The Lessons I learnt by Scaling from 1 to 100 in 5 years (Part 2)
This is PART 2 of our interview with BINYAN. Check out PART 1 here
Below are some of the most common questions I get asked when talking about the Biz of Viz – and my attempts to answer them.
1. How do you maintain and improve quality of the work as you scale?
This is one of the toughest challenges. I have seen good companies go down the ‘lets make the most efficient and cheap renders’ rabbit hole only to see their brand tank and talent walk out the door. For us it starts at the values level, quality of work is our key point of difference and why clients come to us and we must always keep this value at the forefront of our thinking. Does that mean every image is a masterpiece? Not necessarily, but the passion to strive for quality and never give up on it (even as you need to be efficient) is the first step to not selling out on this key value.
On a more practical level you need to nurture great art directors, and make sure every artist keeps growing and getting better. The art directors are the gate keepers of quality and they must be hard nosed about not letting a poor image go out the door. When working with remote or VIP clients, it may be wise to have several layers of QC before the image goes out the door. It gives me a lot of satisfaction that I can say our work has improved each year. Are we perfect? No, but we keep raising the bar on quality for ourselves first and foremost.
2. I have seen several companies do things in different ways – what do you think are the best Business models in Arch Viz?
There are only a couple of business models in arch viz.
The first one I call the “All-Rounder Model” – it entails having fewer staff, and having them do many things each. Each team member is an artist, modeller, project manager technical support. In this model the overheads are kept low and the pressure to produce renderings fast is reduced.
The second model is the “Specialisation Model” – in this model you focus on each team member doing a unique task – the one they enjoy most, are best at and is most valuable to the business. This means people focus on their passion, but costs a lot more to put in place as you need more staff to make it work. When done right this model works very well - but if the market you are in cannot sustain it from a sales and margin point of view – think twice about pursuing this path.
There is no one perfect model, you need to consider all the areas outlined in this article to see what model is the best fit for the kind of business you want to have and if your market can sustain the more expensive model.
3. I'm an architect/visualiser/free spirit - how do I learn about running a business?
Firstly asks yourself “do I want to run a business or do I just feel obligated to? Not everyone is cut out for running their own business and that's ok?”
If the answer is YES – then you have to make it your business to know about business. I have had a business coach from the early days, and have moved on to different ones as the business has changed. I would advise to do the same. Of course reading business books and case studies is a must, and getting a basic understanding of strategy is vital to establish your competitive advantage.
Business networks like BNI and EO are very valuable sources of learning and support, talking to people outside of our industry will broaden your experience and knowledge base.
4. What advisors should I seek out to help with the various parts of my business I am not an expert in.
For us, in addition to a business coach we have a CFO and a great accountant. I am a big believer in seeking external help and have always worked with good lawyers, accountants, book keepers and strategists. When it comes to consultants – cheap is expensive and expensive is cheap. Remember that these partners are not there for the day to day, but rather to help you make ONE decision per year that transform your business.
5. Everyone talks about the ‘The Talent War’ in our industry – how do I hire, train and retain the best talent?
With the lack of university level degrees teaching arch viz, hiring is a huge challenge for everyone. It might be a cliché but you have to make sure you pay well and have a good reputation. Each company needs to understand its strengths and weaknesses and play to its strengths when recruiting talent. In the early days offering more money was one of the few ways we could attract new talent, these days its about working on world class project, working with other top artists and leadership opportunities that are the main ‘pitch’ in our recruitment efforts.
Making sure junior artists can learn from seniors and then backing the juniors to take the next step will help you have an internal pipeline of talent – this has worked very well for us. And of course when it comes to staff retention – you have do many things right – good pay, interesting projects, life work balance, decent hours, amenities, good managers and a bright future for each person to aim for. We think about all of these things constantly, and while we do not always get it right – in fact here and there a top person has left, which we regret – we are focusing on all the areas of the person’s engagement in their role to make sure they are happy.
On the subject of hiring graduates I think it is wise for all companies to reach out to the architecture and interior schools in your area to partner with them to create degrees, electives and internships for architecture students to attain the skills we need to hire them. We have been working with a couple of universities over the past years and it is already bearing fruit.
6. How did you manage to open 3 new offices in a 3 year period?
To be honest it was a combination of skill and some inexperience. It did put a strain on the business, but the opportunities it has brought are well worth it.
