Mark R. LePage, AIA, a licensed architect in the State of New York, is the Partner in Charge of Operations at Fivecat Studio Architecture, a leading residential architecture firm located in Westchester County, New York. Mark is the founder of Entrepreneur Architect, an online education resource inspiring architects to build better businesses. He launched the blog in 2007 as a personal project to document ideas for business success. In 2012, Mark relaunched Entrepreneur Architect at EntreArchitect.com and introduced the The Entrepreneur Architect Podcast. Working to become an influential force in the profession, Mark’s mission is to teach sole proprietors, small firm architects and students the importance of business success in the profession of architecture. Mark speaks live on the topics of business and success in architecture. He has spoken at the American Institute of Architects National Convention, American Institute of Architecture Students Forum (national convention) and has been featured in several print and digital publications including Residential Architect Magazine, Custom Home Magazine, ArchDaily.com (including ArchDaily Brazil), Life of an Architect and AIArchitect (the AIA National newsletter). Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Mark’s unique approach and philosophy on design.
On becoming an architect
I was around eight or nine when my parents introduced me to the idea of the profession of architecture. I liked to draw like many of us and I always wanted to be an artist but I also always had this dream of becoming rich and famous (laughs). I knew that artists didn’t make much money, or at least that was my thought. So my parents introduced me to architecture and said you know architecture is just like law and medicine and architects make a lot of money. So at ten years old that was it. I locked into architecture as a career and never looked back. I focused everything on becoming an architect, even to the point of manipulating my answers in the high school career evaluation survey to see what profession I should pursue. I answered every question specifically to make sure architecture came out. I never really looked at anything else from the age of ten on.
On his early influences
Somewhere in mid-college I think my real passion and true interest started coming through and that was in business. So I would say that my influences are business people more than other architects or designers, Steve Jobs definitely among others. I remember in college instead of design magazines I was picking up Entrepreneur magazine and Robb Report and looking at the businesses and reading the success stories. Even at that point it didn’t really dawn on me that business was my true passion. I didn’t realize that until after I got out of college and became an architect. I was never really influenced by the design end of things, it was always more business than design.
On starting his own firm
Annmarie McCarthy is my wife as well as my business partner and we’re both architects. We launched Fivecat Studio in 1998 as Annmarie McCarthy Architect. We then changed the name to Fivecat Studio in ’99. Funny enough I’d say we started it really through a golden retriever named Albertus Magnus Prince of Broadlawns. My wife and I are animal rescue advocates. My wife is actually the advocate and I’m the support. But it’s her passion to help animals get rescued from shelters. Ironically, we ended up adopting a golden retriever from a very high-end breeder in upstate New York and in the process became good friends with the people we adopted from. Soon after we adopted him, they opened a restaurant and through knowing us, they invited us to design their restaurant and that was our first project the Meetinghouse Restaurant in Bedford, New York.
So we jumped into it. Really I jumped into it Annmarie was still working for someone else full-time in New York. I had already left my position as a project manager and had started my own company doing freelance work for local architects. We started in on this job and launched Fivecat Studio with no clients and no money and just did it. That Meetinghouse Restaurant really took us to everything else. People visited that restaurant after we finished, asked who did it and that got us some other small commercial projects, which led to large residential projects. That lasted several years doing all kinds of work. Around 2005 or so we built up the firm the best we could and got to a sort of plateau where we couldn’t get any bigger or better, or more profitable than we were. So I took a business course at a local community college that gave us every week another business challenge to consider. Each time I’d come home and use it as a checklist with Annmarie to see what we were doing wrong. We got to sales and realized we weren’t doing sales. When that happened we rebuilt our sales system, finally completed our business plan after many years of starting business plans and things took off at that point. We began to know what we were doing, which was really exciting. I focused on that and grew it into a six-person firm with project costs of about ten million dollars at the time. We peaked right before the recession. During the recession we survived and stayed busy and ended the recession with one employee and Annmarie and I.
We got to the point where we had a big office and decided we would close the office and started a virtual firm. We sent our one employee home, built a studio at the house where it all started and now we grow very flexibly as a virtual firm.
