Both clients and architects often ask me how I came up with the idea for Graphite and how I’ve gotten the business to where it is thus far. And I just did an interview on the Business of Architecture podcast with Enoch Sears talking about just that, and I’m excited to share that with you!
In the podcast I share:
- More about Graphite
- My entrepreneurial journey to get Graphite where it is today
- Recommendations for turning big ideas into reality
Listen to the audio here or read the transcript below!
Business of Architecture, Episode 284. Hello and welcome back architect nation. I’m Enoch Sears and this is the show where you’ll discover tips, strategies and secrets for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice. Today’s guest is Leah Baker an architect who currently lives in Denver, Colorado. Leah reached out to me because she started an online service, Graphite that pairs pre-selected and pre-vetted architects with clients who need architectural services.
On today’s episode you’ll discover it how Leah started her entrepreneurial journey and what it has taken her to get to the point she’s at, including how much money and time she spent launching this new entrepreneurial journey. You’ll also discover her recommendation for you if you happen to be sitting currently on a big idea and you want to turn it into reality.
With that, let’s jump right in to today’s conversation with Leah Baker.
Hello Leah, and welcome to the Business of Architecture Podcast.
Hey there, happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
So Leah, the reason why I wanted to get you on the podcast today is because you came out of the architecture industry, you’re actually a licensed architect, is that correct?
And you’ve transitioned and you’ve pivoted into entrepreneurship with this website Graphite that we’re going to be talking about. Tell me, just to get started here, what is Graphite?
So Graphite is a freelance platform for architects. So, essentially what that means is we take clients that need architects and match them with freelancers and build remote teams for their project.
When did you launch Graphite?
In December of last year.
So it’s been going for about 18 months now. Is that fair to say?
Oh, sorry. No, just this past December
So it’s been going for six months. Great. And how many architects do you have on the platform? As of this time.
Right now we have about 15, and we’re always looking for more…
All right, great. And then on a monthly basis, how many client inquiries do you get from prospects on a monthly basis, right now?
We probably get between 10 and 15, I would say.
And generally where are those located?
Right now mostly in San Francisco. That’s kind of where we’re piloting and focusing right now.
Gotcha. How do you market the platform to get those leads?
So a lot of different ways. Through kind of traditional advertising. You know, Facebook ads, Google. I got a lot of success with craigslist actually, through some local listservs there in San Francisco with the architecture community there. Still word of mouth, as the industry is still kind of relying a lot on that. And we’re getting ready to do a launch event as well to really build partnerships. So we’re reaching out to a lot ofadjacent partners for the architecture industry and getting the word out that way.
So I would imagine, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a lot easier to find architects to join the platform than it is to actually find prospective homeowners who have projects. Is that correct?
That’s correct, yeah. Because there’s, I would say a lot more, you know, architects either they’re younger professionals working at a firm that need a little side work or people realizing that if the projects are there that they’re ready to do the work. So, yeah. And also just because that’s my background as well. have more connections in that space and know more people. So you’re right on that.
Great. And so from what you’re telling me, I’m hearing that currently you’re getting about 10 to 15 inquiries per month on the Graphite platform. These are for people who actually have projects.
And how many of those turn out to be legitimate, where they actually ended up going forward?
Oh, good question. I don’t know if I have a percentage worked out, but a few. I would say like two or three. So people are either…as typical inquiries go, they’re either maybe doing a little more research than they are actually ready to hire or, you know, something comes up or they choose somebody else. So yeah, a variety of reasons.
And what platform do you find to be the most effective for generating these projects increase as of yet? Are, you mentioned you’re doing some Facebook, some print advertising, it sounded like, some Google advertising. What have you found to be most effective?
Right now, the most effective is kind of the word of mouth, still. And the sort of list serves in the communities that I’m involved in personally. And I think that’s because that’s kind of how the industry is going so far. And also just getting people aware that…. like nobody’s really searching “freelance architect” on Google because I don’t think that’s really coming up in their head that that’s an option. So it’s really getting the fact that we exist and it is an option for them, you know, in front of them. That’s kind of our challenge right now. And so we’re constantly pursuing various options there.
So define for me, what do you mean by freelance architect?
Well, just anybody that’s working and wants to work on their own, not working at a firm.
Great. So this might include sole practitioners that potentially even have an office.
