Learn: Amelia’s take on running her online architectural practice, newsletters, blogs, finding great customers & more.
Read: 11 minutes
Listen: 25:43 minutes [my first podcast!]
Amelia Lee, founder of Undercover Architect (UA), talks to us about her ground-breaking online architectural practice. UA’s mission is to get better outcomes for those designing, building or renovating their homes by empowering them about the process. Through this new business model Amelia has doubled revenues in a year, her clients arrive qualified, and the design process and outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive.
Amelia, how did you find yourself doing what you do?
Amelia: Undercover Architect started around the middle of 2014. My family and I moved to the Byron Hinterland at that time, from Brisbane, and that was something we wanted to do for a very long time. When we moved, I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t want to have to create, or cultivate, a local client base and create a practice from scratch. I’ve worked in development for a long time in Brisbane, and I co-owned an architectural practice in Brisbane for five years, which also had a studio in Sydney.
I really wanted to see what opportunities there were to use my expertise and experience to help more people and work with them remotely. I was also really frustrated by the fact that there’s over 150,000 houses built every year in Australia, and only 3% of them are done in a traditional client-architect arrangement. I really wanted to see how my knowledge and skills as an architect could help homeowners get better outcomes by being able to jump into the process at the right place, and give them the help and support that they need, the way that they need it, so that they can basically build a better home, and it can support them living a better life.
Undercover Architect is about being people’s secret ally and sitting behind the scenes of everything that was still going on, but helping them being more educated and informed to have a better outcome.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Amelia: I really resist structure in my days, which I think, as an architect, is great because you can sit down at your desk and have all sorts of plans about how you’re going to spend your day, and then you’ll get a phone call, and everything goes pear-shaped. Part of the way that I’ve set up the business is also about the fact that I do live fairly remotely. We’re on eighty acres, the local village is a five minute drive, but Byron Bay, which is our nearest “town” for want of a better word, is half an hour away.
I’ve got three small children so my days are based around them needing to go to and from school, and then me working either with clients, over Skype or email, and I’ll also be doing work on my website. I’ll be generating blogs, or e-guides, or products that I want to put on there. I recently launched my e-course, Your Reno Roadmap, so I’m spending a lot of time doing that type of work. I spend a lot of time writing, then other time sketching and drawing, and then also just finding ways to share information and inform people, be it through the website or social media.
How many hours do you think you would put into running the marketing and communications side of your business?
Amelia: It’s a little hard to segment, because I have a very different mindset in terms of thinking about what I do, and not necessarily segmenting it off as marketing. It’s different to how I’ve practiced in the past, and it’s probably quite particular to Undercover Architect, and the business model that I have. For example, one of my biggest marketing tools, if you want to call it that, is is my blog, and I’ve been doing that now for over a year. There are sixty-five odd posts on the website (now 79!). I do a weekly blog post, and then I package it up in an email newsletter through my Mailchimp account, and I will send that out to my email list which I’ve been cultivating and growing over that time as well.
That process of physically writing a blog, the newsletter, adding in bits of information – that can sometimes take up to a day to do. I know that sounds like masses of time when you’ve got a five-day week to work in. My social media platforms just happen incidentally, throughout the day. So all of my social media, I would generally do on my phone. As I’m using my phone, I might be reading an email, see something that’s interesting, share it on my social media, and that takes a matter of moments.
I’ve got a much bigger vision about wanting to elevate design, particularly in Australia, and so I see that blog as a really important education tool for my readers. It also helps explain to people how I do what I do, my personality and how I approach my work.
Could you talk a little bit more about what difference the blog has made to people perhaps being better informed about you before they actually pick up the phone?
Amelia: I have to be honest, I have been gobsmacked by the power of the blog. In the previous architectural practice I co-owned, I was there for five years, and one of my co-directors set up the website and said, “We’ve got to have a blog! That’s how Google will find us”. It just looked like a massive chain around our neck, and I really resisted it! When I started Undercover Architect, knowing I was working remotely, and my website was going to be my office, I just made a commitment early on that I was going to blog weekly. It’s a stress sometimes, and sometimes it comes easily.
