that it works so you are not the system.
Beauty and the Bit: Knowing that is your little son. You raised it with a lot of effort and sleepless nights and you watch it grow. For me something that makes me proud is to collaborate with studios that were only a dream time ago. Also to have some friends in the industry right now that we're like rockstars for me 5 years ago. But the most rewarding thing is that we made something from nothing, that is what still amazes me at present day.
Designstor: Most rewarding: Working with amazingly talented people, both employees and clients. Most challenging: Financial stability and planning.
MIR: Getting to prove that it is possible to run a successful company without focusing on the money. Helping artists develop to be some of the most respected in the industry.
Neoscape: When we launched Neoscape we did it in Cambridge, MA - architects central - because we thought that architects would be our primary clients. One of the biggest challenges in 1995 was that many of the architects didn't really know what 3D computer visualization was or why they needed it so a lot of our energy was focused on educating our clients. It's always challenging to know when to hire or how to grow your business or when to invest in new technology etc. The rewards come from winning new business, breaking new ground creatively, seeing employees develop and thrive and helping our clients succeed.
PixelFlakes: Matt – Personally the most rewarding part of running a company is looking back on where you started and seeing how far the company has come, and what an amazing team we have managed to accumulate along the way. It really is quite daunting to think back to the early days and to see the growth of the company not in just a physical sense but also in the quality of the work and the amazing projects and architects we have had the pleasure of collaborating with as of late.
Marvin - What Matt said, you grow with your business which is the most exciting thing to see. When we first started out you would think long and hard when purchasing stationery or basic computer equipment in order to ensure you got the best product for the best price. I’m not saying you become reckless with budgeting, but you start to take on bigger problems that revolve more around ensuring the work is there to pay all of your employees etc.
Public Square: To run a business you need to be good at a lot of different things especially at the beginning. For instance you need to be a super talented artist yet a great sales guy. It is very rare to have all the talents in one person. (I certainly don’t) The challenge is to survive in a competitive environment without having all the talents on board. The most rewarding is recognition by your peers and the general public from a significant project.
Pure: Not being overwhelmed by the structure and pressure. And keep staying passionate.
2G Studio: Getting job from a big company. That's the challenging and rewarding part.
Steelblue: Successful Team building / failure team building.
Urban Simulations: 3dawards in 2004, yes jeff, going to los angeles to fight for an award, it was the key moment to realize that was the thing I will do for the rest of my life, I'll respect you for being a key point in my career. Challenging moment was in 2008, real estate market broken, 25 employees to be fired because there wasn't work in my area of clients, surviving that point made me better businessman and a tough lesson about employees, friends and how not to mix them together.
Image Credit: Designstor
If you could go back and tell your “new-company-owner-self” two things what would they be?
ArX Solutions: First recommendation: How far do you want to go? Think in terms of where do you want to be in 5, 10 years. Have that vision clear and then, put it on paper. If you have time, read this book “Cashflow Quadrant” from Robert Kiyosaki. Then check where is your vision. It is clear that it will be into one of the three possible alternatives:
- The first category is to work for someone. It might be a person, a firm, etc. being an employee. The good thing is that you will receive money every month no matter what. The bad thing is, it has a cap. This category means that “you are part of a system”. If you want to focus in production and nothing else and do the best 3D in the world, this is for you.
- The second category is the auto employee. A freelancer or owner of a small studio. Basically “you are the system”. It means that you will need to deal with several things. Some you will like, some other you will hate but at the end you will need to deal with all of them. The good thing is low cost and flexibility. The bad thing, you are everything. If you envision a boutique firm with a few employees and you want to be the orchestra director, this is for you.
The third category is a company owner. It means that “you have a system that is working for you”. This might drive you to better economical position but be prepare to deal with lots of headaches. If you want to have one of the best studios in the world, with world class projects and a big checking account, welcome. This is for you.
At the end, all alternatives are good. The key item is to have it clear from the beginning in order to not spend a penny in dreaming something that is not going to happen.
