In the second of a semi-regular interview series on people who love their jobs, I spoke with Kevin Rasmussen and Vivian Su, a husband and wife team running their own small architecture firm. They have worked to create a lifestyle that blends doing what they love, with caring for their two small children in a financially sustainable, professionally and personally fulfilling way.
To learn more about how they did it, I spoke to them from their home office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Q: To start off, tell me about your business.
Kevin: We focus on residential architecture â€“ single-family homes. Most of the projects are with families who want to do a renovation or addition, but we also work with a few developers who were former contractors weâ€™ve worked with in the past.
Vivian: We get the majority of our business from referrals, and now are getting some inquires from our Website. Thatâ€™s really the only marketing weâ€™ve done. Our clients generally know what weâ€™ve already done and know our aesthetic. As Kevin said, we get a lot of our business from the contractors weâ€™ve built strong relationships with.
Q: What drew you to architecture? Did you always want to be architects?
Kevin: I always wanted to be one, yes â€“ since abut sixth grade. It seemed like a natural fit for the things I liked to do: designing, drawing, building things. When youâ€™re young you donâ€™t know what the realities of what the job are, so you romanticize it a little bit. You know, I read The Fountainhead in high school and that was it. [Laughs]
I got an undergrad degree in architecture, and then worked for two years in a timber framing company before heading to grad school which is where I met Vivian.
Vivian: In high school I wanted to be an artist. Then I got to college and there were a variety of things I wanted to pursue, like Math…and then I got a D in Calculus. Then, Economicsâ€¦but I got a C in that. [Laughs] I thought about Medieval Studies, but there were maybe three students on campus doing that and they were way too
focused on the minutiae of it, where I was more of a generalist.
I had a conversation with my sister and she said, â€œWhy not Architecture?â€ At first I thought it was just building these mean, modern buildings, but she suggested historical preservation, more like the buildings I grew up around. So architecture combined my interests in art, history and architectural history.
Q: Why did you decide to start your own business?
Vivian: Everybody comes out of architecture school with the idea theyâ€™ll have their own studio, their own company. As we were graduating it was already in our minds. We moved to Philadelphia and both went to work at architecture firms. Kevin left his first â€“ he was unhappier than I was.
Q: Why was that?
Vivian: He has a problem with authority and doesnâ€™t like to be told what to do. [Laughs]
Kevin: I didnâ€™t want to work for “the man.” [Laughs] The opportunity to leave was based in knowing there would be ongoing work from a company with which I had already established a relationship. I also was doing some woodworking projects, custom furniture, so I had a backlog of those jobs.
I also knew it would be fairly easy to improve on the salary that I was getting at the time. There wasnâ€™t a lot of overhead to worry about, I was working at home, and our health insurance was covered by Vivianâ€™s work. It wasnâ€™t just for ego reasons, but it also made financial sense for me to leave.
Q: What was like in the beginning, starting out on your own?
Kevin: I didnâ€™t have a lot of work the first few years compared to what we have now, but still was doing fine. For just starting out, I still had full days of work. We started out conservatively, and had five to six active projects that were slow-moving. Now we have 15-16 projects that are all busy and require our time.
Q: So when did Vivian join you?
Kevin: Two years after I started, Viv left and started working here part-time, ramping up slowly. Weâ€™ve had two daughters since then so Vivian was doing part-time work, and taking care of the kids part-time.
Vivian: Weâ€™ve been working together three years and Iâ€™m just now working full-time. The girls are in pre-school or with a babysitter while we work upstairs in our home office.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about running your own business.
Vivian: We are very modest about the business. We did not go into it wanting all the trappings of having an office, a full staff of people. We work from the house, started with one computer, and just did enough to incorporate and get insurance that we legally had to do. We keep the overhead low and want to grow organically. Even after five years, we still have very little overhead. Our big purchases are maybe like a new computer monitor each year.
Kevin: A big part of working for ourselves has to do with our lifestyle. We want to be available for the kids all the time.
Vivian: Weâ€™re also much better off financially than if we were working in firms. Initially I thought Iâ€™d go back to the firm after I had my first baby, but then we decided it was better for me to stay home and work with Kevin.
