How a unique approach to cash flow helped this architect build her business


Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc. is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based architecture and interior design firm primarily serving the greater areas of Boston and Miami. The company focuses on renovations, including offices, restaurants, retail stores, retirement homes, private homes, universities, churches and synagogues, among many other types of buildings. Founder Leslie Saul says having such a broad practice has helped her maintain a business for over 26 years. Additionally, his focus on quality and value brought back loyal customers and helped retain employees for the long term.

Why did you start your business?

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. When I applied, I wanted to be a painter. I took a year off and realized I was a sociable person. I graduated in architecture. Even when I was in school, I was really focused on interiors, in part because of my background in painting.

I rose through the ranks in architecture, working for various firms. I spoke to a friend of a large company who mentioned a model store that they didn’t really use. He mentioned that maybe I should start my own business. Once I had that space, I asked my old company to buy me back. I wanted my business to be family-run, with flexible hours and things like that. These things are very common now, but back then I had a four-year-old and felt limited that I didn’t have them, even though I was the director of my old cabinet.

How did you finance the business at the start?

I used my savings. And, in 1992, American Express gave me credit when I had no income. My husband was working, so we only had one income, but we gave up everything from newspapers to dining out. Within six months of starting, we were cash flow neutral.

How do you manage the cash flow?

We charge fees from our clients. There must be enough money to show the seriousness of the goal, even if it does not necessarily cover the costs of the first month. When we receive inquiries, we sometimes offer low cost up-front services that make customers feel comfortable working with us.

To help with the cash flow, I don’t take a big paycheck to keep a lot of money in the business. I have never missed a salary for 26 years, except mine. I’ve learned that people will stay with you if you stay with them. If you lay people off at the start of a downturn, you may not be able to hire people when you need them. While this can have a negative impact on cash flow, we have the advantage of keeping our team together and being able to produce very quickly when new clients join us.

What’s the hardest thing about running a business?

Continue to increase the quality of projects and clients. I never put the emphasis on quantity. When I worked for large companies that focus on quantity, I felt like I was keeping the underlings motivated rather than getting my own satisfaction from any job.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running a business?

See the successes and development of the people who have worked for us over the years. Not only long-time people, but also people who walk away and call me up and say, “I’m always like, what would Leslie do? It is very gratifying and I am very proud of them!

There is no better gratification than seeing a finished product and knowing how you have met a customer’s needs and wants and overcome their challenges. As recently as this morning we were talking to a former client who said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you how much we love this and how perfect everything you have done was!” “

What’s the biggest mistake you made when starting out?

We made economic mistakes, like setting fees too low or not really understanding the scope before starting a project. I have been and probably still am easily the victim of money bullies, especially when it comes to working for large companies.

What’s the smartest thing you did at the start?

I asked a friend to help me and he told me I needed a good phone number. It was so memorable! People still say they call this number when they try to reach us, even though we moved 19 years ago!

Also, I hired people who addressed my weaknesses. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are hiring, especially in my industry. The smartest thing you can do is be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and hire people who are good at these things. Together you are better than anyone individually.

What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?

You will do great! Always believe in yourself! Always do the right thing. Always stay true to your values ​​and remember that your reputation cannot be rebuilt.

What’s next for Leslie Saul & Associates, Inc.

I am going to be 65 and I want to continue like this. I really like what I do. I like the idea that design services shouldn’t be the exclusive benefit of the wealthy. I have the impression that there are others who have needs that we can help meet. So I feel like I’m not done and there is a lot going on in our future.

This article was originally written on June 4, 2019 and updated on June 5, 2019.

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Darcy J. Skinner

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