How to Create a Profitable Market Niche While Always Putting Your Clients First
I am so honored to hang out with somebody that is just got an amazing mind and amazing design flair. And we're going to unpack that today. Wade Weissman from Wade Weisman architecture. How are you today?
I'm great, Dave. Thank you.
I've been following your stuff for years, and probably I'm a secret stalker, or you probably don't even know that, but I just enjoy your designs. I just was on your LinkedIn profile and found a picture, and I'm like, Oh my gosh, that picture of an exterior with a bunch of wood and stone. And it was just fantastic. So, thank you for spending some time with us. I want to kind of learn more about some of the things on your side.
So, how did you first come and get involved with the residential design aspect of your business?
It's interesting. I always kind of had an interest in residential design, and I used to live on the East side of Milwaukee going to architecture school and, there's all these amazing homes everywhere, old historic homes. And I remember, walking in the middle of winter, to a house party or something and all the lights was on the inside. And you'd look inside, and you'd see these extraordinary rooms paneling and these beautiful plaster ceilings. And just this level of craftsmanship. And I was kind of in awe of that. My first architectural job was working for a firm, and they were doing a historic renovation of an old house. By default, I ended up needing to go there every week and meet with the contractor and the subcontractors to understand how things were moving along.
And so, we were working for this client, she had this great old house, but it had fallen into disrepair. And during that summer, as I was going through a meeting with the contractor on-site, I fell in love. I never thought that would be my pursuit because I was very interested in big context and big projects and big vision. But when I got a chance to really get my hands on this, the tranquility of the job sites, as opposed to the great big construction projects, there was something very beautiful and timeless about it. And it's kind of captured my imagination. I mean, literally, building a practice that sort of works within that sort of custom residential niche allows me to work on extraordinary properties, really interesting old, significant historic homes, wonderful craftspeople and, signature properties. And I thought pulling up to someone's dream house property every day, no matter what time of year it is has always been kind of a thrill for me because you feel privileged.
When you were going down that path originally when you jumped in, were you thinking more commercial, or were you just liking architecture in general, and then you kind of stumbled on the residential? Is that how you would depict that?
I would, yeah. I think, in my mind, there was always a separation between the two because residential architecture was never really taught. No coursework specifically went into that. And so, it's kind of been this little sort of like subculture in the architecture, sort of a range of residential architects and can have, certain promotional sort of awards and recognitions and things.
But the AIA is focus really is on the large sort of practice that handles government buildings and institutional buildings and large urban buildings. You don't really get exposed to residential architecture in the classroom. But when I worked for firms of all different sizes, they will have commissions that will come up, which might be a residence you're in there. And that's really what had happened to me. I was working for a mostly commercial firm. They did hospitals and libraries and educational buildings, et cetera. And so, when we got this commission for this historic house, it really was kind of an odd project in the office. But for me, as a student, I was very interested in it.
I really kind of fell in love with the whole idea of that, but I never thought it would be a career path. I had a cousin that was an interior designer in Milwaukee, and he went off on his own, and he was working on some amazing projects. And so, I would come back on a break, and he would say, "Hey, do you want to come to see this house that I'm working on?" And so, I would go with them, and I would see what was happening and what the drawing process was. And then one day he said, "there really isn't any firm in Milwaukee that specializes in residential design." He's like, "I think Milwaukee needs that really bad. "And, when I got out of graduate school, I thought, could this really be a career choice? And as soon as I started designing the house, I started getting referrals for the next one. And the next one, the next one literally just grew from that.
Well, and I want to circle back to something you said, because there's a lot of people that listen, they might have a passion, but they're not pursuing that passion. They're in a job, and they're just in the back of their mind, there's something gnawing at them. And I think about so many people just wake up and do their job and, and I'm like, lift your head because like you're walking to school and something kind of hits you. It wasn't like you went looking for it. And I liked that about entrepreneurs because hopefully, we have our head up. We're always looking for opportunities rather than just looking down at what exactly we have to do right then.