Kevin: The two main costs were childcare and health insurance. Thatâ€™s a really expensive cost we had to figure into it. With childcare, for every hour that Vivian worked, we could pay almost a full day of babysitting as long as we had the work. Even with the costs of self-employment, it was an easy decision.
Vivian: Itâ€™s a â€œchicken and the eggâ€ thing with going out on your own. If you donâ€™t go out on your own, you wonâ€™t get the jobs to sustain you. You wonâ€™t get the jobs unless you commit to leaving and working for yourself. We knew the work was out there if we just committed to it.
Q: So tell me why you love your job.
Vivian: This isnâ€™t the norm for most relationships, but we really get along and can work together well. The combination of being able to work with my husband, and the lifestyle it allows us is why I love it. The flexibility in terms of our time is great.
We were able to ramp up so organically, I didnâ€™t feel rushed or feel forced to work enough hours. We could customize how much I worked, how much I was with the kids. Compared to a lot of parents, we have it much easier in terms of managing the typical work/life issues.
Q: Tell me more about being both business partners and husband and wife.
Vivian: We understand the pressures each other deals with. I know everything that is going on with Kevinâ€™s day, and vice versa. Although, it doesnâ€™t give us much to talk about when we go out on a date. [Laughs]
Kevin: Before when I was working at the firm, I used to come home with a whole host of issues to talk about, or some days I didnâ€™t want to talk about any of it, and it was the same for Viv. It was a little bit of a disconnect for us.
Vivian: In some marriages, people need to have time away from one another and be by themselves. We are the opposite â€“ the farther away from each other, the more disconnected we feel. Last week we were being impatient with each other, so we knew we needed to go out on a date, just the two of us. If there is tension, we solve it by re-syncing up with each other.
Q: Does it get hard balancing the work and home life?
Vivian: Itâ€™s a fine, fine line between the business and the personal. Itâ€™s the line between the 2nd floor and the 3rd floor. [Laughs] It can be frustrating when weâ€™re trying to conduct business and the girls are running around downstairs, but for the most part it works.
Our clients are such that they like that about us as their architects â€“ they see us as people who understand their lives. Clients often look for architects that are like themselves. One client said, â€œWe want to hire you because you understand us. Youâ€™re a young couple, have two kids, youâ€™re just like us.â€ They love seeing the girls when they visit our home office, they relate to us.
Kevin: Where we havenâ€™t gotten jobs, itâ€™s maybe because somebody is not looking for that. They want a larger firm with big offices and a staff, and we donâ€™t mind not getting those jobs. We like working with people who are down to earth. Weâ€™ve been lucky â€“ weâ€™ve had really great clients in the last five years. Itâ€™s a big part of our presentation â€“ who we are.
Q: So what is your advice for others seeking their dream job and/or who are thinking about working for themselves?
Vivian: It has to be something you are passionate about. I normally have a short attention span, so I know itâ€™s a good fit for me when I can sit and think about something for a long time.
Kevin: What we do is so tied into doing it on our own. I couldnâ€™t be happy doing architecture for somebody else at this point.
Vivian: Going out on your own is not for everyone. Not everybody has the skill set to do that. There is a lot of responsibility, especially if you have employees. Thatâ€™s one line we donâ€™t want to cross right now. Being realistic with yourself is critical.
Kevin: We would take the same organic growth approach to hiring other people. We will do it at some point, and at some point weâ€™ll have an office outside of the home. Itâ€™s all tied into the age of the kids. Part of the joy of our lifestyle is being close to the girls. When they start going to school all day, we may consider having an office outside of the house. But doing that before we need to would ruin it in some way.
Q: So, whatâ€™s next for you?
Vivian: After five years, weâ€™re now thinking about where weâ€™re trying to go for the next five years. If weâ€™re not conscious of our goals, we could burn out and get tired of the work weâ€™re doing so we are in the process of evaluating whatâ€™s next.
Kevin: We are talking about focusing on fewer, larger projects and perhaps taking on a few â€œself-propelledâ€ projects.
Vivian: Itâ€™s a great job, but not perfect.
Kevin: Right. Lately weâ€™re starting to compete with more established firms. Before, we didnâ€™t have much competition because the jobs were smaller, but now we are competing for better projects so itâ€™s both good and bad [Laughs].
Thanks so much to Kevin & Vivian for talking to us. Questions? Comments? Post them below.