Blueprint for growth: A guide to starting your own design firm

The world of design has taken centre stage in the region with the rise of design and architecture projects as well as an influx of start-up businesses entering the market. And while all this is good news, it is important to note that starting a business in the creative sector requires specific steps to ensure it results in success.

To help young designers and firms fully grasp entering the design field, established designers in the UAE tell us what it’s like to start fresh and how to plan out a proper strategy for a successful business.

“I feel it is crucial to gain knowledge and experience prior to starting up your own business. People need to be able to trust you and they will only be able to do so if you have a complete resume showing your growth and development,” says Viktor Udzenija, founder of Viktor Udzenija Architecture + Design. He had worked at Foster + Partners for six years before setting up his own practice.

“The moment you start on your own there is very little room for mistakes. You need to make sure that your near future business plan is clear and you know what services you want to offer your clients,” he says.

Bruno Guelaff, founder of Studio Bruno Guelaff agrees that “having a couple of projects on hand will merit starting up a firm. The last thing one should do is spend all their financial savings on a fancy office with plenty of staff and in turn hope for projects to knock on the door.”

Guelaff also mentions that “the right network of professionals is indispensable as many elements go into perfecting a project from your preferred specialist consultants to the all-important contractor who will define how good your project really is. A design is only as good as the finished product therefore the right team is a must for design success.”

Being financially aware is something one should be, as Guelaff states: “Design firms do not have a steady influx of funds from clients as projects are typically billed on percentage basis.”

“Therefore you may have to fit in some blanks with internal funds in between projects or in between billing cycles to make sure all your staff and sub consultants are paid on time”Guelaff adds.

Staying true to one’s vision is something Udzenija holds truly important to the building up of brand identity and mission of a design firm.

“Something I have come across in our profession is the inability of the architect to walk away from a potential project if it is not in-line with his vision and aesthetics. I find it extremely important to work on projects and with clients that are aligned with your vision and taste. Forcing the client to go ahead with something he doesn’t feel comfortable with and vice-versa will never lead to a satisfactory result,” he explains.

One of the main factors that young designers with a creative background neglect is the importance of a sufficient business education. Although the creative side of the job is one that attracts clients and opportunities for new projects, business knowledge is the framework that keeps it all together.

“For any profession to be successful and earn you a living, the word ‘business’ cannot be neglected. It is crucial that you have a business plan firmly in your mind, have a clear goal and vision of how to get there, and keep your accounting and paper work in order. Prior employment experiece is crucial, where you learn the ins-and-outs of every stage of the design process and implementation.”

Guelaff agrees: “I can remember my days at NYSID in New York where in my Business Practice course professors would drill in your head how important it is to know how to run a business and that it is a quality as, or more, important than your design skills. They could not be more right. I truly love design but my work running the business itself is as, or more, important as keeping everything running smoothly,” Guelaff says.

Udzenija’s experience at design school was quite the opposite of what Guelaff describes. And he also stressed on the importance of providing a greater focus on the business side of the practice, which he feels is lacking in the education system.

“I find it extremely important to always try and learn to not be afraid to adress subjects you have limited knowledge in. I feel it is very important that design oriented schools and institutions bring more focus on this aspect of our profession. During my studies at university, for example, we had absolutely no subjects focusing on economics and the business side of architecture and I feel this is something that needs to change.”

Another big question arises when it comes to procedures and choosing between a local partner or opening an office in a free zone.

“It is good to consider teaming up with other entities who have prior business knowledge in the region,” suggests Fouad Mirza, managing director at Tawazen Interior Design, explaining that this would help those with lesser business knowledge and also become an advantage with local rules and customs.

When it comes down to the battle between a free zone versus a local patner, Mirza comments that “there are advantages in partnering up especially if they are also [interested in] the same business as you. Valuable advice is often given in terms of introducing new professional relationships and sustaining the business in the region.”

Guelaff also sees advantages in having a local sponsor. He says: “Having a local partner may also simplify acquiring an office as many areas in Dubai require you to have a local partner on your licence. Being that the company is new it may take some time to get your project run secured, therefore having a financial backer part of your investment strategy may be a key element when projects are not imminent and the expenses of the company take a toll on the start-up budget.”

Udzenija on the other hand says that he would only support working with a local sponsor “when the sponsorship is more of a business partnership where the architect brings the design expertise and experience and the sponsor can bring projects and financial backing. Otherwise I see very little use for young start-up business to seek options other than setting up an entity in a free zone where they have full control of their young developing business.”

There are a number of free zones to choose from in Dubai alone, such as DMCC, Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, Jumeirah Lake Towers, and now the recently launched Dubai Design District, where Udzenija is re-locating in January 2015.

“Other interesting free zones are located in Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah with facilties offered in Dubai. Sharjah is also currently looking into offering free zone licences to young, talented individuals and companies and they are currently looking to develop start-up facilities to support this new business growth in the country,” he adds.

Finally, and probably the most important aspect of starting a business is securing clients.

“If you do not have a true portfolio of completed projects to give your team credibility then start small,” says

“Speaking with established firms whom may pass on projects that are too small or some that do not fit their project run is a good starting point. Finding one client who has a great boutique project on their hands is key. You have to prove yourself with quality work and above all a pleased client which is your best advertisement.

Photograph your project with a top notch photographer that will really capture the essence of what you were trying to achieve. Contact local magazines and present them your work. If you are lucky to be published that will give you credibility,” he advises.

“Our business is not based on traffic in front of a shop front so you have to make sure that what you produce reaches your target audience by means of verbal recommendations and of course media, be it printed press or web-based portals. It is important to develop a company identity and present it the way you want your current and future clients to perceive it,” explains Udzenija.

Social media is also a great tool to widen your network,” Mirza adds. “It is virtually free and highly accessible. It is up to the business owner to exploit this and make full use of its advantages.”

When asked what advise he wishes he was given prior to starting his company, Udzenija says: “I think my main advice would be take your time with gaining crucial experience before heading out on your own. Work harder! No one will do the job for you and there will always be someone who works at least as hard as you.”

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