An Interview with Founder & President Joe Lee
Celebrating JLA’s 15-Year Anniversary
In January of 2007, Joseph “Joe” Lee founded Joseph Lee & Associates (JLA) Architects. In celebration of our 15th anniversary, we sat down with Joe to discuss what led him to starting a firm and what it was like starting a new business right before The Great Recession of 2008.
What made you take the leap and start your own firm?
I don’t know if I’d say it was something I was always going to do, but it was something that always intrigued me. I was at a highly respected firm that I enjoyed working at and I liked the people that I worked with. However, the last few years there, I was working a lot of hours and had very little work/life balance, so that played a lot into it. I thought if I was going to be working that hard and long, I should be working for myself.
Were there experiences at other firms that formed the way you originally conceived and ran JLA?
Architecture is a tough industry, there are so many perspectives that we must consider and stakeholders that we must satisfy. Before JLA, I had experience at a variety of firms from very small to large. I learned a lot about the ways those firms – and individuals in those firms – approached architecture as a profession and a business. I wanted to take the ‘good’ things that I experienced at other firms and apply them to JLA. Equally important was to learn from the ‘bad’ things as well, I wanted to make sure that JLA strived to avoid those.
Basically, what it comes down to is simple and I think universal in life – operating with integrity, treating everyone with respect & dignity, and building personal relationships.
Who were JLA’s first clients? How did you get them?
This is an interesting story that I am proud of. Out of respect for the individuals that I worked for at my former firm, I didn’t solicit a single client before I left and started JLA. I thought that doing so would have been unethical. I did, however, have confidence in the relationships that I had built over the years and thought that I could “scrape together” enough work to keep a roof over my head and food on my table. Luckily, I was correct. Scott Simon & Craig Donze of the Simon Group hired me for a couple of smaller multifamily projects. I had worked with them on some of their previous projects at my former firm and they appreciated my approach and work product. Another early client was Fiduciary Real Estate Development. I had not previously worked with them, but another client and friend of mine, Blair Williams, recommended me to them.
Do you know why Fiduciary gave you a shot?
Initially, Blair’s recommendation and introduction put me at the table – and I’ll forever be grateful to him for that. I remember that first meeting like it was yesterday. I met with Craig Raddatz and did my ‘sales pitch’ about my experience, my knowledge, and how I could help them. They gave me a chance to do a masterplan for a project they were considering. It was a very small fee with no commitment from them moving forward. They obviously enjoyed our interactions and the work that I did because they are a great client to this day – with JLA doing much of Fiduciary’s architectural work over the last 15 years.
What were some of your initial challenges?
The major challenge, initially, was the economy at the time. There wasn’t a lot of work out there. Fortunately, being a one-person firm didn’t require a lot of work to keep things going. What that did afford me though, was time to go out and build relationships – meet people, do my ‘sales pitch’, and offer them assistance. During that time, I met a lot of people, re-established older relationships, and got the word out about JLA. I always wonder if it wasn’t slow back then, and if I didn’t have the time to make those initial contacts, would I have been able to foster those relationships that that eventually paid off years down the line?
In those first years, did you work out of a home office?
No, I had an official office space day one on Atwood Avenue. It was a mixed-use building with senior housing above. I just rented a small 200-square-foot suite, enough for a couple of desks and an I.T. area. It was definitely a low ‘Class-C’ space and nothing that I was eager or proud to bring clients. But that’s the beauty of our clients and our relationships, they didn’t care because we did good work.
Who was the first JLA employee?
JLA’s first official employee was Mike Lynch. I had worked with Mike at our previous firm, so I already knew him fairly well. He epitomizes the culture at JLA today. He doesn’t have an ego, is hard working, always doing his best to help our team and our clients and has a good sense of humor. He’s just an overall good guy! Mike moved to Florida a number of years ago or I’m sure he’d still be at JLA today.
Any funny stories from those early days?
In the early days, it was just Mike and I in the office, so we shared a bunch of laughs every day. Nothing specifically sticks out in my mind, except as I look back at that office space itself, it was pretty humorous. I think that our furniture was from the 1980’s and we always had senior residents of the building stopping to peek into our single window when they took their daily walks.
Have you had any ‘Ah-Ha!’ moments over the years?
Every week! There hasn’t been a large epiphany that has changed the core values or philosophies of JLA, but there are constantly little ‘Ah-Ha!’ moments that have informed the way we have evolved – in how we work and treat our team and clients. Many of these are a result of consistent collaboration and input from our team and clients.
Fifteen years is quite a milestone. As we celebrate it, what are you most grateful for as you reflect back?
Three things that will probably sound really cliché but they’re true:
- The support of my wife, Erika. She has been awesome with her support – both publicly and privately. She also extends her support to our team – getting to know them and providing a light-hearted presence in the office. She helps reinforce the culture at JLA.
- Our great team. Not only for the great work that they do, but for the trust that they put in me and their colleagues. Their work and trust have been the key to our evolution.
- Our clients. We work to be the best architectural firm that our clients have worked with in terms of service, experience, design, and documents. We are grateful for those that have given us the opportunity to prove this, with the vast majority of them becoming repeat clients.
What do you see in store for the next 15 years of JLA?
In the next 15 years, JLA will continue to be a firm that consistently improves the ways that we operate – to enrich the lives and professions of our team members and to provide our clients an enjoyable experience and high-quality designs. How we do that will likely change in ways that we do not know now. The key will be that we remain open to nimble evolution – in our team and our processes – to respond as the industry and society evolve as well.