Let me put this in a more common language. The first category is pure 3D Studio Max / Unreal / Nuke etc, the second category is max 50% 3D Studio 20% Excel and 30% on the phone. The third category is 40% Excel & Word 30% Phone Calls 30% Meetings. Choose the one that is better for you. All packages are coming to you in more or less this format.
Second recommendation: This one will sound too basic for some people but believe it or not, I see this all the time. Pay lots of attention on the financials. It is THE critical aspect of a healthy business. Many people do the economical equation but they missed the financial part. If you don't understand the difference between economy and financing let me give you an example. If you can you give me 10K usd and I will give you back 20K usd. This is an economical approach. Deal? Let me add something else. You give me the 10K now and I will give you the 20K back in 20 years. Do you understand the difference?. Deal? Now I feel that you get it. To get paid in the time that you need is very important and the main reason why so many studios fais. Because they only do the economical approach only.
Beauty and the Bit: 1. Work a lot and repeat yourself you are gonna make it 2. Refer to point one.
Designstor: Spend more time doing photography. Don’t ever think that your company can run itself. It may be able to, but don’t ever think it.
MIR: It is going to take years and years before you can make a living out of this. And you will have to sacrifice many things dear to you in order to make this happen. But please try to relax a little bit and remember to live a life as well.
Neoscape: I wish that we had shifted our focus to real estate development sooner and understood the value in providing a full-range of services to our clients as opposed to starting as a pure 3D rendering studio.
PixelFlakes: Marvin - I think about this a lot actually. I even take it one step further and think what would my future self tell me now? I’ve concluded that whatever he would tell me or what I would tell myself now I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t experienced it first-hand. So, bring it on, I would just say - keep going, don’t stop and learn from everything you do.
Public Square: Hang on tight. It does get bumpy so you need a lot of resilience.
Pure: Make faster decisions, no matter if they are wrong or right. Stay focussed on what you can do best.
2G Studio: Keep pushing. I guess i will say... believe in yourself like everyone believe in you.
Steelblue: Share more outwardly. Don’t be afraid or blinded to follow passion. We had some projects successes in a certain category / product type. This leads to being getting request for such a solution. This can lead to a business weighted in one area that maybe due to its success VS desire.
Urban Simulations: Be a better businessman and not so good storyteller. Get a business partner and keep yourself as a creative man. Really often, our good talent is driving us to become businessmen that we aren't prepared to be.
Image Credit: Designstor
How much of a challenge is industry competition to your business?
ArX Solutions: It think that in the industry you can find two types of competition: The good competitors and the bad competitors. The good competitors are colleagues who are working in the same industry for some other firms. Sometimes you will touch each other but you respect them and they respect you. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You learn from them and they learn from you. That is what I call “The good competition”. They will push you to do it better. The bad competitors are people that don't play fair. They lie, the cheat and they do everything what they can in order to push you out of business. They are aggressive and selfish.
We believe in good competition as part of this ecosystem calls ArchViz. We believe that as a group we can improve our industry. If we were not thinking like this, why would all the firms that are part of this CGArchitect list be sharing their experiences? You “are” or “you can be” a “competitor” ;-)
Beauty and the Bit: Competition always will be there. Regardless of that I think this is a big world and there is place for everybody. You have to be competitive with yourself. If today you are better than your yesterday-self then you are in the right direction.
Designstor: It’s huge, particularly in Canada.
MIR: We try to present our service as an alternative to the standard in the business. We lose out on a lot of projects to competition, but the projects that we do get are usually more interesting.
Neoscape: Competition is always fierce. We try our best to avoid the commodity stuff where a client is just looking for the cheapest provider of a service - not a strategy that works for us. We work hard to find clients that appreciate the level of service and quality of work that we deliver. As we’ve expanded our offerings over the years it does expose us to many new competitors as there are good design agencies everywhere that we find we are competing against. We also have dealt with many clients who off-shore their viz work during design development but then often switch to a US firm for marketing and final presentation imagery and film.
