This is the third and final installment in our series that tells the story of how we, a relatively small design firm, managed to survive the recession. Here’s Part One and Part Two to refresh your memory.

When we last left the story, I had personally scored a crap trifecta: my marriage was on the rocks, I was broke because I had dumped nearly all of my personal savings and retirement into the business, and the business into which I was dumping almost every last penny showed no signs of improvement. As an added bonus, morale around the office was understandably low. We weren’t busy, and it seemed like it was a constant stream of bad news coming into the office. As the owner, I felt personally responsible for providing work for my staff, and I wasn’t delivering. Between home and work, I was stressed beyond belief 24 hours a day.

Everything came to a head around the holidays of 2010, so needless to say, I was happy to close the door on 2010. There was no way 2011 could possibly be that bad, right? Right?

Fortunately, I was right.

So why did it take so long to write the third part to this story? In a word, success. That’s right, things turned around for the firm and we got busy, and so did I.  It’s hard to figure where to even begin because so much has happened.  Probably the single biggest savior for the firm was our client, Ranken Jordan Pediatric Specialty Hospital, who unexpectedly decided to move forward with their addition. Steve Hunsicker, undoubtedly the single best staff addition to our firm ever, nurtured this relationship for years, and it paid off. They are a wonderful client, who cares about the art of design, and they understand the powerful impact thoughtful spaces have on their young patients.

Night rendering of Cupples 9.

The rest of our workload increased in earnest. Restaurateurs started calling, some of them the biggest names in the local food scene including Gerard Craft (Niche and Pastaria), Tom Schmidt (Franco and Nico), and Chris Sommers (Pi). We scored some commercial work, including Cupples 9, and we were working on some master planning for other clients. For the first time in months — check that, years — we had a nice array of jobs that kept all of our talent groups busy. We were very cautiously starting to feel like this.

Shelley and I the night of our engagement.

Things began to turn around on the personal side too. Around the office I was teased for turning to Twitter to try to spread the good word about SPACE, and it worked in ways I hadn’t intended. Through Twitter, I met the woman of my dreams, Shelley Satke. Just coming off a divorce, the last thing I was looking for was a relationship. Shelley was also recently divorced, and certainly not looking to jump into a heavy relationship, either. Despite these thoughts, we simply could not get enough of each other. We were enjoying a long-forgotten feeling of being totally, madly in love. Shifting between living at my Mom’s, and shacking up at Shelley’s apartment, our budding relationship was a welcome respite from the dark years of 2008-2010.  I succeeded in buying a house just five doors down from ex-wife’s house so that it would be easier for my two boys.  Worked out a deal for 50-50 custody and a cordial/ friendly relationship with my ex. Shelley moved in, and the boys love her.  To cap off a miraculous year, Shelley got pregnant, much to our surprise and happiness. (@stlspacebaby is due next month!) We ran away by ourselves to Eureka Springs, Arkansas and got married at Thorncrown Chapel. Our honeymoon has no end in sight, we are still crazy in love. Yep, it was quite a year. 

But back to work. Why did the work start trickling in? Much of it was the result of marketing seeds we had planted over the previous eighteen months. We had continued to cultivate relationships, and many business owners were just now starting to feel the economy stabilize and they were more comfortable making the financial investment a new business venture, building, or renovation entailed. And I won’t deny that some of our jobs were the result of pure luck; we had simply been at the right place at the right time.

Interior of Pi Pizzeria at the Mercantile Exchange downtown St. Louis. We won an AIA Award of Merit for this design.

Over the course of eighteen or so months, things have improved dramatically, but we are cautiously optimistic about our workflow. We are always at the mercy of the economy, and we regularly battle a disposable attitude towards architects in general. Collecting money is often a challenge, and because there are so many out-of-work architects out there, competition for jobs is fierce. Making payroll isn’t a white-knuckle experience like it used to be every two weeks, but we haven’t been able to chip away at the debt we incurred during the darkest times of the recession.

In short, business is better, but I am always focused on workload on the horizon. There are no more cash reserves — if we don’t have work, we have to send people home. And I never want to get into that situation again.

What did we learn?

  • Deep thoughts.

    Marketing has to be an ongoing activity, but it’s particularly important when you are the busiest and you think you don’t have the time to do it. Make it a priority. Those big jobs aren’t going to last forever, and you have to be proactive and start building new relationships for later jobs when you least want to do it.

  • Don’t underestimate the power and value of social media. Twitter is a particularly powerful medium because it is a conversation, and it’s a real-time conversation you could be having with new potential clients. Don’t be a cheesy salesperson who constantly toots his own horn; have a good mix of content about your company, but keep it to 10-20% of your tweets. Retweet others, chat with people who interest you, and — above all — be yourself. Nobody gets excited about talking to a buttoned-up, toe-the-line company, but people do like talking to people who let their personality show.
  • Sometimes you’re just at the mercy of the universe. You were promised that big job but lost it anyway? Client ran out of money and can’t pay a big portion of your fee? The economy sucks and nobody wants to start on a big project? No matter how hard you work, it seems like nothing is going right, but hang on — as hard as it is — because things will bounce back eventually.
  • No matter how good business is or how much you don’t want to (we’re architects and designers, not bean counters after all), you have to keep an eye on expenses and budgets. The $5,000 you almost accidentally double-paid that vendor will come in handy when times are tight again.

Congratulations if you’ve followed along for six months to finally reach the end of this three-post series. I hope you learned a little bit from our story and struggles, but I also hope it gave you some encouragement to keep going if things are looking dire. We’re going to keep sharing our challenges and successes here, so please check back often. Thanks for reading.