By Julia Gamolina
Iben Falconer is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation. Prior to joining Columbia, she was an Associate and the Business Development Director, Americas for BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group from 2010-2016. During her tenure, the NYC office grew from 13 to 200 employees, and greatly expanded its market reach, winning its first cultural and institutional projects. In addition to being involved with the company’s business development strategy and leading its implementation, she was also a member of the executive management team. Prior to BIG, Iben worked for Steven Holl Architects, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Urban Land Institute. Iben completed her graduate work at the Yale School of Architecture in the Master of Environmental Design program, a two-year research-based program in advanced architectural studies. She has given lectures on both BIG and business development strategy for the AIA, Infonavit, Pratt, Yale School of Architecture, Cornell, and the GSAPP Incubator. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Iben discusses the importance of building relationships, knowing all the workings of an architecture firm, and staying informed on good business practices, advising young architects to recognize their value and develop solid management, business, and communication skills.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
IB: My teachers identified it before anyone else. I took art history in high school, and when my teacher was assigning us topics to present to the class, she assigned architecture to me. I asked why and she said, “You clearly really like it!” My dad worked in real estate and would always talk about the built environment, and my mom is Danish and Danes tend to pay a lot of attention to architecture and design, so that probably had to do with it [laughs].
How did you end up pursuing it professionally?
I studied architectural studies at Brown and then worked in Seattle, part-time for the Urban Land Institute and part-time for a really wonderful firm, Weinstein AU. At Weinstein, I ended up helping the woman who was the Marketing Director a lot. They kept encouraging me to learn CAD – I kept NOT doing that, so maybe in hindsight it was clear that design wasn’t my calling [laughs].
What was your path to BIG?
I wrote my master’s thesis at Yale on Contemporary Danish Architecture, focusing on the relationship between nationalism and promotion, and BIG was one of key firms I wrote about. It’s a small world – Kai-Uwe Bergmann was their communications contact at the time, and Kai had also worked for Weinstein in Seattle. I reached out to him and he ended up being a resource for my thesis.
When I graduated in 2009, I got a summer internship in the architecture and design curatorial department at MoMA. I would have loved to stay, but 2009 was an awful time to finish school and museums had a hiring freeze. I applied for a job at Steven Holl’s office. Small world again – Steven was the college roommate of Ed Weinstein, the founder of the firm I worked for in Seattle. At Steven Holl, I worked on RFPs and RFQs and realized that I liked business development. Unfortunately, a lot of architects don’t see the value in supporting and promoting someone to take on a leadership role in that realm – firms see leadership roles only for designers and business development is not seen as an intellectual pursuit like design is. People don’t realize that someone can be good at it, and it very well might not be an architect.
Kai and I stayed in touch after my thesis, so when I decided to leave Steven Holl, I sent him my resume. This was September 2010, and BIG had just opened the New York office. Two hours later I got an email from Bjarke saying, “We should talk.”
There were all sorts of reasons why it was a good fit – I have connections to Denmark and speak Danish, but I also noticed that business development wasn’t shuffled off to the side there; it was valued, it was supported, and there was a partner in charge of it. I was also aware that there was a trajectory there for me to take on a leadership role – you usually have to fight for one at other firms.
One thing that attracted me to work for BIG, and specifically for Bjarke, was that he was just starting out in the States, and I had knowledge and relationships that I could bring. Bjarke is also very ambitious, the firm is very ambitious, so there was also a desire for growth, both in terms of the size of the office and type of work that they do. For example, Steven’s office is 50 people, and he doesn’t want it to be larger – that’s totally reasonable, and sometimes it is even harder to maintain, than to grow. Steven also has a type of work that he wants to do, and BIG, by definition, is omnivorous. We pursued many types of projects, and that was attractive as well.
What was your trajectory there?
Working at BIG from 2010-2016 was a little bit like working at eight different companies – we went from 13 to 200 people! My first year was all about introducing us to every man and woman we could find in New York, and then around the country. This also meant a lot of cold-calling! At a certain point, people started knowing who we were, and I realized that I didn’t have to do the whole song and dance to explain what BIG is, I could just jump right into why they should hire us. I started as a Business Development Manager – there was a small business development team in Copenhagen, but in New York it was just me, with Kai coming every six weeks or so. By the time I left, I had built a team of three people whom I managed.
How did your role change further when you became involved in executive management?
To be done well, Business Development should be informed by all the other activities happening in the office – you can’t exist in a bubble. When I was made Associate, I was exposed to all the workings in a firm and coordinated on a minute-by-minute basis with the Operations Director. It’s really important that you match the incoming new business, both in type and timeline, to the available skills and the staff, so that when there’s a team that’s finishing up DD, we know that in a couple of months, we’ll have something to slot that team into. It’s also important to know how the teams work, what the personalities are like, and what the potential match between clients and project leaders would be. Some people think a business development person is someone who is just out there constantly grabbing at things, but it’s a role that’s very holistic and integrated into the firm.