On operating as a virtual firm
Operating a virtual firm is very different than a physical firm. All of the systems and protocols that we developed with the physical firm needed to be either rebuilt or tweaked. So there is a lot of transition involved but it works really well. We went from a 2000 square foot office and four employees to one employee who is now an independent contractor who works out of his own studio. He has the freedom to do his own work when he wants and takes care of the work we need him to do on his own schedule. We also have a flexible team of other people with particular skills and experience levels who we can work with when we need them and they work for us at an hourly rate on a project basis. So they come together for the project, work through the project and then disperse upon completion. Sometimes they overlap on multiple projects but they’re not full-time and not permanent. This works really well because it allows us to be very flexible and keeps our overhead very low relative to where we were. I save close to $5000 a month by closing the studio and going virtual, so the firm got a $5000 raise when we did that.
It works really well but also requires a lot of discipline. Intentional oversight is required so you know what’s happening and when it’s happening so you don’t get too far before you realize something is not right. I would say the biggest difference between a virtual studio and a physical studio is that opportunity for serendipity in a physical studio. Everything is out there, you might walk past people having a conversation and hear that conversation or you’ll see a sketch or design on someone’s drafting board and have a conversation around that. There are lots of great opportunities that happen from that. A lot of great design gets developed that way. You have to be much more intentional for those kinds of things to happen with a virtual firm, there is no more serendipity. Some of the digital tools we’re using are starting to be much more collaborative so in time I think serendipity will come back. There will be more real-time, full-time video where everyone has a video screen on and can see where they work so spontaneous conversations can happen. Today we use Slack a lot so those spontaneous conversations can happen there. We use Dropbox which has replaced our physical server in the studio and work right off of it.
On his aspirations for the next 5–10 years
Well I have an atypical story I would say. I started Entrepreneur Architect which is really a main focus for me now and has a significant influence on Fivecat. I started it as a personal blog in 2007 and relaunched it as an online platform of resources for small firm architects at the end of 2012. I relaunched the blog at that point under a new brand “EntreArchitect” changed the url to entrearchitect.com and really dedicated myself to it as an influential platform on the internet with the mission to change the profession for small firm architects. So that is the mission there and it has grown significantly from the time that I launched it to the point that I recently received funding from a venture capitalist to rebuild and relaunch it in a couple of months. Once that becomes a more sustainable business for me it will allow me to take Fivecat Studio and do what we’ve always dreamed of doing and that is to design and build our own custom homes and sell them as products. We will basically become real estate development on a small scale with very high-end houses, designing and building them ourselves. We plan to track them on the internet so people can watch as we build them and make that into a profitable business.
On the challenges facing small firm architects
There are two things we’ve learned through EntreArchitect as far as the challenges facing small firm architects. Number one, they’re overwhelmed with the number of things they’re doing. The number of roles they’re responsible for is overwhelming. So they’re looking for ways to be more productive in the ways they’re living their lives. So that is one area we focus on a lot: how to live a more productive, more effective, happier life as a small firm architect. One of our goals is just to help architects be happier and help them reach the dreams they wanted when they first started. Many architects start out wanting to change the world as artists but quickly find out they need to become business people first. None of us know how to do that. So EntreArchitect really allows us to educate and connect with these firms and help them become more successful.
The other thing many firms struggle with is the fact that they don’t know how to run a business. They don’t know how to be profitable. So giving them the tools and education and know-how to build systems is really the key to being a more productive and profitable architecture firm. This is what allows them to be the artists they want to be.
On changes for small firms in the next 5–10 years
I think virtual firms are going to be the new norm for startups. It’s very easy to get a decent computer and some software and set up a website and get yourself licensed and open up your firm. So you can essentially open up a firm for a few thousand dollars, where before you’d have to rent space and hire a staff and pay utilities and all of that. It was a big investment and a big risk to start your own firm. Today with a virtual firm the risk is significantly less so if it didn’t work, you didn’t spend a whole lot of money on it. And what you invested in could certainly be used if you go and work for someone else. So I think many startups and small firms are going to shift to this new model working as a virtual firm. As technology gets better and new tools become available, it’s only going to get easier and less expensive to do that.
On advice he would give his younger self
That’s an easy one. Learn how to run a business. I speak at schools occasionally to students and the thing I always like to leave them with is definitely learn the fundamentals of business. I have a presentation I give called Profit, Then Art and it’s the 12 fundamentals to a successful business in architecture. There are basically 12 things you need to know and understand how they work and apply them to your business then you will be successful. You’ll have the profit in order to run a successful firm and this will allow you to be a better architect. I think so many architects feel like being profitable is this bad thing because it takes away from their art. My argument is if you can focus first on building a strong business and putting in place the systems you need to be a strong, healthy, profitable business then you’ll have more time and freedom to be the artist you want to be. So that is definitely my number one recommendation.