Circle Studio is a female-owned architecture studio based in Southbank. Founded over three years ago by directors Yvonne Meng and Amber Laing, Circle Studio focuses mostly on residential projects, as well as some hospitality and community work. Prior to Circle Studio, Meng had a stint as a sole practitioner while Laing had her own graphic design business. Archibiz sat down with the two founders to discuss how a rendezvous run-in on a bus shaped their careers, starting a business with a neighbor, and balancing life outside of work.
Archibiz: Tell me a little bit about how Circle Studio started.
Laing: We knew each other from Melbourne University, but one day we bumped into each other on a bus and that really cemented our meeting. I sat next to Yvonne, we started chatting and then realized we live on the same street. One year later, we started the practice.
Meng: When we ran into each other, I was working as a sole practitioner. A few months later, Amber contacted me asking if I had any work. I asked her if she wanted to draw some toilets for a bowls club project I was working on at the time. Three and a half years later, she’s still here.
Archibiz: Can you talk a little about the decision to go into business with a partner versus going off on your own?
Meng: I always wanted to go off on my own. I think I always romanticized the notion of having my own practice but then being a sole practitioner, I realized that doing this by yourself is not easy. There are times, especially in the beginning, where you’re sitting there, twiddling your thumbs, thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” Architecture covers so much work. You’ve got your design part, the running of the business, the construction side – you basically have about six different professions wrapped into one and one person cannot do all of it. If you can, then that’s great and I admire you, but I could not.
Laing: We’ve spoken about this many times – how good it is to have another person. With architecture, there’s this extra level of risk. You need to have someone to bounce ideas off and make decisions with. I would’ve found it really tough on my own. Having that extra person makes a big difference.
Archibiz: What is one thing you wish you knew before you started?
Meng: Everything. I think people have this innate ability to hear what they want to hear. So, we’ve been told a lot of things that we’ve now learned on our own. However, there have been a few pieces of advice that have always stuck with me. One was to always look for work when you’re busy. If you start to look for work when you’re not busy, you started too late. Another good piece of advice was to set up coffees or lunch with people. It shouldn’t be to necessarily set out and try to chase someone, but you set out to make yourself available and build relationships. It might not immediately turn into anything, but it might a few years down the track. We’ve had scenarios when that has happened.
Archibiz: What has been the biggest challenge about starting Circle Studio?
Laing: There are always little challenges – whether it’s finding the right people to help you, having to juggle client expectations, or the whole business side of it. With all the different facets of the business, there’s always something to juggle. You think, going into an architecture business, that you’re going to be designing all these houses and being so creative. That’s not always the case. But I think, whilst it’s been challenging, we’ve gotten this far. They say that if you’re still in business after three years, then you’re ok. Three and a half years later and we’re still here.
Meng: For me, it’s the work-life balance. It’s knowing when to grow and when not to. Everything ebbs and flows. You’ll get a couple of months where you’re completely slammed and then you get a couple of months where you’re not, so how do we manage that work flow? When do you take the opportunity to hire someone permanently? Should I take on this big project? We’re not really trained to make those decisions as architects.
Archibiz: Any last advice you’d like to give fellow startup architects?
Laing: Get help from mentors. I still talk to my mentor, and it’s really great having that person just to rely on. I was lucky enough to get a mentor who has a family as well. There’s been times where I call her and say, “How did you do it?”
Meng: Make sure you have a good support network, friends and family. This idea that you can do it all is very false. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be hard sometimes. It’s also going to be rewarding.
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