The Online Architect's Practice: An Operative Profit Model


Online Architectural Services are becoming increasingly profitable for many architects around the world. With the global downswing hitting home in recent years both architect and client have had to tighten their belts; considerably in many cases. The time for economy on both sides is here. As architects face an ever increasing absence of paying clients so does the ability of those clients to pay high end fees decrease. The market calls for design excellence at a lower price... One can see times like these as a "survive or die" cycle or one can look at it as a "survive and thrive" period.

Let's go with a thrive option; OAS - Online Architectural Services is a simple Web system which connects client and architect in a dynamic, economic and productive manner. The idea of digital delivery in architecture is some fifty years old but it was not until quite recently that the exercise became both practical and profitable for anyone, anywhere on the planet.

The wonders of technology and the endless possibilities and probabilities of the Web and the now distant Convergence events which brought us to this outstanding point of connectivity are not the subjects of this article. Rather the focus is on the practical aspects of setting up an architectural practice online in a few very easy and quick steps. (The Pronto Practice?)

Firstly the basics : architects "trade" in only one commodity; INFORMATION.

Architects are solution providers. The solutions language is information. Nothing else. Architects don't touch people, they don't repair stuff, they don't hammer nails or lay bricks; architects extract information "out of thin air" and pass it on to others for actioning. They create information out of (informed) nothing; ie new information.

The Web and IT technology has made information widely available. The new information which architects create can reach a much broader audience; much like a musician does. Architecture can now be broadcast easily - and easily received. 

This is good news all round. In particular since we have universally adopted the PDF as the information transfer medium of popular choice.
It suits us well.

In principle everything an architect needs to do, he/she can do with a PDF. Everything a client needs from an architect he/she can get in a PDF. The only thing that an architect needs to do, all the time, is generate, shape and convey information.

Of course, we are excluding building supervision and/or contract management from this model. These apply to the implementation of the information and clearly cannot be exercised online. (The secret here is to engage in pre-emptive building supervision and contract management solutions by providing the best possible information package which leaves no aspect of the construction process uncovered. It is a magnificent challenge and one which we deserve as professionals.)

7 Step Path to Setting Up a Profitable Online Practice;

(In under an hour...)

1. Equipment: You will need a PC or laptop with daily Internet connectivity.

2. Product: A drawing set of a building in PDF format; I'll leave the details up to the individual but will venture to suggest that it should include presentation sketches, 3D's, construction drawings, details and a specification element possibly with quantities - and of course a set of 3D printer files would be useful for special components or even the entire building. A photo or two of a model or a built example might be good too. (You can see where this is going ...) ZIP everything into one packet and give it a name like NICE-HOUSEv1.ZIP .... Keep it to between 20 and 30 Megs tops if you are dealing with countries in Africa that have poor bandwidth. (Note: A product is not required to set up an Online Practice. It can come later; the most important immediate steps are 3 & 4 - the business infrastructure or back-end.)

3. Cash Register: The very first business requirement is a place to receive payments. We recommend PAYPAL. (It now works in South Africa as well.) If you do not have a Paypal account you need to open one now. It's free and wont cost you a cent to set up but there are a number of steps to be followed to register, get linked & verified so the sooner you get it done the better.

4. Sales Attendant : Once your cash box is set up to receive payments you need a mechanism to sell your PDF Zip file, deliver the product, take the money and put it in your Paypal account. You cannot use the Paypal "Buy Button" to do this. You need a "Buy Button" that hosts your files as well. There are a number of "Buy Button" sales attendants available on the Web but we favour one in particular; SELLFY. We have successfully used it for a while and the service has been excellent to date. It is free. Get one now. It takes less than a minute. (You pay a small percentage of sales for the service only when you sell.) Note: Technically this is the only component that you need to get going with sales if your products are ready. The revenue from sales will just accummulate in your Sellfy account until you connect it to Paypal and your personal bank account at a later date.

5. Stocking the Shelves : Once your Paypal and Sellfy accounts are up and running you are ready to upload your first product for sale to the masses; eg NICE-HOUSEv1.ZIP ; follow the easy instructions on the Sellfy website. First connect your Sellfy account to your Paypal Account. Then upload your ZIP or PDF file to Sellfy, enter a title and description and decide on a price. Sellfy will give you two things in return; the HTML code for a "BUY" button (for your website) and the URL of the sales page for your product (used mostly in email shots and text links). You are ready to go into business.

6. The Shop : Now that you have completed the easy part, comes the hard part; selling. The most fundamental approach, and one which is the foundation of the marketing strategy, is to set up a "shop" on the practice website; "online services" or OAS for the more sensitive. This would typically be a catalogue of your work available for purchase. (Frankly, a lot more useful than a static portfolio!) If you do not have a website you should consider getting one or if you are not comfortable selling digital products from your practice website you can easily and cheaply set up a satellite site under a brand name particular to your product focus. Websites are either very cheap to host or cost nothing.

7. Marketing Campaign : This is a big (pivotal) topic and will be the subject of a future in depth articles. (With no marketing you files will just sit around gathering cobwebs....) A fundamental approach to marketing online is to buy Adwords from Google; you will get traffic and you'll have full control over expenditure. (About US$100 required to start.)

Unlike "one offs" for individual clients your cyberproducts are like diamonds; for ever. The more products you have on the shelves the greater your chances of selling your solutions, as stocks never run out. The earlier you adopt this model as a passive income revenue stream for the practice the better your position will be in rankings, directories and collective forums.

This particular AOS model is a completely hands-free approach to online practice. Once you upload the file you simply forget about it, the focus being always on creating more and better products and on marketing the sales platform - usually the website. When the file is sold (over and over again) the money simply appears in the Paypal account and you are not required to interact (at a sales level) with the buyer. Obviously after sales service is key to  practice growth and probably the single most important reason for engaging AOS as a marketing tool. And that's a whole new science ...

Be creative and proactive with target marketing, pricing, product design, quality of documentation, level of service, professional integrity and you will succeed.

It works - for ever.

USEFUL LINKS: Sellfy | Adwords | Paypal

SABIC PRACTICAL COURSES : Build and Manage your own Advanced Online Practice - the Architects Academy in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, offers AOS training, seminars and workshops. Contact AA for details.

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