We established WE THE BIRDS in 2015 as a fun creative outlet for 2 sisters who found ourselves living in the same city for the first time in years (in fact we hadn't lived in the same place for over 10 years due to college and our budding professional careers). WE THE BIRDS started as a lifestyle blog and has organically evolved into a small business. We've somehow managed to carve out an [unconventional] business model that combines both of our skills and interests— content creation + a bakery specializing in custom French macarons. Our business has steadily grown in response to demand for the product(s) we make and for the most part, we've been able to logically convince ourselves to take the next step forward. By 2016, we had both left our corporate jobs to work on WE THE BIRDS full-time. We had also hired a few employees. At the start of 2017, we knew that we were quickly outgrowing our home office / home bakery situation. We started to discuss what the next step would be... It became clear that if we wanted to grow this business any further, the next step would be more of a giant leap— we would need a commercial kitchen to scale our macaron production and bring our product to new markets.
We found the site for our headquarters in April 2017. Situated in the back of an old retail strip in Old East Dallas, we fell in love with a humble building that had once been home to an AT&T datacenter. By summer 2017, we signed our lease for 2000 sqft and had finalized plans with our architect. The space was basically a dark cave— some brick walls, no windows, in fact we had to use our iPhone flashlights to see the space for the first time... there was really nothing to look at. We actually found this "nothingness" exciting and liberating... a real blank canvas! We had a vision and knew we could achieve it within the existing walls of nothing. We understood that the trade for the blank canvas meant that we would have to start from scratch... A/C, water, plumbing, electrical, windows... we had to literally breathe life into a dead building. For some reason, we weren't scared off. We secured our first small business loan and decided this was happening. We predicted that we would DEFINITELY be operating from of the space by the end of 2017.
We can now laugh about how utterly naive our predicted timeline was. [though as you can imagine, over the course of 15 months, the real timeline of this project was not funny].
First viewing of space: 4/5/17
Lease signed: 5/20/17
Permit Set submitted to city: 10/15/17
Building Permit issued by the city: 11/28/17
Building Permit picked up by contractor: 2/15/18
Construction began: 3/15/18
Certificate of Occupancy: 7/5/18
What we learned
Knowing what we know now... from the other side... we want to share some of the advice we wish we could have given ourselves back in April 2017:
Talk to people & ask questions
Get a feel for what things actually cost. Most people are happy to share their experiences with you!
Do your research
Don't give anyone your money unless you're 99% sure that they can get the job done. Seriously, we live in a age where all kinds of information is available to us. Ask for references. Look at past work. Ask all the questions.
Make a budget using real numbers (and cushion)
(or as close to "real" as you can)... Budgets can be hard for a small business... you are likely taking on things you've never done before (i.e. construction). Based on your research, list what you think everything will cost... and then we recommend DOUBLING that number. Seriously, the last thing you want to do is get caught midway through a project with zero funds because you grossly under-budgeted the scope!
note: It is NOT ideal to take out a second loan. Loaners also don't like that because it looks like you mismanaged the hell out of your money (even though you know now that you simply didn't ask for enough because you didn't know how much everything would cost)... Just save yourself the headache and budget realistically.
Find a low interest loan
(if you can)... we're not saying don't go to a bank... but just explore all of your options. Friend and family loans have their fair share of draw-backs, but usually, you can work out a better deal with an actual human being.
Double your predicted timeline
Once you've outlined a timeline for the project, double it (actually maybe just triple it to avoid disappointment and unmanaged expectations)... just saying...
Plan for delays and worst case scenarios
Obviously, everyone's goal is to keep your project on schedule... but there are a LOT of moving parts. Delays are usually completely out of your control. So just assume the project will take longer than expected and plan for that in your projections.
Know your numbers and stay within your budget
Once you've made a solid budget with adequate padding (detailed earlier), you should be hitting those numbers (and hoping for some savings).
Regularly re-visit your business plan / financial model
Projections and estimates are a necessary step to get your project off the ground and apply for a loan... unfortunately for most small businesses, those numbers are hypothetical, based off of best guesses and limited history. If you update your projections throughout the process with real working numbers, you will feel really good about the overall health of your business and its future.
Hire consultants who know what they are doing
(i.e. an architect who has worked on similar projects before; a general contractor who has worked in the city of Dallas before)
note: we were very happy with our team at GHA Architects
Bid out the job to as many firms as you can
We sent our plans out to about 7 different construction firms. In January, we almost almost pulled the plug on the project altogether because estimates were coming in at 3x our budget. Thankfully we eventually found our guys, Tricon Group, with the help of our architect.
Pick your finishes during the design phase
This is easier said than done because the design phase seems like its mostly about architecture and engineering. A lot of people will tell you its okay to pick our your finishes closer to the end of the project. BUT we found it to be extremely helpful that our architecture plans were thorough and clear during the construction phase. We were constantly telling our GC to "refer to the plans" because, thankfully, we had defined everything down to the finishes with the architect.
It never hurts to ask
If you know what you want, ask for it.
Communicate with visuals
If you have a vision, draw it; if you have a change request, draw it— make sure EVERY color, measurement and detail is clear. Its tempting to fall back on quick in-person conversations or communicate changes over text message to try and save time. But remember that no one cares about your project as much as you do. If you know what you want, ask for it.
Never pay for anything upfront
ever.... pay large sums in installments or at milestones. This is really the only want to ensure that the job gets done to your standard.
Rely on yourself
Its tempting to want to rely on consultants because you're paying them to be the "professional in their field". Yes, consultants are helpful because you need their expertise, but remember: at the end of the day, NO ONE knows your business better than you. Trust your instincts. You're probably right.
Stay tuned! A comprehensive reveal of the interior of our headquarters is coming soon :)
The Dark Cave
Let there be light! (windows cut out)
Construction | Tricon Group
Building | Venture DFW