Skill Stack and Charge More

16 January 2023

Skill stacking is an invaluable way for practices to differentiate themselves and corner a specific market, writes Michael Lewarne.

If you’re finding it a challenge to differentiate your practice, corner a particular market or charge more, skill stacking might be the answer.

To stand out, an architect or architectural practice needs something to distinguish themselves from the next. Skills differentiation is one way to stand apart. That might mean being better designers, communicators, managers or negotiators, or by being faster or more efficient. All architectural practices possess skills; it’s just the combinations and excellence that varies. A practice can stand out by being better at regular architectural skills. Alternately they might stand out through their unique style, process or expertise. That’s opportunity framed as skills development.

Developing their skills and acquiring new ones requires architects to think differently. I’ve previously written about developing The other architectural skills, or human (or soft) skills, leveraging them to elevate architectural practice. There’s also another way to think about building skills, and it’s called skill stacking.

What is skill stacking?

Let’s begin with a consideration of the incomparably skilled. If you’re an author, for example, it’s unlikely you’ll reach the heights of JK Rowling. She’s one of the most successful writers of all time and in the top 0.00001% of successful writers (give or take a few zeros). Harry Potter is unobtainium to most authors.

The key is not to focus on being tops in one skill, but instead work on being very good at a number of skills or expertise. Attaining a position in the top 5% of a given expertise or skill is more achievable than the top 0.001%. By adding a second 95th percentile expertise or skill and then a third, it’s conceivable you could be in the top 0.001% of people with those three skills (or the only one). When those three skills are of value to your clients, they’ll highly value you. That’s skill stacking.

The key is to know what skills have value, will elevate your work and are being sought by your clients and target market. It’s worthwhile considering what uncommon combinations makes you both valuable and unique.

Examples of skill stacking architectural practices

Here’s a few smaller practices that are doing skill stacking really well. There are many. These were just the first few off the top of my head. Please feel free to let me know of others who are doing this well too.

JDA Co. : “Leading Australian architects for flood, fire and storm resilience.”

Bloxas : “A practice for empathic and experimental architecture”

AR-MA : “AR-MA works across all project types and scales, collaborating with architects, engineers and builders to create innovative folios that transform experience.”

Lymesmith : “Lymesmith works with architects, designers and private clients to realise the colour potential within their projects.”

CPlusC Architectural Workshop : “CplusC specialises in designing and delivering site-specific architectural projects.”

Your smallest viable market

It’s always worth considering what extra skills might be of value to your architectural practice. More importantly consider what extra skills and expertise your clients, and those you seek, will value. It doesn’t need to be of value to all possible clients, just the ones you want to work with. There doesn’t even need to be a very large number of clients, just enough to be a viable proposition for the ongoing success of your practice.

Also worth noting, the additional skill will not only improve the chances of landing specific projects for your practice but it may also give new and valuable insights into the work that you’re currently doing. Doing so by identifying passions, strengths or otherwise unrecognised connections.

Be unique – no more fee bargaining

If you have a unique combination of skills, you have the market to yourself. If potential clients value that combination and have nowhere else to go, they’re not in the position to leverage alternative fee proposals for bargaining purposes. You might even be able to charge a premium for your services.

It’s therefore worthwhile considering what unique combination of skills are worth developing. What will help you to stand out and corner your smallest viable market? What skills do you need? What ones are complementary and exemplary?

Here are some random ideas to get your juices flowing:

  • If you’re already designing multi-residential, develop real estate skills;
  • Combine designing projects for not-for-profits with fundraising skills;
  • Working for local government, build your stakeholder engagement chops;
  • If your work is remote, expertise in off-grid delivery becomes valuable; and
  • If interested in an unusual construction technique or material, become the expert in that.

Some more questions before you start stacking

Who is your market?

Who are your clients for this work and what do they value?

What work are you wanting to do? What skills do you need to do this?

What skills will give you an advantage and help you stand out?

Your ideal client

The key is to give this thoughtful consideration. Really get into your ideal client’s head to understand them and their needs. The more precise you can be with your thinking, the better you’ll be able to identify what skills give you an advantage over anyone else for their projects. The more precise you can be in identifying everything about who you’re seeking as clients, the more insight you’ll have. You need to know how to find them, market directly to them and identify what skills they value.

Stack ’em up

Skill stacking is an invaluable way for an architectural practice to differentiate themselves from the next and corner a specific market. You don’t need to reach the heights of Frank Gehry to stand out. Be unique and favoured by offering a combination of skills that are valuable and highly sought by your future clients.

Michael Lewarne is an architect and founder of unmeasured, helping architects work on the unmeasured human skills of practice. He believes the most effective way architects can elevate their practice is by developing better interactions with their people and work. Michael coaches them to enhance these relationships through skills development.

This article was originally published on the unmeasured blog and has been republished with permission.