PixelFlakes: Competition is always a challenge, within any industry. Luckily, we are able to work in an industry where your closest competitors are also friends you can share a few beers with. When Pixelflakes first started, competition was a big challenge, until your name and reputation become established (not just within a particular architectural studio but in the industry in general), it all comes down to cost. How expensive are you?! Can we get a discount?! We can’t tell you the amount of times we heard that over the first few years! As we have become more established people often come to us because they want to work with us specifically. When practices are approaching you for that sole reason then competition doesn’t play such a big part as it used to. I guess we’re in a privileged position in that sense. Regardless, competition will always be there, when you see other companies kicking out awesome stuff it just makes you want to work harder!
Public Square: Competition is a true challenge and pressure increased in recent years with a lot of clients outsourcing visualization.
Pure: It became the biggest challenge of all in the last 5 years
2G Studio: Very big, there are lots of competitor in this industry, and the client always seeks a cheaper price. Lots of freelancers try to build a company, this new company will do whatever it takes to get a job, even lower their price.
Steelblue: Competition is a reality. I know that there are individuals and teams that are working hard to take clients and team members. One should realize that there are those that are working harder than you to take what you have.
Urban Simulations: Less than other industries, we have to deal with absolutely different styles, and from that point is the client who choose between companies instead of being a tough competition for the budget.
Image Credit: MIR
How do you develop a company that stands on its own within a crowded industry? What components allow you to stand out within the field?
ArX Solutions: Think first what are the things that you can do better or that can be unique. If you don't have anything special as a product, think from the service point of view. For example, are you really fast? Do you know people? Etc. If you can't find anything and you only want to start a business in the ArchViz industry for the money I have an advice for you …. think it twice and then, ... go and study medicine !!!
To develop a company in this industry requires lots of time and patience. In our case we focus our competitive advantage in service quality. We are always there, we deliver always on time, with a painless process and fast result and what we believe is one of the best cost & quality education. We like to think that we don't sell renderings, we sell a service that ends with a final product that is a rendering. This is the key to understand our growth.
Beauty and the Bit: The best way to stand out from the others is being you! Always defend your touch, your unique way to approach things. Yes, we all do the same thing but you have to push to do it your way.
Designstor: I’m not sure that I know! My company began to stand out because our work was better than others, and it was better because I wanted it to be better than others. The notion of “doing something better” is key, whether it’s better service, better value, better quality.
MIR: We do quite a lot of academic research. This insight has led us to the conclusion that much of the standards of image design in the industry is based on unscientific principles. We try to communicate to our clients that our way of thinking is more effective and leads to images that does a better job.
Neoscape: I think having a strong team who are passionate and believe in what they are doing is critical. When you look at the top firms in the business I think they all have strong leadership, tremendous artistic & creative skills and a knack for knowing when and how to push the boundaries. They all have a stance which is important. Quality of work used to be the barometer for which we and our clients judged our work. As the software has progressed it has become easy to produce really good imagery but it is still hard to produce great imagery. Great is where we aim to be - not just for final work product but also for client experience. Having really good people also helps you stand out.
PixelFlakes: For us it came down to a few things, firstly the tutorials we produced when we first started, we had no idea they were going to get that much attention, to this day it's often how most people initially heard of us! Since then it has all come down to consistency, ensuring a high level across a large volume of imagery is very difficult and is something that clients respect and appreciate. Building personal relationships with these clients ensures high profile projects come our way which once again comes back around to help you stand out from the crowd. Quality and consistency is everything.
Public Square: We are mostly focused on quality of the work, embracing new technologies and new publishing platforms.
Pure: Stay focussed on what you can do best.
2G Studio: I think it’s all about what kind of service that you are offering to your potential customer. At the end of the day it's not just about service, but it also about relations. If you have a good quality, great service, once you win the relation, you will win everything. So I can say, you need "people skills".