And if you wouldn't have looked up, you might've missed this whole empire that you're working on a building because you were too busy looking down. So, I'm glad you were looking to up and, at least, that hit you somehow, shape or form.
When I was involved in the residential construction industry in the late eighties, there wasn't a firm focusing purely on residential construction. There were these large commercial architecture firms. It was like an "oh, by the way, would you draw this house for me at all?" And it was like, "all right." And it was just kind of more of a plan to help a client. Or if somebody's building a big building and they wanted their house built, it was like, all right, I guess, but you really kind of carved out that niche and again, have done a fantastic job at it.
So, I appreciate that. How did you transition from, because this is what most people struggle with? This is where a lot of people, they kind of stop, have this vision, and what you love to do. How did you convert that into, rather than just go work for another firm? How did you decide to start with Weizmann architecture? Do you remember that transition?
Yeah, absolutely. So, it really just came out of being young and somewhat foolhardy, not really thinking about like, how difficult it would be. It really came organically. It was somebody that I cared about that I loved who said, I'm struggling with where to put this addition or how to fix this house or whatever. And then saying, "well, what do you think?" And I would say, "Oh, well, what about this? What about that?" And all of a sudden, they'd say all that. I love that. Can you draw me a sketch of what you're thinking about? And I have always had this ability to sketch. All of a sudden, I would just sort of sketch some solutions, and none of this was transactional. There was no, and there was no proposal.
It was just kind of, what do you think this is? What would it look like, or what would be successful here? And all of a sudden, a sketch leads to a discussion, and the discussion leads to excitement. And then, the excitement is motivation to try to create a transaction. And so, I never really thought of it in terms of, like I'm going to form a business model. The business model kind of came on of the dialogue and the opportunities that were just coming up. We still do those favors all the time, but we do them a little bit more intentionally. So, we look at properties with people, and they might be looking at four or five properties, and maybe we'll help them establish a piece of property or reviewing for maybe what their dreams might be down the road. And I'll do that for anybody. I always tell people; we don't need to get paid for this right now. It's like the ideas, and you feel like I'm the best person for it, then let's come up with an equitable transaction.
That's brilliant because you build that trust with those people.
I don't think a good relationship is ever built on "I want your business." I think a good business relationship is, "you'd be fun to work with. This would be a really fun project to work with." And then the transaction, it comes in a mutual respect. Look, this person is going to put their best effort into it. I want to make sure that they're compensated adequately, and then you have a really good basis. But like, it seems like when somebody is just shopping you out, it's very difficult.
I know what I need for my business to survive. I know what I have for payroll and benefits and overhead, and everything else. Like I know that part of it. And so, I know how to establish the increment and the dollar amount for the service. I never liked it if someone is just trying to sell me on something, and I don't have the ability or the insight to know if it's a good match. We get plenty of work over the internet, but I always tell people the same thing. Please interview more people because I want to make sure that this is a very personal and a fairly long-term relationship. If I'm designing you a residence, we're likely going to be talking and connected for three years or more. You got to like the person, you got to respect, but you got to trust. And it's a two-way street. I mean, you got to interview your client a little bit too, but for me, those are more important than, I can come in with a commodities price and beat out my competition. There's so much more to designing a custom residence than that. It's not one size fits all.
You brought up a great point again, which is interesting because you transitioned into talking about payroll and benefits. People are coming to you and saying, Hey, I think you should do this. How long before you like, got the business sense? I remember I had lunch with one of the adjunct professors at UWM in the school of architecture. And he said, I went into school; it was six years. And he said I remember two business courses out of six years. He's like, I would love to start my firm, but I have no clue how. Whether it's in architecture or whatever industry that the listeners are in today, I think that that's in the back of people's minds, and some people are built for it, and some aren't. And so, for the people that are built for it, how did you transition from that?
