8 Lessons On Succeeding As A Firm, From the Business Mind Behind BIG

This article by Sheela Maini Søgaard, partner and CEO of BIG, was originally published by DesignIntelligence as “BIG Lessons: Eight Key Points That We Focus(ed) on in Our Growth Process.”

When I joined BIG–Bjarke Ingels Group in 2008, we had one office, one partner, and 45 employees. Eight years later we have 12 partners and more than 400 employees in Copenhagen, New York, and London. As we continue to expand our reach, projects, and staff I have awarded myself the luxury of looking back and distilling what has made a difference so far. These are my top eight lessons for having secured the successful growth of BIG over the past eight years.
Lesson 1: Design and Business, Hand-in-Hand

In Formula One racing, it’s easy to focus too much on the car and driver because that is what we see during the race. But the pit crews, equipment and other behind-the-scenes support systems are just as important if you want to win.

Architecture is the most visible part of our organization, but we are focused on business operations too. Business is not in opposition to design. A well-managed business environment will support the delivery of design. During our growth we have learned that it is not only reasonable but also necessary to think analytically about our organization. If I could go back and change one thing, I would have hired more of the right operations people earlier on. Every single one of them has brought home their salary several times over. The better support and infrastructure we offer through operations, the more our designers can focus on what they do best.
Lesson 2: Focus on Financial Health

I was recruited to BIG to take on responsibility for the financial challenges that any growing firm will eventually face. Coming from another industry, I first had to acquaint myself with the architecture profession. I found the traditional billing structure focused on workload in the design process. Fees were attached to where the hours were spent in phases like construction documentation rather than where the value was created. This model does not work very well for a design architect who is traditionally asked to engage heavily in the earlier phases then handing over to the executive architect in the later phases.

To rethink the traditional fee approach and to gain our fair share of the value we were creating for our clients, we began to focus on documenting proof of our value creation. We are able to show clients that our projects provide more value per square foot sold, more program to any given site, and better value for the users; all of which helps us achieve a greater share of that value which we assist in unlocking, i.e., better design fees.

We have found that managing and controlling each project from start to finish is key to ensuring that our fees then also generate a profit. We use software that allows us to plan the required resources for any work stream. Also, the discipline we show in checking up on every single project regularly throughout the year allows us to prevent any project from running over budget on resource expenditure without our express knowledge and approval. The purpose is not to penalize the teams (the results of these meetings do not impact their bonuses, for example), but to talk them through the financial and practical side of the project so they can understand what is in wait and plan accordingly. Our staff no longer wonder where the money is being spent because the process is transparent.

I don’t think that any partner, design leader or project manager questions the need for financial control of the projects and, in fact, they all understand and speak to it as a natural part of their work.

Finally, as part of securing financial viability, we do stand firm on being paid. We cannot work for free and we think it is only fair that our contractual terms be adhered to just as we expect to deliver according to contract. This may seem a basic point but I’ve been surprised at how often in the past we’ve had to have serious discussions with clients about paying us inside a reasonable time frame and paying us in full. We continue to be uncompromising in expecting full payment for full delivery.



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