Yes, actually I have a couple of those. And that’s great too because that comes with, sort of, usually a lot more experience and background. And so we need that kind of range of skills depending on the project.
Let’s talk about the… so it looks like you have the platform built out here and you have some good marketing tools already in place. I can see that. Let’s talk about what it takes to start an entrepreneurial adventure like this, Leah, both from the times and also from the investment.
Oh, absolutely. So I would say, a lot of mental work. I would say that it takes a lot of getting over your own drama and fears and doubts to really kind of pursue your own entrepreneurial path. And that’s something I’m constantly always trying to work on. Because coming up with an idea is sort of one thing, but then executing is another. And I think most entrepreneurs will agree with that statement. And, as far as the financial aspect of it, the way that I’ve kind of started Graphite is I started it in San Francisco. That was the “startup land,” and although I got inspired by that, the common path there is to go raise venture capital right away. And that was definitely a consideration for me. But then when I realized, “Hey, I can do this in more of a manual way”: Try to build up some funds, save some money there and then built it out, hire a developer to make this more robust, do more marketing. I decided that was a better fit for me and I would learn a lot along the way. I would learn what needed to be built before actually building it. And so it has been a little bit of an investment on my part, but it’s been quite minimal, I would say, in comparison to a lot of startups. And we’re bringing in money already, so that’s always good.
Good. How much money did you have to have, well, let’s just say up until now, how much money have you had to invest in getting this project off? Not including your living expenses, but just investing in getting it off the ground?
Yeah, so I would say up to this point, it’s probably been maybe between $5,000 and $10,000.
And then, so there’s the $5,000 and $10,000. However, there’s the time and effort that you’re not able to be out there making a living as an architect probably. Right? You’re focused on Graphite. How much living expenses have gone into that? Like if we look at the total investment so far to actually make this thing happen?
Well, so let’s see. So for a while I was doing half-time at my office. So I was in San Francisco and I was supplementing with that. So I would say, hmm, maybe around 15,000 in savings for supporting myself. Yeah.
Good. And then you say that as of right now you’re bringing in money to the business. Do you have a projection for when you think this thing’s gonna be breakeven or is it already a breakeven?
Good question. I’m glad I looked at my financials yesterday! We do our invoicing twice a month, so I was just looking at that yesterday. I think next month actually we might be or even profitable. So that’s exciting!
That can be very exciting. Profit is always nice. Now I know one concern that architects have with these kind of crowd based platforms is that it may lead to the commoditization of architectural services. How would you respond to an architect that says, well, I’ve known not sure I want to be in this kind of beating game against other architects. How does that work on your platform?
Yes, I’ve definitely gotten that question or concerns. So, I come from that architect’s perspective, so I certainly don’t want to devalue our industry. When we bring on freelance architects onto the platform, and they apply to be on the platform, we actually set what we believe, in my research has been a fair rate. So we actually set the rate, so it’s not like, “oh, I’m competing with this other guy or girl, and they’re just cutting their rates just to get the job.” So we’re actually giving sort of a level playing field for everybody and it’s based on years of experience and if they’re licensed or not. And that’s kind of the baseline. And then once we see how they’re performing on these projects in their client feedback, then they have the potential for their rate to grow. So I really want it to be a way to use their skills and use their set of talents to the best of their ability. And actually, what I’ve found is the rates that we’re giving, we’re actually about double, typically, what the architects are getting, what they’re taking home working at a firm.
So for the architects on the platform right now, it’s been a net positive…
…to be involved. Great. Now, let’s talk a bit about this journey of entrepreneurship. Leah, how did you decide to leave the architecture industry in terms of the professional practice and move into this entrepreneurial journey? What motivated you to do this? What’s the story here?
Like a lot of us, I was working in an architecture office. I mean doing great projects, great work. Loved that. Loved the office, loved the projects. But for me, I felt like there was something more for me personally, but also more for our industry. And I kind of just started getting the feeling and the sense, like our industry has been quite antiquated or is quite antiquated, and a little bit backwards to a lot of the technologies we can utilize these days. And how a lot of the other companies have started to run with, you know, virtual collaboration and all of these digital tools that are at our fingertips right now. I don’t really think that the architecture industry is utilizing that.
