How to remain resilient in a competitive market

Strategies and tips for architecture and design firms
Friday, October 1, 2021
by Cheryl Mah

Building and maintaining a resilient architecture or design practice and staying competitive is more important than ever today.

Johanna Hoffman, CEO of Oomph Group, shared tips and advice on how firms can maximize their potential for work during an online Buildex Vancouver session. She explained that disruption is now advancing in the AEC sector due to a number of drivers such as the need for better risk management, cost controls and sustainability. Changes through digital tools (BIM, AI), new materials, modular construction methods, different contracting models will make competition more intense.

“With all of this change, competition is going to be much bigger and stronger than before. You really need to sit down and think about where you will move your firm to next and take a strategic approach,” said Hoffmann, stressing this applies to firms big and small. “Sole practitioners and small firms are very competitive.”

She advised that the best way to ensure a resilient practice is to be proactive and have a plan for telling the firm’s story, targeting clients, promotion and selling services.

When it comes to telling a story or branding, she said most design firms have similar descriptions and that is confusing to prospective clients.

“Everybody has similar descriptions of their work, approach to design and nearly identical lists of services and sectors,” said Hoffmann. “In fact, you could take a copy from most design firms, apply it to another, and it still fits.”

To present a unique brand, firms need to tell their story in a way that sets them apart from their competitors and appeals emotionally to the client’s needs. Understanding the needs of clients requires market research but most people skip that step, said Hoffman, and it is the difference between failure and success.

She cited Farrow as an architectural firm that was able to put together a unique messaging about creating spaces that promote wellness and healing, describing their work as “architectural super vitamins.” This “sets them apart from other firms in the healthcare sector,” she said. “If I were a neurosurgeon, I would understand that they are unique and these are the people that should be hired.”

Another way to stand out is to offer a wide range of services. The trend to offer a turnkey service is convenient and particularly useful for small firms with first time buyer clients.

How do design firms get work? Firms have to know their target markets and let clients know they are ready to be hired, she said.

Hoffmann also stressed optimizing websites for search engines is key and knowing which social media platforms to connect with. Private clients are active on Facebook and Instagram while B2B customers tend to use LinkedIn or Twitter.

“Get your profile set up, learn how to use them and interact,” she said, noting that she is surprised at how the “design community is not really using LinkedIn that much.”

Remaining competitive and resilient means keeping up with all the trends and changes. Hoffmann said COVID has accelerated and magnified everything. For example, interior designers are facing increased competition from architecture and engineering firms as everyone tries to find new work.

Finding work is about following the money. “P3s are standard now in many areas. P3 projects came to be because taxpayers were tired of paying for huge contracts that were always late…. and more expensive,” she said, noting more projects are being delivered as P3 including little projects bundled into one big P3 contract.

Hoffmann said her big advice is not to “put all your eggs in one basket.” She suggested always having three areas of focus and making sure one of them is in an essential market which has lots of funding.

“This will help protect you,” she said. “I have gone through three massive downturns and different boutique firms have been left out of business.”

She noted the hospitality and retail sector was hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was unfortunate.

“I always say you want a stool that has three legs and if one leg breaks off, the other is bent, it’s still standing,” she said. “But if your stool has one leg, it breaks off, you’re gone.”

Finally, Hoffmann stressed it is important for firms to form strategic alliances with companies and partners that can help source new projects or enhance their ability to go after work.


Cheryl Mah is managing editor of Design Quarterly

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