Well, for me, there were a couple of key events. So, I started this business really, as a single proprietor, helping people with I just call it the porch of the month. And so, I would help somebody with their front porch or with a failing part of the building, a garage, which is very small scale, very handleable by one person. You do the details, you learn, if it's got a review process, you go through that. And, you're essentially sizing your business for what your needs are at the moment, right? It wasn't until, all of a sudden, I started getting more work, and each time you get a little bit maybe sophisticated. So well, wow. Now I'm going from additions and porches to a small-scale home, a garage building, or a freestanding building. And then it goes to a larger home. And all of a sudden, it gets to a bigger home or in a state with outbuildings, and now there's relationships, buildings, site plans, and stuff.
So, what happens is, is as your reputation begins to grow, and you get to have a bigger portfolio, a more sophisticated portfolio that incrementally people start giving you bigger opportunities. When those opportunities come, you're forced to have to make decisions on infrastructure and insurance carriers. And all the other things that go into creating a business that's suitable for the sophistication of the client and the project. And so, these things for me were more organic, and they just kind of came about as being evolutionary.
But by then, you're starting to have some internal infrastructure. I've got some employees now. I got an accountant, my bookkeeper, I have other people now to start doing some reconnaissance, like can you talk to a couple of insurance carriers. And let's see what Eno insurance is going to, and how could we add onto it? Sometimes you have a client that you'd get a bigger commission and then come back to this, I'm sorry. I need you to carry $2 million big bump time that that happens. Then you also have to go to your banker and say, I think I need a bigger line of credit. I need to hire somebody. I got to acquire some equipment. I need some infrastructure; it is more expensive. I got software to purchase. Whatever those things are. They're very incremental with the opportunities that are coming into the business. What's interesting is people can look, and they look way down the road and think, Oh my God, that's so daunting. But if it really only looked at the realm that they need at the moment based on commission, that's in their trust, they'd be able to start incrementally growing and then you have more resources internally to utilize.
Wow. Well, and I think a field of dreams, the movie where if you build it, they will come. I've run into both sides of the business perspective. But to your point, Wade, if you build it first, and that's daunting because it's like, oh my gosh, now I have to fill the stands. Or now I have to fill the number of man-hours. I mean, you guys probably focus a lot on man-hours and things like that. Whatever the listener is actually focusing on, it would be hard to have that mentality, rent a building, build a team and, get it all designed, get everything ready, and now let's find some customers. That's hard, and you did it the opposite way, which I think is more successful for most people. So, I'm curious on your end: do you think you built it as you were going, does that feel more like what you would define as for yourself?
One of the most important things is to understand where your business model fits within the sort of industry you're serving. So, I'm serving the home building industry. What I see my role professionally is to interpret what builders, engineers, municipalities need from our services and understand what their objectives are. Their motivation is to do this project, undertake a project, and then guide and bridge the two of those things. And so, what we really are is we're not just visionaries., we're not just sketch artists. We are essentially utilizing a different form of communication that allows us to bridge a client's desire for, a resonance, and all of the parties that need to understand what it is that we're essentially focusing on.
What's our common goal. To me, the true essence of what it is that our real value is in the marketplace. Our real value in the marketplace, it's not just a drafting service. Our value is being able to understand the need, package it into something that's beautiful, that's buildable, and then be able to provide a roadmap and assurances that this vision can be carried out and have the durability that it's necessary for its setting, right? You can then layer on all the other stuff onto it, craft, search, vision, historical references, any of those kinds of things, that's all layers on. And so, I think breaking what it is that we do down into understanding our industry, the people that essentially are relying on those services and where the source of that vision comes from, which is the client, right? The source of money and the source of vision is actually coming from the client's wish to do this. Essentially, that's just it. If we're that conduit, how do we utilize our skills in that conduit, make it even better, strengthen our position, and ensure a sort of longevity of a business model?
