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I recently received this question from a reader:

My business doesn't sell widgets [and isn't]the typical type of business often used as examples. My partner and I are architects, which means the business relies on our professional know-how and expertise. It's not a business whereby we sell widgets and which can implement systems and procedures which anyone can follow. I feel I'm missing a huge point and feel embarrassed that I'm not getting it....Are you able to shed some light? I'm sure I'm not the only business owner who has this concern/confusion (at least I hope not).

Here's my response:

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You're definitely not alone. I struggled with this myself for the first 10 years of trying to get a business off the ground (as have many in the business of selling ideas or expertise).

My question is, do you want to be an architect or own an architecture firm?

As sad as this may be to hear, I don't think you can do both. Being an architect must be a creative and rewarding profession, and I'm sure you can make a good living at it, but running a business - whether it's an architecture firm, a Web design shop, a public relations firm or a consulting practice - is altogether different.

A business, at least as I define it, is something that can run without you personally doing the work.

If you want to make the switch from being an architect to running an architecture firm, I think the first step is to pick a specialty you can teach a junior to design. This means narrowing the services you offer.

Perhaps you decide to specialize in ranch-style bungalows that you can teach juniors to do the drawings for, or backyard living spaces or pool cabanas or industrial warehouses.

Once you've got juniors doing the work, you pour your creativity into marketing their expertise, branding your firm and hiring and training salespeople. You've still got a lot of work to do - just not the designing part.

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Hearing that advice probably makes your skin crawl. First, each client, I'm sure, brings to you a unique situation. Admittedly, I'm not an architect, but I understand the profession to be about creatively designing a unique solution based on a unique set of circumstances (terrain, environmental codes, building specs, etc.).

At its very heart, it's about creativity, which is why the profession - in fact, most professions - is not a business but is merely a well-paid job.

The only way to scale up an architecture firm while simultaneously offering a custom solution to each client is to bring in lots of senior talent and make them partners in the business. But, still, all you will have done is created a co-operative of well-paid professionals, not a business with scale.

Again, there's nothing wrong with wanting to be an architect (or a lawyer or a Web designer or a consultant or a publicist or an accountant).

Just don't confuse it with operating a business. The two are as different as oil and water.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, which will be released in April.

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