What it has done, is this. I’ve been in the industry now over twenty years, and in all my work for friends or clients that have found me, I’ve never actively marketed myself. Instead what I’ve found is that, for the first time, I got a client purely from the website. They signed up for my newsletter. They read my newsletter for a while, and then they were willing to convert to being a client very quickly.
What I would previously do is get a phone call from a potential client and spend half an hour on the phone with them. I’d then organize to go to their house, and have a chat, and I’d be there from an hour to an hour-and-a-half, I’d then come back, do a fee proposal and that might take another two hours, and then I may or may not get the job. The blog is doing this work for me because clients are self-selecting themselves before they even pick up the phone or email me.
The clients that I’m getting in Undercover Architect are some of the best clients I’ve ever had. They’re like-minded, they get what I do, they value what I do. It’s what they’re looking for because my blog tells them how I would work with them and the difference that it will make. And it does it in a way that’s serving and educating them, not promoting me. It’s a really different mindset from anything I’ve done before and it’s working from that greater purpose of just really wanting to help people.
I was determined that anybody on any budget would be able to get access to great information, even for free, and that’s what my blog does, and it means then I charge for everything beyond there. I don’t do free consults anymore. If you want my time one to one, you pay for it, and clients are very happy to do that. They’re now paying for my services before we’ve worked together, it’s just been extraordinary. If you’d told me that it was going to be like this two years ago, I would have really struggled to understand how it could work.
They might say “I spent two hours on your website, you’re talking a language I know, and through what you’re saying I feel like I know you.” When I say this is how much it is, it’s a quick yes or no. It’s not a dragging on, a “talking them into it”. It’s really simple. So yes, it’s been really powerful doing the blog.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
Amelia: One of the main things that’s been critical for me is just, actually, listening a lot. Listening and asking people what are their main concerns? What do they want to know? What’s the information that they’re seeking? I suppose even before that, it’s being really clear on who are the people that I want to work with and help – even to the point of actually thinking about them and picturing an imaginary person. I’ve got really clear on who my ideal client is, who are the kinds of people that I want to work with and help every day, and then I speak directly to them.
That can be really scary because you might be excluding other people, but what I’ve found is actually the reverse. I found there are more of the clients I love working with, and people who wouldn’t necessarily fit my ideal client, they still come to me and they’ve self-selected themselves by understanding how I work, and they’re generally great to work with too.
So working out exactly who are the kinds of clients you want to work with and how you want to help is the first first thing, and then consistency, is the second. I made a commitment that I’d be blogging weekly. My newsletter comes out Tuesday mornings, and sometimes it’s happening very late Monday night. But just that regular content and turning up in people’s inboxes once a week has been really helpful.
Another thing that I’ve done is when I do work with clients, I have a briefing process, and one of the questions that I ask them is what they’re really seeking to achieve? What are they nervous about happening? And then, I listen for the type of language they use. I think as architects, we can become quite caught up in terminology – the architect speak that we can use, and it’s actually quite foreign to most people out there. And when you start to listen to the language they use, and then talk to them in those terms, that’s what lands, that’s what they hear, and that’s what they kind of hang on to. I’ve found that’s how I uncomplicate a lot of what I do, and what I write about so it actually can actually be listened to and heard on the other end.
Where do you see yourself heading in the future?
Amelia: I’ve got such massive dreams. I’ve actually been really surprised at how much I love writing. That was a really unexpected pleasure. I know that a lot of architects do enjoy writing. At the end of the day though, if it hadn’t been writing, it would have been something else. It could have been video, pictures, or photo libraries, or something like that. I am on a mission to help homeowners create homes that make their lives better. So everything at Undercover Architect is about supporting homeowners to do that – whatever budget they’re on or location they’re in.