So, I'm thinking about you sitting with somebody, and you are taking a blank piece of paper and getting the information out of their brain, your brain, and then from your brain onto that piece of paper. You know everything about architecture because you've been doing it forever. But for me, that doesn't know it or a client that hasn't gone through this before they find you, they fall in love with what you're doing. They jump onto your vision, and they're like, Hey, wait, can you help me draw this house or draw this house for me? I mean, probably better what it looks like from the beginning than they do. How do you draw that out? Because that's an art in itself is trying to really like you said, the source of the vision is the client. How do you draw that out from them?
What's great is technology has given us lots of ways to do that now better. It used to be that people would come in with this Manila folder full of like ripped out magazine images. They see things that spawned something in their mind, and then they're very compelled to sit down and look at each picture and say, I don't know why I picked that. I think it was because of the railing. I liked that railing. I really liked this trim in that window seat. But now they can do it on Pinterest or Houzz or some of these other electronic vehicles. And so, they'll come to you with those kinds of things. These are inspiring to me, and then it's our job to somewhat sift through it and understand some of its parameters.
We do a pretty extensive questionnaire for our clients to answer. We talk about target bullets. We talk about how they like to live inside, outside other special needs, are they looking, what's the duration that they want this house to be in under their guidance or responsibility or if it's going to become multigenerational. And then what that does for us is it helps us to sort of almost flow chart into different criteria questions that we would want to ask. This is a multigenerational home, are you then looking for more durable materials? Are we considering, slate and copper and stone or masonry, are we thinking about long-term heritage windows? What are we really looking at? Because now I can help establish to you what I think a cost per square foot is going to be.
And we can start discussing where your comfort level is in this investment. And so those become instruments of being able to graphically represent some of these things in maybe diagramming possible sort of possible framework for solutions. So, like for instance, if a client gives me a program and it says, I want five bedrooms on suite. I'd love to have a little gathering place for study materials and have a playroom for the kids. And I need to study, and I need a workout room and the gym, and we can start to break down these things. We can start to stack them vertically. We can start to essentially assemble them on a diagrammatic site plan so that we know from the orientation of the sun and towards the view, or serenity on a site or a Hilltop or something. We have the tools then to be able to start looking at how we want different spaces in this residence to relate to its landscape.
And so, you start to take care of the bigger issues. And then from there, you really start to sort of apply what I would consider would be the massing. And then, the ability to start working out the floor plans on the upper level where the roof is affected because the roof and the form of the house really set the pace for the design, the vision, those kinds of things. You are kind of jumping around a little bit because you need to take a look at multiple things at one time. And as you're doing that, then other questions about the floor plan might get answered. Other questions about the site plan might get answered. Other questions about site circulation might get answered. And so, when you start to sort of jump around these things, all of a sudden, this image begins to emerge and therein lies what you consider being the sort of better solution for this problem.
And, you start to have a dialogue of how this is beginning to form with your client, gets them really involved in the process because it's not technical drawings yet. It's still very much of a wet piece of clay. And so, they're there. They're never looking at it like, Oh, it's too precious to change. That can alienate a client just as much as showing something that they don't like. So, to me, I don't care if they don't like it. I want you to tell me you don't like it; you're not hurting my feelings at the end of the day. I think, for me, you don't take anything personally, but you want to make sure that their input is the real truth. Then you want to make sure that they feel comfortable being able to share those.
I got to believe that you are building trust early on with them because there's got to be that trust for your clients. They put that trust in you to be able to make those decisions for them. Because most of the people you're working with probably can't make the decision purely on their own. They do need your guidance. Is that true? Or do you find a lot of people are making a lot of those decisions themselves?
It'sOne of those things that I try to like to work through in the interviewing process is that you start to look for some key things that say, this is a client that I think I can work with. And one of them is, I'm not coming in with any preconceived notions. I can tell you what I like and what I don't like, but I'm coming to you because of your expertise. And if there's a mutual respect in that sort of dialogue, right from the get-go, you feel like this is not going to be an uphill battle. Know there are individuals that, that I've worked with before that come in and they have a very definite idea of what they want, but they also seem to have a debris pile of people that they had started going down there but ended up not working out. And those are sometimes red flags for me because the common thread in those relationships between that client and all of those in the debris pile is the clients.
