When a practice begins to grow, it will probably find itself outside its comfort zone. More ambitious projects may be accompanied by more challenging deadlines requiring more resources: these can be the making of, or the ending of, a budding practice.
A tight grip on cash flow has been key to healthy growth at White Red Architects (WRA), explains Jesus Jimenez, one of the practice’s three directors. It has steered a successful transition from startup to 12-strong firm in only a few years. In moving from a micro practice to a medium-sized one, keeping a watchful eye on money coming in and cash going out has been crucial, he points out.
Regular cash flow monitoring
From the outset, WRA has been careful with expenses and where it has invested its money. The strategy has always been to have enough money in the bank to cover six months’ overheads. This excellent habit developed from necessity: the practice started with minimal investment.
“Not having much by way of savings to start the practice gave us an edge in shaping our finances,” explains Jimenez, “and we have always monitored cash flow on a weekly basis.”
“When we started I would meet weekly with my fellow directors at 7am in a local cafe to look at our business, and it gave us a good idea of where we stood.”
The practice is fully BIM oriented and spends money on the regular BIM software, but the judicious use of financial apps, available for small monthly fees, has saved them a small fortune on software outlays.
“We have tried almost every financial app out, and we are not afraid to change either. We have even forged relationships with app investors and helped develop them.”
Jimenez singles out FreeAgent, an accounting app, and Float, a cash flow forecasting app, as two among many that are useful. “Several accounting apps allow you to look at different scenarios: for example, ‘what does your cash flow look like if you hire two more people?’”
Slow, careful growth
WRA was set up by former Manchester School of Architecture pals Joe Haire and Dicky Lewis in 2014; Jimenez joined them soon afterwards. Initially, they worked on small domestic projects and extensions in their spare time while continuing their day jobs for large practices.
They only went full time after two years when they had some money behind them and prospects of work. They still had a cautious approach to overheads: they took space in a branding agency, which they refurbished in lieu of paying rent. The London operation only moved to their own offices in 2020.
Since those fledgling days, WRA has grown to 12 staff, with a further four in an office in Mumbai which is run by Bhushan Kapase, a former colleague of theirs, as a separate financial entity.
“We started off carrying out domestic work but always wanted larger-scale projects across different sectors and spent a lot of time working out how to do that,” says Jimenez. They carefully curated their portfolio, emphasising career experience, competitions and feasibility studies and then networked as much as possible until they found a client bold enough to give them a go, as Jimenez puts it.
“We attended all the property events we had heard of until we found the ones we felt were the right fit for us. This allowed us to slowly grow our network.”
The breakthrough came with a small commercial office scheme in Swiss Cottage, north London. Other offices in the capital soon followed, together with residential and cultural projects – including one in China. London operations are complemented by work in Mumbai, where the practice has won large residential and commercial schemes.
Jimenez reflects that they were a little naïve at the very beginning, focusing all their efforts on competitions and design.
“We still enter competitions: they are key to the studio’s development. But we carefully select them to make sure that they align with areas of research we are developing.”
Being surrounded by the right people
Growth has been in small steps, which at times has been challenging for the directors.
“Because we are still a small practice we have needed to ensure we get in exactly the right people. We have not used recruitment firms because they are too expensive.”
As the practice has grown, the three directors have tended to specialise in different aspects, with early-morning updates now taken three times a week. One focuses on general business and finance; another on architecture and design; and the last on business development.
“As we have grown, our personal and business relationships have evolved too. We push each other in positive ways. Our strength is that we know each other well and we are going through the different stages of life in a similar manner. If anyone gets stressed out we can all be supportive and offer solutions.”
For any architects contemplating starting their own practice, he advises them not to neglect the business side – and to get to grips with that too as quickly as possible.
Jesus Jimenez will be further explaining Managing Practice Growth at this year’s online RIBA conference Guerrilla Tactics 2021: Stop, Collaborate and Listen, which takes place from 9 to 11 November. Tickets are available now.
Thanks to Jesus Jimenez, Director, White Red Architects.
Text by Denise Chevin. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.
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First published Thursday 9 September 2021