From our experience the first thing to ascertain is : does the market for your service exist in the new location, and does the market fit your business model. We undertake a deep market analysis before entering new markets – this is a constant process of information gathering, conversation – and just walking the streets.
The other thing to consider is – does the new location have local talent? If it does not you need to be able to bring in talent from abroad, this has been a challenge for us in New York and there is no quick fix.
The alternative to hiring local talent in a new market is remotely located production teams. While this approach makes a lot of sense, it is vital to invest in creating synergies and a true bond between the remotely located creative teams. When not handled right some people may feel uncomfortable in such a structure.
When opening up a new office, you need to start with the right people. That first person or group that you send to set up a new studio needs to be true A-level players, if they fail so will the venture. Find the right people, inspire them, trust them and empower them. And then don’t forget to constantly support them.
7. How to not go broke as you scale up
Make sure you really understand your business model, cash position, funding sources and sales pipeline. If you get it wrong on any of these counts – things can go bad fast. This is where external advisors are needed to help you see the gaps you don’t see, and make sure you are not drinking too much of your own kool aid. I have had my advisors give me some very frank feedback at times when I have proposed ‘visionary’ ideas that they knew the business is not ready for. Most of the time I listened.
8. How do you provide education and Career Development for your Staff while scaling?
This is an area oft neglected as you scale. Make sure to have a set budget for training and career development. As you scale, be purposeful about creating new roles for people to step into, this creates pathways for your people to move through and keeps them engaged with your mission and your business’ success.
9. Everyone talks about Culture, Vision & Values – how do you manage a team of Gen Y creatives in the Era of Google and LinkedIn Perks?
Having a clear Vision, and the values and culture to back it up is a non-negotiable in today’s creative workplace. We have worked for years on refining this and it is still work in progress. Your team have to understand the WHY of what you do and how this WHY aligns with their WHY. Once you identify your values and culture make sure it does not stay on a poster or in a file – you and your company have to live it – and make hard decisions based upon it. When done right, being clear about your vision and culture helps you recruit and on-board people in the right way to quickly gain alignment with the team.
This is the foundation of managing the team. Inspire, align and then keep them accountable for keeping to the culture and being part of building it.
In a way I think the tech giants have made it an expectation that a creative workplace will have the cool perks and fun features we all have heard about. While its great to emulate this – and we have pool tables, games and pin pong in our offices – remember that for most of the tech companies their business model is not dependant on being profitable, unlike arch viz companies. Definitely do it, but be careful that you do not go overboard - if note handled with finesse - entitlement may set in in the team. Try not let it become the new normal.
When we talk about perks we talk about the privilege of amenity and how we all have to look after each other and take part in making our company a great place to work. When people are treated like adults they act like adults, and they love it.
10. What is your view on diversifying into new products?
If its truly your passion, and you have the money to experiment – by all means. But taking your eye off your core competency is risky so beware. We look at diversification from the perspective of broadening and growing the scope of what we do for our clients. As opposed to dropping the things we are world class at and changing for the sake of change. Certainly when an interesting new opportunity comes along we will be ready to go there but we need to be prudent to really understand what the new product is all about from a business perspective before going in too deep.
For example, we have done R&D in Unreal, but so far we have not found many clients who want it. Maybe we are not looking hard enough but we need to solve the problem of sales before we can fully roll out this new product.
11. Exit and Succession Planning
Another buzz word in start-up world I “do you have an exit strategy”. From where I stand building a business that you love, having an amazing group people to work with and being commercially successful is a good outcome even without an ‘exit’.
But if it is important for you to sell your business, or get external investment, make sure your business is not all about your genius. If you are the wunderkind at the centre it means you don’t really have a business to sell. Without you it cannot function, and therefore it isn’t worth very much at all. Focus on having good processes, documentation, a transparent financial model and structure and good accountants.
In terms of succession within the business for your senior people – this needs a lot of thought and planning. When senior people move on into another role, or out of the business – a successor to them must step into the void. If no successor is available the business unit or team can be destabilised. We talk to our managers about making sure they are not irreplaceable. Ironically, if you do your job so well that your role becomes redundant – meaning others can do it without you - this makes you the best candidate for a new and higher role.
12. Our industry is not very well known outside of the community of artists and architects. How do we change this?
I believe it is incumbent upon the all leaders in our industry to advocate on its behalf and conferences, universities and other forums that can elevate our standing to be on par with the architects and advertising agencies. What we do is world class, interesting and important – let’s not keep it a secret.