Writing will continue to be a big part of Undercover Architect. Then it’s a case of looking at other ways that I can work on the “one to many” business model. It might be through creating more guides, or programs, or those types of things. I find that working on long term on projects is something that I’ve always struggled with personally, particularly as a mum, because the timelines end up being dictated to by clients. So it doesn’t give me a lot of flexibility for things that I want to do with the kids or where I can work. I’m really keen that, whatever I do with Undercover Architect, I can do it from anywhere and still help people with their outcomes for their homes.
Amelia, you talked about the importance of the email list. What advice could you give to people about building up a list? Everyone has to start with a zero subscriber base, which can be hard.
Amelia: Yes, it’s actually quite demoralizing. I have learned a massive amount about online business operation over the last eighteen months, and a lot has been through doing online research and looking at industries other than architecture. There’s a lot of marketers out there who do a really good job. Look at all the people you let turn up in your inbox every week, and how they talk to you, and what they do.
When I set up Undercover Architect, I set up the website and a Facebook page. I didn’t set up Instagram until a few months later – even though now it’s become my favorite platform. When I set up Facebook, I set up a Mailchimp account, which you can do for free up to a certain amount of subscribers. I had an opt-in box on my website, and I asked people on my Facebook page to sign up for the regular email newsletter. Then over time, I started creating freebies for them. So, useful pieces of information, be it e-guides, or things like that. These were things they’d want to download and exchange their email address for.
Since then I’ve run Facebook ad campaigns, and all sorts of other bits and pieces to grow my email list, and then that’s helped me get clients. At the moment, 95% of my clients come from my website, and from people who are on my email list. They’ll generally find me on social media first. Then they’ll go to the website … then they’ll be at the website for a while … then they’ll sign up for the email newsletter … and then they’ll contact me. By then, they’ve already got such a good picture of who I am as a person and as an architect, and how I work with them, and how I help them. So then it’s basically whether they figure my fees are worth it. That’s the last piece in the puzzle in terms of making the conversion to being a client.
There’s a saying in online marketing, that the money’s in the email list, and I would tend to agree. I work remotely – it’s not like being in a suburban or an urban architectural office where you’re meeting people all the time, so it may be different, but I still really recommend people do cultivate an email list for their businesses.
Have you got resources that you tap into regularly that other architects might find valuable?
Amelia: I did Marie Forleo’s B-School at the beginning of 2015. Marie Forleo is an American entrepreneur who helps creatives run businesses online. She focuses a lot on service-based creatives. It’s quite an expensive course to do, but it was worth every penny, and that injected me into an online community of people. Now I have mastermind group that I meet up with each week to make sure that we’re keeping each other accountable to our overall goals, which is really important.
I’m a member of a lot of Facebook groups. They’re all online business people and they’re really helpful. I find Instagram a really good resource because you can search by hashtag to see what other people in your field might be doing. I’m a naturally curious person, and I think being an architect, you’re walking around with your eyes wide open anyway. Anytime that I’m enticed to give my email address to somebody, I see what it was that was the trigger, what was it that convinced me that it was worth my email address? And then, how do they take care of me once they’ve got my email address? What are they teaching me? How are they serving me? When are they selling to me, and how are they selling to me? Do they convince me to buy? You start to see patterns and ways of doing things that work for people, regardless of what industry they’re in.
What difference are you seeing with the type of design you’re able to do as an architect through this approach?
Amelia: I suppose my approach is quite different, in so far as that I don’t generally hold their hand the whole way through the project as I did in previous incarnations of my career. I find that we reach resolutions a lot faster. When you’re spending all this time online, talking to people about what you do and how you do it, in a way that serves and helps them, you build a level of authority in your field. So the whole exercise of working with people and getting them to convert from just listeners to clients is to get them to know, like and trust you. Knowing, liking and trusting you is then essential in them taking on board your ideas for their home. So, I think that it’s all part of a long chain that when the actual design process comes, they’ll take my advice more readily.
It is that whole thing of they know the type of work that I do and how I will work with them. I have had clients who came to me via a referral, say from someone who knew me, like a real estate agent or something like that. And they haven’t actually spent a lot of time on my website, and then when I’ve sent them my materials, they’ve said: “Your style’s not for me.” It’s really interesting to see the flip side of it.
