Rise of the Small Firm

Stories on starting something new

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When contemplating why small design firms proliferate, a variation of Sun Tzu’s quote comes to mind: “In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity.” We are reminded of this during times or recession or, as in 2020-21, pandemic, when more small firms spring up. Or is it a confluence of a vision, recognition of a need and passion?

Columns got the perspectives of the managing principals of three new small firms: Justin Parscale, AIA, of Parscale Group, Lindsey Mathias of Mathias Design, and Santos Catalan, AIA, of Studio Mas + Architect.

What happened that made starting your own firm a natural move? Why then?

Justin Parscale: Time. After 19 years of hard work, navigating my way to a regional leadership role at an international design firm, I peeked behind the corporate curtain and became disinterested in the future reward of being a leader of a corporate firm. Good aspects of corporate leadership included the opportunity to lead and mentor and advance a local office, but the inability to influence significant change in such a large corporate entity was frustrating. I had the realization that I had interest in creating culture and strategically assembling a design firm that will positively impact this city and its diverse communities while creating a work environment of hustle and entrepreneurship. I previously explored starting a firm more than a couple of times with friends, but it never came to fruition. You tend to know if a partnership is going to work after just a couple of conversations. However, with my current partners, Matthew Prigmore and Ryan Roettker, everything seemed to make sense. We call it a “partnership by design.”

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Lindsey Mathias: At the time it was a lot of what the market demanded. Residential design was booming and really still is. I’ve always loved both commercial and residential design so thought if I were ever going to go on my own and do it, that the opportunity was right-timed. I want to jump into residential first as my primary focus and slowly build commercial design back into my portfolio.

I have always considered working for myself. Things haven’t changed. I work very hard and maybe even more than before, but I can be more flexible with my time and am able to be there more for my family. It is a true blend of work and home. I do what I love too, so when I am always plugged in and working, most of the time I’m happy to do so.

Santos Catalan: Starting a firm was always a dream I had. I had the entrepreneurial bug in me and had been preparing all my life for it, taking on various job roles and responsibilities to make sure that I was exposed to all the areas of the profession. Ultimately, I was laid off when the pandemic started. Having planned to start a firm, I decided that it was time to make the jump and make it work. My dream was to start a firm focused in design.

Tomorrow is totally different than today. So I truly believe that any time could be the right time and perhaps the best time.

In an environment challenged by a pandemic, inflation, and global conflicts, what made starting a firm the right move?

JP: A culture of collaboration across the industry. Too often the industry operates as if it’s a zero-sum game. Our industry has become very specialized, we want to work on building close relationships and collaborate in a manner which benefits all, resulting in better outcomes for the entire delivery team – the user, the design team, the developer, the contractor, the trade partners, the environment, the city. For many, the pandemic allowed them time away from the daily grind to think. For me, the pandemic was the great inspiration and not the great resignation. Many who resigned from their jobs are not returning to their previous industries.

LM: I guess you never really know if the move was right or not, but I’m not looking back. I feel grateful for the courage to try and am committed. I know very well that nothing is certain;

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