In my first HSI Musing I would like to talk about business. When I started Heritage Standing Inc. I didn’t really think so much about the business model that would run alongside the technical expertise. My focus had been to provide technical services specialized for a unique set of buildings (old buildings) and that by having this specialized service I would be able to support projects. I still had that feeling from engineering school that the best technical solutions will carry the day (so to speak). Now I look back and realize that may have been a bit naive.
When I started HSI I was bothered by how many old buildings were demolished unnecessarily, or had astronomical repair costs that I could not align with the amount of work done. I had been involved with the building conservation field long enough to know there was a need to demonstrate that you were an ‘expert’ when proposing different solutions, and from those early lessons I decided to gain the knowledge to become an ‘expert’. So, I started a business, thinking that with better technical solutions we could help people save their old buildings practically and economically– and why wouldn’t that be a business?
I started Heritage Standing because I saw a problem that I cared about and thought that I could help. I think there are many businesses that begin this way. My favourite business book (so far) that explores the foundations of successful businesses is Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The book talks about the importance of caring about what you do if you want to succeed. When you start a business because you really care about something and want to do things differently, there are many people who will tell you “that won’t work in the real world”. I was frequently told I could not run such a specialized firm in a small city like Fredericton, and was told that an engineering firm could not focus only on existing buildings. We have proven them wrong. Eight years in we are growing and still working exclusively on old buildings.
Rework makes other points that stem from caring about what you do. One of their assertions is that if others buy into your business they will be interested primarily in profit, and as owner you will end up spending more time justifying what you want to do to shareholders rather than just doing good work. You, as owner, begin to lose the ability to do what you care about. Another potential pitfall is that other ‘experts’ will give lots of business advice that doesn’t align with your foundational values. But if it’s your business, built from what you care about, you decide how your business will manifest your beliefs.
The book contains other great points that are relevant when starting a business because you care about something, a business like Heritage Standing. The importance of avoiding overtime, the importance of sleep, and the need to sometimes just do the work that drives you – are some of the pieces of advice I regularly return to. Running a business I have made mistakes and learned lessons – that is the nature of it – but I have found a way to do something that I believe in, and been blessed to end up with a team that is similarly driven. And really, what’s more important than that.
As we began to grow we focused on how we could provide better service, but struggled until learning that the important question was why. Now, because our business has a strong why, (we care about the future, and through our services with existing buildings we want to change the world in this tiny area in which we work), the how of the way we run our business has evolved to align with caring about what we do. We run our consultancy a bit differently; our business decisions are based on our values and this changes how we approach projects and interact with clients. Make no mistake, we are consultants. Our clients hire us because we are specialists in our field and able to help them. But caring about old buildings naturally leads to caring about their owners and surrounding communities. Our expanded attention on owners and communities allows us to understand them better when they communicate their needs. They are able to help us, as consultants, help them. That provides a better end result for everyone involved.
I have become aware that while not unique, our business approach is less common that I think it should be. Having been raised around business minded people and entrepreneurs for whom values set the foundation, I had taken for granted that companies focus long term. When thinking long term you can prioritize investments whose significant benefits may take years, or even decades, to manifest. However, what I see more and more are companies driven by the need to be profitable in the next quarter. Yes, you must be profitable to survive, but when this becomes the sole focus it changes how work is undertaken. There is less focus on understanding the problem and helping the client, and more focus on trying to minimise scope, or using the lowest cost staff able to accomplish a task. In our field of engineering this can mean increased focus on reducing engineering design costs and less focus on reducing overall project costs (which are different). This is seen in all industries in different ways. Where ‘shareholder demands’ are king, companies start planning short term.
This concerns me. But there are positive changes underway. Many different industries are becoming aware that exclusive focus on short-term profitability causes problems, both socially and financially. One example is the gradual change in language from shareholders to stakeholders, even within parts of the investment world. Initiatives such as the B Corporation certification and Social Enterprise (there are many others) are allowing companies to formalize their goal of combining purpose with profit.
Heritage Standing is part of this movement; of caring about what you do and allowing that to change how you do business. I hope that I can continue to shepherd Heritage Standing as a long-term planning and values driven company.