Steelblue: To start, as a small company, we needed to stand out in our area. This was able to get us to a certain point but you need to stand out beyond that to recruit talent from other cities and countries. To stand out you should plan on being the best, or having your own twist. I don’t think we have the best renderings in the world (I think they are very good mind you) but when we did something a little different, we received the exposure. We are not much for 3D printing, but we did something different in printing and received some recognition. The same for VR or for tablet apps, we did something different in a few categories that got just enough attention.
Urban Simulations: We are quite different from our colleagues, our focus is commercials, we don't pretend to compete in still renderings for architects, we are focussed on catching the attention of the audience and sell products, in our case, architecture.
Image Credit: MIR
What advice would you give to new people in the industry who are thinking about starting in visualization?
ArX Solutions: This is an amazing and creative industry. Every project is different and you will learn lots of things. Do it because you love it, otherwise, do something different. This industry will require you to stay late, work hard, etc. Is part of the game. Right now, I believe that the industry is adding a new technology: VR/AR/MR will change the whole world and the ArchViz won't be an exemption. Start doing both activities at the same time.
Beauty and the Bit: 1. Work a lot and repeat yourself you are gonna make it 2. Refer to point one. Failure will lead you to success.
Designstor: Learn to be an architectural photographer. Doing so will teach you everything you need to know about visualization (minus the computer stuff).
MIR: In 5 years, anyone will be able to render a good looking and technically perfect high resolution image. Where will you be when that happens? Remember to talk to your clients. Be a person, not a web-site and an e-mail address.
Neoscape: Don’t do it! Kidding of course. Be true to yourself and do what works for you. Don’t try to mimic or be like other studios - find your groove and stick to it. I’m not saying that we don’t admire the work from other studios - we absolutely do and it can be a real source of inspiration. But we are always trying to do it our way. Work hard and it will pay off. Expand your horizons and become a student of many disciplines - photography, design, motion, film, illustration. Don’t wait for opportunities - make them for yourself.
PixelFlakes: The main thing is the passion, just make sure it’s something that you really want to do! The best artists are the ones who live and breathe it, be inspired by film, photography, concept art and of course, your competition! Keep pushing and evolving as an artist, stay hungry and you’ll get there! Don’t expect to sleep for six months and make sure you buy a good airbed because when you do, you won’t be more than 1 metre away from your desk.
Public Square: Look at distribution platforms and try to see where the puck is going. Focus on the skills that will.
Pure: Stay focussed on what you can do best.
2G Studio: Please don’t! Don't make more competition hahaha. I would say, start by respecting yourself, otherwise no one will. Although this is very simple advice, the meaning is very deep. By respecting yourself, you are not letting money dictate how you do the work, meaning you are not giving room to your client to bully you or dictate how you need to do the job. Most of them always ask to work on weekend or public holiday while they having holiday. This sound harsh but this is the reality.
Steelblue: Starting in or Excelling in? Let’s say, Excel. When it comes to the saying, “work smart VS work Hard” I suggest file that away in the nice to have category. Yes, I invite you to work smart, but you need to be ready to put in hard work. Cliché, sure, but true. Many other very talented and capable artist want what you want and are going after it. To this, I still think you need to be ready to put in the work, but for starting out:
Do you love it? Be passionate but mean it.
Be a sponge. Learn everything you can. Find role models.
Get connected. Forums, events, etc
Be you. Find your edge. Be unique and be you.
While I am a fan of tuning out your competition and do your best and focus on your efforts, knowing your competition has worked well for us in the past. Plan ahead.
Urban Simulations: Don't look at others. If all the people are in rainy and sad style northern light days… man, be yourself… develop a style, don't copy. Look for a business partner to be in charge of the business, it will turns out the best solution to keep you focused in creativity.
Image Credit: PixelFlakes
Do you set 2, 5, 10, 20 year goals? Do you look back to see if you met them and do your goals regularly change?
ArX Solutions: 2 Yes, 5 Yes, 10 no really, it is too far. 20 years in this industry? Nobody as an idea where is going to be this industry in 20 years !!!
