Investment Partner Spotlight: Meet Propel Studio

Propel Studio from Left to Right: Tuan Vu, Lara LaFontain, Nick Mira, Oak, Sam Sudy, Lucas Gray (Photo credit: Josh Partee)

Propel Studio from Left to Right: Tuan Vu, Lara LaFontain, Nick Mira, Oak, Sam Sudy, Lucas Gray (Photo credit: Josh Partee)

Propel Studio is located in Portland, Oregon.

Propel Studio Architecture, Inc. partnered with CVG in 2015, making them CVG’s second-longest current investment partnership. From their firm’s first official project “designing a driveway” to leading a community design workshop in Aridagawa, Japan, Propel has made bold moves growing their business. When they decided to increase their ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit) portfolio, they doubled it within a year. After establishing themselves as experts in ADU design in Portland, they are now adding custom “Northwest modern” residential projects to their diverse portfolio -- in addition to pursuing new projects in Vietnam and Japan. This strategic and incremental approach to growth has contributed to a net revenue increase of 146% since 2016.

How did this trio of friends come together and build their team? CVG’s Erin Poppe (EP) and Emily Hall (EH) “virtually” sat down with principals Nick Mira (NM), Lucas Gray (LG), and Tuan Vu (TV) to discuss how Propel Studio got their start, the firm’s nagging pain points, what they have learned from each other, and their relationship with CVG.

Propel’s founding principals (Photo credit: Josh Partee)

Propel’s founding principals (Photo credit: Josh Partee)

EP: How did Propel Studio start?

NM: Our firm started in the end of 2012, when we each realized how dissatisfied we were working inside of bigger firms. There weren’t many face-to-face opportunities with the clients we were designing for, which didn’t allow us to be personally engaged in our client’s lives or invested creatively in the outcome of the project.

After starting Propel, one thing I quickly realized is that the front-end of attracting, winning, and starting projects – which bigger firms always handled for me so I could focus on drawing – is what brings on a better portfolio and understanding of your work.

TV: We lacked opportunities for interaction and direct communications with clients, limiting our creativity and ability to work new ideas into our designs and collaborations with clients.

[Note: Prior to starting Propel, Lucas worked in a 30-40 person firm in Portland and a few firms abroad. Nick and Tuan worked together at a 120-person firm alongside Lucas’ wife, Kristin. Lucas and Tuan studied together at the University of Oregon.]

EH: What was Propel’s first paid project?

LG: Our first project was redesigning a driveway into a patio for someone I met through a neighborhood organization. Then our second project was redesigning a driveway, because this client saw our first project. From there we got a few ADU projects and our firm grew from there.

NM: Then we had another driveway after that!

EH: What was the first project you really celebrated?

LG: Our first real architecture project was an ADU for a guy in our neighborhood. The design was interesting with alternating sloped roofs; a lot of people have since asked us for something similar, which is a great feeling. That project started us down this path into the ADU world, and we’ve done about 50 of them since. It’s a good revenue stream and we’ve gotten efficient in how we approach those projects. Everyone on the team does ADUs now, though Sam has really become the specialist and leads most of them. The rest of us have at least one or two ADU projects that we touch on throughout the year.

The Namaste ADU, Completed in early 2019 (Photo credit: Carlos Rafael)

The Namaste ADU, Completed in early 2019 (Photo credit: Carlos Rafael)

EH: What were some initial growing pains?

LG: Similar to a lot of firms, there’s a huge learning curve on the business side of things. We all knew how to design, do drawings and models, and use software; but we didn’t have experience with writing contracts, or establishing appropriate fees and rates. Our first ten projects had stupidly low fees, which is ridiculous looking back.

NM: We didn’t even know what our costs were in running a business. All the taxes and licenses, insurance … all the costs of annual operations, we just didn’t know! So we based our prices on what we thought sounded good.

EH: So I’m assuming you weren’t exposed to much business training in architecture school...

NM: Professional practice in architecture programs are all focused on the legal responsibilities of an architect; how to cover your exposure, how to set up the legal side of the firm, but nothing at all about the finances or the costs or how to manage employees.

LG: There aren’t any financial classes taught, which is silly unless you work for larger firms. You’re not exposed to anything about the inner workings of a firm in that situation. So the problem is, when you’re starting your own firm, you’ve had no exposure to anything other than project management. And the previous firms we worked for were not transparent and didn’t offer opportunities to understand the business or contract side of their operations.

EH: How has CVG supported the evolution of your business?

LG: CVG helped us dedicate the time to think about the business side of things, which was always on the back burner before. They walked us through what our expenses are; what our billable rates should be per person; what projects were and weren’t profitable, and how to market based off of that. We weren’t exposed to this education or information before partnering with CVG.

EH: How has your team grown over the years?

NM: Sam was the first employee, but we had a few practicum students intern with us from time to time. We weren’t really nervous to hire our first employees, because we didn’t realize we should be. It wasn’t until we grew into a 5-person firm that we realized the challenge of financial commitments.

Propel’s first office was a mezzanine aboveADX, a community workshop, c. 2014 (Photo credit: Propel Studio)

Propel’s first office was a mezzanine aboveADX, a community workshop, c. 2014 (Photo credit: Propel Studio)

Propel’s second office in NE Portland, c. 2015 (Photo credit: Propel Studio)

Propel’s second office in NE Portland, c. 2015 (Photo credit: Propel Studio)

EP: What are your significant milestones or learning moments from your growth process?

