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Professional Services vs. Scalable Business

Building a scalable business as a professional service provider may require that you change the role you play in your business.

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John Warrillow defines a scalable business as "something you can run without you personally doing all the work."

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Dear John:

My partner and I are architects, which means our business relies on our professional know-how and expertise. It's not a business whereby we sell widgets and that can implement systems and procedures which anyone can follow. I've read Michael Gerber's 'E-Myth' about how to build a business that works in a predictable and productive way, which I enjoyed and understood, but find it difficult to apply the model to our business. I feel I'm missing a huge point and feel embarrassed that I'm not getting it...

Are you able to shed some light? I'm sure I'm not the only business owner who has this concern/confusion (at least I hope not).

 --Anonymous


You're definitely not alone. I struggled with this myself for the first 10 years of trying to get a business off the ground (as have many in the business of selling ideas or expertise).

My question is, do you want to be an architect or own an architectural firm? As sad as this may be to hear, I don't think you can do both. Being an architect must be a creative and rewarding profession, and I'm sure you can make a good living at it, but turning that profession into a scalable business—whether it's an architectural firm, web design shop, PR firm or consulting practice—is altogether different.

A scalable business, at least as I define it, is something that can run without you personally doing all the work.

If you want to make the switch from being an architect to running an architectural firm, I think the first step is to pick a type of architecture you can teach a junior to design. This means narrowing the services you offer. Perhaps you decide to specialize in ranch-style bungalows that you can teach juniors to do the drawings for or backyard living spaces or pool cabanas or industrial warehouses. Once you've got juniors doing the work, you pour your creativity into marketing their expertise, branding your firm and hiring and training salespeople. You've still got a lot of work to do—just not the designing part.

Hearing that advice probably makes your skin crawl. First off, each client, I'm sure, brings to you a unique situation. Admittedly, I'm not an architect, but I understand the profession to be about creatively designing a unique solution based on a unique set of circumstances (terrain, environmental codes, building specs, etc.).  At its very heart, it's about creativity, which is why the profession—like most professions—is hard to scale.

The only way to scale up an architectural firm while simultaneously offering a custom solution to each client is to bring in lots of senior talent and make them partners in the business. But, still, all you will have done is created a co-operative of well-paid professionals, not a scalable business.

Again, there's nothing wrong with wanting to be an architect (or lawyer or web designer or consultant or publicist or accountant). Just don't confuse it with operating a scalable business. The two are as different as oil and water.

John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, which will be released by Portfolio/Penguin on April 28, 2011.

Last updated: Apr 19, 2011

JOHN WARRILLOW | Columnist | Sellability

John Warrillow’s new book, The Automatic Customer: Creating a Subscription Business In Any Industry will be released on February 5, 2015. John is also the author of Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You and the founder of The Sellability Score, a company dedicated to helping business owners improve the value of their company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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