Since 2010, BIG has completely exploded, and I don’t doubt that you had a role in that. Can you speak to this?
I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish, not only in terms of bringing in new work, but also of the relationships I’ve cultivated that have led to significant projects. Two World Trade came through a relationship of mine with an incredible woman I really admire, Mary Ann Tighe. She’s the CEO of CBRE Tristate – real-estate suffers even more from a drought of female leadership than architecture does. I got to know her and she got to know BIG. Later she was putting a list together, for 21st Century Fox, of architects they should talk to, and put us on it! There’s a direct link between relationships that I built and maintained, and projects that came in. I shouldn’t downplay that, right?
Why do you think some firms value business development and communications, and some don’t?
In some ways it’s a generational thing – there used to be an attitude that, “We are artists, this is a calling, and if I’m really talented, someone will find me.” Such thinking is completely misguided – if you’re waiting for someone to find you and identify your talent, you will be waiting a very long time. That doesn’t mean you have to turn into some ego-maniac who can’t stop talking about all of her successes, but the world is a loud, busy place and people don’t have a long attention spans, so if you’re not making a concentrated effort to think about the firm you want to be and the work you want to do, it’s very easy to let the wind blow you around into bankruptcy.
My generation of architects is more attuned to this; the recession freaked a lot of people out, and for good reason – it was terrifying. I’ve seen firms that my peers and friends worked for fail, or have to do massive layoffs, or get very stressed about where the money was coming in from. It was eye-opening and exposed a lot of bad practices and a lot of ignorance about business. When all of yours friends are losing their jobs, you start to wonder why.
What are some of these bad practices?
In terms of business development, the biggest mistake is that people think they can get away with not doing it – probably because there’s also a big misconception about what it is. Sometimes people in business development have a reputation for being glad-handy and slick – they’re “the marketing people” or “power hungry,” or they “sniff out the money”. There are certainly people like that, in any industry, but I always say that it’s not a question of whether you do business development or not – you do do it, even if you don’t know it, and you have to, so you might as well be thoughtful and intentional.
I often give the example of Le Corbusier – despite that he’s a terrible example of 20th century system white male architect and “sole genius” – there was no question that he did a ton of business development. He was a huge self-promoter, very active in PR and getting his work out, very active in getting clients, and had all sorts of hilarious sneaky ways to get advertising revenue for his journals. He was a businessman! When people pause and realize that they do have to do the marketing, the business development, the PR, otherwise they won’t have a business, that’s the first step. I’ve always been very open and share everything that I know, because I think it really empowers architects.
How and why did you decide to leave BIG?
Leaving BIG was painful, the decision to leave BIG was hard – my experience was so intense, rich, stimulating, and personal – but I was ready to do something different and flex different muscles. I was interested in places that were mission-driven, non-profits and institutions. I’m now in institutional strategy at Columbia. There’s a lot of similarity to what I was doing before, since I’m connecting dots and building relationships for the school to the benefit of the students and the faculty. Honestly, business development is all about relationship building and dot connecting. One of the things I’m working on is a strategic plan for career services and making it really strong for the architecture students – a piece of architecture schools that is under-nourished, or sometimes even non-existent
What has been your biggest challenge?
Being in architecture without being an architect, though I think that’s also an opportunity. I’ve always loved not being one thing and that’s been the constant in everything I’ve done – where I’ve chosen to go to school, where I’ve worked. I think it’s good to be nimble and flexible about what you think your job will be and what your career will be – the recession taught a lot of us that. I’m very lucky to have a generalist background and it’s a benefit I’ll never forget.
What has been a highlight?
I never thought I had it in me to jump into the start-up world – granted BIG NY was a start-up with backing, because the Copenhagen office was as a huge source of support. I’m constantly thinking about those early days, about what we’ve created from so much effort, talent, good will, and duct tape [laughs]. We went from being a very scrappy small entity with a lot of ambition, to being an incredibly dynamic and well-run group of 200 people. I’m incredibly proud of that.
What advice would you give to young architects?
Pick a firm that you can learn from – don’t just pick a name – and look very carefully at how everyone there is treated. Not everyone treats their employees well, so seek out the places that do, be it in terms of how they pay, the responsibility that you get, or the attitude of people in the office. I have often been someone’s first boss out of school, and I want to make sure that their expectations for how they’re treated and respected, and their expectations for what they deliver, are high.
For young architects who are very keen on getting licensed, I would also encourage them to look beyond how an architectural project moves through and see how the rest of the office works. Find out what the office manager, the CEO, or the in-house counsel does. Kai always said, “In the beginning, you are sponges.” I fully second that. Be a very broad sponge and learn about other parts of the office because there’s a lot of value and insight there, and those people are often overlooked. Treat those people with the respect they deserve because they are also incredibly intrinsic to an architectural practice.