I was also doing a bit of freelance work, on other platforms that were not meant for architecture services at all, and it was a little painful. And so I was seeing the projects on there. I was seeing that need. And I was also feeling the pain on the architect’s side: maybe we’re not making as much money as we want to be making or we’re not having this flexible lifestyle like our tech industry counterparts, especially in Silicon Valley. And I really didn’t see a reason why firms in our industry couldn’t embrace that model. And so I wanted to be the one to bring that to the world.
Awesome. Well, it’s one thing to have the idea, Leah, it’s the other thing, to actually have the momentum to actually do it. What would you say gave you the courage and the wherewithal and just the action taking mindset to get out there and actually make this thing happen?
No, I totally agree. And it took time. I certainly had the idea much before I made the leap. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s a lot of mental work. And, I would say looking at it from the perspective of…. -Because I think when we do have ideas, we have this fear of, “Well, what if it doesn’t work? or What if I fail?” And so it’s kind of like looking at it like, well… what if that is the case and what is the worst case scenario? And you know, you may say, “Oh well, I’ll be out some money or maybe I’m right back to where I started and I have to work at a firm or…” But maybe the worst thing that could happen is that you didn’t give yourself the chance to see if this could work. And that’s kind of really where I had to honor myself and just go for it.
Awesome. And what advice would you give to other architects, designers who maybe have an idea and they think that it would be big?
I would say you just have to start taking action. I mean it’s so scary at points, but even if it doesn’t turn out how you originally thought, you’ll change so much as a person, as a professional, learning about business, anything. You just have to go for it. And even if it’s just little steps… starting to take action and learn. The faster you can do that and learn each time, the quicker you’ll get somewhere.
Now it’s one thing to be based on referrals and getting word of mouth to help grow the number of leads that are coming in through drip, through Graphite. What’s your growth plan, Leah? How are you really going to unlock this and start to scale it? Are you looking at Facebook ads? What’s your plan here?
Yeah, absolutely. So I’m really excited about our upcoming launch event and partnering with a lot of industry professionals to really boost this. And we’re talking to realtors, contractors, interior designers, kind of all of those adjacent professions…using social media marketing partners there. I think that’s gonna really boost our exposure. Because I think, as good as Facebook and Google ads can be- (and I do think that is part of the plan – really throwing some more money there)- I think that, especially this business, goes a long way with partnerships. And so if we can build the meaningful partnerships that really build in almost a referral system, I think that’s really going to boost us. And especially those partners that have a large audience. So getting those with a large following, getting eyes and ears open to: “Oh, here’s Graphite and this is what they do.” I think is going to be key. Along with general social media and Google marketing too.
So tell me specifically, what would one of these partnerships look like? How does this work in reality to be able to grow the platform and get more leads for your architects?
Yeah, absolutely. So, for example, realtors. I’m working with one right now. You know, a lot of times they’re the first point of contact to our potential clients. So clients: they just bought a new house. It’s kind of a fixer upper. They couldn’t afford – especially in the bay area, people can’t afford their dream homes. So a lot of times people are asking, okay, “well what architects should I use?” “Do you know any?”… to their realtor. And so they’re the first point of contact. And so we’re working with them to number one, pair up a recommendation system both ways, as well as doing an open house series with them where we may do a little rendering or a plan and put it up at open houses. Because a lot of clients, they can’t visualize what these spaces could potentially be. And so in a way, to help the realtor sell the house, we can show: this is what it could potentially be. “And oh by the way, who did that rendering? I’d like to connect with them to develop that further.” So that is a realtor example. This is sort of a social media partnering one: if we’re going to help out a social media mogul or somebody that has a lot of followers or their audience is really into redoing their homes and they’re looking to, and they’re always aspiring to have a nicer space, but they think that maybe working with an architect isn’t attainable or having this beautiful design isn’t attainable…working with them on a project, maybe of their own to say, oh, here’s the process and having them post about it. So things like that.
Awesome. Well, great, Leah. It’s been fantastic having you so far here on the show. Anything else that you’d like to tell our listeners about the platform or how they can get involved? What’s the next step?
Absolutely. Yeah. So our website is mygraphite.co and like I said, we’re always looking to build our network of freelancers and happy to speak with anybody else that has any more questions they can reach me there. And they can apply to be on the platform as well.
Great. Leah Baker, thank you for joining us here on the Business of Architecture.
Thank you. See you later.