I recently sat down with a couple of my pals to conduct an interview for my 'Architects in a Cafe Getting Coffee' series. I guess it would be more appropriate to say a trio of pals. Robbie and Abby Lesslie are the dynamic duo behind Cumulus Architecture + Design LLC and their baby girl Sadie Aberdeen joined us for the interview. Sadie is a big fan of the blog and has been bugging her folks to be featured for a few months now. (cue laughter)
Cumulus Architecture + Design LLC is a Charleston architecture firm that focuses on custom residential design. Robbie and Abby have quickly developed a reputation for outstanding design since starting the practice in 2011.
In a former life, Abby was one of my colleagues at LS3P. In fact, she was one of the first people I met when I started at LS3P in 2008. Abby along with a handful of other great folks at LS3P welcomed me with that southern charm and hospitality.
A few years later Abby would go on to start the firm Cumulus Architecture with her husband Robbie. I was bummed to lose a work friend, but have enjoyed watching Cumulus grow and thrive. It has been bittersweet.
Since Robbie and Abby are young entrepreneurs, I focused this interview on the subject of Starting an Architecture Firm. If you are someone who is interested in starting your own business, I think you will be inspired by Robbie and Abby's story.
In Part 1 of the interview, we talk about that crazy origin story and dig into what makes these two architects tick.
Steve Ramos (SR): We are going to start at the beginning. What made you decide to open your own architecture firm?
Abby Lesslie (AL): Hmmm….Out of necessity? We could tell you a story about how it all began.
Robbie Lesslie (RL): In 2011 I was let go from my current position. Work was running low. And that’s when Abby decided to quit at LS3P. And then we got married, so that was kind of the beginnings of it. And we didn’t quite know what we were going to do. We just knew we wanted to get married and go travel. And take our life savings at that time and just see how far we could go with it.
AL: We had no idea we were going to start a firm at that point.
AL: We were just kind of burnt out. It was after the recession. You went through it.
AL: So we were kind of burnt out from architecture and I was wondering if that was the right thing for me.
SR: So you were questioning whether architecture was the right thing for you and as a result you started your own architecture firm?
Abby and Robbie both laugh.
RL: That is actually pretty accurate.
SR: You are a glutton for punishment. (Abby Laughs)
AL: We travelled and we spent so much time thinking.
RL: We travelled for about 3 months. Right after the wedding in Costa Rica we went straight to Berlin and started there. We travelled wherever we wanted to go. We had a budget and we were trying to stretch it indefinitely because we had time. Infinite time.
AL: We had no flight back.
RL : A one way flight. So that was the beginnings of it. At that time Abby was burnt out with architecture to the point that she was questioning whether she wanted to do it at all. I was still excited about it because I was doing residential work which seems to be much more flexible and you can be a little bit more creative than what Abby was doing in commercial architecture. So when we were traveling we were doing a lot of soul searching about “what do we want to do?”
RL: And I knew what I wanted to do because I felt like I was already doing it and had been doing it. But I just didn’t know how. So as we were traveling we were asking ourselves the inevitable question: “what are we going to do when this money runs out?”
RL: Abby was licensed at the time and I was not yet licensed. So I knew that was step one. As soon as we get back whenever that happens is to get licensed. But really we were going to look for work for another firm. That is what we were going to do.
AL: While we were traveling we were talking about which firms we were going to interview for. We were hunting them down. We were stalking everybody.
RL: We were trying to figure out what would be a good fit.
AL: Granted it was 2011 so nobody was hiring.
RL: Nobody was hiring. And that is where the necessity came into play.
SR: Did you actually interview anywhere?
RL: We both reached out to several firms to see if they were hiring and nobody was biting at that point. When we were in Cinque Terre hiking around it just kind of hit us both. “Why are we trying so hard looking at other architecture firms that we are not so inspired by? And why do we want to step back into the roles that we ran away from? And why couldn’t we do this ourselves?”
AL: We kind of thought we would do that a few years later. (start a firm) That was the goal.
RL: One day.
SR: That was a great story. Have you heard the story about the general that burned all his boats? Upon landing in enemy territory and preparing for battle the general ordered his troops to burn all of their boats so that there could be no retreat. They were at the point of no return. So your boats were kind of burned?
RL: I guess so.
SR: Here is a question that will be hard to answer. Let's say that you did get jobs, or you never left your jobs. Do you think you could start a firm now? Or would you even want to start a firm now, if your boats were not burned?
RL: If our boats were not burned I don’t think we would be here right now.