I think there was a big realization in the fact that because I wasn’t going to be holding people’s hands the whole way through the process, I had to stake my reputation on something quite different. Most architects stake their reputation on the houses they produce, and so when most homeowners look for an architect, they look at their portfolio, and they see the photographs of the houses, and they figure out whether they like the style, and then they go to them expecting that that’s the kind of work that they will get.
Whereas for me, because I’m not going through to completion, and I’m not necessarily in control of how the house turns out, my reputation is instead staked on how the client feels in that process. Does the client feel more confident, more in control and have more sanity in their overall process? That is the difference for Undercover Architect. I’m your secret ally. I do things like relinquish copyright, which I know a lot of architects would baulk at. It was a big turning point, for me and my business, to figure that out, because this was about the client. This wasn’t about the building. That won’t necessarily work for all architects and my architectural heart still fights it sometimes because I want to control the outcome.
For me it’s about the client journey. My target market are people who wouldn’t ordinarily speak to an architect, and particularly, women. I can’t hang onto the architectural jewel at the end of the process. There are so many architects serving that 3%. I’m hoping to serve the other 97%, so for me, that’s been a big thing.
What feedback have you had from architects about your approach?
Amelia: It’s fairly varied. I’ve got a lot of architectural graduates, interior designers, and students on my email list. They’ll download my guides. I had a webinar recently and I had a few architectural graduates and students [turn up] for that. I love that there’s an element of mentoring in what I’m doing, because I do put it all online and give it away generously so they can access it for their own learning.
There are a few architects who are trying to do similar things and have a similar goal in terms of helping more homeowners who’ve contacted me. There’s Jennifer Crawford in Sydney who’s Our New Home Coach, and she and I speak occasionally. David Kidston from HACK Architecture in Newcastle is looking at doing something similar. They’ve been looking at what I do, and how I do it.
And then other architects like the fact that I’m sharing advice, particularly on my social media platforms. They like my Instagram account because it’s generally filled with nice things to look at.
I found when I started work at Mirvac most of my architectural colleagues thought I’d crossed to the dark side. I’d worked at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects for a long time and Arkhefield – big design firms that were very well reputed in their design. Then to go and work for a developer was just really seen as kind of ‘selling my soul’.
Then with the business that I co-owned in Brisbane, DC8 Studio, we did a lot of developer work as well. So I don’t necessarily mix in a lot of architectural circles to be perfectly honest with you. I speak out about the way that the architecture industry works on my blog because I’m helping my clients – that’s my goal. But I know that it ruffles some feathers in the architectural industry.
How do you measure success with this approach?
Amelia: It’s hard to measure whether an email newsletter and a blog works. I do look at the numbers: page views on my website, unique visitors and whether there’s growth in that. I look at the size of my email list. I look at the cost of getting people on my email list (because if you use Facebook advertising there’s a cost to getting people to give you their email address). I look at all of those metrics on the various platforms that I occupy, and then I look at my revenue, and where those people are coming from, and how long it’s taking to convert them from the point that they actually get in touch with me to being a client.
I’m finding that there’s less effort and hard work to making that happen. While there’s time spent on the blog and social media platforms, there’s not time spent networking, speaking directly to clients, and giving them free services and those types of things. My business is on track to make two to two and a half times the revenue this financial year than it made last financial year. That’s starting with no local client base, a brand new business, and a different way of operating. That, to me, has been a really good measure of how well things are working.
And there’s the fact that total strangers are saying to me from across the globe, on my social media platforms, just keep doing what you’re doing. I have that big a goal of helping people, whether they’re paying me or not. I think as architects we have such a responsibility as space makers. Having this knowledge, skill and expertise to help more than just the clients that pay us – that to me is really significant. A measure of how well I’m doing is when I have a total stranger message me personally because they’ve read an Instagram post, and they’re thanking me for giving them information, and giving them access to something.
Amelia, thank you for sharing your time and your knowledge so generously. We look forward to seeing the business progress!
Amelia: Thanks very much Verity, it’s been great talking to you too.