How to Become a Billionaire: Startups for Architects

Back in 2008, an architect was bored with his job. His new company is worth $17 billion.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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Back in 2008, there was an architect in Brooklyn who was bored with his job. Wandering around his office building, he befriended a failing entrepreneur who was trying to start a baby clothing company. The two decided to take a shot at something new and opened a co-working space on a vacant floor of their building.

Nine years later, the two own one of the world’s most valuable startups, WeWork, valued at around $17 billion. It’s worth nearly as much as AECOM, the world’s largest architecture firm, and they have raised more than $1 billion in startup capital without going public, making it, in the parlance of Silicon Valley, a unicorn. It’s the tech equivalent of winning a Pritzker Prize.

WeWork co-founders Miguel McKelvey (left) and Adam Neumann (right); via WeWork

Miguel McKelvey, one of WeWork’s co-founders, studied architecture at the University of Oregon before working various odd jobs around the world. He was raised on a commune in the Pacific Northwest, where he says he learned the sharing lifestyle that prepared him to run a co-working company and has helped inspire him to launch his and business partner’s newest venture, an apartment-sharing company called WeLive.

As the Chief Creative Officer, he oversees the design and fit of WeWork spaces, but he does much more than a staff architect ever would. His architecture training has probably helped him out a lot during his career, but he definitely did not take the traditional career path for his education.

WeWork interior; via Metropolis

Given how architects are encouraged to start their own offices, it’s surprising how few startups that do architectural work are actually started by architects. Silicon Valley titans like WeWork, Airbnb and IDEO are radically changing the way people live in cities, and hundreds of other startups are following in their footsteps. There’s no data to know exactly how many of these companies are started by architects, but after browsing the most public names in the area, McKelvey appears to be the only one who has any formal architectural training.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the traditional architecture road, built on an antediluvian model of apprenticeship, professional misery and broken dreams. But if young designers just want to have an impact on space and the built environment, the startup path offers a way to have a potentially much bigger (and better-paid) impact. And while architecture schools are full of studio projects that propose belabored designs that rethink traditional programs, almost none of those ideas have any impact beyond campus gates. Startups that eschew the traditional architecture model, however, are often dreamt up by young people in their 20s and radically change the way the world works.

Interior of New York WeLive location; via Dezeen

Consider Airbnb. The company’s model works by connecting people with extra space in their homes with people who are looking for a place to stay. Design has ostensibly played a big role in the company’s success, both in their branding and in their decision early on to use professional photographers to stage and snap spaces. Now Airbnb has more customers than Hilton.

Being as it is powered by spatial inefficiencies and opportunities, if any company could have been founded by architects, it’s Airbnb. But the co-founders studied graphic and industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design who stepped into a game they had no authority to play in. Their success through design helped fuel a push across tech companies to prioritize visual identity and user experience, and there’s no reason the next Airbnb couldn’t be started by architects.

Airbnb identity sketches; via DesignStudio

So how do you start a business? Admittedly, it’s not quite as easy as the three-sentence snapshot I gave of WeWork. There are many, many gurus out there offering guides on how to make it big in business (Seth Godin has some pretty palatable offerings), but generally you need to find investors who will give you money that you can spend making your idea. Getting that money, as always, is the hard part, but there’s way more capital going out to young entrepreneurs than there is going out to young architects.

Instead of design competitions, look for pitch competitions. Apply to incubators. A lot of schools host pitch competitions, and there are plenty more open to the general public. Architects, who are used to collaborating and leading design teams, should be naturals at coordinating the engineers, strategists and designers who make up young startups. Seeing a startup through its early stages requires a lot of the same skills nourished in architects: creativity, rigor, flexibility and lots and lots of patience.

True, working on startups may mean that you will never get to don your black-rimmed glasses and imperiously bark at clients about the significance of your project, but we’re living in a time when so much of building design has been ceded to other professions, as Rem Koolhaas’ 2014 Venice Biennale pointed out. If you want a part in shaping the future, you might have to get ready to pitch.

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