Businessing Magazine sat down with Mark Grisafe, the owner and head architect at Grisafe Architecture in Long Beach, California. Mark is not only a talented architect, but an astute businessman who is well respected in his community. We wanted to find out how Mark has managed to find success as a small business and how he sets his company apart in an industry that is often dominated by much larger players.
Tell Us About Your Experience and Your Company’s History
I went to college for architectural design at Cal Poly Pomona. While there, I gained extensive experience working for both commercial and residential architecture firms. I had the opportunity at one point to work in Paris on Euro Disney (now called Disneyland Paris) and for a company that designed tract homes. Another company I worked for did high-end commercial work, as well as some large municipal projects. I was able to gain a wide breadth of experience before going out on my own.
I launched my own company in 2005. I did residential design for several years, but then in 2009, the economy crashed and residential work all but dried up in Long Beach. I decided, in order for my company to survive, I needed to make the shift to commercial work. At that time, many businesses were downsizing, consolidating, or relocating due to the down economy. This meant that there was a lot of tenant improvement work out there. Before I knew it, I was busier than I ever could have imagined.
Since then, I have slowly grown my company in a sustainable way. We just moved into a larger office in Long Beach to serve our growing staff as well as our clients. Our company now does a mix of residential and commercial projects, and we consider ourselves a full-service architectural firm.
Who Is Your Ideal Client?
Just like any other small business owner in the service industry, I’m looking for clients who have a clear understanding that they need the help of a professional. They know what they don’t know and appreciate the value that a professional brings to the table. In the architecture industry specifically, that looks like a client who wants an architect to provide them with creative solutions that they can’t come up with on their own, and a company who will make the building or remodeling process simple, and maybe even enjoyable, for them.
We tend to struggle with clients who say things like, “I just need simple plans drawn up. It shouldn’t be too complicated.” When we hear statements like that from prospective clients, we know that they have no idea what actually goes into architectural design. Very few projects are simple—especially in California, where building regulations are quite extensive.
As a full-service architectural design firm, we don’t just draw up building plans. We handle everything from code research to managing the permitting process. We oversee outside professionals like engineers, landscape designers, and general contractors. We’re involved with the entire process until the project is complete. Our ideal client understands everything that is involved and is willing to pay for the type of “concierge” service we offer.
What Sets Your Long Beach Architecture Firm Apart from Others in the Area?
There are a lot of great architecture firms in Southern California, but many of them are large firms with dozens, or even hundreds, or architects on staff. Our small firm is set up to provide our clients with the expertise of a large firm, but with the service and client experience that typically only a small company can provide. We have a core team that works in our Long Beach office, but we also have an extensive network of experts that we can call on for more specialized work, which means we are able to complete the same types of projects that any large firm can. We aren’t afraid to take on complex projects. We actually love a unique challenge, like taking an existing commercial space and adding an indoor pool for a swim school or remodeling an historic home.
Another thing that sets us apart is that we are heavily involved in the Long Beach community. We do a good amount of pro bono work in the City with nonprofit organizations that are having an impact in the community. In addition, I serve on the Long Beach Cultural Heritage Commission, which oversees the City’s historic properties. Our firm is also very well respected in the Long Beach City Planning Department. In fact, when the City of Long Beach was getting ready to launch their new online plan submittal system, they called on our firm to help beta test it. Having a good relationship with the City Planning Department goes a long way in helping our clients’ projects get approved in a timely manner. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t doing us favors because we’re buddies. It’s more that they are familiar with the amount of work and research that goes into the plans we submit. They know they don’t have to “nitpick” them because our team already has!
What Advice Would You Give to a New Architect Who Is Just Starting Out in Business?
Stick to your guns! Don’t let your clients pressure you into doing things that are against code or that go around the system. And don’t undersell yourself. Charge what you’re worth, even if some people balk at the prices you give. Even now that I have a good reputation in the area and my firm is established, I have potential clients who think we charge too much. But there are many others who really understand the value we bring and are happy to pay my rates.
I would also encourage someone who is starting an architecture firm to develop a good network of industry professionals—experienced, ethical people who do what they say they will do. It can be tempting in the early days to hire cheaper, less experienced draftsmen or engineers, but it doesn’t pay off in the end. Be thorough in your own work as well. I’ve seen new architects create plans that are not detailed enough, which then leaves the general contractor on the job to “fill in the blanks.” This rarely goes well, and the client ends up disappointed because the project doesn’t turn out the way they had hoped. Don’t leave anything up to interpretation in your drawings.
Finally, I would say, provide great service to every client. This goes for any type of business. In the early days, you’ll make mistakes. Timelines will get drawn out longer than expected, plans will require more corrections than anticipated, or a great idea you had for a space will turn out to be impossible due to code restrictions. Your clients will be more likely to be gracious if you have provided them with otherwise amazing service along the way.
To learn more about Grisafe Architecture in Long Beach, visit their website: https://grisafearchitecture.com/