Looking Forward to Monday Morning
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
The Small Firm Challenge
by Daniel Frisch
Posted September 22nd, 2019

This fiftieth installment of my writings (by the number) is close to a mission statement, or maybe better, a mission justification.

One of the most influential books on my shelf is The Small Mart Revolution – How Local Businesses are Beating Global Competition by Michael H. Schuman (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2nd edition; August 12, 2007).  The concepts set forth by Mr. Schuman are not new, but in addition to his insightful socio-economic observations, he uses data to specifically encourage investment in our local communities by mathematically affirming the economic return to the community achieved by shopping local. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Main Street has been under continuous siege, and the first decades of the twenty-first have seen this threat become even more acute.  A flight to the suburbs brought us the shopping mall, which in turn, fell from favor with the development of the big-box store.  Whether we assess the impact of urban decay or the decline of the small town (see Ben Sasse; Them – Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal), our social structures are constantly being re-defined.  The suburban mall, Wal-Mart and Amazon have, without a doubt, streamlined and aided commerce, adding value by bringing goods to market with ever-greater efficiency.  The challenge as I see it, is to adopt and adapt to each new paradigm, while fiercely fighting for the ongoing success of small businesses and the local community.

For years, advocates for Main Street have argued vocally and passionately for shopping locally and for supporting small businesses.  Even American Express is in on it, with its Small Business Saturday and Shop Small programs, ironic though this may be for one of the thirty Dow Jones Industrial companies.  We try to do our part, even with admittedly frequent Amazon deliveries, and we encourage friends and family do the same.  Our awareness and small contributions add up, I hope.  We shop locally, and we invest in solar, and religiously recycle and compost.  While we are not full-blown hippies, we do endeavor to manage our environmental and economic resources in a manner that is net-positive.

Digging a bit deeper, I realize these values comprise the core of our practice, and help to answer the question “why?”  Why have we chosen the path of establishing a small and growing practice focusing on individual residential commissions?  And, why does it matter – so much so, that we have become belligerently evangelical about the practice and its importance?  Our schooling taught us to dream big, to rethink how people live, and how people relate to one another – spatially, environmentally, socially, and globally.  As graduates, we alit upon the world with our diplomas, trained to be big-thinking leaders solving the world’s largest problems. Yet, I opted instead to maintain a low profile, running a small firm with a non-exploitive culture, and with a core mission of client service. When I think of the businesses I admire, they are invariably closely held local businesses with long-term loyal employees.  These are the stores in which I shop, and the restaurants in which I eat.  It’s true, too, of the consultants with whom we work.  Our engineers, expeditors, accountants, lawyers, and most especially, our contracting partners are all small businesses we consider extensions of our family.

Unto itself, our office culture explains and ensures the vitality of the firm, and validates its significance.  Of equal motivation is our commitment to old-fashioned client service and making a difference.  While DFA is not the largest, most profitable, or best-known architectural firm, I believe we are first when it comes to client satisfaction and with respect to the positive impact we have upon the lives of our clients.  As embarrassing as it may feel, I’ve been told by any number of clients how affirmatively transformative our work has been upon their daily lives.

Making a difference matters, even more than profitability.  Years after we finish a project, we are thrilled when we hear from former clients, whether they are experiencing problems for which we can lend a hand, or because they are contemplating a new project.  Our clients have become our friends and our friends have become our clients.  This may be confusing to some, as many are trained to separate ‘business’ from ‘friendship,’ but I am convinced that that blurring the distinction is the foundation of community, and a fair explanation of why we do what we do.


Is this a big deal?  Yes, it is everything.