AL: I don’t think so. It would be really hard because times are better now. And if you were at a firm you would be getting promoted and would have more work.
RL: And then there is just the ease of it. The comfort level. The paycheck. You show up at 8 and are done at 5. Weekends off. So yes, there was that. I have asked that question a lot. What would we be doing right now. And I don’t think we would be doing this. It was a dream and having our ships burned made us do it.
SR: What is one thing that you really like about running your own firm?
AL: Flexibility. 100%. Unless I have a meeting, not sure if I should say this (chuckles)…….I can wear my pajamas all day long and work. I can work, I can make lunch. I feel like I can get so much more done in less time.
RL: Without having to worry about the formalities.
AL: And the meetings. We have this to get done and we’ve got to get it done.
RL: That may mean working to 2am on a weekend so that on Monday or Tuesday we can do something else.
AL: It is the closest thing to being back in studio. (architecture school studio) If you manage your time you might be able to take a month off and travel.
AL: Taking 100% ownership in the projects is the thing that I love the most about it. Meaning that the buck starts and stops with us and our decisions. The inspiration for the design…..we know where it came from. We are meeting with the owners and trying to get them exactly what they want. And to do it in a creative way that gets them excited. So we know where that original idea for that curved entry way or window being that certain size in their dining room, or whatever it is that is important to them, you know where that came from.
AL: And when it comes down to construction and execution we know how to articulate that to the builders. And we can change things on the fly if we need to. That is fairly rare, we are usually just accentuating things.
SR: What is one bad thing about running your own firm?
AL: The same! (Robbie laughs.)
RL: The most challenging things with running our own business is that misconception that, “oh you are going to have tons of flexibility and freedom.”
SR: (Laughs) You mean what Abby just said was the best thing?
AL: It is the best part of it and the worst part of it.
RL: With your time, it is gone. Your time is gone. The best thing I can try to attribute it to is that if you are thinking about your work, we are thinking, how can we become the absolute best at what we do? How can we hone our craft and become so good at it, that we are using these old traditions and really creating something fun and are able to articulate our ideas and our owner’s ideas. And make them happy. And the only way I can think to do that is to become a master at what we do. Which takes a ton of time. More time than I ever cared to put in before. And because it is ours, and we can do that, its like “when does it stop.” And I don’t want I to stop.
AL: It’s your name.
RL: There is also that amazing opportunity to be as good as we want to be. And how good can we be. I don’t know.
SR: Let's talk about that. When you say you want to be the best at this thing. What is that thing? What is Cumulus all about?
RL: Well I think we get a lot of opportunities to do commercial work and to do multi-family housing and to do things that would pull us away from what we both have grown to love which is custom residential architecture. What we want to be as good as we can possibly can be at it, is creating those spaces for our clients in a creative way that allows them to not worry about the mechanics of it and they can instead focus on the arts and crafts of it.
RL: So having a well thought out set of plans that works well. Abby is excellent at coming up with big picture stuff. The flow of houses. The owners really love that. Where as I get into the details. If it was just me it would be all details. It would be 90% details. So between the details and creating the right feel and the size of those spaces and making sure it works and balancing the two. This allows those craftsman to come in and master those details.
AL: Robbie is thinking about it from the trade side of it. I am thinking about it from our firm’s angle. I want to be known as the go to firm that listens. I want to be known for listening. I want to do a wonderful design, but every client is different. Every house is not going to be the Taj Mahal. And I don’t want it to be. I want them to be so excited. I want the process to be fun. And we listened. That is what we enjoy. We like them to be excited. And to be happy.
RL: That is a good topic to talk about. Abby is right. That is incredibly important to what we do. And what we’ve learned not do in the past. I never really cared that much about it when I was working for someone else. But now that is us and our name we realize there is an ability to create a positive work environment.
RL: I know that this may sounds so trivial or cliché. But when you treat your builders, the owners and everyone else along the process with a high level of respect and you listen to them. And you’re not just listening. You are taking those notes and you turn around and show them that you are listening. And you appreciate the work that those framers and plumbers are doing out there all along the way it turns into them having more fun on the job site. It has them doing better work. It is a positive environment. And next thing you know the owners are having a good time. And then we are all having a good time.
RL: We would love to be known for that. And it comes down to listening. And we have some people who come to us and are starting to say “we hear you guys listen.”
Thanks for Listening
That is the end of Part 1 of my interview with Robbie and Abby. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week. If you found this article helpful I hope you will share with a friend. I think there are some real good nuggets of advice here.