I've always been curious, correct me if I'm wrong, the vast majority of projects that I've worked with you guys on have a style. And so, when somebody wants to come in with a different style, let's say you're focused more on a traditional and somebody comes in, and they want an ultra-modern type of home. What do you do in that situation? Are you all things to all people, or do you just kind of have your group or your design, and that's how you're going to kind of focus?
A lot of clients they're going to look to see if your body of work is embracing the things that they're looking for. I don't know if I really get a phone call from somebody saying, I really love Calatrava design, but I think you're the best I'm going to get to. So, can you do something like that? And that, I probably would say to them, maybe it's best if I lead you to who I think might be a better architect.
I would rather go to like an architect better or somebody like that and say, Hey, I think I've got a client. That's probably more geared to you because I want them to get the right service. But I also want them to feel the thrill of that match. Because I know that a lot of my clients get that thrill from the match that you have. And you want everybody to have that. I mean, God, if you're going to spend a lot of money on a house, you should have that experiment. It should be amazing. It actually, the wilderness being that so many people think it's miserable.
Yeah. I mean, and that's sad, I mean, for 17 years I was on the local arbitration board for the builder's association. And it was sad to see how many people were disgruntled, and they no longer were number one in the equation. Read book People Over Profit because whether it's your interior team, your interior customer, or your exterior customer, if you treat people right, profit just happens. I mean, it just does. It's proven. But we often, reverse that and profits first, and then people can be anywhere after first, really doesn't matter. So, I love that piece that you're able to separate that.
It's awesome that at the end of the day, it's people first and, the client is dictating this whole thing. That's got to be such a hard transition because many firms in the seventies and eighties just crank out the drawings. Just get it out. Be as complete as possible, but do it in a few hours as possible. So, are you like the rest of your team? Is it hard for them to adapt to your habits of faith? Or do you hire looking for that as a kind of a prerequisite for people to be, valuing other people's?
Well, I think like any firm, you build office culture, right? And then, people are advancing and becoming sort of senior level in the management of the business and that of the individuals and the projects. The message is somewhat sustained through the sort of senior ranks of the firm. We're also trying to create ultimately a very durable good. And the oversight of it should be well-appointed. So, you're not only the couture appointments, but it's also going to be the technical requirements. That essentially, really needs to be thoroughly resolved so that the investment that's made in all the pretty finishes isn't compromised by a leaky roof or sort of a rain shield system.
We really want to make sure that it is durable and that it's built well. It's not only shows a lot of craftsmanship, but it's also technically solid. And so, you start to build rapport with engineers and civil engineers and other people that are going to be necessary and making sure assuring that this is being built properly. We do a lot of work in Southern California. They have waterproofing specialists that are another consultant that comes into the project for us. We want to make sure that those areas are covered. We want to be able to give the client the good, better, best options. As the industry continues to advance all the time and new products come on online all the time. And so you want to make sure that you're resourceful enough to share that with the client at the end, you want to make sure that the client can say, is that essential using no it's not essential, or yes, it is essential.
And I'd like to be a part of those decisions, because no matter what component goes into a house or onto a house, we want to make sure that it's resolved in a way that number one, it's not shortsighted of something else, but we also want to make sure that nothing looks odd. We're essentially trying to make sure that we're their designed insurance policy. My staff understands that because in executing all those little details and the way you communicate how those things are and the constructability and the durability, I'm hopefully teaching a lot of young designers some timeless ways of detailing a resonance that will have longevity and the clients years and years of service without a lot of oversight or maintenance. Technology has made our lives so much more complex than we can do so many things. I know people that have multiple homes all over the place. And so, they're looking for continuity rather than each one being separate. When they come in, they want to hit the remote on the TV. They want to kind of be the same as in all their other residents.
