ThoughtCraft Architects is located in Boston, MA and Chapel Hill, NC.
ThoughtCraft Principals Chris Johns and Jason Hart began their Investment Partnership with Charrette Venture Group in mid-2016. At this point in their long history as friends and design collaborators, Chris and Jason were at a critical juncture deciding if and how to commit to the continuation of their young firm (then named CUBE design + research) with the exit of an existing partner -- and the news that Jason was moving several states away. It was a moment when they could have amicably parted ways and celebrated the handful of successful projects they had completed while working nights at one of their small Boston apartments.
Instead, the friends made the decision that CUBE would exist in two locations, and that they would focus on building a sustainable business with a solid shared infrastructure. It was a defining decision that shaped the future of this (soon-to-be) growing firm.
Erin Poppe, Emily Hall, Chris Johns, and Jason Hart “virtually” sat down to discuss how ThoughtCraft has changed over the years, their nagging pain points, what they have learned from each other and their relationship with CVG.
EP: Tell us about how the firm started…
JH: Chris and I have known each other for about 23 years. We all started at junior college in Florida, at 18-19 years old, then we ended up in graduate school together at MIT in Boston. As we neared our end at MIT in 2003, there was an opportunity to design my father’s house in SC. We knew enough to be dangerous in the evenings as we worked on it between our jobs and theses.
Chris then got a job in California after graduation, and we did a couple little competitions together remotely collaborating. So the foundation was starting, but we didn’t really know it yet because we were just working on projects as friends because we liked to work together.
We had some professors contact us about work, which spawned more work. We never said we’re going to do this for a long time. We were just constantly working together, we were used to critiquing each other, we were roommates, we were friends, and it started from that.
EP: When did it “get real?”
CJ: In 2008, we put out some speculative ideas into the public realm around a major controversial project in Boston, which was going to require the demolition of a Paul Rudolph building. We were big PR fans, having grown up in Florida and being familiar with the Sarasota School of Architecture. Jason would walk by there all the time, on the way to his then-job. We started talking and thinking about how bizarre it was that they were tearing down this building. All the preservationists want to put it in a glass jar, while the developer wanted to tear it down. No one was talking about solutions between those two extremes.
So we put out some ideas that got us at the table with the developer. I came back from my job in California, and it looked like we were going to have a major project that would kickstart our firm. Then the economy fell apart. But that got us thinking a little more seriously about the business and the potential.
There was a period of several months where everything was in flux. Jason quit his job and focused on licensure. I moved back to Boston. But we were getting recognition from our ideas about that Paul Rudolf building and innovative historic preservation. A few key projects came to us during this time, because of our unique point of view.
EH: Fast forward to having a beer with CVG President Todd Reding in Boston, and deciding to pull the trigger with this partnership…what were you struggling with at that time? How did you envision CVG helping?
CJ: Trying to pay ourselves was something we wrestled with for years. In the beginning it was just us and we had day jobs, so it didn’t matter so much. Whatever money we made on commissions was spent on continuing to work together and maintain whatever infrastructure we had.
So the growing pains largely came from our financial instability, and the fact that we were building something from scratch. We didn’t have a backlog of clients that we were taking from another firm; we didn’t have any real training in business, networking, marketing or anything like that to outline how we were going to do this. So we all had our heads down on the Hayden Building project, focused on doing an amazing job, and we weren’t paying a lot of attention to what came next.
Of course, we all had our own systems and ways of doing things that we built firm practices from. But we weren’t diligent about creating strong systems – so it took a while to get to a point where we could bring on staff and delegate. We needed help with putting the right systems in place.
JH: We had been in business long enough to realize that even if we didn’t have a set office, we knew how we wanted to manage the firm in terms of services and projects we provided. But the challenge was learning how to facilitate all the financial aspects while still doing the work. It’s a very common story, where we struggled both separately and together.
EH: And how do you feel that the ThoughtCraft/CVG partnership has evolved?
JH: We didn’t have any explicit expectations in our relationship with CVG. We wanted to create a successful and sustainable practice, and I think we’re on the way to that. I feel like we understand a lot more about how and what we’re investing ourselves in. While our earnings are not where we want them to be yet, our infrastructure to get there is much more robust.
[Editor’s note: By the end of 2018, ThoughtCraft had doubled their net operating revenue since starting with CVG in 2016. While they are still working to earn more revenue, the systems they have implemented are making an impact.]
CVG is a huge resource that helps to organize and prop us up. Each person in the consultancy has a lot of experience to offer, and we can reap those benefits without having to go through the learning pains on our own. Our partnership differentiates us, because while everyone has the same issues, we’re actually building the infrastructure of a large firm in a small practice so that we can be truly sustainable in our business practices while excelling as a design company.
We tell people that we want to grow, and want to be prepared for that growth. It’s deliberate and intentional. Too many firms are reactionary. If you don’t have the infrastructure, you don’t have the systems, knowledge or ability to know where you’re going before you get there. Our relationship with CVG is about growth and preparation for that.
EH: Do you feel you’ve differentiated ThoughtCraft as a business among your peers and competition?
CJ: There’s a different culture, a different way of working, in a small firm – regardless of how prepared you are or how well the business is run. Most employees don’t understand the inner workings of a firm, unless they receive that exposure from the higher-ups in a larger setting. We give that transparency and in turn, receive trust. It allows everyone to have a greater understanding of their role’s impact on the growth and success of the firm. That differentiates us.
I’m very proud of the work we’ve done together. It’s a rare thing to have, and the work drives us. Sure, the financials have been a drag and we need to improve; but that’s why we’re with CVG. We’re trying to make a real business out of what was our hobby and enjoyment, which I am far happier doing instead of working for other people at other firms.
There’s a great deal of trust between Jason and me. We can always rely on each other to be an honest sounding board. That’s critical, and personally I can’t imagine being a sole proprietor after I’ve had an equal partner as committed and trustworthy as Jason. Having him here helps me keep it together.
JH: What he said.
EP: What have you learned from this experience?
CJ: I’ve learned that I value the collective effort a lot more than doing it alone. The design of the business is as important as the design your business performs in architecture. That had never crossed my mind before working with CVG, but I’ve become more passionate about designing the business as much as I am designing buildings.
JH: I’ve always been self-critical, but this has taught me that I can be more tenacious than I ever thought I could be.