Craig Chinn is a principal and founding partner at Architecture Design Collaborative (ADC), an architecture design firm and an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company based out of Laguna Hills, CA. Under his leadership, he has grown ADC from 4 original employees to over 33 employees. His clients include Brookfield Properties Retail, Simon Property Group, Trammell Crow Residential, Tommy Bahama, and Brixmor Property Group.
Prior to founding Architecture Design Collaborative, Chinn was steadily promoted through the ranks during his nearly 11-year tenure at KTGY, an international architecture firm where he was responsible for project design, client relationships, and business development; serving in roles as project manager, director of operations, studio director, and finally, associate principal, before declining partnership. He helped them to develop into a more balanced firm, servicing both developers and tenants by focusing on retail business development opportunities across the country.
Chinn is a licensed architect in 37 states, holds an NCARB certification, and is responsible for all aspects of project design, client relationships, and business development for the company, where he has led his team in the successful completion of more than 500 projects since starting ADC. Under Chinn’s leadership, ADC has won numerous national and international design awards.
Mr. Chinn utilizes his expertise and leadership savviness to guide the successful design and planning of a diversity of commercial, office, retail and mixed-use projects. His mastery of the workings of the governmental process, permitting process, and the demands of the construction program always yields a smooth project and a timely and enduring design. Mr. Chinn is currently working on numerous projects in over 20 states.
In addition to being a principal and founding partner, Craig enjoys spending time with his family and traveling abroad when not focused on clients.
How did the concept for Architecture Design Collaborative come about?
After working in the industry for the same firm since graduation, I was offered partnership. For a few years, I was leading a national retail studio and I had developed a vision of how to better provide services that my clients were needing. My firm at the time was hesitant; they wanted to do only architecture. Since I kept saying “no” to the partnership, I needed to make a change. I had the desire to create a truly-diverse architecture firm that is an integral member for any development partner. We can do all aspects of a large project: master-planning the site, design the buildings, interiors, finishes, signage, and furniture and lighting, so that all of these elements are integrated seamlessly and aesthetically. Our team have become very skilled in experiential architecture. We also offer standalone services for our clients that have a specific need. Since our inception, our collaborative nature and dynamic work environment is what has made us exceptional.
How was the first year in business?
The best way to describe the first year of business is like playing Asteroids! Total chaos! We started with 4 people, with the idea of controlled growth, and taking on projects and clients that share our vision and collaborative nature. Fortunately for ADC, our clients love how we do things, and that pushed us to grow our team to 12 people by year-end. Now, we had the throttle wide open. Red-eye flights across the country, a few all-nighters, and tons of coffee. ADC’s clients and employees embraced this speed and we finished the year with 140 projects in 22 states and a few 100,000-travel miles. Add in the moving from my home to a friend’s extra space in their office, to moving into another space, then expanding that space to fit the rapid-growth…it was a total blur.
What was your marketing strategy?
While at my previous firm, I started to develop a unique way of designing with clients in real-time at their office or at the project site. This mobile design studio was perfected early on at ADC. This gave us our “blue ocean,” so we implemented an aggressive direct marketing approach with phone calls to the decision makers to set up a meeting. We have one of the best (if not the best) cold callers. I had worked with Shaun Garrett for numerous years, and when he decided to join ADC, things got organized and took off even faster. Armed with the mobile design studio, Shaun was able to get us meetings with literally anyone we wanted to meet with. We always have our studio leaders in these BD meetings to present projects, and discuss industry trends and costs, which sets us apart from other firms. With this aggressive direct marketing approach and great word of mouth, we kept growing.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew extremely quickly – the first year we were at approximately $1.3 million, then $2.8 million, then $4.2 million, and then $5.8 million. In 2018, we just broke $7 million for our 5th year in business. We currently have 35 employees and two office locations; Laguna Hills, CA is our corporate office and we have a second location in Arvada, CO, near Denver.
How do you define success?
Success is having repeat clients who are continually happy, and having an engaged and challenged staff who is able to execute a diversity of project types.
What is the key to success?
The key is hiring great people to work with our great clients. The staff at ADC takes ownership of the projects and clients, and they actively work to move them both towards future successes. Our clients have grown to expect a certain level of exceptionalism from us. We provide a service, and we need to provide a better level of service than our competition.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Do what you say, when you say it.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“If you make your client’s life easier, you will always have work.”
“If you make your supervisor’s life easier, you will always be employed.”
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.” – former Chicago Cubs first baseman, Mark Grace (not in the illegal way; in the “think outside the box” type of way. I live in the grey area!)
What are some of your favorite books?
The Experience Economy by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore
Blue Ocean Strategy by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim
Harry and the Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Rather than one single day, it was a period of time right after starting ADC.
Important background information: I worked for the same firm for nearly 12 years, since graduation, and I was close with the partners and their families, and they knew mine.
I worked my way up from an entry-level employee to designer, to project manager, to operations, to leading the retail studio that I rebooted. I saw senior-level people and partners come and go without much incidence. I was offered partnership multiple times, and after deep thought, I kept declining. In our industry, if you keep saying no to partnership, you eventually get replaced, especially when running a profitable and growing national studio. The tough period began when I resigned from this firm. As I said, I have known some of these people my entire professional life, so that alone was difficult. I met with the CEO to give notice and we spent a few hours discussing the transition. The next day, I was told to leave the company and not come back. Then, shortly after I started ADC, they initiated litigation for a number of ridiculous things. I felt betrayed and it caused me a lot of stress during an already-stressful time of starting a new business. But I fought their claims and spent lots of time dealing with lawyers and in the end, they lost and had to write me a check – which was a nice close to an otherwise incredibly-stressful and trying time.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Good, old-fashioned stubbornness, a relentless amount of positive thinking, and business and practical knowledge of the architecture industry. For instance, I always tell our team members if your BD meeting isn’t going well, to think of it as a marketing meeting. We may not get work this day, but another person now knows of ADC and our clients’ successes!
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
First off, interview or take a leader in the architecture industry out for lunch and ask them a ton of questions. Be organized and have your questions written down. Most leaders in our industry want to help our young people. Second, meet with an attorney and make sure that what you are doing or about to do is legal, as they will help keep you protected. Remember my toughest day? Lastly, develop a plan! This will be a business that focuses first on architecture. Putting things in writing makes them more real. Your plan needs to include a mission statement, goals, and business philosophy. You need these to base your decisions on the direction you take. If the direction you want to go in doesn’t align with these, then something needs to change. Plan…..revise….plan….revise. Nothing stays static in business, especially in architecture.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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