TV: For me, it was seeing a project being completed from start to finish: the Champions Barbershop. From my experiences in seven years split between SERA Architects and YGH Architecture, I’d only worked on a specific facet of the projects, like feasibility, or construction documents. I was never truly running my own project. The opening day of my first project that I lead from start to finish was a big deal and super satisfying, especially because the clients were so happy with the end result.

LG: I think the best and worst thing about this job is client reactions. When we have a good client that’s appreciative of the work we’ve done, and getting to experience the completed space with them feels great. There’ll always be hiccups and bumps, but the end experience is always gratifying.

Champions Barbershop (Photography by Joshua Huff)

Champions Barbershop (Photography by Joshua Huff)

EH: What do you look for in clients when you first meet them?

TV: These days, we set up consultations with potential clients. We tend to ask a lot of questions in the beginning, just to make sure that it’s the right fit in budget and scope of work but also to gauge their personalities and spot any issues in their fees or expectations.

LG: In every relationship, the goal is to set realistic expectations and then meet or exceed them. That first meeting is where we try to understand what the client’s expectations are, and quite often they’re not great at knowing that. They haven’t worked with an architect before, or been through this specific design process. So we help decipher those expectations through education on the process and phases. We’re getting better at communicating pre-qualifications or information about deliverables, though, and our proposals are getting much more detailed. Hopefully that clarity from the start prevents future conflict.

Nick Mira facilitating a community engagement workshop in Aridagawa, Japan

Nick Mira facilitating a community engagement workshop in Aridagawa, Japan

EP: What makes your team stand out?

LG: One thing is that we’re all engaged in the community and volunteer organizations outside of the office. Sam serves through Architects in Schools - going to elementary classrooms to teach kids ways to engage with built environments and design. Lara organizes Bold Type Talks, a lecture series for people to talk about topics related to the field of architecture through a diversity and equity AIA committee that’s geared towards engaging professionals outside of the white-male dominated business culture. I have served on neighborhood association boards and AIA boards and currently volunteer on the AIA National Small Project Design committee. Nick served on the neighborhood association for a while and we volunteered to design the poster for Nick’s neighborhood farmers market.

(Note: Lucas received a 40-Under-40 Award from the Portland Business Journal in recognition of his community leadership)

TV: I’ve volunteered with the Asian-Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) organization and the Jade District here in Portland, which also reinforces our long-term goals of opening offices in Japan and Vietnam too. We really want to share the value of sustainable design that we found in Portland in those international communities.

EP: What makes the three of you a powerful partnership?

NM: From my perspective, we do compliment each other and fill the gaps for one another; which makes a good collective in that together we can design, deliver, and market really well. For Tuan, his design creativity, skills, and speed are amazing. I want to learn how to push design and deliver as quickly as he does. Lucas also has a great visionary mind for design, but he’s also great with the marketing and the storytelling and the strategy of business development. He helps make sure that the ship is going in the right direction.

TV: I think it’s worth mentioning that we all started as friends, and that’s important. We are all trying to carry Propel in the same direction, but at the same time our friendship has been strengthened through traveling and working together; which is really helpful when it comes to troubleshooting or goal setting or working through the challenges that every small business faces.

Lucas, Tuan, Nick and their partners sharing a meal at a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant.

Lucas, Tuan, Nick and their partners sharing a meal at a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant.

EH: If you weren’t architects, what would you be?

LG: Happy! (joking) I think we do a lot of non-traditional architecture in the office, which includes graphic design or branding or art installations. I think we’re interested in a lot of other design pursuits that’s not traditional architecture. I also work on small scale developments on the side.

TV: I’d do something related to art. Maybe becoming a hyperrealist painter, or perhaps return to the days when I was a DJ.

NM: I think I was so frustrated working for big firms, that I was going to try and open an architecture firm or try to switch careers entirely and work in computer science – even though I have no training in it. There’s so much technical demand in architecture that I think I have the patience to learn how to write software. Then no one bugs you, because it’s all so cryptic.

EH: What do you hope that a client thinks when they walk through your door?

NM: Wow, these guys are cool!

LG: We’re getting to the point where we have a body of work that can be marketed towards specific project types we want more of. We’re trying to weed through what we’ve finished and only show the projects that share our aesthetic preferences and architectural values. We just moved into a new office space, and started setting it up, and we want to make sure that our physical spaces reflect our design values. We want to do minimalist, Northwest modern style; we don’t want to do traditional-style ADUs, houses, or commercial projects. We want our office aesthetics to pre-qualify anyone that walks through our door to want our look.

NM: We also want clients to see that we’re creative and always in process on projects.

TV: A creative group of individuals in a thriving office culture, where client’s dreams will be turned into reality. Also, these guys are cool.

LG: We find unique solutions to problems. Every ADU we’ve done is different and each responded to what that specific client wanted and needed, as well as the context in which it was being built; like the landscape or an existing house we had to work around. We used materials in unique and beautiful ways to create interesting forms. We like to push design thinking to solve problems in a unique way.

Visit Propel Studio’s website to learn more about the firm and their work.