David McHenry | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David McHenry

Background:  

Erdy McHenry, founded in 1999 by Scott Erdy and David McHenry, is a Philadelphia-based architecture firm. The firm's clients include the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Liberty Property Trust, the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, among others. 

The Mistake:

Early on, we made the mistake of [focusing entirely on one project], and it almost killed us.

When we started our practice we were fortunate enough to have a big project come with us. That project was with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., and it was from our relationship with them when we were working at [another architectural firm].

It was a huge project, and it's not typically the kind of thing you expect to be doing when you start your own firm. ... We recognized the importance of it, and so we focused on it completely.

It was a huge success. It landed on the cover of Architecture Magazine.  At that point, we didn't have a marketing person. There were literally three of us in the entire firm, sitting on chairs that we had trash-picked.

When the SLPC project ended, I just opened my contacts and started calling people. I started with the letter "A," and fortunately came across, by the letter "B," somebody who told us about a pre-bid meeting. We called them and begged our way in, and then we built from there.

There were literally three of us in the entire firm, sitting on chairs that we had trash-picked.

The Lesson:

I think the lesson we got out of that was that the time you should be marketing, actually, is when you are busy. Because it seems to me the lead time to new revenue is often longer than the burn rate of your existing backlog.

And we learned that if you're working on doing some proactive marketing, you can ultimately be more selective about your clients. You can avoid having to take work just to pay bills. That was a real a-ha moment for us. So today, everybody has a marketing responsibility, and, we can identify the kind of work we want to to do. That allows us to establish a new stable of satisfied clients.

For example, we did this road trip a few years ago ... and ended up having a meeting [with a prospective client] at Cornell University. He ended up sending an RFP. It was for a diary barn. I honestly think he was just trying to be polite. But we took it seriously. We went after it hard and we knocked it out of the park. They gave us the job, and that landed on the cover of Architectural Record and Modern Farmer magazine, and it led to a whole new segment of work for us. And this was all from one little lead that came from focused, strategic marketing. 

Follow Erdy McHenry on Twitter at @ErdyMcHenry.

Photo courtesy of David McHenry.