How to Start a Planning Firm

Twelve years ago, John Houseal and I left URS (now AECOM) to start Houseal Lavigne Associates. We started the firm with just the two of us, working out of a bedroom in a converted house on the fringe of a suburban downtown. About a year later we made our first hire, and our second hire came about a year after that.

In just a few short years, the firm went from two people working out of a single room in a small house to a studio office in downtown Chicago and a portfolio of more than 200 municipal clients in 15 states.

In recent years, both private sector and public sector planners have seen the professional landscape shift. Devastated housing markets, record low development activity, and government budgetary constraints at every level have left countless professional planners newly unemployed or underemployed. A viable option for many is to start their own firm or become an independent contractor. This is not easy and many planners lack the experience and resources necessary to give it a shot and succeed.

There are questions like:

  • How do I get started?
  • Who is my target customer?
  • How do I stand out in a crowded and competitive field?
  • Is this a good idea given the economy?

In 2014, Houseal Lavigne Associates received the American Planning Association’s Planning Excellence Award for an Emerging Planning and Design Firm. We now have a national practice and wide-spread reputation for innovation, creativity, and success in the areas of community planning, urban design, and economic development. We’ve learned a lot of things over the past dozen years — some of it was good advice from other people, some lessons we learned the hard way. Either way, here are some things you may want to consider.

Why Start a Firm?

You need a reason. Something that can fuel your passion and dedication. There are going to be some hard days and tough times — you may even go a few weeks or months without getting paid. Your reason for starting a firm in the first place needs to be strong enough to keep you going.

Leave with Integrity

Don’t burn bridges. This planning profession is small and word travels fast. When you are just starting out your integrity and reputation may be all you have. We made a point to NOT take any clients from URS. Some clients insisting on coming with us, but we were prepared to walk away without them. I think URS respected that — so much so that they became one of our first clients, as teaming partners on high-profile projects in Chicago.

Be Frugal

When you are starting out your capital might be scarce. So be frugal — price shop, bargain, negotiate — do whatever you have to do to save a penny. Don’t feel the need to impress people with a new huge office, with state of the art everything. Apple started in a garage, not an uber modern office. Remember that.

Establish a Team

Chances are you are starting a small business, not starting AECOM. You can’t do everything and shouldn’t try to. In addition to getting a good accountant and lawyer, you want to find teaming partners to tackle the needs of any assignment, whether it be traffic, infrastructure, stormwater, or anything else.

Tracking Your Time

You’re most likely in the business of selling hours, so you’ll need to be accountable for your time. Additionally, many state and federal contracts and grants will require you to provide detailed invoices. We use Harvest, but there are plenty of others.

Bookkeeping

You’ll need something to keep track of your finances — including payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable. There are a number of other programs and websites, we use Quickbooks Professional Services Edition.

IT and Computers

If it’s just you, a single laptop may be fine. If you have a small team or office, you may need to share files. If you are looking for an on-premises server/file sharing, a small NAS device will do. If you are comfortable with the cloud, Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive work well.

Software

Almost all software has gone to licensing, charging you a monthly or annual fee for access. Adobe Creative Cloud provides you access to all of Adobe’s software. Microsoft Office 365 not only gives you access to the latest Microsoft Office software, but provides you with hosted email, Sharepoint, and 1 TB of cloud storage on OneDrive for Businesses.

Web Presence

Building a web presence is easier than ever. Numerous companies allow you to easily build your own website and host it on their servers. SquareSpace is one of my favorites. Once your website is up and running, easily configured analytic tools can tell you how people are finding your site, and give you some insight on what people are looking at and how long they are staying.

Finding Work

Joining the APA Consultants Online will place you in front of planners searching for consultants. If they like what they see, they may send you an RFQ/RFP. Joining the directory also keeps you notified when new RFPs are posted to the APA’s website. In addition, there are a number of RFP services out there which will scour the classifieds to bring public RFPs to your inbox.

Resources

If you are looking for more information, here are a few books John and I have both read that we both though were very helpful:

Rework by Jason Freed and David Hansson

Street Smarts: An All-Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Listen to John and Devin's webinar (login required)

Top image: Don’t feel the need to impress people with a new huge office. Thinkstock photo.


About the Authors
John Houseal, AICP, is a principal and cofounder of Houseal Lavigne Associates in Chicago. His leadership, innovation, and effective approach to implementation helped to gain his firm the 2014 APA Excellence Award for an Emerging Planning and Design Firm. Houseal has a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in environmental and urban planning from Arizona State University.
Devin Lavigne, AICP, is a principal and cofounder of Houseal Lavigne Associates in Chicago. He has managed, directed, authored, and contributed to numerous plans throughout the country, and has received multiple awards for these efforts. Lavigne is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois, where he teaches an urban design studio. He received a bachelor’s degree from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.

November 29, 2016

By Devin Lavigne, AICP, John Houseal, AICP