Regarding to the second question. Do you still use your 8 year old shoes? If you don't, why the objectives should be written on stone? You change because you are human. One thing is to have a clear North set. Another is to choose the path. Stick to your north, not to the path !!
Beauty and the Bit: I have nice moleskines (I can't help it, I am an architect) and all years I spent the whole December setting our goals for next year and evaluating the whole year. It is something more serious and introspective than the “new years resolutions”. I set goals for all my vital fields in the next year and my goals for B&TB don't tend to change, they have only just evolved in size and complexity. I would recommend always to hand write things. It makes the compromise with yourself higher.
Designstor: Sadly, no.
MIR: Yes. We have made a lot of crazy hairy goals. But they are still valid. Our main goal has always been to «show them how it should be done».
Neoscape: We do update our business plan every few years and we go through yearly goal setting and budgeting. It is always interesting to look back and see how we did. Some years we are 100% on target and other years we are not. It can be an interesting forensic exercise to figure out why.
PixelFlakes: Currently we set yearly goals spanning over the course of 5 years, we do have goals past that point but they often remain conceptual, an idea of where we want to go rather than planned targets. The yearly plans cover financial goals, expansion plans, employee counts and media development to name but a few. These remain quite basic and are easily trackable, however they are properly reviewed once a year to ensure everything is on track. We have an end goal which is something that has been discussed frequently between Partners and Associates and is something we are yet to deviate from, after all you can’t sail a ship if you don’t know where you’re going.
Public Square: We don’t have plans past two years due to the fast evolving shape shifting landscape.
Pure: Never met them :-) the industry changes now every 2-3 years completely.
2G Studio: I Don’t know about 10 or 20 years goal, because this industry change so fast, I always do goal setting for 2 years at least.
Steelblue: I think having and RENEWING those are important. I knew where I wanted to be but I don’t (as clearly) know where I want to be.
Urban Simulations: Goals are to be focused an straight in a path, to be confident about a long path you want to walk, since this a real world, the path give you some options and crosses to change the path. Don’t be afraid of taking a wrong one, there is always a way back or a next cross could you bring you back to the right one.
Image Credit: PixelFlakes
How often do you make decisions based on hard factual data vs gut feeling? Is your gut usually right?
ArX Solutions: We were in this industry for so long that at this point I have no idea if we decide something based on the facts or is our emotions. It is experience and is a mix of both.
Beauty and the Bit: I have discovered over the years that intuition is what leads me. I heavily rely in my gut feeling. It is my best advisor and serves me well (like the force).
Designstor: Hard factual data is difficult to come by most times. Gut feeling wins out 70% of the time, and my gut is often (not “usually”) right!
MIR: Our gut feeling is very often confirmed by facts that we encounter later on. But since we decide almost everything on gut feeling, we do a lot of bad decisions. Like for instance painting our office red (headache) or having an open render farm inside the office (tinnitus).
Neoscape: I rely on my gut for a lot of what I do. Especially when hiring - resumes only tell you part of the story. We do have hard data for performance on projects but try not to let it override the human element of how a project is conducted, the personalities involved and the nuances of keeping clients happy and employees engaged and pushing forward.
PixelFlakes: Our common decisions are usually based on gut feeling if they are straightforward. At the end of the day our gut feeling has been shaped from hard factual experience, therefore those decisions are calculated. With that being said if a difficult decision needs to be made we look to as much hard factual data as we can to support any final decision we make.
Public Square: We run analytics for our clients but not enough for ourselves. Intuition gut feeling does play a role. For our clients we are a lot more data driven and analytical.
Pure: 20/80…and mostly it´s good :-)
2G Studio: I usually use gut feeling, I owned several business before starting to work on this industry, and my gut usually right.
Steelblue: Interestingly, for me, the gut is more right than wrong and has performed better than the data. Trust your gut.
Urban Simulations: 50-50, thats a personal feeling, and how your gut leads you and through a test failure, you learn how the gut becomes data.
About this article
Business in Arch Viz. Vol. 14 - Studio Owners and Business Challenges
About the author
Founder at CGarchitect