Have you guys moved into the 3d type stuff? Is that pretty prevalent now for you?
It is. And there are advantages to both, right? I mean, since I was educated in the days before computers were, sort of mainstays of our industry, everything was done by hand. All of these great architecture firms and all these great buildings that you see everywhere in our urban location were all done with drawings done by hand. I mean, the nation's capital, all the bridges. I mean, all that stuff was all done by hand. And what's interesting is although they were designing a thing and it was to a scale, it's still a graphic representation. It may look exact, but it's really just an abstract way of being able to communicate. When we with 3D and modeling and you're building this in an electronic space.
So, you can actually look at everything as an object, right? So, you draw it up, but essentially, you're drawing the object in space. Once it's in that space, you can really look at every little in detail, blow it up, examine it, and see where things come together, the joinery. So, there's more insight from our perspective. The problem is that you continue to utilize that because you can draw this thing down to the nail, right? You have to know when you're representing it enough because otherwise, you can burn enormous hours in the minutiae that this tool will allow you to get into. And I don't necessarily think that that really serves the client well because I think it's exhaustive for hours and we charge for our time. And I don't think that it streamlines it.
I think some lessons can still be learned from examining old drawings and the abstract representation that we are essentially trying to do. And I know some people that are awesome at being able to draw. They say, here's a piece of trim, but it's just a rectangle, there's no detail to it. And he's showing where the trim goes relative to other things. Great. That's a very simplified abstract representation. Now, if you were to draw that up pictorially, and just because it would allow you to, that can cause an enormous amount of extra time going into things. And that's one of those things that experience and creating some quickness and some, and some deadlines will allow you to hopefully do the essential things.
It's interesting because, from the personality side, I do a ton of work with the DISC personality assessment. And if you think of four different personalities, there is a personality that, like me, I'm direct, I'm results-oriented. If I came to you and wanted a house drawn in a project, and I really wanted you to do all the awesome stuff you do in my mind, wait, I'd be like, Hey, just get it done. Right. I'd want to see an elevation. And I'd be just like, Oh, that's awesome. Let's do it. If you open CAD or whatever you're using, and you started showing me the trust drawings, my eyes would glaze. The experience would change dramatically. It would turn into a negative.
Now there's also the engineer type personality that wants to know the tensile strength of those two by fours. They want to know the connections, and they want to understand that. So, there are both sides to that. I'm just curious as we start to come in for a landing on this, how do you know when to pull that out and when not to?
Well, I think it's knowing who your receiver is and what kind of behavioral style they sort of favor is. So, if you have someone who's technically oriented, clearly the conversation makes them feel more secure knowing that you're attending to the things that are important to them. If somebody is more aesthetically driven, feeling driven, you're going to want to speak to that. You're going to want to be able to say, Oh, when your whole family comes over eight times a summer to hang out around your pool, we're going to make it easy for you to be able to fill coolers. They're there more in sync with that. So, it is really important to understand who your receiver is because there are ways you can modify your conversation to build trust. You can build trust with them when you understand the things that are important to them, it's a secret thing. It's a really important thing.
So, what's way tip of the week, what would that be?
Well, I'm going to orient it towards this sort of immediate environment that we're working in right now. We're obviously facing a worldwide pandemic. And some business industries have strengthened and move forward. I happen to be a part of one of those industries right now, which is really blessed. Still, we got so caught up in how our business is going to respond to our clients and this pandemic sort of arena that we're working in and set everybody up and work outside the office and things. The one thing that I would say is, make sure that you also go back and touch base with all the individuals in your company so that they don't feel alienated because physically now we're apart, we're working apart. We feel like we hit a home run with that because we had the software and the planning. We missed out because we ended up having an individual that we liked very much who ended up giving notice because they felt as if they weren't getting the individual sort of need. So, you learn a lesson the hard way sometimes, but the one thing I would say is make sure you're looking and making sure that your flock is okay, not just your infrastructure.
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